Kingsman Academy PCS should takeover Monument Academy PCS

I had an opportunity to watch the presentation of Monument Academy PCS last Monday night before the DC Public Charter School Board. The session has received much attention by Perry Stein and Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. Ms. Stein cannot be described as a charter school supporter and Ms. Strauss has been a vocal opponent. As stated by the newspaper:

“Since the start of this school year, more than 1,800 safety incidents have been reported at the campus, including bullying, property destruction, physical altercations and sexual assault, according to the charter school board. Forty alleged incidents of sexual misconduct and four of sexual assault have been reported. And the charter school board said that on 17 occasions, students have been found to possess a weapon, which ranges from using a stapler in a dangerous manner to a knife.

Half of the school’s roughly 100 students have been suspended this academic year, according to the charter board.”

A follow-up article by the same individuals indicated that the Monument Academy board of directors is now considering closing the school next month.

Monument Academy PCS is attempting to teach some of the most challenging children in the city. It provides a residential program specializing in those that have been engaged with the foster care system. 80 percent of its students are characterized as at-risk. 60 percent require special education services.

At Monday evening’s hearing co-founder Emily Bloomfield, board chair Charles Moore, and chief operating officer Keisha Morris did an admirable job answering the PCSB’s questions and concerns. However, it appeared that the board and school were talking past each other. As described by Mr. Moore, there was a clear misalignment between the two entities. The difference in perception were so great that there was not even agreement about what constitutes a safety incident, the number of staff that are included in next year’s operating budget, or whether or not the school is meeting its academic goals.

I have seen this movie before and believe me the ending is not a happy one. In cases where there is this much of a difference between visions of reality, the result in almost all cases is charter revocation. The board’s evaluation of this charter is particularly important at this time because next year Monument Academy is facing a high stakes five year review.

I do not think Monument Academy should be closed. As board member Steve Bumbaugh pointed out, the PCSB brings these alternative schools before them who instruct kids who have experienced trauma in their lives and then it beats them up. He remarked, “We are not talking about Washington Latin here.” Mr  Bumbaugh questioned where these students would go if there was not Monument Academy. In addition, because of the stark variance between the viewpoints of the track record of this school, he thought that it was too premature to be having this review.

Something is going to have to be done if Monument Academy is to survive. My recommendation is to have Kingsman Academy PCS take it over. The school has an excellent reputation and handles an extremely similar student demographic. School leader Shannon Hodge is amazing.

The charter board stated that it will be meeting with Monument Academy again next week to see if it can resolve its differences with the school. Meanwhile, the charter’s board chair Mr. Moore told the Post that a decision will be made by June 8th as to whether it will continue operating.

D.C. charter schools need a legal support organization

Please don’t get me wrong this morning. I am not seeking to disparage the fine work of established entities such as FOCUS, The DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, The Center for Education Reform, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, or Charter Board Partners. But there is a key missing ingredient in the constellation of nonprofits that support school choice in the District of Columbia. We need a group of litigators.

I imagine a new center that will bring legal challenges in the name of educational freedom. Its mission would be similar to the libertarian Institute for Justice. From this organization’s website:

“The Institute for Justice combines cutting-edge litigation, sophisticated media relations, strategic research, boots-on-the-ground advocacy and much more to fight on behalf of those individuals who are denied their constitutional rights. Despite the challenge of taking on powerful government officials and entrenched precedents, IJ is successful in winning 70 percent of its cases in the court of law, in the court of public opinion or through legislative reforms.”

Since its creation in 1991, The Institute for Justice has been involved in more than 250 cases, including the argument of seven in front of the United States Supreme Court.

It is time to bring the power of something like an I.J. to the local charter movement in the nation’s capital. I imagine that this entity would join charters in fighting the myriad of issues now facing these public schools such as the availability of permanent facilities, equitable funding compared to DCPS, and legislation by the Mayor and Council that contradicts the School Reform Act. It would also rein in the charter board when it overreaches its authority. When union activity begins to percolate at our proud institutions such as Paul PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS, and Mundo Verde PCS, these schools would not be on their own. Let’s call it the DC Public Charter School Defense Initiative, which would jump into action, at no cost to those targeted by organized labor, to protect their autonomy.

