Testimony of Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, on charter school facilities misses main point

Last Wednesday, Scott Pearson provided the most detailed and passionate testimony before the D.C. Council of his eight and a half years as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board. The occasion was a hearing on the Master Facilities Plan, and Mr. Pearson used his opportunity to poke a huge hole in the administration of Mayor Bowser’s contention that there are only three surplus DCPS facilities that could be turned over to charter schools. From his remarks:

“We put city-owned buildings potentially available to charter schools into seven categories.
Category one is the one building that we and the city agree is vacant, and for which the city is currently seeking offers from public charter schools. This building is Ferebee Hope, a 193,000 square foot facility in Ward 8.
In category two are two buildings that we and the city agree are vacant, but for which the city says that DCPS is currently “evaluating programming” – which we fear is a euphemism for “allowing to demise.” The buildings in this category are Spingarn, a 225,000 square foot building in Ward 5, and Winston, a 138,000 square foot building in Ward 7. Both should be immediately released to public charter schools.
Category three is a building that will soon be vacant. As this council well knows, a new Banneker High School is being constructed. When it is ready in Summer, 2021, the old building will be available, 146,000 square feet in Ward 1.  The city should begin planning now to transfer this to a public charter school before the building deteriorates and requires major repairs.
Category four is a building that was wrongly removed from the list of surplus buildings. I say wrongly because it is a vacant school building highly sought-after by charter schools. Fletcher Johnson, a 302,000 square foot building in Ward 7, is instead being redeveloped by DMPED. All agree the site is large enough to accommodate both school and other uses. It is essential that the city ensure space at this redeveloped site for a public charter school.
Category five contains four DCPS buildings that in the past few years have been allowed to house other city agencies. Given our facilities shortage the city’s first priority should be to use public school buildings for public schools.  Moreover, in all of these sites, the residing city agency is not using all of the space, so if these agencies won’t move, they should at least co-locate. The four buildings are Emery in Ward Five, used for DCPS administration, Kenilworth in Ward 7, used by DPR, Malcolm X in Ward 8, used by DPR and DOES, and Wilkinson in Ward 8, used by the DC Infrastructure Academy.
Category six is a nearly empty, 100,000 square foot building owned by another agency. I’m referring to DC Public Library’s Penn Center building at 1709 3rd Street NE in Ward 5. A careful review of city buildings would likely find other such opportunities, but this one is truly low hanging fruit.
Finally, in category seven are three buildings used by DCPS for swing space – Davis, Garnet-Patterson, and Meyer. DCPS needs swing space. But from time to time these buildings are empty for a year or more, as Garnet Patterson is this year. When vacant they should be made available to charter schools for temporary, swing, or incubator use.”

The total number of buildings that should have been transferred to charter schools by law, according to Mr. Pearson, is 13. However, he neglected to mention Stevens Elementary, which adds one to the total. Finally, if we want to know the final count for how many classroom spaces Ms. Bowser could have turned over to charters, we have to include the five structures that she transferred to private developers. Now the grand total goes up to an astonishing 19 schools.

There are almost 12,000 students on charter school wait lists. There are many charters that are currently desperate for permanent facility space. When you combine these two facts that only conclusion that can be reached, sadly and unfortunately, is that Mayor Bowser does not care about our children.

Prominent members of our local charter movement have speculated as to why Ms. Boswer is skirting a legal and moral prerogative. One view is that the Mayor is holding onto these sites to purposely limit the number of students in charters so that the share of pupils attending traditional schools during her tenure does not fall under 50 percent.

Can this at all be true?

I want to conclude with a few lines from a recent analysis by David Osborne and Tressa Pankovits, both from the Progressive Policy Institute who were kind enough to spend some time on the telephone with me recently to review this data.

“The bottom line: DCPS has improved by leaps and bounds, but it has not figured out how to educate its poorest students. In contrast, many of the city’s charter schools have figured that out. The 2019 NAEP score gap between D.C.’s FRL [Free and Reduced Lunch]-eligible charter students and other charter students in eighth grade was 12 points; in fourth grade it averaged just 10 points.

