Emotions raw at October D.C. charter board meeting

It was one of the most fascinating meetings I have seen in my years of watching the proceedings of the DC Public Charter School Board. During the open comment period person after person testified against DC Prep PCS expanding to a new location on Frankford Street, S.E. The entire discussion was confusing because the charter was on the agenda seeking approval to begin operating its new Anacostia Middle School beginning with the 2020-to-2021 school year and beyond at the site of the Birney Building, an incubator location operated by Building Pathways that now is home to Lee Montessori East End PCS and the old Excel Academy PCS that converted in 2018 to be part of DCPS. Yet here they were, a long line of witnesses, many with signs that read “Ø#NoDCPreponFrankford!Ø.”

Sandwiched toward the end of this part of the session, a mom who has two children attending Rocketship Rise Academy PCS, which was hosting the PCSB on this night, announced that a convicted child molester had tried to remove her kids from aftercare on a day in which school was not in session. The attempt, she said, was not successful, but she added that she has heard six different stories about what took place and has been trying to meet with a representative from the charter for three weeks about this issue without success. This prompted a Rocketship staff member to come forward to explain that the man in question had been detained by the police when he tried to leave with her children and that he had just attended a hearing on this matter today. The Rocketship employee also admitted that he had not done a good job reviewing this highly worrisome event with the parent.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein, in an article appearing last Thursday, provided some details around the arrest of this individual. Antonio Burnside, age 30, “was forced to register as a sex offender after pleading guilty in December to attempted kidnapping and was given an 18-month suspended sentence, according to court records.” A police officer stationed at Rocketship let him into the school after he claimed he was with another person entering the building. Mr. Burnside then began playing basketball with a nine year old child and then tried to escort him and his six year old brother outside. A school official stopped him and Mr. Burnside was then arrested on unrelated charges. He is now being held without bail for attempted kidnapping. Rocketship, the PCSB, and the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education are all reviewing security procedures at its schools. A letter went out from Rocketship’s administration to its parents two weeks after the incident occurred.

Next up was AppleTree Early Learning PCS regarding its proposal to co-locate with Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at its new location at 475 School Street, S.W. beginning in 2020. This is the AppleTree campus that was thrown out of its temporary location at Jefferson Middle School Academy when DCPS went ahead with a plan to renovate this facility. No accommodation was made for AppleTree and so the charter had no choice but to close this location. It was a slap in the face to the over 100 disadvantaged children and their families who now had to find somewhere else to send their three and four year olds.

Also as part of its charter amendment, AppleTree is attempting to open a new school at 1000 4th Street S.W. during the 2023-to-2024 school year. What is so exciting about this expansion is that this permanent home would be leased to the school by the developer PN Hoffman. One solution to the crippling charter school facility problem that has been floated in the past is to team with developers to provide classroom space. It appears that AppleTree is about to make this dream a reality.

The board will vote on these plans at the November meeting.

Finally, it was DC Prep’s turn at the table. Here is where things really became interesting. Chief Executive Officer Laura Maestas related that the school would prefer to locate its Anacostia Middle School campus at the Birney Building. However, for over a year DC Prep has been trying to get an answer as to what DCPS plans to do with Excel, whose lease is coming to an end. Without a solution in hand the charter moved quickly to purchase the Frankford Street church property that came on the market and was rapidly receiving interest by others in securing the parcel. Ms. Maestas admitted that her team has not engaged with the community about moving to this address. In fact, the school has kept the deal, which is scheduled to close in December, to itself.

Ms. Maestas added that if a suitable alternative could be identified to Frankford Street, then DC Prep would be open to selling this site.

The discussion clearly ignited the passion of board member Naomi Shelton. She pointed out that all charter operators are aware of the difficulties around finding space. But what she expressed she will not tolerate is the battle between adults over where schools should be located. Ms. Shelton decried the acrimony leveled against charters that are doing their best to close the academic achievement gap and yet she also chided institutions that fail to engage neighbors from the beginning in a respectful dialog about their plans. She pointed out that for years public officials in D.C. have been bystanders to a political problem over empty DCPS buildings that should be utilized for schools and under-enrolled classrooms that are ripe for co-location. Ms. Shelton concluded her remarks by urging all of the parties involved in this controversy to bring their case together as a group to the very politicians, such as D.C.’s Deputy Mayor of Education, that are standing in the way of a resolution.

There was one bit of business on this evening that was remarkable for the lack of contention that it generated. As predicted, Rocketship PCS was approved to open its third campus in the Fort Totten area of the city.

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