In his tremendous book Voucher Wars author Clint Bolick describes his founding of I.J. with Chip Mellor, “It would be an explicitly libertarian law firm, with funding attracted by our commitment to a principled, long-term litigation strategy, rather than litigation following funding. . . And from the very first day, we vowed to defend every school choice program until the constitutional cloud was removed. We adopted a motto from the late-night television commercial: If you have a choice program, you have a lawyer!”

The same guiding principal would drive the work of DCPCSDI. If you have a charter school, then you have an attorney covering your back regarding the policy issues of the day. No longer would individual schools be an island trying to rid the educational landscape of wrongs. The battle would be joined by others experienced in using the courts to their advantage.

Who out there would be willing to take up this challenge?

D.C. charter board approves 5 out of 11 applications for new schools

At a busy, fast paced monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, the body went ahead and approved 5 new schools to open at the beginning of the 2020-to-2021 term. It had received a record 11 applications as well as a written warning from Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn that the local market was already saturated with middle and high schools. Chair Rick Cruz, however, was in no mood to listen to someone trying to limit competition for students, especially when the offerings from DCPS in these areas is for the most part, well, crap. He made some other interesting remarks on this subject that the PCSB posted on-line. So on with the show.

But first up on the agenda was Washington Latin PCS which would like to replicate in 2020. Latin, whose board I once served, meets all of the criteria to expand by miles. However, this did not stop PCSB board member Steve Bumbaugh from outlining some facts which he called “exhausting.” For instance, he related that in Washington, D.C. fully half of all public school students are categorized as “at-risk,” but the population at Washington Latin for this group of children is 6.8 percent in middle school and 16.8 percent in high school. Mr. Bumbaugh also found it “frustrating” that the suspension rate for these students is 26.6 percent. His points received applause from the audience. Representatives of the charter, who included head of school Peter Anderson and principal Diana Smith, spoke about their efforts to reduce the suspension rate, and will utilize the still undetermined location for the second campus together with revised marketing efforts to increase the number of kids from low-income households that it serves. Although these comments were not altogether satisfying, look for Latin to have its request to amend its charter approved in June.

Then it was on to the list of new school applications. Those that were given the green light include Capital Village PCS, which will have its home in Ward 1, 4, 5, or 6 and enroll 180 children in its grade five through eight middle school; Girls Global Academy PCS, a ninth through twelfth grade school that would teach 450 young women in Ward 2; I Dream Academy PCS, a pre-Kindergarten three to sixth grade school that will instruct 240 pupils in Ward 7 or 8; Social Justice PCS, a five through eighth grade middle school that would like to open in Ward 5; and the Sojouner Truth PCS, that I wrote about extensively here.

As I had already mentioned, all the applications this cycle were of high quality. The board followed its pattern of previous years and gave the go ahead to 46 percent of those wanting to create new classrooms. I correctly picked three of the five that will open and would have selected three others that the PCSB members did not. One glaring omission I believe is Anna Julie Cooper PCS which would have added 568 pupils in grades Kindergarten through twelfth. I hope this group applies again in 2020 since its initial bid was so thoughtful and strong.

Finally a couple of additional observations. All five approved charters comprised CityBridge Education’s 2018 cohort of new schools, so huge congratulations goes to this organization. In addition, I would not help but notice that all votes by the PCSB were unanimous regarding whether to give a charter a thumbs up or down. We really need someone to show some independence among its membership.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education exerts pressure to cap number of charter schools

To say this has not been the best Charter School Week in the nation’s capital would be a substantial understatement. Teachers at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS voted on Wednesday to be represented by a union that would like to see charter schools disappear, and on the same day D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education released a memorandum that essentially calls for a cap on the number of new charters approved by the DC Public Charter School Board.

The document by Paul Kihn comes on the eve of decisions by the PCSB regarding how many of the 11 applications for new charters will be approved this coming Monday evening. He is particularly concerned that four high schools could be added to those that already exist:

“From a facility and capacity standpoint, the DME raises concerns about adding up to four new 9th-12th grade high schools to an already significant number of high schools that are operating with relatively small enrollments, have available empty seats, and are competing for a relatively limited number of high-school aged students. In addition, some of the existing LEAs would like to replicate, expand within their current buildings, or expand after finding new facilities, which would already increase the supply of high school seats even more. Currently there are 37 public high schools serving almost 19,000 high school students. Of that amount, 19 high schools are public charters serving approximately 8,100 students. Thirteen of the 19 public charter high schools serve just high school grades (9-12 grades) while another six also include middle grades. For DCPS, 16 high schools serve grades 9th-12th while another two DCPS schools serve grades 6th to 12th.”