The city’s annual PAARC test results confirm what we saw on the NAEP. In wards 5, 7 and 8, which have the highest concentrations of poor children, 22 of the top-performing 23 schools were charters. The one DCPS school in the top 23, McKinley Tech High School, selects its students. The charter schools vastly outperform DCPS schools in these three wards — roughly doubling DCPS’s percentage of students who score a 4 or 5 (meeting or exceeding expectations).”

If we truly care about the future of our most vulnerable kids, then the empty deteriorating surplus DCPS buildings would be immediately given to charters.

D.C. charter board extends life of schools up for review, at extremely high costs

The DC Public Charter School Board held its final monthly meeting of the year Monday evening and you could see on the faces of the members that it is time for a break. Only three of the seven made it to the session in person and one was on the telephone. In the aftermath of an exceptionally tough year that included the closure of several schools, serious concerns around student safety, controversies over permanent facilities, and the resignation of the body’s executive director, it appeared that 2019 could not come to an end sooner.

The public comment period was dominated by speakers testifying in favor of the continuance after five years of Monument Academy PCS. In fact, among the charters up for review on this night, IDEA PCS at twenty years; Kingsman Academy PCS at five years; the Children’s Guild PCS at five years; and Monument Academy PCS; all failed to reach their charter goals. Each, however, was given credit for efforts in implementing improvements over the past three years. I will not go into the details of the findings of each school individually since you can read them here. But I will give you a sense of the serious consequences these charters faced for failing to hit their targets. Please keep in mind that these are only a sample of the conditions imposed by the PCSB.


“The school must achieve a PMF score of at least 47, or at the DC PCSB Board’s discretion, a STAR rating of at least three stars, 6 for SY 2019-20, or it will close at the end of SY 2020-21.”

“IDEA PCS will decrease its maximum enrollment ceiling from 600 students to 400 students. The school may not serve additional students unless and until it returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its maximum enrollment beyond 400 students. “

Kingsman Academy PCS

“Kingsman Academy PCS will continue improving academic outcomes for its students. Failure to demonstrate continued improvement may result in a high-stakes charter review prior to the school’s scheduled 10-year charter review in SY 2024-25.”

“Kingsman Academy PCS must provide DC PCSB, by March 31, 2020, a plan to improve school completion rates or reduce dropout rates.”

Children’s Guild PCS

“Children’s Guild PCS must eliminate its eligibility to serve grades 9-12, unless and until the school returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its grade levels served beyond grade 8.”

“Children’s Guild PCS must decrease its maximum enrollment ceiling from 850 students to 450 students. The school may not serve additional students unless and until it returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its maximum enrollment beyond 450 students.”

Monument Academy PCS

“Monument Academy PCS will demonstrate improvement in the following measures: NWEA MAP Math, NWEA MAP ELA, and In-Seat Attendance. Beginning in SY 2019-20 through its ten-year review in SY 2023-24, the school must achieve at least two out of three of the following targets, or it will relinquish its charter at the end of the following school year:
i. NWEA MAP Math Growth: 50.0 or higher
ii. NWEA MAP ELA Growth: 50.0 or higher
iii. In Seat Attendance: 88.0% or higher”

You can sense that the charter board was not in a jovial mood. The somber atmosphere continued with the return of Rocketship Education DC PCS to the dais. Although representatives of the school were there to offer apologies for the incident in which two students were nearly kidnapped from its Rocketship Rise facility, there was really nothing more that needed to be said. The PCSB slapped the following requirements on the charter regarding the actions that it must complete:

“A thorough security assessment, through DC PCSB’s security consultant or other qualified security consultant approved by DC PCSB, of Rocketship PCS’s existing two DC campuses, including an assessment of all dismissal procedures. This security assessment shall be updated to also include the school’s third campus as part of the preopening requirements listed in the checklist.”

“Develop a policy or set of protocols (or provide any existing policy or set of protocols) for communicating with families, the school community, and DC PCSB following serious safety and security incidents. Such policy or set of protocols shall be consistent with those in use by DC public charter schools generally and shall be subject to the reasonable approval of DC PCSB.”

