Last Wednesday evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a public hearing regarding its decision at the December monthly meeting to begin charter revocation proceedings against National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. If you are interested in the mechanics of the operation of our local movement then this session is a primer in charter oversight. Come with me for a first-hand excursion through the three hours and fifty minute gathering.
Attorney Stephen Marcus was back representing a school facing closure, and he and his associate Sherry Ingram seemed completely undeterred by their recent loss regarding the saving of City Arts and Prep PCS. Mr. Marcus made a stunningly brilliant first move in facilitating the discussion by flipping the order of presentations. On this night the parents, students, and staff of the school would speak before management. It was smart because most people, like me, would normally watch the arguments by the charter board and the administration and then call it a day. But in having stakeholders go first, it elevated the respect shown to members of this Ward 8 residents while simultaneously setting the stage for sympathy for the plight of the organization.
The long lineup of people testifying did not disappoint. Parent Camilia Wheeler, who last year addressed the board as a mom with a student at WMST PCS, asked where these students are supposed to go if this school no longer exists. She indicated that between the years 2012 and 2017 twenty-six charters have been closed by the PCSB. Ms. Wheeler wanted to understand why the board was taking the easy way out by shutting these facilities. Instead of taking this route, she implored, the body should be helping these institutions.
Common themes that emerged from the highly passionate remarks involved the fact that this is the only school offering an International Baccalaureate program east of the river. Many pointed to the value of a school that allows its eleventh graders to travel to Panama each term, as one student indicated with all expenses paid. Others highlighted the importance of its STEM curriculum that emphasizes computer science, the training students receive in Sankofa, its teaching of soft skills initiative, and the instructors who are willing to assist their scholars at anytime.
However, what made this hearing especially poignant, and at the same time contentious, was the feeling that the PCSB was coming to take action against a population that was completely alienated from its way of life. School supporters said in no uncertain terms that shutting the doors to this school would open the doors to jail or death. The most striking example of the disconnect between the board and the community was when Scott Pearson asked a current student why only one out of three pupils returned to the charter this school year. The seventeen year old responded that he did not know the answer. A teacher soon called out this line of inquiry as an illustration of the lack of dignity that is routinely shown to those living in Anacostia. He explained that the high school student should have been prepared in advance for the interrogation. The accusation resulted in an apology by the PCSB executive director.
Everything was going the school’s way until it was time for the leadership team’s presentation. Here the picture of the path forward became murky. National Collegiate founder and chief executive officer Jennifer Ross put together a turnaround plan for the school that had been delivered to the board earlier in the afternoon. It includes enlisting Heather Wathington, formally the CEO of Maya Angelou PCS and its See Forever Foundation, as its board chair and leader of this effort. A major component includes the hiring of Blueprint, a consulting firm that has worked to improve academic performance with charters in Boston, Denver, and other locations. Founder and CEO Matthew Spengler was in attendance and reported some spectacular results by his company since its start in 2010, especially in the area of math proficiency.
The questions by Mr. Pearson regarding the new structure were instructive. You had to know how to read between the lines of the information he sought to see the points he was trying to make. Through his probing he cast doubt that Ms. Wathington has the time to play the role envisioned for her since she is currently the president of a Philadelphia private school for children of low-income single parents or guardians. He brought to light the fact that Blueprint had just visited Collegiate Prep the week before for three days, and that no actual contract, scope of work, or monetary structure had been finalized for continued assistance. Mr. Spengler also gave the impression that their business model involves communications with the charter remotely with major deliverables dependent on follow-up by the current head of school. It was clear that Mr. Pearson was wondering why TenSquare had not been brought in since it already has extensive experience in the D.C. market, especially since its modus operandi is that it brings in its own manager to increase the probability that desired results are achieved.
The essence of the proposed solution to what ails this charter, and the arguments that ensued over whether it met its established charter goals, is that it is all too little too late. National Collegiate has been graded six times on the Performance Management Framework during its decade of operation and the results in 2018 were its lowest yet at 26.7 percent. It has been a Tier 3 school for the last three years. When the school first reached this level in 2016 is when a serious turnaround should have begun. Let’s sincerely hope for these parents and children that another charter will take it over after its charter is revoked in a special meeting this afternoon.