Exclusive interview with Stacy Kane, co-founder and executive director Washington Leadership Academy PCS

Let’s start with straight facts about this high school.  It’s been open for three and a half years.  The charter began with 110 students in the ninth grade.  There is now a total of 396 pupils, with roughly 100 kids per grade level.  This year Washington Leadership Academy PCS has its first senior class.  The demographic makeup of the student body is approximately 70 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, 24 percent eligible for special education services, and 54 percent who fall into the category of at-risk. 

Over the previous two years, the only times in the school’s early existence that it has been ranked on the DC Public Charter Board’s Performance Management Framework tool, it scored in the Tier 1 category.

Yet, after reading all of the above information, I feel that I have told you extremely little about this truly amazing place.  Please allow me to try again.

There are seven co-founders of this institution.  They are Duane Rollins, Joey Webb, Miles Taylor, Natalie Gould, Phil Stephen, Seth Andrew, and of course, Stacy Kane.  With the exception of Ms. Kane, and Ms. Gould, who is the school’s chief operating officer, the others are involved with the charter these days in a less direct manner.  Mr. Taylor and Mr. Andrew were Congressional pages when they were younger, and especially now that the Congressional page program is closed, they were interested in creating a high school that allowed its pupils to have real world experiences.  Mr. Rollins and Ms. Kane were focused on integrating technology and computer science into the new school.

Ms. Kane has an intriguing background.  Her mother is a social worker and her father is retired.  She attended Vanderbilt University on a full community service scholarship.  The Washington Leadership Academy executive director graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Human and Organizational Development and Sociology.  During her undergraduate years she started a college preparation and mentoring program.  Ms. Kane went on to earn a Masters’ degree in Public Policy and Education Policy, also at Vanderbilt, then obtained a law degree at Emory University

Her next move was to join the Presidential Management Fellowship program and later became the deputy director of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program.  It was during this time that she became acquainted with the Washington Leadership Academy co-founders with whom she shared a passion for quality in public education together with a driving interest in technology.

I asked Ms. Kane about her motivation to start Washington Leadership Academy.  Her response came quickly and eloquently.  “It was my study of sociology,” she intoned.  “I grew up confused about racial inequality in my community in Cincinnati, Ohio. My college course work in sociology resolved my confusion. I finally understood that the reasons were historic, structural, and even intentional, specifically with regard to race. I wholeheartedly subscribed to the philosophy that human liberation is bound up together; if some of us aren’t free and equal, none of us are. I began to dedicate myself to equity work, and I’ve never slowed down. I never intend to.”

The trying to do something about it became immensely personal to Ms. Kane.  She and her husband became foster parents to a young man who was at the time 15 years old.  He is now studying at Howard University, and still comes home every weekend for family dinners and laundry.

“It is part of my ethos about everyone being deserving of opportunity, in this case, of a loving family,” Ms. Kane related. “He has added so much joy and love to my life and to my immediate and extended family. I’m incredibly lucky he’s in my life and I’m so proud to call him my son.”

Which brings us to Washington Leadership Academy.  Ms. Kane explained that during the formation of the charter the founding group was extremely fortunate to win a $400,000 incubator grant with City Bridge Education.  The grant allowed her to be able to work full-time on the creation of the school as her team researched and imagined what the high school of the future would look like.

While her students come to Washington Leadership Academy with academic skills in reading and in math anywhere from grades pre-Kindergarten three and above, the charter was established as a college preparatory institution with a technology focus. It is a unique vision in that it is a school that provides training so that its students are prepared both for college and for meaningful employment in the computer science field.

With such an academically diverse population of students, I inquired of Ms. Kane how those who are behind are brought up to grade level. 

“We have a number of strategies,” she remarked.  “We try everything we can.  The school employs a large number of special education teachers.  Many of our classrooms have two teachers who work in parallel to make sure students have extra support.  Students in their freshman and sophomore years receive double periods of English Language Arts and math.  The use of technology has also been a game changer.  It allows our teachers to differentiate instruction tied directly to the progress of our students. Of course, the most important tool is our incredible team of teachers and staff. All of our outstanding results are a direct result of their efforts.”

The Washington Leadership Academy executive director then reflected that at this charter, because of the use of blended learning and other characteristics integrated into the school’s pedagogy, “In every class each day may look different.  Our teachers have flexibility in the way they approach teaching and their subject matter.” 