“Provide training of the type and nature in use by DC public charter schools generally for all school staff who have direct interaction with students, including staff in the aftercare program, around student safety and security, risk assessment, dismissal procedures, and the school’s communication protocols.”

“As necessary based on the above actions and consistent with similar protocols in use by other DC charter schools generally, submit to DC PCSB a revised set of 1) its safety and security protocols, and 2) its communication protocols, both for internal communication among school personnel, and for external communication with parents, the school community, and DC PCSB.”

“Undergo ongoing scheduled, or as deemed reasonably necessary, unscheduled monitoring visits from DC PCSB at the school and the aftercare program to assess safety and security, as well as to determine the extent of completion of the above actions. Any written concerns identified during such visits shall be discussed with the Rocketship PCS and addressed by the school within the timeframes mutually determined by DC PCSB and Rocketship PCS.”

“At such times as may be reasonably requested by DC PCSB, appear before the DC PCSB Board to discuss the progress to date made by Rocketship PCS in completing the above actions to the satisfaction of DC PCSB.”

It was now time for everyone to go home.

Latest D.C. Mayoral plan to keep closed traditional school buildings away from charters: open early-childhood centers

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed on Friday that next fall the former DCPS Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School will become an early-childhood center teaching approximately 30 kids from age birth to three years old. Bright Beginnings, a nonprofit company described by Ms. Stein as experienced in working with homeless children, will manage the program. From the organization’s website:

“Bright Beginnings was established in 1990 by the Junior League of Washington to provide quality childcare to families experiencing homelessness in Washington, DC. For over 29 years, Bright Beginnings has helped thousands of children experiencing homelessness by providing them and their families with quality care and support during times of hardship and transition. In 2014, Bright Beginnings pioneered the first home-based program in the country with the sole focus of supporting families impacted by the trauma of homelessness. Through programs such as this, Bright Beginnings staff have provided hundreds of Washingtonians living in shelters and transitional housing with important high-quality family and educational support.”

The location, according to Ms. Stein, will also include a preschool program for about 100 three and four-year olds that DCPS will administer.

The Steven School was closed more than a decade ago due to low attendance. This is the third plan for the site, which should have been turned over to charter schools in 2008 as a surplus property. Although the city has a plethora of under-enrolled schools that can be utilized if needed to create early-childhood centers, it appears the strategy now is to convert other vacant buildings for this purpose, slamming the door on charters who desperately need these properties. From the article:

“While the stand-alone early-childhood center will be novel, the city already has three infant and early-toddler centers at existing elementary schools. The idea with those existing centers is that children can attend the same school for the first decade of their lives. United Planning Organization — a community agency founded in 1962 to bring programs to the District’s low-income residents — operates those early-childhood centers.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said stand-alone campuses such as Stevens can offer more slots than co-located programs by having a campus solely dedicated to the city’s youngest learners. The stand-alone campuses can also provide professional development opportunities for preschool teachers.”

Ms. Stein announced the charter school facility blockade campaign as part of her reporting:

“The Bowser administration said it has dedicated $52 million to create similar stand-alone childhood facilities at three other closed schools. Next up: The city is in the early stages of transforming the former Marshall Elementary School in Northeast Washington into an early-childhood center.”

Steven has an fascinating history. According to the National Park Service:

“Named for  Pennsylvania Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, the four-story brick school was built in 1868 for Black students. The emancipation of slaves in 1863 and the abolition of slavery in 1865 resulted in huge numbers of freed African Americans in need of basic services such as education. The Stevens school was built to accommodate this influx of students in a racially segregated city.”

The Washington Post editorial writer Colbert King attended Stevens when he was growing up. It’s now almost exactly 20 years since he and I sat in his newspaper’s conference room to discuss providing school choice to our city’s children. Mr. King is a brave man. He is just the individual to make a strong argument in his newspaper that the failure of our Mayor to follow the law regarding turning shuttered DCPS buildings over to charters is doing an injustice to our children. It is also not right.

