Exclusive interview with Rick Cruz, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently for an interview with Rick Cruz, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked Mr. Cruz for his feelings about the state of the local charter movement.

“I think there are a number of things that are going well,” he answered without missing a beat.  “We released our School Quality Reports in November and the number of schools ranked Tier 1 continues to grow.  More of our students are attending Tier 1 schools than ever before and the number of Tier 3 schools and the pupils attending them are decreasing.  These phenomenons are, of course, not a complete picture of our sector but it’s a good indication that the schools that are bench-marked against overall city data are improving.  It is definitely a good sign.” 

“The performance of children in our subgroups,” Mr. Cruz added, “is also continuing to get better.  Black and Latino students, kids with different needs, such as special education children or English language learners, are performing well.  There are a number of our schools that teach the most difficult to educate children such as those living in poverty that have reached Tier 1 status.  This is especially hard work.  I feel good about the health of the local charter school movement.  The board is careful about burdening schools but we want to make sure they’re respecting every student’s rights and that’s the role we play when it comes to compliance.  But we also realize that we are a long way from the old days of being a handful of schools with 15 percent of the public school population.  We want cohesion in our buildings, and we want to make sure we are good stewards of public money, but we also need to balance these ideals with a freedom of schools to innovate.”

I then wanted to know from the PCSB chair if the board is trying to reduce the amount of information it is requesting from the schools it oversees.  “We think a lot about streamlining the material,” Mr. Cruz responded.  “For example, if we ask for data and the same information is required for The Office of the State Superintendent of Education then we report it to them.  We try and prevent the same statistics from being required of schools in different forms.  The board also invests in systems to improve the efficiency of reporting, and we strive to provide clarity around timelines and expectations.  We will also question the U.S. Department of Education, OSSE, or other groups as to the rationale for asking for numbers from our charters.  We are always looking for ways to make it easier for schools to respond to information requests.”

Mr. Cruz assumed his position at the PCSB last February.  I asked him if he had specific goals for his tenure as chair.  “Yes,” he affirmed.  “The first is the natural continuation of increasing the quality of our schools and the creation of more high quality seats.  I want to stay true to the processes that we have implemented, and we want to find other means to help schools get better, such as our middle schools.  One of the efforts we have made is to increase mental health services.  We want to aid social and emotional learning, decrease depression among our students, reduce bullying, and help young adults that are discovering aspects of their identity that may not be widely accepted.  Our staff tries to connect resources in our city that can benefit our children and families.”

“Next,” Mr. Cruz detailed, “I really want to work to ensure that charters have access to suitable facilities.  Our new schools cannot open, and others cannot grow and replicate, without adequate buildings.  The board has been a strong advocate with city leaders regarding spaces that would make great homes for our charters.  Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, argued the same point on the D.C. Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  One idea our staff has had around facilities is to encourage developers to include charter schools in their projects.  Another avenue we can look at, although it might not be optimal for school leaders, is to expand co-locating with other schools like they do in New York City.  We also need to effectively communicate the facility needs to our parents so that they can understand how important their voice is as advocates.  About a month ago we had more than 200 students in front of the D.C. Council.  Fundamentally we need facilities where children have a place to exercise and to be able to go outside, and therefore our buildings must have gymnasiums and fields.  We have many schools that are obtaining excellent academic results without these amenities, but if we want our children to have a joyful experience then they have to look more like real schools.”

Another focus of the PCSB chairman is to do more work around the ecosystem of education.  Mr. Cruz stated, “We can strive to increase mental health services as I’ve mentioned.  We can also assist with transportation, making sure it is safe for students to travel from one part of town to another, help obtain crossing guards and school resource officers.”

Mr. Cruz mentioned that transparency is a major objective of his time in office.  “This comes from my role as head of the board’s Finance Committee,” he imparted.  “We want to continue to find ways for citizens, school partners, and public officials to have access to financial information about our schools.  For example, we currently share our quarterly report from our Finance and Operations committees meetings online.  This tells you what schools we have concerns about. I asked Mr. Cruz if individual charter schools should be required to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, which will require a change in the law.  The PCSB chair indicated that in his opinion this was not a role for charters.  “One of the challenges,” Mr. Cruz asserted, “is that we need to protect the flexibility of schools. They need to focus on academics, safety, finances, facilities, personnel, and meeting their specific goals.  I think the current level of transparency is sufficient.  Our aim is to make it easier to look inside of these schools.”

I then asked Mr. Cruz if he was concerned about the relatively low number of applications to open new schools the charter board has been receiving in recent years.  It was obvious to me that he has given much thought to this issue.  “For myself,” Mr. Cruz replied, “I love it when there are a lot of groups wanting to open schools.  The current situation does make me take pause.  Is it because of the difficulty of obtaining facilities that prevents them from applying?  Is a 150-page application too long?  Is the board too hard on charters?   But you also have to realize that we are now in a mature charter school market.  There is a lot of competition for teachers, school leaders, facilities, and students.  We need to look at a particular geography and see what we are offering.  We also are interested in learning how to create a pipeline of leaders for our campuses.”

