D.C.’s St. Coletta Public Charter School gets special education admissions preference

Last evening, during a quiet monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board when attendance at the session barely reached a quorum of board members and IDEAL Academy PCS received its third citation of fiscal mismanagement since March 2016, the body voted to give St. Coletta PCS an admission preference for special education students.

Its an interesting development.  St. Coletta, as described in the meeting’s supporting documentation, is the only charter in the nation’s capital to focus on serving only students with disabilities.  The reputation of the facility is stellar.  The school is in its eleventh year of operation educating 251 scholars ages three to twenty two at its permanent facility located in Ward 7.  The supporting documentation states that “St. Coletta PCS is a specially designed program for students with severe disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities and autism, who require over 25 hours of special education services per their individualized education plans (“IEP”) and the most restrictive learning environment.”

The issue the school has been facing is that, like all charters, admission is on a first-come basis and when more students want to attend than there are spots, a lottery is held.  St. Coletta has found that parents have sought admission for their kids who do not have disabilities.  To best explain this situation I will quote directly from the PCSB staff:

“Once enrolled, if St. Coletta PCS determines a student isn’t eligible for its program
because he or she requires a less restrictive learning environment, the school must
complete an extensive process to review and modify the student’s IEP before
finding the student a more suitable educational placement. By implementing the
proposed special education enrollment preference, St. Coletta PCS will ensure that
the students who will best benefit from its program, those with the highest levels of
disability, have the highest opportunity for enrollment. Without this preference, a
student who does not require any special education services or requires a less
restrictive environment would need to be accepted into the program and could
result in 1) students with higher levels of special education needs not getting into
the program and 2) students losing valuable instructional time as they are assessed
and placed out of St. Coletta PCS to a school that offers a general education program.”

I strongly agree that St. Coletta has a unique and extremely valuable mission that should be supported.  But the preference was granted through the school filing a charter amendment.  My question is whether this is the appropriate process for altering an admission policy.

For example, could KIPP DC PCS now use the same method to give a preference to low income children?  What about another school that wants to teach only kids living in the neighborhood?  Might a charter amendment be utilized to discriminate against those that a charter would rather not let in the door?

My inclination is that something as serious as an admissions preference should be addressed as a revision to the School Reform Act.  In this way the language could be written as not to favor a particular charter but all schools in the sector.  For example, in this instance, the legislation would state that “any charter whose mission is to serve special education students may elect to give an enrollment preference to children who would be best served with these services.”

Public school reform has been successful in D.C. due to the competition for students that choice has promulgated.  Therefore, anything that diminishes the educational marketplace must rise to an extremely high level before it is implemented.  This is why I contend that an action by the D.C. Council, while harder to obtain, is the more suitable path.

The St. Coletta admissions preference will take effect for the 2018-to-2019 school year lottery.  The charter has said that it will employ a sibling preference if the child meets its enrollment criteria.

 

 

 

D.C. charter school wait list approaching 10,000 children

Last week, without emotion, the DC Public Charter School Board released the latest figures for the number of children wait listed while trying to obtain entrance to a charter school.  We are now up to 9,703 pupils.  The number represents a 12.3 percent increase over last year.  841 more kids are on this list than were present in 2016.  In addition, the PCSB points out, that for a dozen schools the list of those who want to be enrolled is double the number of their entire population of students.

Take D.C. Bilingual PCS as an example.  This academically strong charter teaches 364 kids.  The wait list to get in is 1,176 people.  Interested in having your child go to Creative Minds International PCS?  181 fortunate parents received the good news that their offspring can learn there.  But 1,286 young people who wanted to gain the same experience cannot.  Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freeedom PCS teaches 350 scholars with 1,595 wanting in.  Washington Latin PCS, where I served as board chair, has a wait list of 1,176 students while admitting 670. (The wait list numbers are from March 31, 2017, while the school enrollment figures are from the 2015-to-2016 PCSB school profiles.)

This situation is not something that should be casually reported.  It is a crisis for the families living in our city.  How in the world can we offer our neighbors a quality education for their children when the chance of landing in the public school of their choice may be harder than getting into Harvard or Yale?  This situation will only get worse as it is estimated that 1,000 new residents a month are moving into the nation’s capital.