Josh Kern should replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

Now that Scott Pearson has resigned his position as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and will leave his office at the end of May, it is time to speculate as to who will replace him. There really is no choice. Josh Kern, the current founder and managing member of TenSquare, should take Mr. Pearson’s place.

I know there has been a lot of controversy drummed up against Mr. Kern and his organization by people who don’t like charter schools. But think about it, is there anyone out there more qualified for this job? The answer is a resounding no.

As a reminder, Mr. Kern was the co-founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, one of the city’s premier high schools that since its start has been closing the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. When Josephine Baker retired as the PCSB executive director, Mr. Kern was a leading candidate to assume her role.

When the entire city expected Options PCS to close due to severe financial improprieties by the school’s management, Mr. Kern spent day and night protecting the severely emotionally and physically disabled children who attended this charter as if these kids were his own as the court appointed receiver. It was one of the most heroic acts I have ever personally witnessed. His team recently helped steer Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy through an exceptionally challenging turnaround situation.

Mr. Kern’s firm TenSquare is improving the academic performance and management of low-performing charter schools in D.C. and across the country. He knows every aspect of charter performance from selecting strong school leaders, to implementing curriculum and running a business office. His firm has also been successful in identifying and securing permanent facilities. Here is just one highlight of his team’s efforts from my interview with Mr. Kern in 2018:

“The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.”

Although detractors will claim that there will be a conflict of interest between Mr. Kern’s work at TenSquare and that of the charter board, there are steps that can be taken to create a clear separation between the two bodies. The TenSquare founder would simply have to end his association with the consulting body.

I am sure that people out there are saying that there are other qualified candidates that would come to this position without the questions that would surround the selection of Mr. Kern. But on the other hand, there is no one else would fight with every ounce of energy in his body for charters in the nation’s capital.

The choice is simple.

Mundo Verde PCS about to ratify first D.C. charter school union contract

A few weeks ago, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported that Mundo Verde PCS is about to have the city’s first charter school collective bargaining agreement with its employees.

“Teachers, staff and management at one campus of the Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in D.C. have agreed on a tentative union contract, putting the popular school a vote away from becoming the first charter school in the city’s history to unionize.”

I have written hundreds of words about the efforts of DC ACTs, the union associated with the American Federation of Teachers to infiltrate Paul PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS, and now Mundo Verde.  There is really not much more to say about the move.  However, one paragraph in Mr. Austermuhle’s story grabbed my attention.

“’Mundo Verde has a really big commitment to social justice and equity, and we teach that to our students. The conversation about how do we provide teachers with more resources, and how do we give teachers and educators a voice is not a new one. There were a lot of spaces for us to share these feelings with leadership of the school, but it felt like it was time to do something more formal,’ said Andrea Molina, a kindergarten teacher and member of the bargaining unit.”

My contention is that if the employees of the charter were really serious about social justice and equity they would not be placing a union between the working relationship of school leadership and the teachers. The worst thing that could happen is that each and every move that a charter needs to make must be negotiated every two to three years. This is what I explained in my conversation with Mr. Austermuhle regarding his article:

“’I think it’s a terrible development, and overall it will hurt our charter school movement,’ said Mark Lerner, an education writer who also served in leadership positions of various charter schools. ‘[Charter schools] need to be able to react quickly, and if you have to work through a collective bargaining agreement, you can’t make changes quickly. If unions were widespread throughout the charter movement, they would look more and more like DCPS schools where it’s difficult to fire teachers, change curriculum, or change times.’”

In the last sentence I was referring to the opening and dismissal times established by schools.

It now appears that the nature of charters and traditional schools are becoming mirrors of each other. Just last week DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee revealed his desire to close Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative high school located near Howard University. The campus, according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, has been characterized by “declining enrollment, poor attendance and lackluster academic results.”

