Failure is not an option when it comes to educating D.C. students

I learned a few things from reviewing the testimony of Shannon Hodge and Dr. Ramona Edelin offered at yesterday’s D.C. Council Hearing on the Budget before the Committee on Education and the Committee of the Whole. First, I observed that the city is willing to consider a charter school co-location at the closed Spingarn High School. It’s not much of a concession as the entire building should have been turned over to charters. I guess its 225,000 square feet is even too much for DCPS to handle.

I was extremely satisfied to see, as indicated by Ms. Hodge, that the 2.2 percent increase in the charter school facility allotment has made it into Mayor Muriel Bowser’s revised fiscal year 2021 budget. I previously reported that she had pushed for a three percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which was a decrease of one percent from her original plan, but there was no mention of the revenue for buildings. I also discovered that the Council may push to restore the entire four percent jump in the UPSFF.

Moreover, Ms. Hodge pointed out that a regulatory change by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had the effect of lowering alternative education dollars for many schools “serving adults and disconnected youth” by twenty percent. She called on the money to be restored at a time when this type of education has become even more crucial in a tenuous economy.

Lastly, the structure of the new DC Charter School Alliance is beginning to become fleshed out. Dr. Edelin revealed that she will become a senior advisor to the group. In her remarks, Ms. Hodge filled in her new role as the Alliance’s executive director:

“As I look ahead to my new position, I want to pledge today my commitment to use my leadership in this newly created organization as a willing partner. A partner with whom you can always reach out to for advice and with whom you can work. A partner who will praise and criticize when necessary but who will also work alongside you to find solutions to overcome, not just close, the opportunity gaps for students who need it most. It is a partnership that must succeed, as failure is a cost that is too high a price for our students, our families, our communities, and our city to pay.”

These comments are important because so far we have not lived up to the underling commitment of public school reform made over twenty years ago in the nation’s capital that any student that needed a quality seat would get one. Instead what we have are wait lists as long as the eye can see for families trying to get their children into high-performing charters and an academic achievement gap that is one of the largest in the country that will not budge.

I’m hoping with every cell in my body that when we finally emerge from the deep fog of the pandemic and racial strife that these are not just words.

Kingsman Academy PCS’s Shannon Hodge to lead new D.C. charter advocacy group

Yesterday afternoon it was announced that Shannon Hodge, the co-founcer and executive director of Kingsman Acadamy PCS, will be the first executive director of the new DC Charter School Alliance, the new advocacy group formed by the merger of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

The group could not have made a better choice.

Board chair of the Alliance, Friendship PCS CEO Patricia Brantley wrote regarding the decision, “As many of you know, Shannon was selected after an exhaustive national search. We are thankful to each of you who supported the search, provided feedback on what our organization needed in a leader, and/or participated in screening interviews. In the coming weeks, we will share more news about the new organization, including introducing our board of directors, policy priorities, and more.”

About Ms. Hodge, Ms. Brantley commented:

“Prior to founding Kingsman, Shannon was the executive director of a DC charter school, serving students at risk of dropping out of high school. Before becoming a charter school leader, she was an attorney at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. As a lawyer, former high school counselor, and guidance director, Shannon has dedicated her career to fighting for the needs of our most underserved community members.”

She sure has. The story behind Ms. Hodge’s rise in the D.C. charter school movement should be turned into a book. It was TenSquare’s Josh Kern who hired Hogan Lovells to assist him in his work turning the old Options PCS around when he was brought in as the school’s court receiver. Ms. Hodge had prior experience assisting special education children. When Mr. Kern needed someone to take over the school, he asked Ms. Hodge if she was interested. She accepted the position.

Therefore, even though Mr. Kern was not selected as the new executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board as I had recommended, it is fantastic to see his legacy in the District expand for all to see.

Over the years I have frequently posted Ms. Hodge’s testimony in front of the D.C. Council because her arguments are consistently perfectly articulated, logical, direct, and forceful. She is always respectful and polite in her presentations. I would have published more of them but I thought it would look like I was giving her favorable treatment over other school leaders. I interviewed Ms. Hodge in 2107. Here is a portion from that session:

“In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report.  However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization.  ‘Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,’ the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately.  ‘We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.’”

This is a great day for our local charter school movement.

Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis hired to replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday afternoon that Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis will succeed Scott Pearson as its executive director beginning in July. Ms. Walker-Davis has extremely impressive credentials. She obtained two masters degree’s and a doctorate from the Teachers College, Columbia University, all centered around education leadership.

