City Arts and Prep PCS forcibly rejects attempt by D.C. charter board to close its school

Last Tuesday evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a public hearing to consider revoking the charter of City Arts and Prep PCS. The action was initiated as part of the board’s fifteen-year review of the school. I have witnessed numerous meetings over the years in which a school is facing closure, but I have never seen a stronger refutation of PCSB’s staff report precipitating this action than that provided by the representatives of City Arts.

This was an emotional session for me. I was a founding board member of City Arts and Prep, which when it was created was called the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts. I also served as its board chair for about five years. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was one of a small group of individuals who was involved in writing the original charter. Julie Doar was the initial board chair and first executive director. The school was named after her father who had passed years before I met her. We often met in Julie’s apartment in the evening or on weekends to work on the application and she would cook for us. Joe Smith, now the CEO/CFO of Eagle Academy PCS, was our charter school consultant, and Stephen Marcus, whose law firm is defending City Arts, was our lawyer. The room where the hearing was held was where my wife Michele and I spent considerable time watching student performances or sitting with guests enjoying the faculty talent show. I also helped secure the facility that houses this charter.

But I digress. If you want to go up against the PCSB in an exceptionally high pressure situation then there are no better people to bring with you than Brandon Daniels, the school’s current board chair; Sherry Ingram, an attorney with The Marcus Firm; and Lanette Dailey-Reese, the school’s executive director. Speaking in the order listed above, you could not help but appreciate the dedication, passion, and energy these individuals bring to this charter. Their knowledge about the school was unparalleled.

Here is the bottom line of the current situation. City Arts and Prep has demonstrated uneven academic performance throughout its existence, at one point hiring The TenSquare Consulting Group to perform a turnaround. The most recent charter agreement with the school, coming at the end of its ten-year review, required it to score at least an average of 50 percent on the Performance Management Framework over the last five years. The charter board states that the school never exceeded this mark in any single year and has an average score of 46.6 percent across this period.

I will focus on the testimony of Ms. Ingram. She spoke as if she was defending a wrongly accused plaintiff and she was the only one on the planet who could get back this man’s freedom. Please don’t take my word for it, you can watch the proceedings here. Her main line of argument, more fully developed here, was the same one used to defend Excel Academy PCS when it was facing closure by the board. Her assertion is that when it comes to the education of at-risk youth, the PMF is biased against this population. She stated that the PCSB has its own report demonstrating this to be the case. City Arts and Prep has a student population that Ms. Ingram reported is approximately 98 percent black and includes 65 percent of kids that are economically disadvantaged. 75 percent of its students come to this Ward 5 school from Wards 7 and 8.

Ms. Ingram went on to explain that when the PMF is recalculated to account for the socio-economic factors of its student body it exceeds the 50 percent mark. Perhaps the most effective part of her presentation was in regard to the treatment of this school by the board in comparison to Harmony PCS. She explained that just last week Harmony, which like City Prep is ranked as Tier 2, was given the green light to continue operating after five years with a PMF total of 45 points. By the PCSB’s own calculation, she continued, City Prep’s results are higher but in this instance the board is talking about shuttering its doors. She also mentioned that City Prep has a student wait-list of about 200 students, while Harmony’s is one child.

I could go on and on regarding the effectiveness of the points made by the Marcus Firm attorney. In addition, I would be remiss if I failed to mention one particularly interesting comment by the school’s board chair. Mr. Daniels related that he is fairly new to this role and that when he first assumed his position at the school he met with Mr. Pearson, the PCSB executive director. This was before the latest PARCC scores were released that determine much of the PMF’s final calculation. At this session, Mr. Daniels stated that Mr. Pearson stated that his goal was to close City Arts and Prep.

The clarity and strength of the school’s remarks seemed to stun the members of the PCSB. While they asked questions of the witnesses it did not appear to me to be the same level of inquiry that I have seen at other forums of this type. At the end of this portion of the meeting, Saba Bireda, the board’s vice chair, observed that there are 11 D.C. charters that have higher proportions of their population of at-risk pupils than City Arts that in 2018 scored in the Tier 1 range of the PMF. She remarked that last year this number was 17, and she added that she is uncomfortable saying that this population cannot reach this level. Perhaps this was a hint of what the decision will be regarding this school at the December meeting.

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