Out of 3 new D.C. charter school applications, 1 should be approved

The March meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board started with a long list of public speakers that extended to almost the first hour of the session. Were these individuals concerned about charter school transparency or Open Meeting laws? No, they were in support of the new school applications that were about to be heard. Eleven entities have completed the arduous process of filing to create new charters, a truly amazing number compared to the drought of applications that have been received in recent cycles. It would be fantastic to see the public reaction if all were approved to open in the 2020-to-2021 school year. But in reality that will not happen. The PCSB traditionally gives the green light to about 40 percent of those asking for permission to create new classroom space and this will almost certainly be the case here.

First up on this evening was The Sojourner Truth PCS, a proposed sixth-through-twelfth grade Montessori charter eventually teaching 790 students that would prefer to locate in Ward 5. Executive director Justin Lessek knocked his presentation out of the park. His poise and ability to articulately answers to questions is a model for other applicants to follow. The board expressed concerns about the application of Montessori to pupils beyond the elementary years, and its use with a population of children that may have not had previous experience with this teaching methodology. Please don’t misunderstand, this charter would not necessarily be fed from the currently existing Montessori schools in the city. The founders recognize that its student body would come from a wide variety of pedagogical backgrounds. The representatives from Sojourner demonstrated they are definitely up to the challenge.

Evolve PCS would be a 400-student high school wanting to locate in Wards 1,4,5, or 6. It would offer the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme and become affiliated with Big Picture Learning. The school’s application describes Big Picture Learning as “an international network of widely varied schools bound by a common commitment to an experiential, democratic, relationship-focused educational model that uses project-based learning as its core instructional method to serve one student at a time.” To understand why this school needs to go back to the drawing board, consider this portion of its submission:

“We chose the four pathways listed above due to their breadth of coursework and responses on our preliminary student survey. Between the four pathways, students will be able to access curriculum ranging from architecture and design and green methods (Engineering) to Biomedical innovation, forensics and mental health (Health Sciences) and Entrepreneurship and Ethics in Business (Finance) and art history and graphic design through SCAD. Available courses vary by student interest and staff expertise and are chosen the year prior to being offered. All courses are the equivalent of one semester in length and occur once per week during an 85-minute block. Curriculum and standards are developed by NAF and SCAD, respectively. NAF teachers will be trained on the curriculum during the summer between our second and third years, in time to teach a selection of courses to rising 11th graders. NAF courses are designed to be technical in nature and hands-on. SCAD courses are taken online and students check-in with their Advisor regularly to ensure progress.”

It is all too much.

The final presentation came from the leadership of Girls Global Academy PCS. I was surprised to see that the board chair of this new charter would be Beth Blaufuss, the former head of Archbishop Carroll High School who I deeply respect and who I call a friend. The charter would teach 450 young women in Ward 2. The pillars comprising the foundation of this school are described in its application as Sisterhood, Service, Scholarship, and Safety. The idea behind this facility is that black and Latino female students need the support of a single gender entity to provide them with the self-esteem to be able to be successful in the future. The curriculum would be based upon the use of I.B. Career-related program, STEM-related courses, and service learning. Upon approval of this school’s application by the PCSB, it would be eligible to receive a $270,000 grant from CityBridge Education.

There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm expressed by the founding group. I didn’t feel that energy being reflected back by the board. Perhaps that was due to the fact that there was the proverbial elephant in the room. The PCSB went through an extremely difficult process around closing Excel Academy PCS, an all-girls school, in early 2018, only to see that institution become part of DCPS. Excel had demonstrated extremely low academic performance and management challenges throughout its existence. I got the notion that the board is not ready for a repeat performance, especially in light of all Global Academy is setting out to accomplish.

The remaining eight applications will be heard by the board this evening.

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