Her professional career, according to the DC PCSB’s press release, includes seven years in the District of Columbia. She worked under Mayor Anthony Williams as a senior advisor on education and as chief of strategic planning and policy for DCPS, as well as a stint in the city’s Office of Budget and Planning.

After leaving D.C., Dr. Walker-Davis spent nine years employed by the St. Paul, Minnesota Public Schools. She moved up to the chief executive officer role just under the school superintendent. Her most recent position has been as executive director of Generation Next, a policy nonprofit that attempts to close the academic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She has experience as a member of several boards of directors.

Both the DC PCSB and the Washington Post’s Perry Stein remark that Ms. Walker-Davis is “a first-generation African-American of Caribbean descent.” Ms. Stein has added that Dr. Walker-Davis has young children who she has entered into the My School DC lottery to determine where they will be taught in the fall.

Of course, this is an exceptionally interesting time to be assuming the job. Charter school advocacy has been weak recently in our town where charters now educate 46 percent of all public school students, or 46,500 pupils. Word on the street is that a new organization that is being formed by the merging of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools is about to be announced. The FOCUS -driven funding inequity lawsuit against the Mayor is ongoing, and Ms. Bowser continues to ignore demands that she turn numerous surplus DCPS facilities over to the charter sector.

In addition, she will of course be working in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and what that means for the way that public education is delivered in the nation’s capital. Ms. Stein described the current educational landscape this way:

“But charter schools are facing increasing political resistance nationwide. In the District, the latest scores on standardized tests show the traditional D.C. public school system outperforming the city’s charter schools, although both sectors have shown slow improvements in recent years. The board approved five new charter schools to open this summer in Washington despite growing concerns about vacant seats on existing campuses in both sectors. And for the first time since D.C. charters were established in 1996, enrollment dropped in the sector this academic year after the closure of five low-performing or financially troubled campuses.”

Given this environment, Dr. Walker-Davis’s first comments about the unique position of our charters are highly discouraging:

“As a parent of school-aged children, I know from experience that most parents aren’t choosing between traditional and public charter schools,” said Dr. Walker-Davis.  “Parents  want schools that can successfully and effectively educate their children — schools that fit different learning styles, cultures, and interests.”

I will be watching closely to see if Ms. Walker-Davis is the one speaking for the board as was the case with Mr. Pearson, or if this function will revert back to the chair as it operated under Mr. Tom Nida’s leadership. This will offer direct evidence as who is setting the DC PCSB’s future direction.

Could Covid-19 be the fix to the charter school facility issue?

Now that it is abundantly clear that Mayor Muriel Bowser has no intention of transferring shuttered DCPS facilities to charter schools, a new solution is needed for identifying building in which these schools can operate. However, it appears that an old remedy is about to become much more relevant.

The last five charters that have been approved for new locations will open in commercial space. Capital Village PCS has taken over the former home of City Arts and Prep PCS, and Girls Global Academy PCS has settled into 733 8th Street, N.W., the site of the Calvary Baptist Church. Appletree Early Learning PCS will join the Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at 475 School Street, S.E. that was part of the campus of the closed Southeastern University. Finally Rocketship PCS will open in Ward 5 in a building owned by the Cafritz Foundation.

In the past it was exceptionally difficult for charters to find offices in which to locate. But now, with businesses forced to close due to the coronavirus and employees working remotely, the ecosystem has been altered.

Much is being written about how Covid-19 is making companies re-think the way its staffs work. Telecommuting is now the new normal for many individuals. The pandemic, it seems, has changed the way that business is conducted that may have a lasting effect.

The long-term impact could be a glut in office space where there once was a tight market. This should lower the square foot price of leasing and increase availability by leaps and bounds. A slower economy will decrease the costs of build outs and renovations. These trends will make it much easier for charter schools to afford these sites.

While there is a slogan that out of tragedies come opportunities, the new availability of commercial real estate for charter schools is one that I would have willingly given up.

D.C. charter schools take cash in lieu of permanent facilities

Last February, which now seems like a decade ago, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended a four percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for DCPS and charter schools in her fiscal 2021 budget. Then the coronavirus hit. At the time the city had a $1.43 billion rainy day fund saved up. Now the Bowser Administration has revealed that the economic downturn the District is currently experiencing will result in $722 million less in revenue for the 2020 fiscal year and 774 million fewer dollars next year.

With numbers such as these there was tremendous fear on the minds of public education supporters that the proposed jump in the UPSFF would be eliminated. Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her revised proposed budget for FY 2020 and the bump in the UPSFF went from four percent to three.

