D.C. charter board holds spectacular virtual monthly public meeting

The DC Public Charter School Board, in the face of preventing the spread of COVID-19, delayed its March monthly meeting by a week so that it could coordinate holding its next session using the application Zoom with participants connecting by computer over the internet from different physical locations. The result was nothing less than perfection in the midst of a devastating public health crisis. Executive director Scott Pearson started off the agenda by explaining the PCSB’s six goals during this highly unusual period. They are:

  • Supporting our schools in any way we can by sharing individual campus experiences,
  • Recognizing that the accountability structure will change due to students not taking standardized tests this year with direct consequences on the calculation of the Performance Management Framework,
  • Collaborating as good partners across city agencies and organizations,
  • Effectively overseeing distance learning,
  • Enabling the board to do its work successfully, and
  • Openly communicating to schools and families.

Chairman Rick Cruz then ran a highly structured public comment period in which approximately a dozen people testified. I liked it a lot. Because people had to sign up ahead of time, I could learn the names of each individual speaking. The sound was clearer than in any previous gathering. You could easily see who was speaking. Perhaps we have all learned something from this exercise.

The evening also provided a shocking development in the form of an amendment request from Achievement Prep PCS. We were all prepared to hear the school argue that it should be allowed to pursue its plan of turning its middle school over to Friendship PCS and then reconstitute grades four through eight in coming years. However on March 2nd, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn sent a letter to the charter explaining that by transitioning its students to Friendship and excluding other pupils from a chance to enroll, it was violating the law by not allowing fair and equal access to a lottery. He claimed that over a thousand children would like to gain admission to a Friendship middle school and therefore the process being followed here was illegal.

The letter, according to chair Jason Andrean and founder and CEO Shantelle Wright, had a stunning impact on the Achievement Prep board. Priding itself on providing opportunities for under-served low-income minority students, it did not want to have anything to do with the accusations made by Mr. Kihn. The school called off the deal with Friendship, sending about 355 students scrambling to find a seat for next year. Participation in the My DC School common lottery closed on the day the Deputy Mayor sent his letter to Achievement Prep.

The charter board appeared extremely frustrated by this turn of events. After all, isn’t this how it has conducted takeovers of academically poor performing charters for years? A school closes and its enrollment is incorporated by the new operator. The difference in this instance appears to be that Friendship was not taking over the charter of Achievement Prep together with its assets, only one of its campuses.

The members of the PCSB were not happy and wondered why Mr. Kihn had not brought up this issue earlier. The question of charter school autonomy was raised. Taking advantage of the chat feature of the software platform we were on, some in the audience asserted that Achievement Prep should have stuck with its original plan.

The whole thing reminded me of the meeting last January when Mayor Muriel Bowser showed up to assert her control over the charter sector.

The charter amendment will be voted on next month.

Next, Paul PCS was up for its 20-year review. Here again the proceedings did not go as anticipated. The school has a Tier 1 ranked high school but its middle school campus has not been able to reach its goal of 50 percent on the PMF during the five year review period. The board was ready to pull the trigger on its usual draconian conditions that the school would have to meet or face closure of this campus. However, things are not as they used to be and the school pointed out, with the assistance of attorney Stephen Marcus, that in the absence of PARCC testing and therefore most likely an omitted PMF ranking for this year, the academic scoring requirements placed on the school that would be effective beginning now are moot.

The charter board did admit that it will be drafting a policy in April dealing with school accountability in the absence of standardized testing as Mr. Pearson alluded to earlier. The decision was then made to delay a decision regarding Paul until this new path forward is developed.

It was an extremely busy few hours for Mr. Marcus as his firm also represented Achievement Prep.

Almost as an afterthought after some captivating discussions, it was time to learn the charter applications that would be approved for opening in the 2021-to-2022 school term. Only one of the four bids, that of Global Citizens PCS, was given the green light. You know that the world has truly changed when only fifty percent of the schools backed by CityBridge Education are given the go-ahead.

Let’s sincerely hope that everything gets back to normal soon.

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