D.C. charter school movement shows signs of renewal

Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting at one o’clock p.m. instead of in the evening. That is far from the perfect time to ensure maximum public participation. But it is summer and there was only one item on the agenda. The board considered allowing the See Forever Foundation, the organization that currently operates two campuses of the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools, to open a second high school at the D.C. jail.

The charter amendment request provided an excellent opportunity to hear from the school’s new chief executive officer Clarisse Mendoza Davis. She was so articulate and positive in her remarks that if you are having a bad day I highly recommend watching this hearing so that your frame of mind can be flipped in the completely opposite direction. Ms. Davis spoke passionately about literally meeting these students where they are, including having her staff figure out how to teach young people who are in solitary confinement and permitted only an hour a day to leave their cells. After her presentation, the board quickly and unanimously approved the request.

The opportunity for Maya Angelou came because the D.C. jail’s contract with DCPS to provide instruction to inmates through its Inspiring Youth Program concludes at the end of September. The Department of Corrections then contacted Maya Angelou PCS to see if it would provide the service. It is fascinating to me that the D.C. government reached out to a charter. If it can do it in this instance, then I do not see why it cannot do the same regarding replacing all of the failing traditional schools that are doing a disservice to our children with charters.

The other positive development on Monday was that the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews wrote a glowing column regarding the work of my friend Susan Schaeffler, the CEO of KIPP DC PCS. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of Ms. Schaeffler opening her first campus in a church basement to teach low income kids. Mr. Mathew remarked:

“As the chief executive of KIPP DC, she now leads 20 schools with 7,300 students from preschool through high school. That is 7 percent of the D.C. public school population. Her team has established high standards for learning that have drawn strong support from D.C. families, while evolving from a focus on just college to a promise to help students achieve successful careers — what KIPP calls “choice-filled lives”— by whatever paths they select.”

I first met Susan and KIPP DC’s president Allison Fansler years ago at one of Fight for Children’s Fight Night charity galas. I’m sure they were invited due to their close relationship with Michela English, then the president and CEO of Fight for Children. I was chairman of the Washington Latin PCS board and invited Susan to become one of our trustees. Washington Latin was sometimes criticized for being a school for affluent families which was not true. In fact, it had one of the most diverse student bodies I had ever seen for a charter. I wanted to do something tangible to demonstrate that we were dedicated to instructing all children in the city. Susan agreed to join us and despite her incredibly busy schedule she attended our meetings and made many strong contributions to our institution. When it became clear that her day job and family commitments were just too much to serve formally at Latin she became a trusted advisor to head of school Martha Cutts until she retired from leading the charter.

Yesterday was a great day.

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