Charter representatives are beyond thrilled at the news. Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, exclaimed on Twitter, “To raise education funding during this time of fiscal hardship is truly heroic. Well done, @MayorBowser” Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship PCS wrote on the same platform, “‘Our public schools & our children, our teachers, everybody… we know they are going to be coming back. When they come back, we want to send a clear message that their schools are going to be ready. We are not going to take a single step back.’ Thank you @MayorBowser

In a press release dated yesterday, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools interim executive director Anne Herr commented:

“COVID-19 has put incredible pressure on the district’s budget, and we recognize that Mayor Bowser had to make tough choices this year. We applaud her for increasing education funding and investing in DC students. These investments are critical to ensure students have access to the instructional and health supports that will be necessary to have them back on track by Summer 2021. We look forward to working with the Education Committee and other members of the D.C. Council to ensure that these increases are part of the final budget so that students have what they need to thrive.” 

However, an update on finances was not the only information the Mayor shared yesterday that is of interest to our local charter school movement. She also announced several decisions regarding excess DCPS facilities. As captured by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“She plans to move the new Bard High School Early College to a permanent location in 2023 at the original Malcolm X Elementary — a shuttered campus in Southeast Washington — and allocate $80 million to the facility. The closed Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington would be home to the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. Excel Academy Public School will remain permanently at its current location at the old Birney building in Southeast Washington, which the city owns but has been leasing to charters. Bowser’s proposal would give charter school operators the option to lease the closed Wilkinson Elementary in Southeast Washington by 2024.”

Malcolm X and Springarn were two buildings charter supporters loudly and repeatedly called on Ms. Bowser to release for their use. Remember the collective disgust the sector expressed when a video of the empty and deteriorating Springarn made its appearance on social media?

If and when Wilkinson is actually turned over to charters that would make a total of two former DCPS building turned over to charters in Ms. Bowser’s two terms as chief executive. This is a horrible record.

But perhaps the bigger disappointment is what the decision regarding the Birney building means for DC Prep PCS. As you may recall, the charter has leased the ground floor of this location which it plans to use to house the fourth and fifth grade of its Anacostia Middle School. It still needs a permanent home. As detailed by DC Prep’s CEO Laura Maestas during my interview with her last December:

“Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

In 2018 Excel Academy relinquished its charter and became part of DCPS. Therefore, it really does not have the right to stay at its current location. Now it appears that DC Prep will have to go ahead and develop the property it purchased on Frankford Street, S.E., a scenario that in the past has received heavy criticism from the community. Alternately, it can once again begin the hunt for another space.

Highly discouraging is that in all the high fives delivered to the Mayor there was not a peep about the facility moves. It appears that Ms. Bowser found a perfectly effective way to silence our voices. The solution was money.

D.C. charter schools should not accept CARES Act funding

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein followed up on her original April 2nd article anticipating that D.C. charter schools may apply for federal funding aimed at aiding those who have not been receiving a paycheck due to business interruptions around the Covid-19 virus. At the time I made the case that these schools should look to the city and nonprofits to cover additional incremental costs they may be experiencing due to this crises.

In her most recent story Ms. Stein states that Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS and Digital Pioneers PCS applied for CARE Act dollars and have received them. Both schools defended their decision to the reporter. She sought comment from Steve Hardnett, the founder and executive director of Statesman, who she wrote received a loan of $300,000:

“Hardnett had been relying on private funding until his school hits full capacity in two years. Most of his grants are set to lapse at the end of the academic year, and he had been searching for new private funding. But he says that won’t be possible now, and the federal funds will allow him to keep his staff through the summer and provide his students with extra academic services he says they will require once distance learning concludes.

‘Every dollar we find we should get into this building,’ Hardnett said.”

Digital Pioneers chief executive officer and principal Mashea Ashton justified her move to the Post this way:

“The school is concluding its second year, she said, and has high overhead costs, which private donations have enabled the school to afford. She said she spent money during the health emergency on technology and distance-learning training for her teachers.

‘If we don’t have these resources, then I would have to let go my P.E. and art teachers, and those who are not full time with us,’ she said. ‘And those positions are essential to delivering our mission.'” 

Ms. Perry revealed that DC Bilingual PCS and Paul PCS applied for the emergency financial support and did not receive it. She added that Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS have more than 500 employees and so are not eligible for the federal money. The reporter then listed a number of charters that she stated she asked as to whether they sought to participate in the program but did not respond to her inquiry.