This tremendous demand for high-quality charter schools, demonstrated by the PCSB revelation that 60 percent of the wait list is for the top Tier 1 schools, could have the unintended consequence of turning public opinion against these institutions that now educate 46 percent of all kids in the city.  For if an insufficient number can get in, and the frustration level rises among residents, then attention could be turned to simply strengthening DCPS.

Instead of publishing information on a web page the PCSB should be in crisis mode.  The organization, along with other stakeholders, needs to be on the phone with school leaders and funders from here and across the United States trying to figure out how to bring greater capacity to our local movement.

But on the other hand, never mind.  Àferall,  it is spring break.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education tries to get ahead of the charter school walkability admissions preference debate

Jennie Niles, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education, took some steps yesterday to rebound from catching the city’s public school stakeholders by surprise with Mayor Bowser’s announcement on January 30th that she would institute a charter school walkability admissions preference for the 2018-2019 school year.  Never mind that such a change would require an amendment to the School Reform Act by a D.C. Council caught unaware that the proposal was coming.  Also left in the dark were charter school leaders, FOCUS, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, and I am guessing the new DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, whose first day on the job was to come within the next 48 hours.

Also not thought important enough to be part of the conversation was the Deputy Mayor’s own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, established almost exactly a year ago to look at, among other topics, cross-sector student feeder patterns.  When Ms. Niles was asked last week on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmamdi Show why the plan was not introduced in front of this body, she replied that everything that comes across her desk has cross-sector implications and therefore she cannot bring everything before them.

Now I guess Ms. Niles has changed her mind.  Yesterday at noon she held a conference call with the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force members, and during the discussion she presented an analysis of the impact of the admissions preference.  There a lot of assumptions made behind the data contained in the document.  For example, parents would be able to take advantage of the preference as long as their neighborhood school is more than 0.5 miles walking distance from their homes and a charter is within 0.5 miles of their location.  However, the study bases the 0.5 miles “as the crow flies” which the authors admit slightly overestimates the impact of the change.  Other criteria used include the notion that all charters would agree to participate in the preference and that the schools would rank this preference below the sibling preference.  Those compiling this report state that both of these scenarios are not certain to be implemented in practice.

Using My School DC application data from the 2015 to 2016 school year, there were approximately 18,000 (37 percent) of elementary school students in the city that have a neighborhood DCPS school more than 0.5 miles beyond where they live.  Of this group 10,600 (22 percent of all elementary school students) have a charter within this distance.  Among those 10,600 pupils, 4,859 currently attend a DCPS school.  The document states that schools in Wards 5 and 8 would have the greatest impact on admissions due to the preference.

The numbers were then calculated for the current 2015 to 2016 term.  14,470 students participated in the elementary school lottery.  Of these 1,441 would qualify for the walkability preference.  Then, running a mock lottery, it was determined that 254 students would gain entrance to a charter through the new policy, 18 percent of those that qualify for the preference and 2 percent of total applicants.

The study goes on to say that most schools would see a change in admission of one to four children.  Of course, this means that there would be little impact regarding where special education and low-income kids go to learn.

As you can see the number of children impacted by the proposal is an extremely small number.  This is exactly why it should not go forward.  There is a tremendous chance for unintended consequences here which myself and others have highlighted.  It is not hard to imagine families gaming the system to get their kids into a better school, and there is also the chance that charter operators will figure out how to position their facilities in a location where they are able to craft a student body more to their liking.

As I’ve stated previously, the answer to more neighborhood kids in charters is to open and replicate those that are high performing.

Debate over charter school walkability admissions preference makes media appearances

It appears that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s push for a charter school walkability admissions preference has caused quite a stir.  Over the weekend the editors of the Washington Post urged severe caution regarding the proposal.  They wrote:

“But there are ramifications to a neighborhood preference that need to be thought through. Most significant is whether a move to a neighborhood preference would lock-in neighborhood patterns of segregation that would keep students most in need out of high-quality charter schools.  A task force that looked at the issue in 2012 concluded that if neighborhood preferences were mandated for charter schools, children in Ward 7 and Ward 8 would be most hard hit by losing access to high-performing charters elsewhere in the city.”