Another aspect that makes Washington Leadership unique is that eleventh graders participate in internships on Fridays in businesses, nonprofits and government.  Beginning in the fall semester they receive assistance preparing resumes and cover letters.  The program teaches interviewing skills and students are trained in professional behavior in the workplace.  Then there is a match day in which they are paired with a site based upon their interests and abilities.  Teachers visit the students when they are at their assignments.  Ms. Kane observed that the internships are all part of the real world experience the school strives to provide its pupils.

But there is another crucial reason behind these work assignments.  “For affluent children, internships are a natural part of their high school experience,” said Ms. Kane. “This is often not the case for students who come to WLA.  Providing internships for all of our students is another form of trying to not only achieve equity, but give our students a leg up in college and career.  These jobs can then be placed on their college applications the following year.”

The Washington Leadership executive director went on to explain that ninth and tenth graders participate in project-based learning on Fridays.  There are also year-long classes in the upper grades in Seminar and AP Seminar, and Research and AP Research, in conjunction with the College Board’s AP Capstone Diploma Program.  These efforts are aimed at providing a rich college preparatory curriculum.

I became so impressed with the information Ms. Kane presented to me that I asked her if the school was preparing to replicate.  Her response frankly caught me off guard. 

“To us,” Ms. Kane asserted, “scale is about providing facets of our school to other existing schools so that our impact is much larger than the student population within our walls.  The things we are excelling at we want to share openly and freely with other schools that serve similar student populations.”

At this point Ms. Kane reminded me that in 2016 Washington Leadership Academy was the proud recipient of XQ: The Super School Project prize that provides a total of $10 million, $2 million a year over five years.  At the time of the award, more than 700 teams comprised of over 10,000 members applied for a grant.  XQ is part of the Emerson Collective, which was founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

There are three big projects that Washington Leadership Academy has planned to tackle as a result of receiving these funds and the first is a free, open, online high school English Language Arts curriculum. WLA has partnered with CommonLit to achieve this first goal. Ms. Kane revealed that the curriculum is already being utilized by more than 40 schools across the country, including both charters and district schools. 

The second anticipated project is to try, as Ms. Kane detailed, to delineate “the secret sauce” behind WLA’s high performing instruction in computer science and technology.  The school’s final goal, according to the Washington Leadership Academy executive director, is to design more rigorous classroom material around project-based learning.

With so much activity at the school I wondered if it was difficult to attract the right teaching staff.

“We look for teachers with four to five years of experience.  We generally do not use recently trained instructors.  We also support our staff by providing them with three hours of class preparation a day.  This also provides them time to share best practices with other teachers.”

Teacher retention, according to Ms. Kane, has been excellent as has student retention.  Part of the student retention strategy includes thirty-minute advisory periods in which ten students of the identical gender meet with the same teacher daily.  The student body is also divided up into five houses.  Ms. Kane reflected that the school holds events that promote friendly competition between the houses.

Washington Leadership Academy’s permanent facility is a spectacularly beautiful former seminary college in Northeast that resembles buildings I’ve seen at Cornell or Yale University.  Lee Montessori PCS and a variety of small non-profits share other parts of the campus.  Washington Leadership Academy’s students have now applied to college.  They will hear about admission soon.  Between the campus they learn in everyday and the curriculum designed for college preparation, their future indeed looks bright.

Time to eliminate charter school boards of directors

In an article by my friend Carrie Irvin, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Education Board Partners, she points to a recent study by the D.C. Policy Center entitled “The State of D.C. Schools”. She wrote:

“In the nation’s capital, 2 out of 3 students score below proficient in reading, writing and math.  That number is startling–and it’s just the average.  The picture is even worse at many of our city’s schools.  The report also states that about half of all public school students in this city are designated at-risk, according to the city’s criteria.”

There is nothing new here. It is frankly disgusting that in Washington D.C., after twenty five years of school reform, there is a persistent 60 point academic achievement gap combined with the fact that the proportion of students proficient in English Language Arts and math is in the thirties.

