Eerie quiet at monthly meeting of D.C. charter board

Last night’s meeting of the D.C. Public Charter School Board can only be described as strange. Missing from the public comment segments of the last few months were the throngs of people supporting the teachers’ union from Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep campus passionately demanding that the charter board force its schools to adhere to open meeting and Freedom of Information Request laws. I do not even think Christian Herr, the Prep teacher behind the collective bargaining agreement effort, was in attendance. It was as if the decision to close two Chavez schools and pass a transparency policy lacking two key components was a fait accompli. The charter school opponents must have decided that their time was better spent before the National Labor Relations Board or in front of the D.C. Council trying to place their stamp on the transparency legislation being introduced today by Charles Allen.

The session started with a longer than usual introduction by board chair Rick Cruz. He has now been in his volunteer position for one year. Mr. Cruz announced that his organization has received 11 applications to open new schools in the 2020-to-2021 school year, a gigantic increase over previous cycles. He said that in April there would be presentations by each of these groups. Mr. Cruz also informed the audience that last Friday a group of students from National Collegiate Preparatory PCS had come to the PCSB headquarters in an effort to reverse the decision to shutter their school. The board chair stated that he appreciated their efforts but that they could not now change a ruling that was based upon the poor academic performance this school has demonstrated over its history.

Lastly, Mr. Cruz revealed that the term is coming to an end for board member Don Soifer who had joined this body in December 2008. I have always greatly appreciated Mr. Soifer’s thoughtful and respectful questions of school representatives, and his strong defense of the autonomy of our local charter school movement.

At the conclusion of Mr. Cruz’s comments the board navigated through its agenda with few delays or detours. The most interesting part to me was the discussion around Friendship PCS’s takeover of WEDJ PCS. It turns out that this is not the typical assumption of management of one LEA by another as we have seen, for instance, with Friendship PCS’s decision to acquire IDEAL PCS. What is transpiring in this case is that the arts-integrated program of City Arts and Prep PCS is being transitioned over to Friendship’s Armstrong campus, along with many of its arts staff. Friendship will do this without needing to request an enrollment ceiling as it has space to incorporate the students from the site that is being closed. The move will result in some extremely fortunate charter being able to move into a truly beautiful school building at 705 Edgewood Street, N.E.

As foreshadowed, the discussion around the plan by Cesar Chavez PCS to close two campuses and consolidate high school students at its Parkside site was anti-climatic. With hardly a whimper the board unanimously went along with the plan, and just like that the first charter school in the nation’s capital to become unionized will become history this June.

Also passed without objection was the revised school transparency policy.

The longest dialog of the night involved an agreed-upon notice of truancy concern issued against Ingenuity Prep PCS. There is a recognized issue at this Ward 8 elementary school around ensuring that kids show up for class each day. It was mentioned by Aaron Cuny, a co-founder of the school and past CEO, when I interviewed him last October, and it was admitted to yesterday by the other co-founder and interim head Will Stoetzer present with board chair Peter Winik. I have to say that the school’s leadership gave little sign that they have a handle on this problem despite the expressed desire of this charter to reverse its slowly declining Performance Management Framework scores and become a Tier 1 facility so that it can replicate. The situation calls for the creation of a solid action plan that incorporates strategies utilized by other institutions teaching this highly at-risk population of kids.

In April comes the review of new school applications.

D.C. public charter board staff goes along with changes at Chavez PCS; chastising the way it was done

Tonight the DC Public Charter School Board is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposal by Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy to close its Capitol Hill High School and Prep Middle School campuses and consolidate its students at its Parkside High School location. The current Parkside Middle School will close at the end of next year due to low academic performance. The highly controversial move would eliminate the only unionized charter school in the District when Chavez Prep closes its doors.

The PCSB staff is in support of the decision by the school’s board of directors. They write:

• “It is within the school’s exclusive control to close campuses provided the school’s enrollment ceiling is commensurately reduced.

• It is within the school’s exclusive control to reconfigure campuses provided it remains within its enrollment ceiling and serves grades for which the local education agency (LEA) has been approved to serve.

• The amendments to the charter are technical and conforming changes that ensure the school’s charter reflects actions taken by the school that are within its exclusive control.”