But it’s not just the prospect of additional high schools that has Mr. Kihn worried. He has the same feelings about increasing the mix of middle schools:

“The picture is similar for public middle schools, although the population growth has begun sooner than the high school aged population. There are 37 schools serving predominantly middle school grades enrolling approximately 12,000 students. Of those, 23 are public charter schools serving almost 6,300 students. The grade configurations of the middle school public charters vary with nine schools serving 5th-8th grade, another seven charter schools serving 4th-8th grades, and six serving 6th-8th grades. This also does not take into account the PK-8th schools that exist or the 6th-12th grade schools that offer middle grades as well. DCPS offers 13 6th-8th grade middle schools and one 4th-8th grade middle school. The majority of the middle schools also have relatively small enrollments. The DME’s Adequacy Study estimated that small middle schools – estimated at 300 students – would have challenges meeting fixed costs compared to middle schools enrolling at least 600 students. As of SY18-19, 11 public charter middle schools enroll 300 middle school students or fewer and another 10 public charter middle schools have up to only 375 students. For DCPS middle schools, six enroll 300 or fewer students and another four enroll 375 or fewer students. The new applicants are also requesting relatively low enrollment ceilings, between 180 and 320 students. “

The charter board was in no mood to let this information get out unchallenged. The very next day, on Twitter, it exclaimed, “@DMEforDC‘s report is flawed in many ways, which we’ll discuss at Monday’s board meeting. Most significantly the analysis ignores the question of school quality, here’s why we DC needs more quality schools.” Then in a blog post on the organization’s website it wrote:

“Despite concerns about ‘under-utilization’ by the DC Deputy Mayor of Education, families are choosing public charter schools for their students. This year, 59% of public charter schools had longer waitlists than they did last year, and roughly 67% of applicants on waitlists are waiting for a seat at a top-ranking public charter school. Quality matters to families. This is why we want to ensure that there are excellent options available throughout the city.    

Currently, public charter schools offer the only 4 STAR schools in Wards 7 and 8, across seven different schools that educate grades PK3-12. Outside of Ward 3, 23.6% of DCPS students in schools with STAR scores attend a 4 or 5 STAR school, compared to 32.5% of public charter school students. As the graph below shows, there is a need to provide more quality middle school seats for families residing in Wards 5, 7, and 8, in particular.”

The PCSB continued:

“For families seeking quality high schools, the situation is far worse. Wilson High School is the only non-selective DCPS high school in the city that earned a 4 STAR rating, compared to the 12 citywide, open admission public charter high schools. Families are choosing to send their students to a 3 STAR or higher school; see the graph below. Additionally, based on the My School DC lottery results, every public charter high school (except for the alternative programs) has a waitlist. While we debate under-utilization, families continue to wait for a seat at a top-ranking school to become available. Based on My School DC data, more than half of the public charter high school applicants applying to a high school live in Wards 7 and 8. The graph below shows there is a need for more quality high school programs.”

Mr. Kihn is obviously petrified that if these charters open families will flock away from DCPS to their new classrooms.

You probably already know my reaction to this quandary. In response to what is a clear effort by the Deputy Mayor for Education, and therefore the Mayor, to pressure the PCSB not to approve more schools, and therefore to limit parental choice, I think it should allow all 11 to begin operating.

In addition, once these new entities are given the go ahead, by law a requirement must be added that the Deputy Mayor of Education provide them with adequate facilities.

Teachers at D.C.’s Mundo Verde Public Charter School vote to be represented by a union that hates charter schools

Right in the middle of National Charter School Week, the teachers at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS voted by a wide margin to become part of the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff (DCACTS), an arm of the American Federation of Teachers.

