Bowser Administration defines limit of D.C. cross sector collaboration

Recently, the editors of the Washington Post described the highly depressing situation regarding the Southwest campus of AppleTree Early Learning PCS. For the past five years the school has been located in trailers owned by AppleTree on the site of DCPS’s Jefferson Middle School. Jefferson is in the process of undergoing modernization so AppleTree has been informed that it must vacate the property this coming July. The charter, after undergoing a typically frustrating facility hunt, has secured a permanent home but it will not be ready until the following school year. The Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn has refused to delay the construction project and has been unable to identify another temporary site for AppleTree, while actually referring to the leadership of AppleTree, my hero Jack McCarthy, as “irresponsible” regarding this matter. Here’s the Post’s view:

“Perhaps AppleTree could have done more, but that raises the question of why the city doesn’t feel more of a sense of responsibility for preserving what it agrees is a top-flight program. AppleTree provides not simply day care but data-driven instruction designed to help disadvantaged students, for whom a good start in school makes a critical difference. If these were traditional public school students, there would be no question of finding them space.”

We have really never known D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s feelings toward charter schools because, as far as I know, she has never publicly provided her opinion. But we can now get a clear picture of her view through her actions. In the face of the Public Charter School Board considering the applications of 11 new schools, her Deputy Mayor for Education (notice that the job title states that this position is FOR education) stated that there was already excess capacity even though tens of thousands of students lack access to a quality seat. Recently, Ms. Bowser released the Ferebee-Hope Elementary School for re-purposing, but blatantly failed to follow the law in placing it out for bid to charters. Now we have the case of AppleTree, in which the response to a crisis for 100 three and four year old children from low-income households who attend a Tier 1 charter is to throw them out on the street.

For the past two years, Ms. Bowser has increased the per pupil charter school facility fund by 2.2 percent. This is appreciated but does little good in a city that now has no places in which charter schools can apply this revenue. Unfortunately, more money will not make this problem go away. Unless the city turns over its million square feet of vacant or under-utilized DCPS buildings over to charters, our children will suffer.

D.C. charter school heroes come through in effort to save Monument Academy PCS

In a move that literally brought tears to my eyes and a shiver down my spine, Friendship PCS is making a gallant effort to takeover Monument Academy PCS. I had urged in a couple of recent articles for another charter to come to the rescue to allow this facility that serves some of the most at-risk students in our community to continue. Monument’s mission “is to provide students, particularly those who have had or might have contact with the foster care system, with the requisite academic, social, emotional, and life skills to be successful in college, career, and community, and to create an outstanding school that attracts, supports, and retains exceptional and caring people.”  Now it appears that my desperate hope may indeed become a reality.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein and Valerie Strauss revealed last night that Friendship PCS is working to bring Monument Academy under the Friendship Education Foundation, the organization that runs its schools outside of Washington, D.C. including two in Baltimore and one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But Friendship is not making this effort on its own. It is getting exceptionally strong financial assistance from some of this area’s most prominent school choice advocacy groups. As the Post reports:

“The proposal states that education organizations have committed $700,000 to ensure the budget for the 2019-2020 academic year can support the school. Prominent education groups, including the Bainum, CityBridge and Flamboyan foundations, have committed to helping Monument, according to the proposal.”

Thank you Katherine Bradley.

This has been a particularly busy and prosperous year for Friendship under the exceptional leadership of chief executive officer Patricia Brantley. Already the charter has agreed to assume control of two failed schools, IDEAL Academy PCS and City Arts and Prep PCS, although with City Arts it is more of a situation of bringing parts of this school’s curriculum into its existing network. It has also expanded its on-line institute to high school grades.

Now, the biggest question for me is how Friendship is going to be treated by the DC Public Charter School Board once all these changes are approved. Does the CMO simply get one year of no grading on the Performance Management Framework for each of its new campuses? For all that it is doing to help the most vulnerable children in the nation’s capital, doesn’t it deserve more of a break? Shouldn’t it take steps to encourage other charters to take on the challenges and risks that Friendship is undertaking?

D.C. charter school movement awash in change

During the period that my wife and I were studying charter schools on Cape Cod, change after change was taking place at a breathtaking rate at home regarding our own charter network. As I re-enter my life here in the nation’s capital, please allow me to update you on many of the developments.

First, Ingenuity Prep PCS board chair Peter Winik announced in early June that Will Stoetzer has been named the school’s chief executive officer. Mr. Stoetzer, a co-founder of Ingenuity Prep along with Aaron Cuny, has been in the interim CEO role since December of last year when Mr. Cuny transitioned to the position of senior adviser. I interviewed Mr. Cuny last October. Mr. Winik wrote of the decision:

“The Board’s selection is the result of an inclusive interview process that evaluated Will against a set of qualities co-created by the Ingenuity Prep staff, families, and Board. Will participated in four separate interview panels of key stakeholders–school staff, leadership, families and Board members. The Board then reviewed the feedback from each panel to inform its decision. The Board is incredibly grateful to all panelists–their input was invaluable in the selection process.”