Also last Thursday, the subject was discussed on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmamdi Show featuring Emily Lawson, the CEO of DC Prep PCS and Eboni-Rose Thompson,  Ward 7 Education Council chair.  Ms. Lawson indicated that her staff had done a preliminary analysis of the impact of the admissions preference regarding her student population and had concluded that a relatively small number of families would be impacted.  But Ms. Lawson’s schools are not the ones that are most central to the arguments over the preference since they already serve low-income students, although she did point out that gentrification has resulted in changes in some of the neighborhoods around her facilities.   The other guest, Ms. Thompson, did an outstanding job detailing the fears around restricting access to high performing charters for kids living in poverty that this amendment to the School Reform Act would bring, identical to those that I have highlighted along with the Washington Post editors and the 2012 Neighborhood Preference Task Force.

The most disappointing part of the program was the participation of the Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.  She stated that she had just happened to hear about the radio show during a school visit and decided to call in.  When she was asked by the host why the subject of the day’s discussion had not first come before her own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, upon which Ms. Lawson sits, she responded that every issue that reaches her desk has cross-sector implications and therefore not all of them can be brought to this body.  This comment came even though one of the stated goals of the Task Force is to “explore cross-sector feeder patterns.”

It is not only this group that was caught off guard by the suggestion.  FOCUS was kept out of the loop as was the DC Public Charter School Board.  There really has to be much more inclusive stakeholder involvement when it comes to this question as well as others such as the per pupil charter school facility allotment and the turning over of vacant DCPS buildings to the sector that now educates 47 percent of all public school students in this city.  I expect much more from education leaders who have been intimately familiar with our local charters since their founding over 20 years ago.

D.C. charter school walkability admission preference favors affluent families

As I wrote about yesterday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday introduced a policy proposal for a change in the School Reform Act that would give students an admissions preference to charters within a half mile of where they live if their regularly assigned DCPS school is more than that distance from their home.  The seismic change in admission policy which Ms. Bowser referred to as a “walkability prefernce” was advanced by the Mayor without consulting any of the major players in the charter school movement including the town’s most prominent charter advocacy group FOCUS.  Even her own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force did not see this coming.

WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle quotes me in an article about this subject as opining that the idea is terrible and he raises a point by David Grosso, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, that I had not previously considered.  According to Mr. Grosso:

“Who does it really impact? In the really high quality, Tier 1 charters, are parents who have the money therefore able to buy a home strategically in that neighborhood? And if they do that, does it raise questions about segregation in our city?”

I see this working both ways.  Affluent parents can decide to locate near a charter to get their kids in or a school operator can decide on a site in which academically high performing kids can be skimmed from a DCPS facility.

To her credit, Ms. Bowser is trying to address an issue that frustrates many parents.  They may live physically close to a great charter, but because these are schools of choice they may be not able to gain access to them for their children.  I experienced this first hand with Washington Latin PCS both when we were in negotiations with the Cafritz’s for a permanent facility and with the neighbors around 2nd Street, N.W., where we eventually took over the old Rudolph Elementary.  Both groups expressed dismay that Latin could not pull pupils directly from the local community.

In his piece Mr. Austermuhle quotes my friend Susan Schaeffler,  the CEO of KIPP DC, as commenting:

“KIPP D.C. is trying to work with the public chartering authority to say, ‘Hey, is there a chance we can give preference to kids that can walk to school, and make it so that it’s not the entire school, but maybe 15 percent of the seats are held for students that can walk to school?’ That just makes sense citywide as a strategy.”

But I strongly contend that the solution to this problem is not to mess with admission preferences.  The answer is to greatly accelerate the replication of excellent charters and to bring some of the best ones from around the United States to the nation’s capital.  Once we have added a sufficient capacity of good quality seats these schools will naturally draw from the blocks around where they are situated.

Parents would much prefer to have neighborhood schools that work.

Mayer Bowser takes first step to allow charters to become neighborhood schools

Yesterday, at a ceremony at D.C. Bilingual PCS as part of a celebration of D.C. Education Week, Mayor Bowser took the first step in her long-held desire to have charter schools offer a neighborhood admissions preference.  Calling her concept a “walkability preference” the announced change in policy would allow the city’s charters to provide partiality to elementary school children who live within a half mile of a charter when their normally assigned neighborhood traditional school is more than this distance from their homes.