The Education Board Partners CEO calls for stronger boards to fix the problems with academic achievement. In order to have a quality school she suggests, among other recommendations, that boards:

  • “Ask your ED challenging questions that they are not answering readily or proactively, so that you really have the information you need to know if your school is high quality.
  • Use data at all times to drive board decisions.  Make sure you look at ALL data (student achievement, attendance, discipline, staff retention, promotion, pay scale, etc.) broken down by race, gender, special needs status, etc.
  • Pay attention to data about attendance, school safety, etc., as these and many other factors dramatically impact student achievement.
  • In particular, pay attention to staff morale.  Fortune, who now works at the school of which she originally served on the board, noted that most boards ignore this, yet it’s one of the most important factors determining the success of the school.  Ask the ED, and review data, about race relations, pay equity/disparities, and staff satisfaction. Take action to boost morale in meaningful ways.”

I’m sincerely sorry, but at this point I do not feel that any of these steps is going to correct our desperate situation regarding public education in the nation’s capital.

My experience with charter school boards has been decidedly mixed. In the case of Washington Latin PCS the governors were able to turnaround a dire financial situation and eventually secure a permanent facility while creating a budgetary structure that would promote its future success. But other time spent volunteering hours on these bodies has not been nearly as positive.

In fact, I would say that in the great majority of cases the nonprofit boards I have sat on have had little impact on the direction of the organization. They have seemed more of a nuisance then a help to the heads of charters. Much of the activity of these bodies involved instructing members on the proper role of trustees and educating them on how charter schools function. Infighting between the director is common, whether that is between themselves or involving staff.

Do not get me wrong. I definitely see the value that outsiders can bring to the exceptionally difficult job of running a school. People have expertise in areas such as fundraising, real estate, legal issues, and management that can bring tremendous benefits. Americans are generally exceptionally generous with their time and resources. However, I just do not believe anymore that a formal structure is required to obtain assistance from talented hardworking members of our community.

The success or failure of a school is determined by the leader of that school. We are so fortunate in the District to have so many of examples that prove this point. If we are truly serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to support and develop those who can get this job done.

Eliminating charter school boards of directors would also serve to remove the often repeated claim that these institutions are privately run. Charters would report directly to the DC Public Charter School Board, a government entity whose volunteer members are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council.

None of this suggestion is meant in anyway to take away from the outstanding work being done by Education Board Partners. In the past if I had a board issue, I would contact Ms. Irvin. I would do this today.

It would take a change to the law to eliminate charter school nonprofit boards. However, I think we have reached the point where governance can move into the twenty-first century.

Washington Post gets facts wrong in story about Friendship and KIPP DC public charter schools

Yesterday’s blog post was about Perry’s Stein’s article raising skepticism about Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS incorporating multiple campuses of other charters that are failing to meet their academic targets. In that piece, Ms. Stein describes the assimilation of Septima Clark PCS by Achievement Prep PCS this way:

“There’s a measure of irony in Achievement Prep being taken over by another charter operator. In 2013, Achievement Prep was the suitor, assuming control of Septima Clark, an all-boys school that the charter board closed amid low academic performance. But it turned out that Achievement Prep — which has a more successful elementary school that will remain open — could not turn around the school.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. I was intimately involved in the events surrounding the closing of Septima Clark after being contacted by in 2013 by its head of school  Jenny DuFresne. I made the case on multiple occasions that the charter should not be dissolved. Here’s what really happened.

Septima Clark was a low performing school teaching an exceedingly high proportion of at-risk children that toward the end of its operation had reached a Tier 2 ranking on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework. However, there was serious concern by those involved with the school that when it was time for it to go before the PCSB for review it would be closed due to a pattern of poor academic results. The charter also faced the end of a facility lease with no good options as to where it would locate next. The school’s board of directors therefore believed that the best path forward for its students was to close Septima Clark and merge with Achievement Prep PCS. Although Achievement Prep was early in its history, at that time it was highly regarded for its strong academic performance. There was considerable controversy around the school board’s decision. Many Septima parents strongly opposed the plan. As I said it was not one to which I agreed. However, Mr. Pearson, the PCSB executive director, and his board supported the move, and therefore it was executed as designed. Years later I was told by a prominent member of our local charter school movement that of the approximately 230 children who attended Septima Clark, less than 20 made the transition to Achievement Prep. I have not substantiated this claim.

My past columns on this subject are not available but today I link to a Washington Examiner article describing the course of events around the charter.

The goal here is not to disparage the Washington Post staff member. My point is that if as an education reporter a story is going to be written that expresses a particular public policy viewpoint then it is imperative to conduct research to ensure that the facts around the issue being discussed are accurate.