I really have enjoyed all of the positive media stories over the past few days regarding children and staff that comprise the charter school landscape in the nation’s capital. However, it is extremely difficult to be happy when the employees of one of our premier institutions agree to be represented by a group that desperately wants to shut down these innovative schools. Consider this comment two months ago by AFT president Randi Weingarten about charters, as written about by Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner:

“Weingarten told C-SPAN the AFT would try to make it [the charter school issue] a national issue by asking presidential candidates if they backed traditional public schools or the ‘private, for-profit charter operator who doesn’t have any accountability.'”

Here’s what she had to say last January after a teachers’ strike in Los Angeles resulted in a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools:

“In the wake of tax caps, the lack of appropriate investment has been a challenge for public education in Los Angeles for decades. Add to that the unregulated growth of charter schools that siphoned off more funding, and the result was the scarcity that led to the L.A. teachers’ strike. While charters were sold as a response to the demand for better schools, they too have a mixed record. More than 80 percent of charter schools cannot meet their projected enrollment numbers, and 8 of the 10 worst-performing schools in L.A., including one that has already been closed, are charter schools. So a moratorium is a good idea to bring equity and sustainability back to LAUSD, and with this vote, the school board made good on its promise to help do it.”

Finally, as Mel Leonor of Politico found Ms. Weingarten commenting in 2017, “American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has called charter school expansion ‘part of a coordinated national effort to decimate public schooling’.”

I really don’t understand the teachers over at Mundo Verde. They must really dislike their place of employment. Why else would you agree to be represented by an organization that wants to see your school disappear off the face of the earth?

I also deeply feel for Kristin Scotchmer, Mundo Verde’s executive director, the other members of her leadership team, and its board. After all they have done for this school, including founding it, growing it to be a DC Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework Tier 1 facility, and successfully moving it from a crowded, inhospitable space on 16th Street, N.W. to what will become two beautiful state-of-the-art buildings this summer, they must feel particularly dejected.

Finally, I’m terribly disappointed in the lack of public reinforcement for the school’s administration. We have so many charter school support organizations in this town. Many of its chiefs are my friends. Where are you in this fight for the future of our movement? Why were you silent?

Despite truly heroic efforts, the verdict on whether 20 years of public school reform have been successful in Washington, D.C. is still to be decided. Yesterday, we took a tremendous step in the completely wrong direction.

 

Demand that D.C. charter schools comply with FOIA has nothing to do with complying with FOIA

The opinion piece by Lis Kidder that appeared yesterday in the Washington Post was terrific. A lawyer whose job involves complying with Freedom of Information Act requests, she also has two children that attend Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS. Ms. Kidder offered a polemic on the reasons that D.C. Council member Charles Allen’s bill requiring charter schools to comply with FOIA requirements is a bad idea.

The article was forceful, logical, well thought-out, and clear. It will also not change public opinion.

The terribly unfortunate premise behind my assertion is that the argument over whether charters should have to respond to FOIA requests is actually not about FOIA at all. What this fuss is really focused on is nothing less than the desire by a segment of the populous to bring an end to our local charter school movement.

“No,” I can hear you saying. “You are not right. It is simply an attempt to treat charters the same as the traditional schools.” I’m sorry but these sentiments could not be further from the truth. How do I know?

Let’s look at the union playbook. The National Education Association Action Guide on Charter Schools spells out the organization’s strategy:

“In the case of charter schools, the key is accountability. The goal is great schools for every student. If charter schools can achieve good results without cherry-picking students, falsifying test scores or cooking the books, we can welcome them to the neighborhood. If charter schools will open their board meetings and accept parents to join it, they can become part of the local community. The next step may be to organize their teachers to make sure they are professionally treated and adequately paid” (page 17).

Of course, charter schools do not cherry-pick students, falsify test scores, or cook the books. But accuracy is not the point here. Teachers’ unions want these schools to disappear off the face of the earth because its instructors do not, for the most part, work under a collective bargaining agreement. In order to make it as difficult as possible for these schools to operate, the Action Guide includes this mandate:

“Charter schools must be subject to the same open meeting and open record laws as the public schools” (page 4).

This is a war whose front line has landed at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS. Since the union failed at Paul PCS and Cesar Chavez PCS, it is extremely frustrated and has aimed its scope at a new infiltration site. You know things are bad when an anonymous letter written by a Mundo Verde parent asks the following question:

“Why are outsiders speaking at the Board Meeting who have no kids in our school? What are their motivations?”