I brought up the subject of schools contracting with the TenSquare Group to improve their academic performance and I wanted to know if Mr. Cruz had an opinion on charters taking this step.  “School turnarounds are immensely difficult,” the PCSB chair offered.  “Some organizations accomplish this by being absorbed by a high performing CMO like ATA PCS did with KIPP DC PCS.  Others need help and contract with TenSquare and have seen some positive results.  Our job on the board is to hold schools responsible for making smart decisions in investing in their kids and teachers.  Academic performance is always the best indicator as to whether they made the right move.”

I mentioned to Mr. Cruz that I heard him say at a recent board meeting that he was disappointed with the academic performance of national charter management organizations that came to the District.  He was eager to respond to my observation.  “I’m extremely disappointed,” Mr. Cruz indicated, “when you look at Harmony PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, and Somerset Prep PCS.  These are schools that are doing great work in other locations.  We need to question their judgement and ours.  When a school decides to open here it needs to bring its ‘A’ game.  But Rocketship PCS has been an exception.  You look at the two campuses Rocketship has opened so far and the kids that they serve.  It is getting fantastic results.  I believe schools really need to perform a due diligence before coming to D.C.  They need to understand whether they have the right model and are going to offer the right grades.  They need to really get a grasp on who they are going to serve.  In addition, schools must respond extremely quickly to the results they are seeing in the first few weeks and months after opening.  How is the school doing with its homeless population, special education students, and English language learners?

All of this is to say that the board understands how difficult it is running a school.  It is really, really hard.  That is why we approach our roles with humility.  We want to preserve the flexibility and independence of schools.  We want the decision making to be done at the school level and provide them with support.  We recognize that their jobs are vitally important and we really don’t want to interfere with their work.”

Mr. Cruz ended our conversation by reiterating the importance of the DC Public Charter School Board’s role to hold schools to high standards, create the conditions for educators to lead, and to provide lots of quality information to families and provide assurance these public funds.   

“I am the undertaker.” D.C. charter board’s COO on closing schools

In an exceptionally well written piece, Lenora Robinson-Mills, the chief operating officer for the DC Public Charter School Board, reflects on her role in working with schools whose charters have been revoked by her organization. She states:

“In the presenter’s scenario, where school closure is the death, the school community dies, and I am the undertaker. And the grief counselor. Part of my role at DC PCSB is to manage the wind-down of the school and support families in finding new schools once our Board makes that final decision. And, I was onboard with the presenter using the metaphors ‘death’ and ‘funeral’ to symbolize school closure (“yes, we should give families time to grieve!”) until I remembered how it usually plays out in our city. I remembered why we’re pushing students and families to pick a new “parent” so quickly: usually, the final closure decision by our Board happens very close to (and in some cases past) the My School DC common lottery application deadline. So to ensure the families of closed public charter schools have access to as many quality options as possible, we push… hard. We call, email, text, send snail mail, and host school fairs. We have the school make calls, send letters, emails, texts, send robocalls, and hold parent meetings. We listen to family concerns and considerations with empathy, and then we ask, beg, and plead with them to submit their lottery applications TODAY!”

Ms. Robinson-Mills openly grapples with the entire process around school closure. She mentions that a charter often does not inform their parents that it is in trouble before the decision is made by the board to close the doors. If the word got out early and families left, and then by some chance the school was allowed to keep operating, then it may not have sufficient revenue to keep going. She is talking about the inherent paradox of running a charter school. Newly approved institutions are required to sign leases on buildings when they do not know how many children will enroll. Add to this the fact that no charter opens with its full enrollment, almost all open with a couple of grades and then add a grade a year until they reach their ceiling, and you get just one sense about the difficulty of running this business. Founders must complete an arduous application process, secure a facility, hire the staff, sign up the pupils, comply with a myriad of reporting requirements, and then after one year of grace, become accountable to a grade on the Performance Management Framework. You can see why I refer to these leaders as heroes.

The PCSB COO wishes that no school had to face closure. She yearns for a surgeon that could come in and medically repair the ill patient. Ms. Robinson-Mills knows this is not the role of authorizer. In D.C. we have TenSquare that can play the part of doctor but their fixes have recently been the subject of intense criticism. Attorney Stephen Marcus has gallantly tried to block the executioner from casting the final vote to end the existence of schools, however his argument that there is a bias built into the PMF against low-income children has now been firmly rejected.

All of this points to the tremendous differences between charters and traditional schools in this city. The fact that DCPS faces none of the challenges is a testament to charters that teach almost 44,000 students or 47 percent of all public school students in the District of Columbia. There are 123 schools run by 66 non-profit entities in the city. This is an unbelievable achievement.