D.C. charter board bids adieu to executive director Scott Pearson with total class

When I reviewed the agenda for Monday evening’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, I remember thinking that the session was a waste of time. The items for discussion were so few that I thought the authorizer should take the night off. But then I tuned in and quickly realized why this gathering was taking place.

It turned out that the PCSB had put together a highly organized celebration of the eight and a half years that Scott Pearson has held the role of executive director. On Zoom, speaker after speaker, over a span of about an hour and 10 minutes, sung Mr. Pearson’s praises about his achievements. The list of participants perfectly represented the history of the spectacular success of charter schools in the nation’s capital. Mr. Pearson observed the event with his wife sitting closely on one side of him and his daughter on the other. Allow me to list the speakers in order of appearance so you get an idea of the magnitude of this endeavor:

Rick Cruz, PCSB chair; Saba Bireda, PCSB vice chair; Steve Bumbaugh, PCSB board member; Lea Crusey, PCSB board member; Naomi Shelton, PCSB board member; Jim Sandman, PCSB board member; Sara Mead, former PCSB board member; Skip McKoy, former PCSB chair; Don Soifer, former PCSB board member; Shannon Hodge, DC Charter School Alliance executive director; Maya Martin, PAVE founder and executive director; Terry Golden, KIPP DC PCS chair; Jack Patterson, KIPP DC chief community engagement and growth officer; Abigail Smith, former DC Deputy Mayor for Education and E.L Haynes PCS chair; Erika Bryant, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS executive director; Laura Maestas, DC Prep PCS chief executive officer; Daniela Anello, DC Bilingual PCS head of school; and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, former PCSB deputy director.

All of the speeches powerfully and meticulously detailed the contributions Mr. Pearson has made to the education of all children in the District of Columbia. However, as with many board meetings, it was Mr. Sandman who I believe best summarized the reasons many are deeply disappointed that there is a change in leadership at the PCSB. He stated that Mr. Pearson had four main accomplishments. Mr. Sandman recognized the former executive director for his single minded focus on school quality, his implementation of measures of quality and policies around the PCSB’s work, the recruitment of world-class staff, and his personal integrity.

Once Ms. DeVeaux concluded her remarks, which, despite a heroic effort she could not get though without crying, it was Mr. Pearson’s turn to address the audience. He and his wife followed in the former PCSB deputy director’s footsteps in that I could see tears streaming down their faces. Mr. Person’s words should stand as a permanent testament to the meaning of charter schools in the United States of America:

“’This job has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.

I’ve said many times that this job has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.  So, this moment is very emotional for me.

Public charter schools have always been about empowering people to create great schools that meet the needs of families.   Is there anything more inspiring than this? The unlocking of human potential is the greatest work any of us can engage in. In public charter schools we have found a new way to achieve this, at every level, from the students we serve to the 600 school board members who are now engaged in supporting public education in Washington, DC.

Public charter schools have always been about both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  The what, of course, is creating excellent and unique schools, schools who allow families to find a school that is the right fit for them, who innovate to produce better and more equitable results, and who transform communities.  But the ‘how’ is just as important. Public charter schools allow extraordinary individuals – many of whom would never dream of working in a large education bureaucracy – to participate in the great civic endeavor of public education.  A good authorizer, through a focus on outcomes paired with maximum freedom for how those outcomes are achieved, allows innovation, diversity, choice, and excellence to thrive in public education.

That has always been the promise of public charter schools.  But when we look around the country, we see that promise has too often been unfulfilled: schools underperform, they find ways to be selective, they steal money, they fail to serve all students.  And often, the underlying cause of this failure is an authorizer who is too lax on quality, who deprives schools of essential freedoms, who ignores proper oversight. 

When I accepted this job I was determined to lead an authorizer that allowed public charter schools to fulfill their promise – who found ways to respect school autonomy while ensuring proper oversight, and who found ways to show that public charter schools can be a constructive and collaborative part of civic life.  

I believe that, for the most part, we’ve succeeded.  By almost every measurable dimension our schools have become higher quality and more equitable over the past eight years.  We’ve deepened our collaboration with DC Public Schools, launching a common lottery, a citywide enrollment fair and a citywide recruiting fair.  We’ve gone from ignoring city agencies to engaging deeply with them, working together on more than thirty task forces and working groups.  In the process, we’ve helped make our city stronger and better able to serve all of its residents.

With that said, there is much more to be done.  We’ve narrowed the Achievement Gap, but it remains far too large.  Our work has always been premised on the firm belief that Black Lives Matter, but we still have so far to go to make that aspiration a reality.  Part of my decision to step down was a recognition that maybe I’ve carried things forward as far as I am able, and what is needed are new perspectives, new ideas, and new energy to sustain our progress.  In Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis I believe our board has found a leader to do just that.  

Of course, I planned to step down long before coronavirus.  With the pandemic the challenges before the DC Public Charter School Board have doubled, as they have for our schools and virtually every other institution across the globe.  The savage inequities in who is affected and who is dying of the virus only reinforce our obligation to offer schools that are both equitable and excellent. 

I leave this job with much gratitude, starting with my deepest thanks to you, our volunteer board members who have given so much to our community and to me.  I’m particularly grateful to the board chairs I’ve served under, Rick Cruz, Darren Woodruff, John ‘Skip’ McKoy and Brian Jones, each of whom has been an invaluable source of support, of helpful criticism, and of the kind of thought partnership essential to reaching good decisions.

I’m grateful to our school leaders, staff, and their boards.  They are the ones really doing the hard work every day.  They, more than anyone, have been the source of inspiration and energy to me.  I made it a practice to start many of my workdays with a school visit, and the joy from those visits powered me for the rest of the day. 

I also want to thank the city leadership, including Mayor Bowser and before her Mayor Gray, and the City Council, particularly Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Education Committee Chair David Grosso.  We haven’t agreed on everything, but their core support for our schools and their funding has been invaluable.  And our progress wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership of Hanseul Kang at OSSE, the leadership at DCPS, including Kaya Henderson and Lewis Ferebee, and at the Deputy Mayor for Education, particularly Abby Smith, Jennie Niles, and Paul Kihn.

Finally, I want to thank our staff.  I have grown so much in the past eight years, as a leader and as a person.  And much of that growth has been because of you.  Your feedback wasn’t always easy to hear, but it was a gift.  I have truly loved the opportunity to work with you, such a smart and committed and talented group.  Most of all I want to thank our senior team, Lenora, Tomeika, Rashida, and Sarah – and from the past, Clara, Theola, Nicole and Naomi – this job has truly been a team effort.  I thank you for your wisdom, your friendship, your high standards, your excellent work, your willingness to tell me when I’m wrong, and, most of all your ability to make me laugh.  Without you, this job may have been impossible, and it certainly would have been a lot less fun.

I have to admit I feel a little guilty stepping aside in this moment of crisis, but I leave optimistic in the future, with confidence in this board, in the DC PCSB staff, and in Dr. Walker-Davis.  I pledge to stay engaged on behalf of public charter schools and to support you in any way I can.”

It was a truly spectacular event. 

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