I would say that the irony of this tale is not that Friendship may takeover Achievement Prep’s middle school. Instead, it is the fact that despite constant and consistent claims that charters are public schools run by private entities, in the instance of the Septima Clark, as it throughout this sector, it was a governmental body of volunteers appointed by the D.C. Mayor that made the final decision about the school’s future.

In State of the Union speech, President calls for expansion of private school vouchers

Here are the remarks of President Trump last evening on the subject of school choice:

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 States have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular, that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists. One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia. Janiyah’s mom Stephanie is a single parent. She would do anything to give her daughter a better future. But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s Governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice for 50,000 children.

Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening. But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice!

Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

In the nation’s capital, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that denies our city an additional $15 million a year for the education of our children and denies making this program permanent.

In 2020, no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school. This should be a fundamental civil right.

KIPP DC PCS plans to create a $90 million educational complex in Ward 8

Monday came the exciting news that KIPP DC PCS was awarded the former Ferebee-Hope Elementary School so that it can create its second high school. The transfer of the closed DCPS facility represents the first traditional school building turned over to a charter by Mayor Muriel Bowser in her five years in office. In this area Ms. Bowser has been a tremendous disappointment.

The request for proposal for Ferebee was highly unusual in that it included a requirement that the winner renovate a community center on the property that includes a swimming pool. Cost is most likely the major factor that contributed to only KIPP bidding on the project. However, I do believe there is a reason for everything, and a note from Allison Fansler, the KIPP DC president, only reinforced my belief. She wrote:

“Along with the high school facility, KIPP DC will build a brand new recreation center to replace the existing one located at Ferebee-Hope. This facility will be operated by the Department of Parks & Recreation and include an indoor pool, boxing gym, and more. Also on the site, KIPP DC will construct a community center for partner organizations to provide various community benefits. We were excited to submit a proposal to the city along with Washington Nationals Youth Baseball AcademyTraining Grounds adult education program, and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry who will provide mental-health services for neighborhood residents and KIPP DC families. Partnership was at the core of our proposal for the site and we are excited to work together with these exceptional organizations. . . We listened to the needs and dreams of the community, our families, and students throughout this process and I’m so proud of the proposal we put forward with them at the heart of the plan to redevelop Ferebee-Hope.”

The school will open at the start of the 2021-to-2022 school year, becoming the permanent home to Somerset College Preparatory PCS that KIPP took over last fall. The announcement stated that KIPP will enter into a $40 million capital campaign using private funds to support the development.

There always has to be a naysayer out there and in this case it is the Washington Post’s Perry Stein. In her piece covering the rejuvenation of Ferebee she felt the need to point out:

“The city’s decision to lease the vacant Ferebee-Hope Elementary School building in Southeast Washington means citywide enrollment on KIPP campuses could grow to more than 7,600 students in coming years — representing about 15 percent of the city’s charter sector and 7 percent of all public school students. . .

The opening of a KIPP DC high school in Southeast Washington could pose competitive troubles for the three high schools in the traditional public school system east of the Anacostia River, which are struggling with low enrollment. If the KIPP school reaches the projected maximum enrollment of 800, it would exceed current enrollment at each of the three neighborhood high schools.”

As a steadfast proponent of regular schools, Ms. Stein should have more confidence in the product that they are offering instead of assuming parents would move their kids to KIPP. But in reality this is exactly what will happen.

In order to focus on the positive let’s conclude with the final sentence from Ms. Fansler’s message:

“The strength of our vision for Ferebee-Hope came about through true partnership and I am excited to continue this as we bring this vision to fruition for the students of KIPP DC and broader community.”

This is an exceptionally exciting opportunity for the future of our children.

D.C. charter board receives applications to open 4 new schools

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday that it has received four applications for new schools that, if approved, would open during the 2021-to-2022 term.

The applicants include:

Capital Experience Lab (CAPX LAB): A 700-student school going from grades six through twelve that wants to locate in Ward 6 and is based upon “inquiry-based learning experiences.” Fascinating to me is that Patricia Brantley, Friendship PCS’s chief executive officer, is listed as a board member. This, combined with the fact that the school has been incubated by CityBridge Education significantly raises the probability that it will be approved.

