Yesterday afternoon Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy announced several changes to its network in the wake of lower than expected student enrollment. A letter from the school’s board of directors explains:
“The Board of Trustees, which includes a Chavez graduate, two current parents, our founder, and education, civic and business leaders, has spent more than a year analyzing city enrollment trends and school options, the operations and performance of the network, and the financial viability of operating three disconnected school buildings at a lower-than-planned student enrollment. In 2010, Chavez Schools secured $27.2 million in bonds, financing the purchase and renovation of our three school buildings. This bond structure was based on enrollment growing to 1,500 students, targeting a 2020 refinance. Today, with enrollment at only 956, the network must be reconfigured for the organization to meet its financial obligations and ensure continued viability.”
Chavez is therefore consolidating its Capitol Hill High School, housed in a location that it rents with a lease that concludes next year, with its Parkside High School campus, in a building that it owns. The Capitol Hill site currently enrolls 235 pupils on a site that holds more than 400 students. The relatively low number of students makes it difficult to offer a high school program. Chavez indicates that the majority of children that attend Capitol Hill live in Wards 7 and 8, so the new location will actually be closer to home. When I was on the board of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, and the school was desperately looking for a place to open, we tried to obtain this facility but lost out to Chavez.
In December, 2017, The DC Public Charter School Board forced Chavez to begin the closing of its Parkside Middle School due to low academic performance. It therefore stopped accepting sixth grade students the following term and now instructs only seventh and eight graders. These scholars will graduate in 2020 and will then be able to join the CMO’s Parkside High School. Eventually, Chavez plans to rebuild its middle school at the Parkside campus.
One of Chavez’s goals regarding these changes is to create a truly first rate high school. Again, according to the board’s announcement:
“Investing in the Parkside campus will include: more Advanced Placement (AP) courses and advanced electives, more dual enrollment early college opportunities, more SAT preparation and support, a greater focus on college matching and alumni support, more public policy internships and policy curriculum offerings, more supports for students with special needs and for those learning English, and an even stronger athletic program than we already have. It also means building improvements, technology upgrades and greater support for teachers, staff and community.”
Consistent with focusing on developing a stellar high school program, Chavez also announced that it is shuttering its Chavez Prep Middle School location at the end of the current school year. Similar to the Capitol Hill campus, student enrollment is way under capacity with 238 kids in a building that seats 420. The number of pupils is down 34 percent since 2015 in a structure that a decade ago saw a $10.8 million dollar investment in improvements that is still being financed. But much more important than Chavez getting out of the middle school business is the fact that closing this school will terminate teachers’ union involvement in charters in the District.
As the only unionized charter, there were a lot of shenanigans taking place at Chavez Prep, including teachers protesting on the street and complaints to the National Labor Relations Board. After the staff voted to join the American Federation of Teachers in 2017, and following a series of exceptionally challenging negotiations, a collective bargaining agreement with management has never been finalized. I have consistently expressed the view that teacher union membership is inconsistent with the operational freedoms associated with running a charter school, and therefore have called for Chavez to close this property.
Christian Herr, the Chavez Prep teacher behind the unionization effort, stated that employees were crying after learning on Wednesday that the school was going out of business. I’m sure this is true. He is probably upset that he is losing further opportunities to interfere with the administration of the school. He remarked that the union will investigate this action.
All I can say is that I am tremendously proud of the moves by the Chavez board of directors for their efforts in protecting and strengthening the future of their school. I also applaud the leadership of Josh Kern as head of the Tensquare Group that is currently leading an academic turnaround at this charter. Just as in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, when the book’s hero architect Howard Roark destroyed his housing complex for low-income residents when it wasn’t being built to his high-level specifications, in closing Chavez Prep Mr. Kern has taken a gigantic step in protecting the integrity of our local movement of innovative schools. Therefore, I now consider Mr. Kern the Howard Roark of the D.C. charter movement.
In addition, the news for me could not come at a better time. Next Wednesday I mark ten years of covering our city’s charter schools through my blog.