The Ward 8 charter has been anxious to offer its program to more students but has been unable to replicate because it is classified as a Tier 2 institution on the DC Public Charter Board’s Performance Management Framework tool. The last result in 2018 demonstrated that the school slipped in its quantitative score.

Next, the local charter world erupted in excitement because the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Mayor Bowser has released the Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast for other uses. The facility was shuttered in 2013 due to low student enrollment. Ms. Stein indicated that perhaps the structure will be turned over to a charter which would be the first empty DCPS classroom space that this Mayor has relinquished to the sector. I’m not so sure. Consider the language that the Post reporter in her article captures D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and Ms. Bowser using to describe the change:

“’Because D.C. Public Schools has determined that it does not need the school as a current or future school building, we are opening it up to see how we can make it something really special for the community in that location,’ Kihn said.”

“’We’ve heard it loud and clear from the community — it’s time to reactivate and develop the Ferebee-Hope site to breathe life back into this space and bring new opportunities to the neighborhood,’ Bowser said in a news release. ‘I’m committed to working hand-in-hand with residents on what they want to see at the site.’”

This is about as far as we can get from a strong blanket commitment from our city’s top education leaders to support the public schools that now educate 47 percent of all students in our city. The Mayor’s failure to immediately turn this school over to charters is against the law.

Here’s a warning: You may not want to continue reading. The news is about to get worse.

In May I detailed the trouble the Monument Academy PCS found itself in at the PCSB’s monthly meeting. A piece by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein and Valerie Strauss captured the issues:

“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.”

On June 5th, the Monument Academy board of directors voted to close the school at the end of this academic year. Charles Moore, the charter’s board chair, explained the reasons behind the move in a letter to the school’s community:

“First, we believe the likelihood of the Public Charter School Board renewing the charter in the upcoming review cycle was low, based on what we heard when board members met with PCSB staff and trustees on April 26. The core message was that when schools have not met their accountability goals, the only path to charter renewal would be having a clear, positive trajectory in student outcomes. Our own analysis of the performance showed that while there were pockets of success with student progress—in fact, many students saw tremendous gains—the aggregate results showed uneven gains and an unclear path to create faster growth in a short time frame. Second, despite the valiant work of our family engagement team, the board believed that our student recruitment numbers were behind the pace needed (based on the historical record) to reach our enrollment target of 120 students by the start of the school year.”

I am sure that the charter’s CEO and co-founder Emily Bloomfield is personally crushed regarding the situation, as she put all of her heart and soul into Monument Academy. In fact, I have never seen a more rapid denouement of a charter school. Just last year at a CityBridge Education forum, the staff of this school received accolades for the methods it has implemented for caring for children who have suffered Adverse Childhood Events.

In his letter, Mr. Moore explains that other charter operators have reached with offers of help. Let’s sincerely hope that one takes over this school of 100 disadvantaged students so that they can be offered the possibility of a bright future.

I was also notified by Golnar Abedin, the executive director and founder of Creative Minds PCS, that after eight years she is stepping down from her position. Here’s a portion of her note to her constituents:

“As a parent and an education professional, I founded Creative Minds International eight years ago with guidance and support from a small and passionate group of parents and co-founders, after discovering that DC public school lacked a meaningful arts-based, international curriculum that welcomed children of varying abilities and backgrounds. We presented a plan to the DC Public Charter School Board for a unique school that would be inclusive of all learners. We opened our doors in the fall of 2012 to 100 preschool to 2nd-grade students, in a small building on 16th Street. Today we welcome nearly 500 students, in prekindergarten through 8th grade, at our beautiful campus at the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

I could not be more proud of what we have built and accomplished together, with support from colleagues and our community. We became the first public charter school to achieve International Primary Curriculum accreditation, the first to secure a long-term lease in a beautiful, historic federal government building, and the first to succeed in providing high-quality opportunities in an international and arts-based program that is truly inclusive of all learners.”

I interviewed Dr. Abedin in 2018 and I was so impressed that it is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. I will not give away her story here. You will have to read the discussion. Let me just say that there is definitely a reason that the school has a 2,000 student wait list to gain admission.

Finally, at a period when charters are facing their greatest political struggles in their relatively short quarter of a century history, it appears that the support organization Friends of Choice in Urban Schools is undergoing a leadership change. I received a message from Irene Holtzman, its executive director for the last four years, that she is stepping down at the end of this month. No word yet on a successor. Apparently, Michael Musante, the group’s long-term government relations director, is also departing at the conclusion of June. I always thoroughly Ms. Holtzman’s highly energetic enthusiasm when I heard her speak at meetings.