Ms. Stein went on to detail that Washington Met is one of four alternative high schools, known as Opportunity Academies, operating under DCPS, although this is the only one that has a middle school. It opened in 2008 and has about 150 students. The school relocated to its current site in 2016. If Mayor Bowser approves of Mr. Ferebee’s recommendation, it would close at the end of the 2019-to-2020 academic year. The timing of his request is centered around the start of the upcoming MySchool DC lottery.

By the way, DCPS has apparently already said that if this school is closed the system will hold on to the building. Another structure about to be denied for use by charters desperate for permanent facilities.

The Washington Post reporter stated that the last time a DCPS school was shuttered was in 2013. If more of the low academic performing neighborhood schools are closed, and additional charters become unionized, we will begin to see the merging of the two sectors that many in the collaboration movement have been calling on for years.

After all why does there need to be charters if DCPS is playing their role in closing lackluster schools and charters operate in the same manner as the regular ones? It could mean the end of competition for students. I’ve never been more concerned.

Exclusive Interview with Lauren Maestas, CEO DC Prep PCS

I had the great pleasure of sitting down recently for a conversation with Lauren Maestas, the chief executive officer of DC Prep Public Charter School.  Ms. Maestas had just completed her one-year anniversary on November 5th of her promotion to CEO after serving as the school’s chief talent officer for the previous two and a half years.  Her professional background is fascinating.

Ms. Maestas obtained her law degree at New York University.  Before and after this achievement she worked for McKinsey and Company in a consulting role.  It was six months into her second stint with the firm that Ms. Maestas had an opportunity to join a project for an urban school district.  During this engagement, she recognized the importance of quality public education in a country where too few board rooms include people of color.  She also realized that she wanted human capital work to become the focus of her career.

Her next position was with the New York City Department of Education as the director of school leadership.  The job appealed to her because of the innovative work the NYCDOE was doing under Chancellor Klein’s leadership.  However, her timing was not good.  Joel Klein resigned as Chancellor shortly after she joined, and people started leaving the agency. 

While she was with McKinsey her co-worker and mentor Byron Auguste, husband of Monument Academy PCS’s founder and board member Emily Bloomfield, pointed Ms. Maestas to Uncommon Schools, a charter management organization that now operates 54 schools serving 20,000 students across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, Rochester and Troy, New York.  She was able to land employment with them, becoming their chief talent officer a year later.  She worked with the CMO for four years in New York City. 

Ms. Maestas’ husband then accepted a new job in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and so Ms. Maestas left Uncommon Schools and went to work for Transcend Education, a nonprofit that helps develop new school models that prepare all students to succeed in the 21st century.  But Ms. Maestas was working at home in a city she with which she was unfamiliar, and this fact combined with her personality trait as an introvert convinced her that she needed to be doing something else. It was Maura Marino, the co-founder and CEO of Education Forward, who introduced her to DC Prep.  It was then that she became the charter’s chief talent officer.

I asked the DC Prep CEO what it was like working under DC Prep founder and former CEO Emily Lawson.  She answered as soon as the words escaped my mouth.  “Emily is really amazing,” Ms. Maestas explained.  “She is smart and has a really good heart.  Emily believes wholeheartedly in the mission.  She is always thinking ‘what’s the next step, what’s the next step.’  She has built an excellent team and outstanding board.  Everything she does is in the interest of the students.”

Ms. Maestas related that D.C. Prep currently teaches over 2,000 pupils across five campuses in Wards 5, 7, and 8.  All of these schools are ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.  I wanted to know what makes DC Prep successful.  Again, Ms. Maestas responded without hesitation.  “The staff is extremely passionate about our purpose,” the DC Prep CEO commented. “I am surrounded by some really smart individuals.  We get results together.  Our time here is all about the kids and the values that we share.  This is really about the people doing the work.”

Of course, Ms. Maestas is not the first person to succeed Emily Lawson as head of DC Prep.  Current DC Public Charter School Board chair Rick Cruz tried it years ago.  It was not successful.  I asked Ms. Maestas why her tenure will have a different outcome.  “There is a tremendous difference between the two situations,” Ms. Maestas asserted.  “Rick came in from the outside so that is a difficult circumstance.  I had already been a part of DC Prep for a couple of years.  I had experience partnering with the other members of our senior team.  I played a role in establishing the goals that we are now striving to implement.  I was a part of the process.”

