D.C. charter board proves equity has its limits when it comes to Eagle Academy PCS

When I attended the Education Forward DC event a couple of weeks ago that I recently wrote about, the organization’s new CEO Bisi Oyedele pointed out to me that in the past I used to summarize the proceedings of the DC Public Charter School Board on my blog. I told him that since the COVID pandemic the meetings have not been as interesting as in the past, but I said I would get back to this task. So to be true to my word, yesterday I watched last Monday evening’s session.

On the agenda was a vote on a charter amendment request by Eagle Academy PCS to expand on its two campuses, Congress Heights and Capital Riverfront, its offerings from the third to the fifth grade, with the fourth grade added in 2024 and the fifth grade starting in 2025. This amendment would not involve an enrollment increase. The discussion regarding this change initially occurred as part of the September monthly meeting. Here is some background around this issue.

In September 2021 the DC PCSB announced that it was pausing requests for grade expansion and new school applications for the current year and 2022. I brought this topic up in my interview with board chair Lea Crusey last July and here is what she said about the move:

“The questions around where the Performance Management Framework lands, how many tiers we end up with, the way that we define excellent schools, are at the heart of what we do.  We have a broad range of student achievement coming out of the pandemic.  We acknowledge that there are gaps around the academic offerings at different schools.  Our mission around equity means that we need to address the unique needs of all students.  We are now addressing how we approve new schools and allow others to grow in light of our revised framework of how we evaluate quality.  Simultaneously, D.C.’s population growth is uncertain.  We need to understand how these shifts are impacting the delivery of public education.”

However, despite the fact that the redesigned Performance Management Framework is still in development, charters were apparently informed that bids to add additional grades would now be entertained, with a June 1 deadline for modifications effective with the start of the 2023 to 2024 term. Eagle Academy submitted its charter amendment on June 6th, asserting that this was the due date communicated to the school.

Eagle Academy serves an extremely challenging population of students. I visited the Congress Heights campus in Anacostia six years ago and this is what I observed about the school then:

“The school founded in 2003 has always accepted students with disabilities up to Level 4, the highest category.  Services are readily available for these children.  A sensory room complete with pulleys and other gymnastic equipment allow an occupational therapist to assist with motor skills.  Speech pathologists and mental health workers share a wing of the building where they care for the 120 kids with Individual Education Plans.  Mr. Kline [the school’s principal] related that Eagle follows the inclusionary model in regard to their special education students, placing them in regular classrooms as often as possible.”

As we know, the pandemic has had terrible detrimental effects on our students, with the burden falling particularly hard on those living in poverty. Dr. Joe Smith, Eagle Academy’s CEO/CFO, pointed out to the board that parents have been requesting for years that the school expand to go up to the fifth grade. It is something he has wanted to do but COVID interrupted his plans to seek the enrollment modification. He stated that he believes in consideration of all that his families have gone through, and in light of the special needs of his pupils, he would now try to remove the requirement for a difficult transition to a new school when his kids reached the end of the third grade. However, on this night, the charter board would unanimously deny this plea, focusing on the fact that the school had missed the deadline for the charter amendment by five days. The PCSB did not explain why it entertained the request in the first place if its self-imposed time limit had been reached.

On the same night, Appletree Early Learning PCS brought a proposed charter amendment to the board to add students while staying within it already approved enrollment ceiling. This charter, like Eagle Academy, had missed the June cutoff. However, in this case the board found a workaround. According to the PCSB, “AppleTree PCS submitted its request on July 25, 2022, initially seeking approval to operate a new campus in the proposed facility beginning in SY 2023 – 24. DC PCSB staff informed the school that it was too late to seek authorization to operate a new campus in SY 2023 – 24. However, it was not too late to seek authorization to operate a new facility beginning in SY 2023 – 24. Consequently, AppleTree PCS submitted an updated facility amendment request on August 29, 2022.”

Appletree is seeking to expand into the Spring Valley section of the city. The bid is exciting, for if it is approved, it would be the first D.C. charter school ever located in Ward 3. This would be Appletree’s seventh facility, which would be considered a part of its Oklahoma Avenue N.E. campus, located 8.1 miles away from the new location.

The request, which appeared to receive positive feedback from board members, will be voted on during the November monthly meeting.

Now back to Eagle Academy and the closing words by Mr. Smith regarding his school’s amendment that was turned down:

“We are coming out of COVID and I think one of the key things we have to do is to think about what’s best for our students in terms of COVID. And I think coming out of COVID and having a chance to start working with our kids again, it’s very important for them to have stability. Their lives have been disrupted for the last two years. I have a daughter that graduated college in the middle of COVID. She got a master’s degree in the middle of COVID. So, I know how this affects even people who are adults, but children, it’s even worse. And that’s part of the reason I think my board has pressed me and why I have agreed to present this to the Public Charter School Board to see if there was some kind of way you could look at this and realize we’re not asking to add additional students. That’s not what we’re trying to do. All we want to do is to keep the students we have and grow them through grade four and grade five, and COVID is a very big pusher of us for us to go ahead and do this because these children — I understand what you’re doing and your policies, but I’m looking at the children I have in our schools, and for them, I’ve got to make a pitch and see if I can get you to see the importance of this for these kids. It’s important for them to have the stability of being in the same school with the same staff, you know, and also having the same teachers for fourth grade they had for third grade so that they can have that stability running through. So, I think that’s very critical for us and I think that’s what my board, if all of the board members were on, I think they would be saying exactly the same thing. And if you read all of the things that our parents wrote about attending the meetings, those are some of the pushes they’re giving us, that it’s very important for their kids to have additional stability beyond COVID and we can’t provide that unless you let us go to fourth grade.”

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