Next time, I think I will simply stay in town.

For D.C. charter schools the war is on; but there is no war

Over the weekend the Washington Post printed an opinion piece by Jack Schneider entitled “School’s Out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” The article offers a highly slanted negative view of the charter school movement that contains inaccuracies that have been easily negated by my public policy friends. Mr. Schneider wrote:

“The charter school movement is in trouble. In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was ‘in hot water and likely to get hotter.’ Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, ‘only a handful’ expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the April 2 runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion. In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives — the Community and Citywide Education Councils — issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating ‘free from public oversight’ and for draining ‘substantial’ resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists.”

It is all par for the course.

To understand the current environment around charter schools here locally you have to be aware of the obstacles that have been established in an effort to ensure that parents have a limited option as to where to send their kids to receive a premier educational experience.

First, there are no buildings available for charter growth and expansion. Although these are public schools the city is under no obligation to provide them with space as it does when DCPS creates new facilities. I believe it has come to the point in which charter enrollment will freeze because there is nothing whatsoever in the market to lease or purchase. This despite the fact that there is currently 1.3 million square feet of vacant or under-utilized real estate that the traditional schools possess but will not turnover to charters in violation of the law.

Then there is the funding inequity issue. Charters receive an estimated $100 million a year less in revenue than the traditional school are provided by the city. Under the School Reform Act charters and DCPS are to be provided with the same dollars through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. Yet even in the face of a FOCUS engineered lawsuit on this matter the government will not budge. The Mayor will not even engage with the institutions that educates almost half of all public school students, approximately 44,000 pupils, regarding a discussion on this topic.

We are also facing an attempted labor union infiltration of charter schools. First it was attempted at Paul PCS, then at Cesar Chaves PCS, and now at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS. Please do not be fooled. None of this has to do with transgressions by school administrators or the needs of teachers or parents. The union is trying to obtain a footing in our sector in order to kill it off once and for all.

While all of this is going on charters are educating scholars minute by minute according to the highest standards they can offer. Many of the children housed in their classrooms are the ones regular schools have turned away. They rarely even consider the insurmountable obstacles in their path. The situation is terribly unfair. The message charters are receiving on a daily basis is do your best tirelessly without adequate classroom space, funding, and with the introduction of a third party grossly interfering with the trust that has been established between staff and leadership.

There has got to be a better way.

D.C. charter schools must expand at a much faster rate

Last week WUSA 9 ran an article entitled, “Where are these kids going to go?’ 43 DC charter schools have been closed since 2009. This one is next.” Authors Eric Flack, Jordan Fischer, and Kyley Schultz point out that in the last 10 years the DC Public Charter School Board has shuttered 44 schools for either low academic performance or financial irregularities. In fact, the board lists 65 charters that it has closed since the start of the movement here in the District. The WUSA piece focuses on the charter revocation of National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, and the story is obviously part of the school’s continuing public relations effort to keep the facility going.

At the time the PCSB was considering taking action against this school, I wrote:

“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.”

So there was really no choice but to have this school cease operations at the end of June. But the reporters at WUSA question where its students will now obtain their education, and whether the alternative is worse than the current situation:

“In the case of students at NCP, that option is Ballou High School, which one year ago was embroiled in a graduation scandal for awarding diplomas for chronically truant students. It’s a school whose test scores are four times lower than National Collegiate Prep.”

My hope was that a high-performing charter operator would take over Collegiate Prep. But since this has not occurred, it may be that the children will end up at Ballou, the neighborhood high school characterized by having a poor academic track record. Here is where we as a sector are not doing as well as we could to serve our students.

When a charter school ceases to exist, the fallback for its pupils is often the neighborhood school. In these instances, we are feeding directly into the narrative of charter opponents. They argue that instead of spending millions of dollars on school choice, the community should be strengthening the regular schools with financial resources since when charters eventually close this is where kids end up. The situation has to come to an immediate end. In the face of charter revocation, we have to be able to continue to teach those students in our classrooms.

This would mean creating hundreds more additional seats. In order to get to this point many steps would have to be taken. For example, the securing of charter school facilities is still a major stumbling block whose solution continues to be elusive. Moreover, the charter board needs to immediately look at barriers to entry for the creation of new schools and the growth of existing ones. In addition, the application process for opening a charter has to be simplified. There also must be a relaxing of the criteria under which a school can replicate. Finally, holding charters accountable to the Performance Management Framework has to be adjusted to promote replication.

If we truly care about our kids, when a school is closed having them enroll at a traditional school is not the solution. We need to provide them with admission to one of our proud charters that as a group currently has a wait list of almost 12,000 students.