By now the nature of this inquiry should be seen as strictly rhetorical. We know why outsiders are speaking at board meetings. They are here to destroy what we have spent over 20 years creating. They are here to stutter the great innovative charters that brave men and women have designed and built. They are here to make sure we go back to a city of only neighborhood schools.

They are here because the union’s needs supersede the needs of our children.

Letter points to bullying by teachers’ union at Mundo Verde PCS

The following anonymous letter was sent to the Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS parent listserve and was reprinted on the DC Urban Moms and Dad blog.

Dear Mundo Verde Families: 

We want to Save Our School (SOS) Mundo Verde PCS. For years, we have been families of Mundo Verde. The community of teachers, staff, and leaders have been part of our lives, like a second family. We have united with the entire community to watch our children grow, learn a new language, and thrive in a community that honors free play, outdoor time, and sustainability. We’ve shared out voices at Padres meetings; spoken at Coffee with Leadership; or eagerly spoken with prospective families and each other about our school. We support our teachers, our staff, and our leaders. We support our community and we want to unite to Save our School: Mundo Verde. 

But our community has been divided in these past few weeks by efforts to unionize. These efforts to many of us came from hushed meetings, secret agreements, and clandestine operations culminating in an overt condemnation of our entire community. We have not been “united.” Instead, the efforts spearheaded contradict our entire shared values as a school of ESPICA [Habits of Community Stewardship (referred to as ESPICA, the acronym created by the habits themselves)]. and transparency. While we value the open dialogue of all families and diverse input, we equally value our entire community being able to speak our truth, inquire and collaborate to find common solutions for all of our children. 

We sympathize with our teachers and staff and their concerns over individual support for students; increased health care costs, and ability to have a voice in school happenings. We want the same things for our students and our teachers. What we are less clear is how unionizing will accomplish these things. 

Many of us have worked in unions as teachers, service workers, operators, drivers, and federal and DC government employees. We know first-hand the limits that unions place on employers and employees. We also know that unions can’t guarantee any of these things. We want our school dollars going to our kids not union lawyers and bureaucracy. 

Those of us in DCPS, which has the same teacher union who is at our school (AFT) and DC government, pay substantially more than the $48 for health insurance at MV. Our rates for an individual at the lowest HMO are $95 bi-weekly. DCPS class sizes far exceed the class sizes of our school. Instead of being able to directly speak to our school leaders, managers or leadership, unionization has added layers of bureaucracy to our work places supporting the least qualified individuals in our organizations (see here) Teacher turnover at DCPS is among the highest in the country where more than 1 in 4 teachers leave annually. Students in DCPS have among the fewest resources and have academic achievements far below our school. We want our entire community to thrive. 

We want to urge all of our families to be a part of the conversation of how we Re-Unite our Mundo Verde community. How we all work together to foster and build a community that honors all of our teachers, staff, leaders and families. How we rebuild the trust within our school community. The events of the last few weeks contradict this very spirit. We have been asked to interject our kids into an adult debate. Let our children be kids! 

In the past few weeks, many of us have been sickened by the division this has created in our school. The secret meetings, the hushed phone calls, and the division between leadership and select teachers/staff and parents is hurtful.Our school has been mocked on twitter with nasty messages. Local listserves like UrbanMoms have lambasted the division. In just a few days, we are the center stage of the negative press, internal division, and reliance on fear and secret tactics to divide. We want to change the narrative about our school. 

We ask more parents to speak up! We ask more families to support Mundo Verde – our entire community. We have come together collectively to ask – 

– Who is behind the efforts to unionize Mundo Verde? 

– Why are we being targeted on our way to pick up and drop off to sign petitions in secret? 

– Why are we being followed to our kids soccer games, swim lessons, parkour [sic] lessons, choir lessons and being bullied into signing petitions? 

– Why has this entire effort been done in secret? 

– What other ways can we work together for our kids? 

– Why are outsiders speaking at the Board Meeting who have no kids in our school? What are their motivations? 

– How do we reshape the public narrative to share with others what a beautifully diverse community we are so proud to be a part of? 