This is a terrible idea.  For 20 years charters in this town have driven the rise of quality for all schools through the competition for students and the per pupil revenue that is associated with their education.  The arrangement instantaneously transformed parents into customers because their decision as to where to send their kids has powerful consequences for school budgets.  Before the forces of school choice were unleashed in the nation’s capital the traditional schools were wastelands of educational malpractice in facilities that were literally falling apart all around them.

Anything that interferes with an educational marketplace takes away from the clout of parents.  Under Ms. Bowser’s proposal, and it is really only a proposal because its implementation would take amending the School Reform Act through approval of the D.C. Council,  parents could be provided access to charters not because they like the curriculum, or the principal, or the standardized test scores, but simply due to its location.  We would be turning our backs on the incentives that turned around a deplorable situation.

Do you think I’m exaggerating the impact of all this?  Under a walkability preference an operator can open a charter in Ward 3, the most affluent part of town, strategically locate it more than a half a mile from a regular school, and then fill it with children living steps from its door, thereby blocking access by low-income kids from Wards 6, 7, and 8 that this charter movement was created to serve.  Mayor Bowser would effectively be providing a private school education on the taxpayers’ dime.

The fear of diminishing the availability of charters to at risk kids was a primary reason that a Neighborhood Preference Task Force rejected the notion of a admissions preference back in 2012.  The Mayor could have been reminded of this finding if she had consulted with FOCUS or any other public leaders of the charter movement before making this decision, but the information I have is that she failed to take this step.  As the Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos

The preference came sandwiched between a flurry of other dictums.  The Mayor stated that she would include in this year’s budget request a two percent increase in the charter school per pupil facility allotment which would raise it to $3,193; closer but not quite up to the $3,250 that charter leaders had begged for in 2016.  She also announced that D.C. Bilingual will be allowed to stay at the Keene School and that the P.R. Harris School will be provided to Building Hope’s Charter School Incubator Initiative for the eventual home to two Ward 8 charters.

The Washington Post quotes D.C. Council education committee chairman David Grosso as stating that he has “already heard some ‘vocal uproar'” regarding the walkability preference concept.  Let’s hope that he along with others can stop this revision to the SRA before one child is harmed.

In D.C. public school reform is still not fast enough

In today’s Washington Post there are two articles about public education in the District of Columbia.  The first, by Michael Allison Chandler, celebrates the five year anniversary of Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor.  She includes this observation:

“Despite the accolades, many educators and advocates are concerned that progress in the school system is still not being felt by many of city’s most disadvantaged students. In many schools in the poorest parts of the city, less than a third of students perform on grade level, standardized tests show.”

The second piece, by Emma Brown, talks about the fact that the growth of charter schools in the nation’s capital has slowed.  She explains that while it was true for years that only New Orleans had a higher concentration of students in charters, now D.C. is eclipsed by Detroit and Flint, Michigan as well.  For the last three terms the percentage of kids in charters has remained stuck at 44 percent.  Ms. Brown writes:

“That flat-lining comes after a period of rapid growth: Nine years ago, just 25 percent of D.C. schoolchildren were in charters, which are funded with taxpayer dollars but run by independent nonprofits.”

These two trends are not good.  We desperately need to figure out how to increase substantially the number of high performing seats for every child that needs one.  Many have recognized that providing a quality education to all, no matter the race or socioeconomic status of the student, is the final great civil rights struggle of our time.

How do we do it?  Well we need some help.  The DC Public Charter School Board needs to provide incentives for good schools to replicate such as giving a year off of Performance Management Framework grading when a new campus is added.  Next, the city must turn over to charters the 20 or so vacant shuttered school buildings that are currently sitting empty.  In addition, the Mayor should bring to a conclusion the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit so that charters operate on a level playing field with DCPS.  Ms. Bowser,  the D.C. Council, and Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, also have a duty to bring successful charter management organizations here with the promise of a facility.

I guess we could go on talking about the quality of our public schools for another 100 years.  For me, I just don’t have the patience.