While the charter has the authority to make these changes, the PCSB is not too happy about the way it has been carried out. It takes note of the public testimony against the campus consolidation and closures, and makes the following recommendation:

“As noted in the testimony, and further described below, the Cesar Chavez PCS board’s decision was made late and without any opportunity for community input. While this is within the school’s prerogative, the DC PCSB Board may wish to express through a resolution its disapproval of the manner in which the decision was taken, while taking note of the extraordinary time and effort invested by the school’s volunteer board as it sought alternatives to insolvency.” The staff continues:

“The LEA faces financial challenges, as further described later in this memo. The campus closure and reconfiguration decisions and communications were very close to the My School DC lottery deadlines of February 1, 2019 for high school applicants and March 1, 2019 for PK-8 applicants. This timing was difficult for families, as they were forced to evaluate other school options and make decisions for a new school in a minimal time frame. However, rising 9th, 10th, 11th and 12 grade students from both Chavez Prep and Capitol Hill are allowed to re-enroll directly into Parkside, rather than enter the lottery. DC PCSB enrollment specialists began working with families at both campuses on January 25, 2019.”

The proposed charter amendment that will be considered this evening includes an enrollment ceiling decrease from 947 to 847 students. It would also allow Chavez to re-open a middle school at the Parkside location beginning with the 2020-to-2021 school term, starting with the sixth grade only for that year.

In response to questions late last month from Ward 1 D.C. Coucilmember Brianne Nadeau about the lack of transparency and whether Chavez Prep could stay open another year to seek an alternative to closure, PCSB executive director Scott Pearson wrote back:

“We asked the board about the option of keeping Parkside Middle open for an additional year and were told that the school’s dire financial condition, caused by high debt and low enrollment, would not permit this option. We also asked about the reasons for the last minute decision and the lack of transparency around the making of this decision. The school’s board replied that they had been in difficult negotiations up to the final hour with the school’s bondholders over the school’s risk of default, and pursued every possible avenue to avoid foreclosure on the entire LEA. The school’s board reported that they were reluctant to make these deliberations public given the destabilization of enrollment and staff that they feared would occur as a result.”

The Chavez board has made the right decision in order to protect the future existence of the school. This charter management organization has been having academic difficulties for years and is now at risk of defaulting on its loans. It appears that it expanded too fast without first developing a deep bench of leadership capacity, a pattern we have unfortunately seen repeated many times within our sector.

Friendship PCS to takeover WEDJ PCS

Three sources confirmed yesterday that Friendship PCS will be taking over City Arts and Prep PCS in the fall. The former William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (WEDJ), City Arts lost its charter last December when it failed to meet its Performance Management Framework target after demonstrating a weak academic track record for years. As a founding board member of the school and its chair for four years, I watched as a charter that started with so much promise fell apart not only in the classroom but also at the management level. This is definitely an institution with nine lives as it traveled a path that began initially with it being led by Mr. Doar’s daughter Julie, to an engagement with TenSquare Consulting, and even included a stint with John Goldman as its executive director, the gentleman who went on to work for the DC Public Charter School Board until he ran into trouble over blog posts written under an alias. Its recent history included the most vigorous defense yet by the legal team of the Stephen Marcus firm, with a claim of bias of the PMF against at-risk children, and it was in fact Mr. Marcus who negotiated the initial lease for its Edgewood N.E. location with Fred Ezra of the Ezra Company. At one point the school operated on two campuses and included a high school, teaching as many as 660 students. The current elementary and middle school has about 430 pupils.

It appears that the focus on the arts will be maintained at the new Friendship location. Let’s hope that the school is also able to keep its current highly impressive executive director Lanette Dailey-Reese.

The move by Friendship demonstrates for all to see the stamp that its dynamic and kind chief executive officer Patricia Brantley plans to place on the charter management organization. It was also this year that Friendship agreed to takeover IDEAL Academy PCS beginning next term, adding about 300 students to the 4,200 it already instructs. Five out of its current 12 campuses are ranked as Tier 1 on the PMF, the most in its history. Therefore, the recent moves are making the future strategic direction of Friendship clear. It will continue to expand in the belief that bringing more children under its umbrella will greatly improve the quality of a public education in the nation’s capital.

