“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officer for the DC Public Charter School Board, reflects on her role in working with schools whose charters have been revoked by her organization.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.

 

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