Sparks fly at monthly meeting of D.C. charter board

Let’s get the easy stuff over with regarding agenda items on the DC Public Charter School Board’s November monthly meeting that took place last Monday. Three schools, Bridges PCS, Howard University Charter Middle School of Mathematics and Science, and Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy PCS, all received 15 year renewals of their charters. All approvals were relatively noncontroversial. However, I did make two notes. The first is that Bridges is only one of two District charters that give an admission preference to students with disabilities. The other being St. Coletta of Greater Washington PCS. My other observation is that relatively new board member Jim Sandman, who has quickly shown in only a few meetings to be taking his volunteer role in an extremely conscientious manner, is a real stickler for schools exactly meeting their Performance Management Framework targets. In other words, if the charter is supposed to be at a score of 50 percent, then it better not come in at 49. This viewpoint has proved divisive in the past, leading to schools hiring the Stephen Marcus firm to dispute the validity of the PMF in regard to their application for facilities teaching a large population of at-risk children.

Also straightforward was DC Prep PCS receiving the green light to open its Anacostia Middle School on the ground level of the Birney School Building. DC Prep’s chief operating officer Laura Maestas started the discussion with prepared remarks refuting some of the comments others made about her campuses at the October PCSB meeting. Highly impressive in her testimony was the extremely dramatic reduction DC Prep has recently experienced in its student suspension rates, something that has been a criticism of the charter in the past. She pointed out that tonight’s vote is about the move into Birney, not the property that she stated the school will buy on Frankford Street, S.E. Ms. Maestas again reiterated that the goal is to find a location going forward for Anacostia Middle other than the Frankford Street location.

Now let’s get to the most remarkable portions of this session, which as usual began with the public comments. Two individuals, one a former vice-principal and the other a parent, with other former school leaders coming up to the testimony table in support, describe concerning activity at Ingenuity Prep PCS. They claim that under CEO Will Stoetzer student behavior is out of control. Descriptions of what is taking place include kids running around hallways, leaving the school building without permission, horseplay, and even exposing their genitals. The former vice-principal stated that students have been abusing staff through violent acts including stabbings. She asserted that she has heard children say that they want to kill themselves and die. The parent described teachers verbally abusing and bullying students. The cause of these problems, according to the former vice-principal, is inappropriate inclusion of special education children without proper teacher training and supervision. It is all difficult to believe and my hope is that the board will bring representatives of Ingenuity Prep to the December meeting to provide an explanation of these claims.

Next up was Rocketship PCS for a discussion around the attempted kidnapping of two students by a registered sex offender revealed by the parent of these children at the October PCSB meeting. If you want to see how a school should not respond when faced with an extremely serious incident, then please watch the presentation by representatives of this school. It was a train wreck. The staff was defensive and appeared to want to blame others for the event. Just to give you a sense of the misguided approach consider the words of the first speaker, regional director Joyanna Smith. She described dropping her son off at a charter school where her identification is never checked because they know her. She concluded her statement by admonishing the board not to prevent Rocketship from opening its third campus because of this occurrence. The testimony seemed to be a non-sequitur to the extremely serious nature of the crime, and appeared strange coming from someone who used to be the Ombudsman for Public Education in the city.

The board was having none of this line of reasoning and asked many probing questions regarding the chronology of events. The members from Rocketship did admit that they did not follow their own communication procedure that resulted in others learning of the incident nearly three weeks after it occurred and at the PCSB October meeting. Vice chair Saba Bireda summed up the impression that the school gave by remarking that “my confidence is severely shaken with your organization.” The end result, Ms. Bireda detailed, will be a list of conditions the board will add onto its approval of the third campus which will need to be met before it can be opened and other schools created.

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