I’m sure Donald Hense is smiling right now.

Reaction to D.C. Councilmember Allen’s charter school transparency bill has been highly disappointing

It is less than 24 hours since D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen announced he was introducing a bill to sidestep efforts by the DC Public Charter Board to increase the transparency of information available about the schools it oversees. The PCSB is set to vote on its version of a new policy as soon as this coming Monday. But at the urging of EmpowerED DC, a group which apparently over the last three-quarters of a year has been trying to impose open meeting and FOIA laws on our city’s charters, together with the American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Allen could not find a way to respect the work of the nation’s leading charter school authorizer and felt the need to circumvent their efforts. In the aftermath of his decision, I’m frankly disheartened by the reaction of our city’s charter public policy leaders.

Cordilia James and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff of WAMU state that the charter board referred to Mr. Allen’s proposed legislation as “misguided,” adding that it “fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board … Nothing in this bill will help close the achievement gap, reduce the number of students living in poverty, or reduce truancy. We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students.”

Next up is Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS. She commented, according to the WAMU reporters, “We’re already funded at just 70 percent of traditional public schools. Another unfunded mandate is unreasonable. Where is the focus on outcomes? How will these requirements help parents or anyone else evaluate how effectively and equitably all our public schools are serving students?”

It appears from these quotes that people are simply trying to change the subject. There is only one point that needs to be made at this crucial moment: stay out of our business. The School Reform Act is clear. The PCSB oversees charter schools in the nation’s capital. This is not the job of the Mayor, and certainly does not fall under the purview of the D.C. Council.

Perhaps the reaction to Mr. Allen’s law is a symptom of what is wrong with our local movement. By law, the city must turn over surplus DCPS facilities to charters, but when it refuses to do so there are no consequences. Charters are required to receive funding equal to the traditional schools through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. When this does not occur we reluctantly bring a lawsuit while prioritizing collaboration with the same individuals and groups who are biding their time setting up roadblocks in our ability to care for our students.

Where is Robert Cane when you need him?

Councilmember Allen aligns himself with teachers’ union fighting to end D.C.’s charter school movement

Today, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen will declare his intention to introduce a bill that among other things will force charter schools to comply with open meeting and Freedom of Information Act regulations. He will announce his legislation, the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, on the steps of the Wilson Building at 10:30 a.m., and will be joined by none other than Christian Herr, the Cesar Chavez Prep PCS science teacher who was behind the disastrous move to unionize the Bruce Building campus. Checking the Chavez calendar demonstrates that school is in session on this Wednesday. In fact, this week is Prep’s spirit celebration. I guess Mr. Herr is playing hooky.

The proposed law contains other requirements intentionally included to divert charter school attention from their mission of providing a world-class education to children, most of whom are living in poverty and are at risk of not making it alive to their eighteenth year.

Here a few disgusting nuggets:

  • Charter school boards must include two teachers and, in high schools and adult learning schools, must add a student;
  • Charter schools must include a list of all contracts in their annual reports;
  • The DC Public Charter School Board must make public all contracts initiated by its schools that are over $25,000 and therefore subject to a request for proposal, to include the vendor selected, and the reason behind the choice. It also removes an exemption for schools, requiring them to issue an RFP for contracting with management organizations. This provision is implicitly directed at the union’s declared enemy TenSquare Consulting but the unintended consequence of this rule will be to strongly discourage high performing CMO’s to come to our city;
  • Annual reports of charter schools must include the amount of money donated to a charter school by name when the contribution is over $500. Currently, those giving over $500 must be listed by name but not the specific number of dollars gifted; and
  • Charter schools must list the names of all employees and their salaries, also in the annual report.

A highly interesting bit of information about the draft directives is that they are a complete surprise to chairman Phil Mendelson and education committee chairman David Grosso.

Mr. Allen seems to know that he is doing something unseemly. In his press release about today’s event he writes, “Still, recognizing that charter schools are structured and run differently than traditional schools, the bill includes measures to evaluate any administrative challenges so the Council and the Mayor can adjust in future years.”