Global Citizens: The other CityBridge-sponsored applicant, this 525-student pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade charter would be based in Ward 7 or 8 and would offer a dual language immersion program in either Mandarin and English or Spanish and English. There are people with extremely impressive credentials associated with Global Citizens. The principal of the charter would be Jenifer Moore. I interviewed Ms. Moore when she was the interim head of school for Sela PCS and she blew me away. Listed as advisers are my friends Daniela Anello, head of school of DC Bilingual PCS, Maquita Alexander, executive director of Washington Yu Ying PCS, and Erika Bryant, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS.

The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship: A charter for 410 students in grades nine through twelve that would operate in Ward 8. The school’s executive summary states that it “will be the ultimate soil for building consciously aware, financially free, and holistically intelligent high school students in Washington, D.C. Our business and entrepreneurship model activates the voice, ideas, and confidence in students that are needed to economically succeed in their world.”

Washington Arabic: A second dual immersion school that applied in 2019. This school wants to open in Ward 1, 4, 5, or 6, with a preference on 6, and would teach 544 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three through fifth. Last year’s proposal received enthusiastic support from several board members so the hope is that it can make it across the finish line this time.

It appears that what this list lacks in number it makes up in quality. Let’s sincerely hope that progress is made on the permanent facility issue by the time these schools need to find space.

The applicants will have a public hearing in February and be voted on at the March monthly meeting of the DC PCSB.

Josh Kern should replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

Now that Scott Pearson has resigned his position as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and will leave his office at the end of May, it is time to speculate as to who will replace him. There really is no choice. Josh Kern, the current founder and managing member of TenSquare, should take Mr. Pearson’s place.

I know there has been a lot of controversy drummed up against Mr. Kern and his organization by people who don’t like charter schools. But think about it, is there anyone out there more qualified for this job? The answer is a resounding no.

As a reminder, Mr. Kern was the co-founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, one of the city’s premier high schools that since its start has been closing the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. When Josephine Baker retired as the PCSB executive director, Mr. Kern was a leading candidate to assume her role.

When the entire city expected Options PCS to close due to severe financial improprieties by the school’s management, Mr. Kern spent day and night protecting the severely emotionally and physically disabled children who attended this charter as if these kids were his own as the court appointed receiver. It was one of the most heroic acts I have ever personally witnessed. His team recently helped steer Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy through an exceptionally challenging turnaround situation.

Mr. Kern’s firm TenSquare is improving the academic performance and management of low-performing charter schools in D.C. and across the country. He knows every aspect of charter performance from selecting strong school leaders, to implementing curriculum and running a business office. His firm has also been successful in identifying and securing permanent facilities. Here is just one highlight of his team’s efforts from my interview with Mr. Kern in 2018:

“The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.”

Although detractors will claim that there will be a conflict of interest between Mr. Kern’s work at TenSquare and that of the charter board, there are steps that can be taken to create a clear separation between the two bodies. The TenSquare founder would simply have to end his association with the consulting body.

I am sure that people out there are saying that there are other qualified candidates that would come to this position without the questions that would surround the selection of Mr. Kern. But on the other hand, there is no one else would fight with every ounce of energy in his body for charters in the nation’s capital.

The choice is simple.

Exclusive Interview with Lauren Maestas, CEO DC Prep PCS

I had the great pleasure of sitting down recently for a conversation with Lauren Maestas, the chief executive officer of DC Prep Public Charter School.  Ms. Maestas had just completed her one-year anniversary on November 5th of her promotion to CEO after serving as the school’s chief talent officer for the previous two and a half years.  Her professional background is fascinating.

Ms. Maestas obtained her law degree at New York University.  Before and after this achievement she worked for McKinsey and Company in a consulting role.  It was six months into her second stint with the firm that Ms. Maestas had an opportunity to join a project for an urban school district.  During this engagement, she recognized the importance of quality public education in a country where too few board rooms include people of color.  She also realized that she wanted human capital work to become the focus of her career.

Her next position was with the New York City Department of Education as the director of school leadership.  The job appealed to her because of the innovative work the NYCDOE was doing under Chancellor Klein’s leadership.  However, her timing was not good.  Joel Klein resigned as Chancellor shortly after she joined, and people started leaving the agency. 

