D.C. charter board lives up to reputation as tough authorizer

The headline for a story about the DC Public Charter School Board’s November monthly meeting is obvious to anyone watching the session: LEARN PCS was approved by a unanimous vote to open on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB). But nothing about last night’s proceedings was this simple and so it goes with LEARN. While the new charter was given the green light, it is facing an extremely long list of conditions imposed by the PCSB that covers everything from engagement of Ward 8 families to changes to the governance structure of its board. The requirements also include the following statement regarding its future academic performance:

“By December 14, 2018, the school will sign an agreement committing that the following condition will be included in the school’s charter: If the performance on the PMF at the five-year review is below an average of 40%, the school agrees to relinquish its charter. If the school earns a Tier 3 in any three of five years, the school will relinquish its charter.”

In addition, the granting of a local campus has national implications for this charter management organization:

“Enrollment—due to the mixed historical performance of LEARN schools, and lower quality and lack of demand at LEARN 10, enrollment at LEARN DC will be limited to the current enrollment numbers of LEARN 10 and the LEARN Network will not open additional schools prior to opening LEARN.”

In other words by agreeing to come to JBAB, LEARN cannot open another site anywhere across the United States before the 2020-to-2021 school year. I think this requirement could be the definition of strict.

It was easy to anticipate a challenging evening for LEARN. The staff’s report regarding the charter’s application was published ahead of time and it included mixed findings regarding meeting the board’s standards. The representatives from the charter must have been concerned because no one from the school testified during the open comment period in favor of opening at the military complex.

The same approach was applied to Harmony PCS, a Texas charter school that faced its five-year review. While the school was able to land in the Tier 2 Performance Management rankings in 2018, its prior two scores on this report card had it in the lowest category. Therefore, the charter board applied an equaling grueling set of goals for this school to meet in order to continue teaching kids.

The most interesting discussion revolved around Democracy Prep PCS. After being a PMF Tier 2 school during the 2015-to-2016 term, it now finds itself with the lowest score on this measure of any local charter at 21.0 percent. Its board wanted to jettison its Brooklyn, N.Y. – based centralized office and have a high performing D.C. charter take its place. While Rocketship PCS did respond to a request for proposal, instead the school went with the TenSquare Consulting Group to perform a turnaround. It would be an understatement to say that the board was not too sure that this was the right decision. While it would be highly unheard of to have the PCSB close a school at the five-year mark, that is exactly what may happen. The members split three to three as to whether to allow the charter to continue with conditions and so the matter will be taken up again at the December meeting.

The bright side of night came from a proposal from Lee Montessori PCS to replicate in Ward 7 and 8. Yes, I did use the work replicate. The four-year old Tier 1 institution desperately wants to increase the proportion of low-income students that it serves. It now teaches about 177 children in grades pre-Kindergarten through five, eventually going to sixth, and it would mirror this offering at a second location. It currently has a wait list of over 750 pupils. The new school would enroll 400 kids and open in the 2019-to-2020 term. The board will make the decision next month and at that time the charter will have something to celebrate.

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