We want the best for our children. We want a school community that is UNITED among all of our voices. We want to Save our School: Mundo Verde with our voices and collaboration. 

Betsy DeVos: school choice is “a freedom philosophy”

There has been much coverage in the press and social media of the appearance of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in front of the Education Writers Association national conference taking place this week in Baltimore. Many reporters are talking about her remark that she doesn’t particularly like public speaking. She stated:

“I don’t enjoy the publicity that comes with my position. I don’t love being up onstage nor any kind of platform. I am an introvert.”

On the subject of her support of school choice, she articulated her argument as succinctly as I’ve heard anyone make it, as explained by Laura Meckler of the Washington Post:

“She recalled putting her children into a private, religious school in Michigan, and her sadness that so many other children in the area couldn’t attend that school. ‘I realized more and more the unfairness of the situation,’ she said.

Her conclusion was that students stuck with what she called traditional, failing public schools lack freedom.

‘I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said families — families, not government,’ she said. ‘I trust the American people to live their own lives and to decide their own destinies. It’s a freedom philosophy.'”

This is the same line of reasoning I’ve heard from so many brave and smart individuals. People who have voiced similar opinions include Dr. Howard Fuller, Joseph E. Robert, Jr., Jeanne Allen, Michael Musante, Darcy Olsen, Katherine Bradley, David Boaz, Clint Bolick, Josh Rales, Eva Moskowitz, Donald Hense, Joseph Overton, and Anthony Williams, to name a few. The unfairness of the situation is what drives me to get up between four and five a.m. during the week to write about school choice.

Many people thought it was bold of Ms. DeVos to even show up at this meeting. After all, much of the press share a liberal political philosophy, and they have been attacking her as a person and her work professionally since before she even came into office.

But that’s simply what you do when you see an injustice and you desperately want to see it fixed.

D.C. charter schools can never devalue their product

This morning, let’s start with a story. There is a video I love to show to my managers at work. The two-minute vignette is by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and is about the founding of his company. He talks about his firm’s first big break, which was when his products were featured in the movie Any Given Sunday. Mr. Plank billed filmmaker Oliver Stone $40,000 for all of the clothing that he supplied for the actors. To those who say that he should have provided the material for free his answer is simple: Never devalue your product.

Today, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein has an article questioning whether the city can absorb the 11 new charter schools for which the DC PCSB has received applications to open. Ms. Stein also ponders whether there should be a cap on the number of charters. She writes:

“According to a city analysis, about a fifth of all school buildings are less than 65 percent full. And campuses in the traditional school system are even emptier. That means many of the schools have small enrollments. There are 38 high schools across both sectors serving nearly 20,000 students.”

At the same time, we hear case after case about parents who cannot find a quality school for their children. They find the lottery to be a completely frustrating experience. Some families who can afford to are moving to the suburbs because of their lack of options here in the District. In 2019, there is an almost 12,000 pupil wait list to obtain admission to a charter.

Please do not get distracted. Never devalue our product. If traditional school supporters are concerned about under-enrolled facilities, then low-performing DCPS sites need to be closed. Empty regular schools can be turned over to charters. Co-location can be significantly increased.

We also cannot let the quality of our charters be diluted by the introduction of a teachers’ union. Collective bargaining contracts change the nature of our schools from being the innovative institutions that they are to becoming just another state school. Perhaps as an incentive to prevent this from occurring, the PCSB should change its Performance Management Framework Policy and Technical Guide to proclaim that any charter that has union representation cannot be categorized as Tier 1.

Our children expect us to be brave and bold.

Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS 2019 Shining Star Gala inspires

If you have troubling doubts about the future of our country based upon its youth then I have the perfect potent antidote. Do yourself an immense favor and buy a ticket to the next annual Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS Shining Star Gala. Last Thursday evening, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend this event, and I have to say that a smile has not left my face since I exited the Ward 8 high school.