While she was with McKinsey her co-worker and mentor Byron Auguste, husband of Monument Academy PCS’s founder and board member Emily Bloomfield, pointed Ms. Maestas to Uncommon Schools, a charter management organization that now operates 54 schools serving 20,000 students across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, Rochester and Troy, New York.  She was able to land employment with them, becoming their chief talent officer a year later.  She worked with the CMO for four years in New York City. 

Ms. Maestas’ husband then accepted a new job in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and so Ms. Maestas left Uncommon Schools and went to work for Transcend Education, a nonprofit that helps develop new school models that prepare all students to succeed in the 21st century.  But Ms. Maestas was working at home in a city she with which she was unfamiliar, and this fact combined with her personality trait as an introvert convinced her that she needed to be doing something else. It was Maura Marino, the co-founder and CEO of Education Forward, who introduced her to DC Prep.  It was then that she became the charter’s chief talent officer.

I asked the DC Prep CEO what it was like working under DC Prep founder and former CEO Emily Lawson.  She answered as soon as the words escaped my mouth.  “Emily is really amazing,” Ms. Maestas explained.  “She is smart and has a really good heart.  Emily believes wholeheartedly in the mission.  She is always thinking ‘what’s the next step, what’s the next step.’  She has built an excellent team and outstanding board.  Everything she does is in the interest of the students.”

Ms. Maestas related that D.C. Prep currently teaches over 2,000 pupils across five campuses in Wards 5, 7, and 8.  All of these schools are ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.  I wanted to know what makes DC Prep successful.  Again, Ms. Maestas responded without hesitation.  “The staff is extremely passionate about our purpose,” the DC Prep CEO commented. “I am surrounded by some really smart individuals.  We get results together.  Our time here is all about the kids and the values that we share.  This is really about the people doing the work.”

Of course, Ms. Maestas is not the first person to succeed Emily Lawson as head of DC Prep.  Current DC Public Charter School Board chair Rick Cruz tried it years ago.  It was not successful.  I asked Ms. Maestas why her tenure will have a different outcome.  “There is a tremendous difference between the two situations,” Ms. Maestas asserted.  “Rick came in from the outside so that is a difficult circumstance.  I had already been a part of DC Prep for a couple of years.  I had experience partnering with the other members of our senior team.  I played a role in establishing the goals that we are now striving to implement.  I was a part of the process.”

We then began a discussion about the specific objectives Ms. Maestas has for DC Prep.  She detailed three.  “First,” according to the head of DC Prep, “we want to make sure we are serving all students.  Toward this aim we want all of our campuses to score as Tier 1 on the PMF.  Second, we are thinking about how to continue to refine our approach so that we can enable our students to achieve even more in the future.  To accomplish this goal we have embarked on a five-year strategic planning process, where we are thinking about how to make changes in our program model to better serve students and how we can be the best place for great people to work.  Our third priority is to open Anacostia Middle Campus, to ensure that our Anacostia Elementary Campus students can attend a DC Prep school through the eighth grade.”

One area that Ms. Maestas does not want to concentrate on is growth of her charter management organization beyond Anacostia Middle School.  “We had students coming to our campuses in Wards 5 and 7 from Anacostia,” Ms. Maestas informed me.  “Therefore, we wanted to open in Ward 8 to serve these children closer to where they live.  We currently have 560 Ward 8 students enrolled in a DC Prep school.  Our pattern is to create elementary and middle schools in close proximity to each other.  We searched for a building beginning in 2014 in Anacostia that would hold both schools, but due to historic preservation requirements we could not find one.   At first we opened our elementary school in trailers behind the Big Chair and operated there for two years.  However three years ago we purchased a former Catholic school on V Street, Southeast.  We renovated the space and moved in at the start of the 2017-to-2018 term.” 

Ms. Maestas continued: “We are opening up a grade a year at Anacostia Elementary and we are up to third grade at the current campus.  Our middle schools start at the fourth grade.  We signed a two-year lease through Building Pathways for the ground floor that Excel Academy is not using in the Birney Building, and there is enough room for us to go through the fifth grade in this area.  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.”

According to Ms. Maestas, while all of this was going on a property went up for sale on Frankford Street Southeast.  She said it met their requirements for the middle school in that there is sufficient space for a school building, it is located within a mile of the elementary school, and the price is something DC Prep can afford.  There were other prospective buyers, so they put down a refundable deposit in August which gave them 60 days to conduct diligence on the site. 