We then began a discussion about the specific objectives Ms. Maestas has for DC Prep.  She detailed three.  “First,” according to the head of DC Prep, “we want to make sure we are serving all students.  Toward this aim we want all of our campuses to score as Tier 1 on the PMF.  Second, we are thinking about how to continue to refine our approach so that we can enable our students to achieve even more in the future.  To accomplish this goal we have embarked on a five-year strategic planning process, where we are thinking about how to make changes in our program model to better serve students and how we can be the best place for great people to work.  Our third priority is to open Anacostia Middle Campus, to ensure that our Anacostia Elementary Campus students can attend a DC Prep school through the eighth grade.”

One area that Ms. Maestas does not want to concentrate on is growth of her charter management organization beyond Anacostia Middle School.  “We had students coming to our campuses in Wards 5 and 7 from Anacostia,” Ms. Maestas informed me.  “Therefore, we wanted to open in Ward 8 to serve these children closer to where they live.  We currently have 560 Ward 8 students enrolled in a DC Prep school.  Our pattern is to create elementary and middle schools in close proximity to each other.  We searched for a building beginning in 2014 in Anacostia that would hold both schools, but due to historic preservation requirements we could not find one.   At first we opened our elementary school in trailers behind the Big Chair and operated there for two years.  However three years ago we purchased a former Catholic school on V Street, Southeast.  We renovated the space and moved in at the start of the 2017-to-2018 term.” 

Ms. Maestas continued: “We are opening up a grade a year at Anacostia Elementary and we are up to third grade at the current campus.  Our middle schools start at the fourth grade.  We signed a two-year lease through Building Pathways for the ground floor that Excel Academy is not using in the Birney Building, and there is enough room for us to go through the fifth grade in this area.  Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

According to Ms. Maestas, while all of this was going on a property went up for sale on Frankford Street Southeast.  She said it met their requirements for the middle school in that there is sufficient space for a school building, it is located within a mile of the elementary school, and the price is something DC Prep can afford.  There were other prospective buyers, so they put down a refundable deposit in August which gave them 60 days to conduct diligence on the site. 

Ms. Maestas acknowledges that the last few months have been challenging.  “Summer is our busiest time,” the DC Prep CEO informed me. “We were closing out one school year, while getting ready for the next.  Raymond Weedon, who had been our senior director of policy and community engagement, transitioned to become executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS in July.  We put down a deposit on the Frankford Street site in August, while in parallel we were working to welcome back our teachers.  On August 14,th I reached out to ANC 8B Commissioner Darrell Gaston.  We held a community meeting on August 22nd to share information about DC Prep’s interest in the Frankford Street site with the Fort Stanton community.  I have been in touch with Commissioner Gaston on a weekly basis to update him on our diligence process and answer his questions since that time.  I also asked to present to ANC 8B, which I did in October.  I see now that I should’ve found a way to do more outreach directly to members of the Fort Stanton community, rather than focusing on ANC forums.” 

According to Ms. Maestas, the DC Prep team is working hard to invest in direct community engagement in connection with the purchase of the parcel on Frankford Street.  “Now that we have hired a chief of staff, we have more bandwidth to host community meetings.  We have bi-monthly meetings on the calendar through the end of the year, and will do a similar cadence in 2020.  We hope these sessions will allow us to answer any questions that members of the Fort Stanton community have for us, and we hope that they will allow us to join forces to seek a permanent location that meets our students’ needs while also not requiring that we build on Frankford Street,”  Ms. Maestas was quick to point out that, “if we can find a different solution as to where to place our middle school I would take it.  We are going to try to collect signatures on a petition, which we hope to present to city officials to ask their help in identifying under-utilized city-owned facilities that could be Anacostia Middle School’s permanent home.  I will bring members of the neighborhood to join me if they wish.  Our consistent aim is to serve the Ward 8 community in the best way possible with a strong emphasis on collaboration.”