Just meeting Mr. Lloyd, the leader of TMA’s English Department, made me feel like a better person. His 10th grade exploration was entitled “From Book Club to Classroom.” Students, stationed at various desks, were there to talk about works they had read that have now replaced the use of textbooks and form the sophomore course curriculum. There I met Kiyaari Wilson, who spent her middle school years at Meridian PCS. She had recently finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Ms. Wilson, speaking as if she had been presenting in front of the public for all of her life, explained to me that the 15 year-old boy in the book sees the world in a different way from ordinary people. She detailed that he does not think like you or I, and his facial expressions and emotions are incongruous to events taking place around him. Of course, Ms. Wilson is describing someone who is autistic, but as the student detailed when this book was written in 2004 the syndrome was not nearly as well understood as it is today. I don’t want to give away the story but I learned the plot is centered around love, trust, and truth; concepts that resonate deeply with Ms. Wilson.

It took me a few minutes to arrive at my next destination which was Ms. Alvaredo-Sieg’s Spanish class. In the hallway my eyes were drawn to the banners hanging from the ceiling that proclaimed facts about TMA such as “Thurgood Marshall Academy is among the highest achieving open-enrollment high schools in the District of Columbia,” and “100% of Thurgood Marshall Academy Graduates have been accepted to college since 2005.” Also, I was delayed by waiters and waitresses offering me scrumptious morsels of food.

Once I reached room 107 I met sophomore Amya Hudson, who attended middle school at Achievement Prep PCS. Her assignment had been to study one of two individuals who had fought for social justice. Since she was already familiar with Cesar Chavez, she instead decided to learn about Rigoberta Menchú, a 1992 Nobel Peace Prize awardee who had fought for the human rights of the indigenous people of Guatemala. Ms. Hudson detailed that Ms. Menchú became drawn to her cause after the brutal torture and murder of her mother and brother. Much of the student’s research had come from reading this hero’s book, I, Rigoberta Menchú.

My fate turned for the worse when I entered the Applied Integrated Science classroom and met two “physicians.” Dr. Hudgens, a freshman who last year went to Mary McLead Bethune PCS, was partnered with Dr. Jones, a sophomore, who attended a Maryland public school for the ninth grade. Based upon some inventive physical symptoms I described I was efficiently diagnosed as having adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD, a genetic disorder), and told that the organelle (cellular part, similar to an organ) responsible was peroxisomes.

I was relieved to end the focus on myself when I ran into Richard Pohlman, Thurgood Marshall’s executive director. Last November, Mr. Pohlman announced that after four years in his position this school year would be his last. Each time I come to Shining Stars I get tremendous joy out of watching Mr. Pohlman’s interactions with his scholars, and it was a bond with students that he spoke about when I asked him about his legacy. “It has been all about the people,” the head of TMA related. “Too often in our work you think everything is built around the effort of one individual. But this is not the case here. The success of Thurgood Marshall is the result of a series of many connections between human beings. You need some great adults who are supporting our great kids in allowing them to reach their full potential. It is then about maintaining this tradition. I’m so proud of the work being done every day in this building.”

It was then on to the SoapBox Speeches, which the evening’s professionally produced brochure explained are part of a program TMA students compete in each year organized by the Mikva Challenge. There attendees listened to Jayla Holdip, a government student, talk openly about the dilemma she finds herself in when she is trying to forcefully argue for societal change. Often, she observed, she is relegated to the category of “angry black woman.” She added that she is undeterred by the generalization being made of her.

I learned after hearing her talk that Ms. Holdip came to TMA from Basis PCS. She will be attending the University of Rochester in the fall where she will create her own major based around science, anthropology, and public policy. Eventually, her goal is to be a civil rights lawyer. Ms. Holdip has received a full-ride scholarship to college.

Once the classroom explorations were concluded, the guests moved to the school’s gymnasium for dessert. I had a chance to speak with Raymond Weeden, Jr., the gentleman who has been selected to become the school’s next executive director on July 1st. Mr. Weeden’s background includes serving as principal of DC Prep PCS’s Benning Elementary campus and then as the same school’s senior director of policy and community engagement. He was also previously the principal of Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy’s Parkside Middle School. Mr. Weeden expressed to me that for 16 years he has greatly appreciated the academic achievements being accomplished by Thurgood Marshall Academy and he is excited and honored to be a part of this community.

The evening concluded with the crowd hearing from Ms. Holdip for themselves. In an even more forceful tone and diction than I recalled from the classroom setting, she took the audience through her educational milestones, and expressed her strong gratitude and respect for every person in the school. I have a strong feeling that I have not heard the last from Ms. Holdip.