I know that both the DC Public Charter School Board and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools have encouraged charters to submit applications doe to the added expenses they have faced and uncertainly over future income. However, let me be as clear as possible. This aid was intended to help those small businesses that are unable to meet their payroll obligations because their revenue streams have been cut off. This is not the case for charter schools. District funding has not ended.

Ms. Perry states that several companies that have been won this cash have decided to return it such as Shake Shack and Ruth Chris Steakhouse. I think charter schools should follow this example. Any assistance that our schools need during this extremely difficult period should come from our local leaders.

Pandemic points to huge gap in online learning between D.C. charters and DCPS

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein delivered some startling news the other day regarding participation rates for DCPS with distance learning in the face of the Covid-19 virus:

“The attendance records look bleak. At an elementary school in Northeast Washington, just 50 percent of fourth- and fifth-graders are logging on to watch the PowerPoints that their teacher spends hours building each weekend. A special-education teacher in Northwest Washington said she’s struggling to schedule individualized virtual meetings with her students, many of whom have working parents who do not speak English and have never before used the school system’s Microsoft platform.

Sean Perin’s fifth-grade students at Garfield Elementary in Southeast Washington have parents who report to work each day at restaurants, stores and medical facilities, leaving their children with older siblings or relatives during the day. He said he has heard that at least two of his students have lost relatives to the virus. . .

The Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed its teachers last month to determine student participation. Fifty-seven percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded — around half of the teacher workforce — said less than half of their students are participating. Teachers at more affluent and more selective schools said attendance has been strong during remote learning.”

This is not what the charter sector has found. Teaching 47 percent of all public school students in the nation’s capital, equivalent to 43,393 scholars, these schools are reaching exceptionally high numbers of those enrolled. On May 1st the DC Public Charter School Board released data regarding the number of students with whom they have not been able to communicate. Here is its conclusion:

“There are 1,334 students in the charter sector that schools have not made contact with since school buildings closed due to the pandemic, based on an analysis conducted by the DC Public Charter School Board. Of those, 119 students are special education (8.9%); and 363 of the unreachable students are adult education students.”

The overall percentage of those who have not been able to be engaged with is 3.1 percent. For special education students the proportion is 1.9 percent.

It is an astonishing accomplishment. It is especially heartwarming to go to school websites and see the resources they have assembled for parents. As an example here is one from Ingenuity Prep PCS, a preKindergarten three to seventh grade school located in the center of Ward 8:

“Ingenuity Prep is committed to supporting student learning during our school’s closure caused by the COVID-19 virus. This page will be updated regularly throughout our closure with materials and resources to support the continued academic growth and development of our students. Check back for updates and more resources. We will also be keeping in touch with our school community through our regular school messaging platform – SignalKit. Should you not find the answer to your question on here, you can: 

Email us: distancelearning@ingenuityprep.org

Call us: (202) 562-0391″

To be fair, Ms. Stein quotes DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee as claiming that “Ninety-six percent of our students have engaged in some way. . . Instead of logging into a learning session, a student may be doing virtual meetings with a counselor or a school psychologist. When we talk about engagement, we’re not just talking about teaching and learning.”

In these exceptionally challenging times I am so proud of our teachers who have adapted to this new world as the professionals that they are. They are all heroes.

More than half of all D.C. charter schools ending school year later than DCPS

Not all of D.C.’s charter schools have released their end of the school year date, however, of the 36 school that have, 55.6 percent made the call to close later than May 29th, the day that Mayor Muriel Bowser announced would be the last one for the current school year for the traditional schools. One of the largest charter networks in the city, KIPP DC, teaching 6,800 students on 18 campuses, has decided that it will continue until June 12th, offering its predominately low-income children a full additional two weeks of learning compared to DCPS.

June 12th is in fact the most popular ending date for charters. None is concluding earlier than May 29th. The most interesting decision so far is that of Paul PCS, which is ceasing on May 29 for those pupils in good academic standing. It will teach until June 18th those children that need summer school or recovery work. Some charters are going until June 19th, the original last day of this highly unusual year.

In some other news, it was announced at the first April board meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, before it was interrupted, that Scott Pearson will extend his departure date as executive director by a month, leaving at the end of June instead of May. He should probably stay in his post until August to provide a transition for the new hire. No decision on a replacement has been announced.

Also, as part of that meeting, it is now clear that there is a well-organized effort to damage the reputation of Ingenuity Prep PCS. In the public testimony part of the session nine individuals spoke against the school reading almost identical statements. Apparently, this effort is being led by some employees who had been terminated.