D.C. charter school and DCPS enrollment up 2 percent, sector ratio of enrollment remains constant

The Washington Post’s Michael Allison Chandler reported recently that unaudited enrollment data from D.C.’s charter schools and DCPS reveal that each sector increased by two percent in the 2015 to 2016 term.  Charters now educate slightly over 39,000 children, while the traditional schools have 48,693 kids in their classrooms. Ms. Chandler points out that this is the seventh annual increase for DCPS, which for years was losing its student body to charters.

The statistics means the ratio of charter to regular school students remains constant, with 44 percent to 56 percent in each group, that has been the case for the last several years. This comes as as the nation’s capital has just passed the point in time in which a decade-old study produced by Fight for Children predicted that by last year charters would teach the majority of pupils in Washington, D.C.  What happened?

Well, two things.  First, and probably most importantly, when the report by Gregg Vanourek was written the local charter school movement was focused mostly on growth.  Charters had 17,473 students in the 2005 to 2006 school year, representing 24 percent of all public school students.  There were 51 charter schools with 62 campuses.  DCPS enrolled 55,298 children, for a total of 72,771 individuals attending public schools.

Now there are 62 charters comprised of 115 campuses.  This is not a tremendous increase in the total number.  Therefore, what the study most likely did not anticipate was the strong focus on quality adopted by the DC Public Charter School Board.  Between 2006 and 2011 the Center for Education Reform states that 30 schools have been shuttered.  As chairman of the DC PCSB Dr. Darren Woodruff explained during my interview with him 13 charters have been closed in the last three years alone.

The second factor that has led to enrollment in charters remaining at 44 percent has been the dramatic improvements in DCPS.  When the Fight for Children report was issued Mayor Fenty had just been elected.  Michelle Rhee was about to be named Chancellor.  Her replacement, Kaya Henderson, has proved an exceptionally strong competitor for public school students.

The end result of all of this is that the educational landscape has greatly improved for our children.  It will be fascinating to see what the next 10 years brings.

D.C. traditional schools increase four year high school graduation rate to 64 percent

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson enthusiastically announced on Facebook yesterday that in 2015 the four year high school graduation rate for her system increased to 64 percent.  Her goal is to get to 75 percent by the year 2017.  The rate represents a six percent jump from last year’s 58 percent.  I was at a Fight for Children event last night that Ms. Henderson also attended and I can attest that she was thrilled about the news.

The number is definitely moving in the right direction but is still seven points below the overall rate of 71 percent for the city’s charter high schools, which is a sector that serves primarily low income minority children.  In addition, the statistic is far below the 90 percent graduation rate of Opportunity Scholarship Program scholars comprised of kids living in poverty.

But DCPS has seen a consistent rise in this number since it was at an astonishing low 53 percent in 2011.  It appears that public education reform is continuing its steady climb in the nation’s capital.

Failure of D.C. charters to back fill slots throws off Performance Management Framework ranking

A year ago Alexandra Pardo, the former executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, wrote a guest editorial talking about the importance of measuring student Median Growth Percentile (MGP) as the best indicator of academic progress.  The D.C. Public Charter School Board also takes this number seriously as it comprises 40 percent of the grade charters receive on the Performance Management Framework tool for elementary and middle schools.  This number drops to 15 percent of the total score for high schools.

In fact, educators know that the longer a student spends in many of our charters the better they do academically.  This only makes sense.  A kid that arrives in a school years behind grade level will have a much more difficult time adjusting to the environment the first year in a new facility compared to the third term.

Charters that fail to back fill available slots after a particular year could gain an advantage regarding their PMF score over those charters that accept all comers.  In her article on this issue, Ms. Natalie Wexler points to the difference in student overall proficiency rates of Achievement Prep and DC Prep Edgewood, which do not take students after the sixth grade and E.L. Haynes, which does not have this restriction.  Moreover, Achievement Prep Wahler Place Middle PCS and DC Prep Edgewood Middle PCS are ranked at Tier 1 schools on the 2014 PMF while all three E.L. Haynes PCS’s campuses are at Tier 2.

For four years now the PCSB has ranked charters based upon PMF scores.  If this ranking is to be equitable for all schools then each should adopt a policy of back filling vacated seats.  In this way the PMF will have the legitimacy that the public has come to expect from this assessment.