Former D.C. charter board member Steve Bumbaugh’s injudicious editorial

I had the weekend to ponder Steve Bumbaugh’s polemic attack on D.C.’s charter school movement and I must admit that I am baffled. Mr. Bumbaugh described his tour of a Ward 8 charter school in 2017 when he served on the DC Public Charter School Board that left him “saddened, even defeated.” He wrote:

“When I entered the school for my scheduled visit, I was greeted by one of the founders, a 30-something man with energy and charm. He was joined by the school’s board chair, a distinguished senior partner from one of D.C.’s blue-chip law firms.”

Mr. Bumbaugh recalled he had been to this location before. “I remember visiting 25 years ago when it was part of the D.C. public school system,” he asserted. “That school was closed in 2009 — one of dozens closed in the last 15 years — and now several charter schools occupy the campus.”

From his descriptions it is clear that Mr. Bumbaugh is detailing his time at Ingenuity Prep PCS. He most certainly was hosted by then chief executive officer Aaron Cuny and board chair Peter Winick. Mr. Winick recently retired from the international law firm Latham & Watkins LLP. The charter operates out of the former PR Harris Educational Center that was closed in 2009 that also now houses a branch of the University of the District of Columbia. The National Collegiate Preparatory Academy PCS was also operating there before its charter was revoked.

I wrote last week that Mr. Bumbaugh in his piece chronicled a charter school sector I do not recognize. Now I realize that his account of the charter school is divorced from reality. I know because I too traveled to Ingenuity Prep. I interviewed Mr. Cuny almost exactly twelve months after Mr. Bumbaugh came to the facility. In his Washington Post column, as reprinted by reporter Valerie Strauss, Mr. Bumbaugh said he saw children treated as if they were incarcerated:

“I discovered that children as young as 3 years old could spend an entire day in seclusion, away from their classmates, if they were wearing the wrong color shoes. I am dumbstruck. Is this even legal?”

I spent only a short period with Mr. Cuny. But I remember coming away from my conversation astonishingly blown away by his sincere desire to provide a high quality educational option for children who had been neglected by the educational establishment. As for Mr. Winick, who I have known for years, I can tell you with absolute certainty that he cares with every part of his being for the disadvantaged children his school serves.

I am frankly trying to understand what this school did to deserve such an onslaught by Mr. Bumbaugh. Ingenuity Prep was founded by Mr. Cuny, who is no longer associated with the charter, and Mr. Will Stoetzer, the current CEO. They did not have to start the school. They had been colleagues at D.C. Bilingual PCS. Anyone who has a first-hand knowledge of what it takes to open a charter in the nation’s capital, especially in Anacostia, understands that the challenges are not for the faint of heart. It is an act of pure bravery. Here’s what I recorded back in 2018 when I spoke to Mr. Cuny:

 “’Our belief from the beginning was that all D.C. families deserve accessible, quality school options,’ the Ingenuity Prep CEO explained, ‘and for too many families, especially those in Wards 7 and 8, this opportunity does not exist. We felt a moral obligation to help build something that would give families another choice.’ Around the time that Mr. Cuny and his co-founder, Will Stoetzer, the school’s chief operating officer, were writing their charter application, the Illinois Facility Fund study was released. The report analyzed, across 39 neighborhood clusters in Washington, D.C., the gap between the density of students in those neighborhood clusters and the supply of high performing schools. Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer identified the neighborhood where there was the greatest gap between the number of students and the number of quality school seats available to families.”

Ingenuity Prep opened in 2013. Five years later the charter was posting some of the most impressive academic results in the city. Here are some examples:

  • Ingenuity Prep’s students’ combined English Language Arts and Math scores ranked in the 74th percentile of all D.C. district and public charter schools, outperforming a range of higher-income schools across the city,
  • Students’ combined scores ranked 2nd of 36 schools in the Ward 8,
  • Of D.C. schools where the tested student population had an “at-risk” (or high-poverty) rate of 50% or greater, Ingenuity Prep’s students ranked near the top: 7th of 113 schools.
  • For the second year in a row, no school in the city with a higher “at-risk” (or high-poverty) rate had better combined English Language Arts and Math scores.
  • Students’ gains from the 2016-17 school year in English Language Arts ranked at the 92nd percentile of all district and public charter schools, and
  • Of new charter organizations opened by D.C.’s public charter school board in the past 10 years, Ingenuity Prep ranks in the top 10 and is the only such school located in Southeast D.C.

I have a more fundamental issue with the comments by the former PCSB member. Mr. Bumbaugh was part of the board from 2015 to 2021. If he had such grave concerns regarding the pedagogy at Ingenuity Prep I certainly did not hear them, and keep in mind that I watch every one of the charter board’s monthly meetings. Even more bewildering is his lack of participation when a few disgruntled former employees used numerous PCSB meeting open comment periods to accuse the charter of malpractice when it came to teaching special education students.

No, I think there is something going else going on here. However, I will not speculate about Mr. Bumbaugh’s motivations. What I do know for certain is that if you want to see first-hand a charter school that has figured out how to close the academic achievement gap that has bewildered educators for decades, then get yourself over to Ingenuity Prep.

 

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