My wife Michele and I have been conducting remote tutoring for about a month now through the Latino Student Fund. It has been an adjustment but we feel our time is extremely valuable to the kids we are helping. The parents are exceedingly grateful for this effort. The tutoring has been extended and now will continue through the end of July. If you are interested in participating you can sign up here.

We are one step closer to all D.C. school reopening as charters

Yesterday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released the names of those who would serve on the ReOpen DC Advisory Group that is being chaired by former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. There are six co-chairpersons under them that will lead eleven Advisory Group Subcommittees. The one for Education and Childcare is getting a lot of notice.

The government co-chairman of this group is Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. He will share his duties with community co-chairman Charlene Drew Jarvis and associate committee director Rich Harrington, the associate director Mayor’s Office of Policy at DC Government. The mission of the body is as follows:

“The Committee will work across sectors to recommend strategies to close the digital divide, improve distance learning strategies, re-imagine physical learning environments, evaluate phased entry for summer learning and next school year, as well as new tools or resources needed for reopening all aspects of education in Washington, DC.”

In other words it has a say over every aspect of public education in the nation’s capital.

Most exciting is who is a part of this group and who has been left off. There are eighteen members. Of those, seven are either leaders in our local charter movement or have been tremendous supporters. These include Katherine Bradley, co-founder of CityBridge; Patricia Brantley, CEO Friendship PCS; Ricarda Ganjam, member of the DCPCSB; Sonia Gutierrez, founder of the Carlos Rosario International PCS; LaTonya Henderson, executive director of Cedar Tree Academy PCS; and Victor Reinoso, Deputy Mayor of Education under Mayor Fenty. I could also count Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, as she has worked closely with many of our charter schools.

Not named with these individuals is Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Today, the Washington City Paper’s Amanda Michelle Gomez has an article detailing Ms. Davis’ displeasure of being dissed from the list, as apparently she directly asked Ms. Bowser to be a participant.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Ms. Gomez quotes Ms. Davis as remarking about the omission.

I called recently for all D.C. schools to become charters once they are permitted to reopen in the image of what happened in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. In the piece I wrote, “In order for these facilities to be as flexible as possible, union membership by all teachers would be suspended indefinitely.” Not having the head of the local teachers’ union as part of the ReOpen DC Advisory Group is a fantastic first step in this direction.

The City Paper reporter also notes that there are no teachers and principals as part of the new organization.

It is possible for some very good things to come out of tragedy. We have the opportunity to do something great here. I have pointed out the terrible societal cost of our stubborn 60-point academic achievement gap. Now for the health and safety of all of those living in the District, let’s take this moment to hammer it closed once and for all.

High COVID-19 death rate in D.C.’s Wards 5, 7 and 8 was predictable, just look at academic achievement gap

Fully eighty percent of those who have passed away from the Coronavirus in the District of Columbia are black. Almost all of these cases involve individuals who live in Wards 5, 7, and 8, the poorest areas of the city.

The news has been flooded with stories explaining that those with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to passing away from the disease. Medical experts and social scientists have also known for years that when people live in poverty their environment is characterized by negative social determinants of health that lead to the chronic illnesses that are now contributing to the demise of these individuals. Adverse Childhood Events also plague this population, and having a high number of ACE’s has been shown to be a precursor to the development of serious maladies.

It is all one horrific circle, one that starts from the time kids come onto this Earth. Perhaps the first real indicator of the problem is the three-year-old boys and girls that come into our schools already academically behind. The gap in knowledge between white students and minority pupils in the nation’s capital is 60 points. It is perhaps the largest in the country, and is a span that despite twenty-five years of public education reform has not budged.

I have written time and time again about our need to take this achievement gap deadly seriously. Until we ensure that all students receive a quality education, we will never break the cycle that is now taking away the future from our neighbors. We must ensure that those brave souls who create schools serving the most at-risk students have the financial support and other resources that can reverse the situation for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

There are numerous charter schools that have taken on this challenge. But there are so many obstacles in their way that it is a miracle that their visionary leaders don’t run the other way. Some of these blockades are put in place by our city leadership in the form of the inequitable funding that charters receive compared to the traditional schools. Another challenge is the severe lack of permanent facilities that our Mayor will not talk about while ignoring a chorus of pleas to turn over vacant DCPS buildings. Our own charter board contributes to the issue through bureaucratic oversight of existing schools and those groups that want to create new classrooms.

Until we are serious about closing the academic achievement gap we will never eliminate the health gap that we are experiencing for all to see today. There are no words to describe the horror of the current situation.

However, I’m an eternal optimist so I believe something good can come out of this tragedy. Someone out there could decide that enough is enough. One person can still change the world.