The evaluation he is referring to is just another unfunded mandate on charters. The initial year this statute is in effect, schools would need to report to the Council the number of FOIA requests they have received and the expenses related to complying with them.

The one glaring advantage charters have in this situation is that the D.C. Council has no authority over them in regards to the specifics of Mr. Allen’s rules. So now this representative has drawn a red line in the sand over the self-determination granted to charters as part of the 1995 School Reform Act.

Who will be brave enough to defend charter school autonomy once and for all. FOCUS? The DCPCSB? Education Forward DC? CityBridge Education? Charter Board Partners? PAVE? Democrats for Education Reform?

Those of us who believe in educational freedom will be watching.

U.S. Education Secretary offers freedom to America’s students

Last week, United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the introduction of legislation in Congress by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne to create federal Education Freedom Scholarships. The scholarships would allow individuals and businesses to make a financial contribution to a state nonprofit that would award these dollars to students for tuition or other expenses to fund their elementary or secondary school education. Those making contributions to these nonprofit entities would receive a dollar for dollar reduction in their federal tax obligation.

As stated in USA today, Ms. DeVos, Mr. Cruz, and Mr. Byrne explain the rationale behind their proposed law entitled the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.

“We recognize that each student is unique and deserves an education personalized for them. Scholarships could help students access a whole menu of opportunities, including dual enrollment, special education services, advanced or elective courses not available in their assigned school buildings, transportation to out-of-zone opportunities, among many others. All Americans need to be equipped for successful careers, and vital workforce preparation is in high demand. That’s why students could use scholarships to access career and technical education and apprenticeships, as well.”

They also explain in their commentary why a new approach is necessary regarding the education of our children:

“Today, too many young Americans are denied those opportunities. The numbers tell a grave story. We’re 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math when compared with the rest of the world.

That’s not because our students aren’t capable of being No. 1. They are. But our government’s antiquated approach to education limits their ability to achieve their true potential.

A series of administrations on both sides of the aisle have tried to fill in the blank with more money and more control, each time expecting a different result.”

The plan is exactly the one that was promoted by Joseph Overton, a friend who was the senior vice-president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy before he died in a plane crash in 2003. It comes a few days after the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the Washington D.C. area businessman and philanthropist who was a major proponent of the nation’s capital’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Mr. Robert passed away at the end of 2011. The OSP, since being establishment by Congress in 2009, has provided scholarships to private schools for kids living in poverty in the nation’s capital.

The main driver behind the act is freedom, which is what has led to all of the major accomplishments in this world. The authors’ write:

“The key element of the proposal is freedom for all involved. Eligible students, families, teachers and schools, as determined by their states — all can participate at will and any can elect not to participate if that’s the better choice for them. This is what freedom is all about.”

 

Exclusive interview with Deborah Dantzler Williams, head of school, Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School

When I first entered this Ward 5 charter’s permanent home, the third space that it has occupied, the atmosphere seemed different from many of the other schools I have visited.  Children were everywhere.  The pupils were moving, and talking, and sitting, and eating.  The activity level was high.  Obviously contributing to my perception was that school had just let out and aftercare activities were starting.  But please take it from me; this was not the strict and orderly silence that has greeted me upon my arrival to several other classroom buildings.  I was immediately intrigued to know more about the educational approach of the adults leading these students.

I was soon greeted by Ms. Deborah Dantzler Williams, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS’s head of school.  The first thing Ms. Williams did upon meeting me was to bring me to a board located in the school’s lobby containing pictures of the staff.  She is extremely proud of the diversity of the school’s team.  Ms. Williams explained that diversity is an intentional goal for the student body as well as for the employees.

Ms. Williams then filled me in regarding her past professional career.  She has over 30 years’ experience as a teacher and administrator in some of the Washington, D.C.’s finest private schools, including Beauvoir and Sidwell Friends.  Along the way she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and Sociology from Howard University, a Master’s Degree in City/Urban Community and Regional Planning from the same school, and a Master’s of Organizational Leadership at the Teachers College of Columbia University.  She enjoyed all of her instructional experiences but wanted to have an impact in some of the schools that were instructing more typical D.C. students, such as those living in poverty.  An associate of hers went to work for a small 20-year-old nonprofit named The Center for Inspired Teaching and spoke to her about coming along.  The organization provides professional development, leadership training, and an Office of the State Superintendent approved teacher certification program specializing in placing the child at the center of all educational efforts.  Ms. Williams joined the group as its director for strategic partnerships.