Ms. Maestas acknowledges that the last few months have been challenging.  “Summer is our busiest time,” the DC Prep CEO informed me. “We were closing out one school year, while getting ready for the next.  Raymond Weedon, who had been our senior director of policy and community engagement, transitioned to become executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS in July.  We put down a deposit on the Frankford Street site in August, while in parallel we were working to welcome back our teachers.  On August 14,th I reached out to ANC 8B Commissioner Darrell Gaston.  We held a community meeting on August 22nd to share information about DC Prep’s interest in the Frankford Street site with the Fort Stanton community.  I have been in touch with Commissioner Gaston on a weekly basis to update him on our diligence process and answer his questions since that time.  I also asked to present to ANC 8B, which I did in October.  I see now that I should’ve found a way to do more outreach directly to members of the Fort Stanton community, rather than focusing on ANC forums.” 

According to Ms. Maestas, the DC Prep team is working hard to invest in direct community engagement in connection with the purchase of the parcel on Frankford Street.  “Now that we have hired a chief of staff, we have more bandwidth to host community meetings.  We have bi-monthly meetings on the calendar through the end of the year, and will do a similar cadence in 2020.  We hope these sessions will allow us to answer any questions that members of the Fort Stanton community have for us, and we hope that they will allow us to join forces to seek a permanent location that meets our students’ needs while also not requiring that we build on Frankford Street,”  Ms. Maestas was quick to point out that, “if we can find a different solution as to where to place our middle school I would take it.  We are going to try to collect signatures on a petition, which we hope to present to city officials to ask their help in identifying under-utilized city-owned facilities that could be Anacostia Middle School’s permanent home.  I will bring members of the neighborhood to join me if they wish.  Our consistent aim is to serve the Ward 8 community in the best way possible with a strong emphasis on collaboration.”

Tonight is Fight Night and it is the last one

Tonight, as I have for more than a decade, I will head over to the Washington Hilton to attend Fight for Children’s Fight Night Gala. This one will be the 30th anniversary of this event. It will also be the last. I cannot believe it is over.

Fight Night has raised over 65 million dollars to support low-income youth in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It was the creation of Fight for Children founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who raised nearly a billion dollars for healthcare and education for children living in poverty. He passed away at the age of 59 at the end of 2011 from a brain tumor that was diagnosed at the hospital where I work. I was with him when he received the diagnosis. That was not a good day.

I so wish Mr. Robert were here. He would be proud that his organization recently announced that it has donated five million dollar to Children’s National Hospital to create the Fight for Children Sports Medicine Center.

The press release announcing the news states that it will be “the region’s first sports medicine center dedicated exclusively to the needs of youth athletes. The new center, expected to open in the later part of 2020, will not only provide world class clinical care and rehabilitation services for sports-related injuries, but will also offer programs on injury prevention and performance evaluation, including a state-of-the-art motion analysis and performance lab. In addition, the Center’s mission will include conducting research on youth sports-related medical care, as well as providing a home for education and other community outreach activities. Fight for Children’s gift will ensure that the benefits from the Center will be available and accessible to all youth in the region, particularly those from underserved communities. The Center will be located at the lobby level of the former Discovery Communications headquarters in Silver Spring, MD.”

Children’s Hospital was a favorite cause of Joe Robert, ever since his son had surgery there as an adolescent. He contributed millions of dollars in his own name to the organization, and in 2009 coordinated a 150 million dollar grant to the facility from the United Arab Emirates.

There is more to celebrate this evening. Word from Capitol Hill is that a bill is moving through Congress that would permanently authorize the SOAR Act, the legislation containing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, that provides private school vouchers to low-income children. The law is supported by Senators Ron Johnson, Dianne Feinstein, Tim Scott, and Mike Braum. The move has also received strong backing from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The OSP was a favorite of Mr. Robert, who fought hard for its passage in 2004 and who fiercely challenged attempts by President Obama and his U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to shut it down. His own Washington Scholarship Fund was for years the administrator of the program until it became impossible to carry out this function under the Obama administration.

There are currently approximately 1,700 students taking advantage of the OSP. Additional funding up to 75 million dollars contained in the current legislation would raise this number to 2,000. The SOAR Act contains equal funding for private school vouchers, D.C. charter schools, and DCPS. This three sector approach was championed by Joe Robert.