The Center for Inspired Teaching provides a teacher residency that covers two years, the first year residents are placed in DCPS and public charter schools working directly with a Master Teacher, and the second year residents lead their own classrooms with the support of a mentor. When a school accepts a resident, the Center often encourages it to add another so that there is more synergy around the pedagogical philosophy utilized by Inspired Teaching.  A question that naturally arose out of the program was whether an entire school made up of Inspired Teaching-trained teachers would succeed.  Since Inspired Teaching is focused on a methodology around engagement, it was only natural that it would eventually seek to create its own school.  In 2010, the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School was chartered by the DC Public Charter School Board after the Center brought together a founding group.  Ms. Williams has been its head of school from the beginning.

Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS opened its doors with 137 students in seven classrooms from Pre-Kindergarten three to the third grade.  While it utilizes the Common Core Curriculum, it concentrates, according to Ms. Williams, “solely on the needs of the students by emphasizing wonder, experiment, and learning.”  There are now approximately 470 students, with about one thousand on its waiting list.  It is no secret why so many families want to send their kids here.  When looking at its results on the DC Public Charter School’s Performance Management Framework, the score has risen for each of the four years that it has been evaluated.  Since the 2016-to-2017 term it has been ranked as a Tier 1 institution.

But test scores are not the only reason for this school’s popularity.  Ms. Williams detailed, “We are committed to diversity and equity among our students.” As a demonstration school, Ms. Williams related, Inspired Teaching offers a progressive style of education based upon the following principles:

  • Children are inherently good and have an innate desire to learn
  • Every child can be successful in school
  • Children’s energy, unique talents, and individuality are assets, not obstacles.
  • Every student possesses the ability to think critically, learn and understand information, and solve complex problems
  • Every student should spend their time in school engaged primarily in these kinds of activities

The standards-based curriculum, the head of school informed me, is based upon the four “I’s” of Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity.  “You will hear kids’ voices when you come into the school,” Ms. Williams boasted.  “You will see them moving.  We believe that children need validation for who they are as individuals.  We show the students that they have power and we want them to invest it here in their education.  We want them to understand the benefit of the methods we are using to further their learning.” 

 Ms. Williams is especially proud of the teaching residents from the Center for Inspired Learning.  She says that the Inspired Teaching Charter School currently has eight residents that are paired with Master Teachers.  These residents also have a mentor based at The Center for Inspired Teaching.  The head of school detailed that after these residents are in the classroom for about six weeks, they gradually begin to pick up responsibilities delegated by the Master Teachers such as running the morning meetings.  Ms. Williams stated that there is a rigorous process in place for selection of those that want to become residents.  All are interviewed so that an understanding can be gained about their approach toward working with students.  For example, an interview question might be “tell us about an interaction with children that demonstrates your philosophy toward them?”

The Inspired Teaching head of school stated that there are currently 10 residents in the program, and approximately 65 who have completed the program and are still in the field teaching.  One particularly positive aspect of the residency is that after the teachers complete their two years of training they are eligible to earn a Master’s Degree from Trinity University

Ms. Williams remarked that at the school there are generally two classes per grade Pre-Kindergarten three through sixth grade, and  one class currently in the seventh and eighth grades.  You will typically find two adults, including a master teacher and a resident, in a class of 25 students.  But this is hardly the rule. “There may be other educators in the classroom depending upon the unique needs of the students,” Ms. Williams instructed.

Ms. Williams is a Washington native whose children were also educated in this city.  She and her husband live in the house she grew up in.  Her entire professional life has been dedicated to preparing the successive generations of children to be successful in this world.  The Inspired Teaching Head of School informed me that she is not through making improvements in the way kids are taught.  “We are still honing our craft,” Ms. Williams stated, “and therefore our team will continue to work hard to place our children at the center of what we do on a daily basis.”