Permanently authorizing the SOAR Act will be a crowning achievement of Mr. Robert’s legacy. The bill is expected to pass.

We will raise a glass to toast Mr. Robert’s amazing work later this evening.

E.L. Haynes PCS’s 15th Anniversary Celebration

Last Thursday evening I attended a perfectly orchestrated celebration of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School’s first 15 years. I just love it when events are fashioned in such a high quality manner.

The gala was held at the ornate National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Upon reaching the entrance there were banners on either side announcing the name of the school with its mantra of “BE KIND, WORK HARD, GET SMART” written across the bottom. The signs announced to the guests that they were about to enter a value-based environment. I immediately ran into Jennie Niles, the founder and former executive director of the school. I asked her what she was looking forward to about tonight. If you have met Ms. Niles you know that she believes that occasions such as these are never about herself. She commented:

“I’m just excited and really feel that its overwhelmingly wonderful to see all the people gathered here today that comprise the E.L. Haynes community. We didn’t even have a school when our first class of parents signed their children up with us. Now those students are in college.”

In college they are. Over 450 graduated seniors. The professionally produced booklet accompanying the festivities lists the post-secondary colleges and universities to which these young individuals have been accepted. Included on the list are American University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, and Wellesley College, just to name a few.

Several dignitaries from D.C.’s education world were in attendance. I always enjoy speaking with Michela English, the former president and CEO of Fight for Children and current board chair at DC Prep PCS. It turns out that E.L. Haynes was Fight for Children’s first Quality Schools Initiative Award winner back in 2008. There was an extensive and passionate conversation I then had with Allison Fansler, president of KIPP DC PCS, and Jack McCarthy, AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation president and CEO, about the seemingly intractable facility issues charters face in our city, It is no secret that KIPP DC is trying hard to win the request for proposal for the shuttered Ferebee-Hope for use as its second high school.

Between the passed Hors D’oeuvres of chicken pupusas, maple cinnamon glazed pork belly lollipops, and mini bison burgers, I then was able to get a few minutes with E.L. Haynes CEO Hilary Darilek. I inquired from Ms. Darilek about her current focus at the school. “I’m really thrilled about the next phase for our charter,” she remarked above the rising level of attendees’ voices as the room filled to the brim. “The fact that we are taking a moment to celebrate our first 15 years with our strong commitment to the second 15 is really important to me. Today’s recognition is all about the students. We are now going through a strategic planning process with our pupils, parents, and teachers. This is also a special time for me because this week is my four-year anniversary at E.L. Haynes.”

I then wanted to know the biggest lesson that Ms. Darilek has taken away from her time at the school. She answered without hesitation. “We need to put student voices at the center of everything we do. If we really are truly focused on improving our program and our support structure for our kids, then we need to listen to what our students are saying.”

It was now time for the formal program. There were warm and concise welcoming remarks from Ms. Darilek and Ms. Niles. However, the highlight for the audience had to be the “Bring Yourself to Haynes” video produced by the school’s students. It was exceptionally well done. In one part you see the scholars filming the piece change their role to acting in the montage. A song was included named after the title of the piece. Here are a few of the words:

Let’s take a trip to two thousand and four,
Jennie had a vision for a school that did more,
She named it after Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes!
Our first building was on top of CVS – oh my!
Times have changed, now you can come by,
Our campuses [yeah two campuses] Georgia and Kansas Ave!
Started out with Pre-K and now we go all,
The way to 12th grade and every fall,
We tour colleges all around the country,
Check the banners on our walls
We believe in each other,
We support one another,
Ooh, we’re shooting for the stars
Don’t test me unless it’s SAT!
I’m out for text evidence to represent me,
Grade point high, uptown, DC,
And I’m measuring my angles, cuz I want a degree – Hey!

Next on the agenda was a high energy performance by the E.L Haynes 15th Anniversary Choir and Dance Ensemble. These students were simply amazing in the way they were able to engage the audience through their movement and voices.

After a few closing remarks by Abby Smith, the school’s board chair, it was time for desserts such as chocolate dipped french macarons and mini caramel cashew tartlets, brought to the guests by waiters and waitresses.

A tremendous time was had by all. The gathering raised approximately $200,000, including over $50,000 during the festivities. This level of support made it the most successful event in E.L. Hayne’s history.