Exclusive interview with Aaron Cuny, co-founder and CEO Ingenuity Prep PCS

I had the great pleasure recently of sitting down with Aaron Cuny, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ingenuity Prep PCS, a school that opened in 2013 with just over one hundred students in PreKindergarten three to Kindergarten. The school is located in Anacostia, in the southernmost school building in the nation’s capital, and so I wanted to know from Mr. Cuny how this particular location was selected. “Our belief from the beginning was that all D.C. families deserve accessible, quality school options,” the Ingenuity Prep CEO explained, “and for too many families, especially those in Wards 7 and 8, this opportunity does not exist. We felt a moral obligation to help build something that would give families another choice.” Around the time that Mr. Cuny and his co-founder, Will Stoetzer, the school’s chief operating officer, were writing their charter application, the Illinois Facility Fund study was released. The report analyzed, across 39 neighborhood clusters in Washington, D.C., the gap between the density of students in those neighborhood clusters and the supply of high performing schools. Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer identified the neighborhood where there was the greatest gap between the number of students and the number of quality school seats available to families.

Once the area was determined, Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer began connecting with local families by knocking on doors, attending neighborhood events, and standing outside the Giant grocery store on Alabama Avenue. Contrary to the divisiveness that sometimes informs our community’s debate about public charter schools, they found that parents were overwhelmingly hungry for a good school option and parents didn’t care whether that it came in the form of a traditional or charter school. They just wanted something better than what the city had previously provided.

With the help of Building Hope, Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer were able to secure space in the former PR Harris Educational Center, a site that it now shares with National Collegiate Preparatory Academy PCS, the University of the District of Columbia, and fire and emergency medical services. Back in 1997, the Washington Post’s Debbie Wilgoren explained the history of the structure:

“The building opened in 1976 with 2,300 youngsters, overflow from nearby schools. Originally called Friendship Educational Center, it was renamed for Patricia Roberts Harris, the late D.C. mayoral candidate and Carter administration appointee who was the first black woman to be a Cabinet secretary and U.S. ambassador.”

Mr. Cuny informed me that current Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. attended school here.

I asked Mr. Cuny how he came to open a charter school. “I started 18 years ago as a teacher in a district middle school in Oakland, California,” Mr. Cuny recalled. “Our school had among the worst outcomes in the state and was soon shut down. From the beginning though, I knew that our students were capable of so much more, and the school’s failure wasn’t a function of our kids’ capacity but rather the inability of the adults to fix the system and run a great institution. The curriculum wasn’t rigorous, the instruction wasn’t differentiated, and teachers received no coaching or feedback on their practice. From early on, I thought that one day I’d like to have a shot at trying to build something better, a place where the adults worked together more effectively to set kids up for success.”

After five years in Oakland, Mr. Cuny taught in private schools in Mexico for two years. The students there came from affluent families and Mr. Cuny came to an immediate observation. “The instruction at those private schools was far from great but those kids were going to be fine because of their privilege and the luxury of their upbringing. My kids back in Oakland didn’t have that advantage. Society had stacked the deck against them, and a great school with really great instruction was going to be an absolute necessity to open up opportunity for them. They simply couldn’t afford to sit in classrooms with teachers and instruction that was sub-par. ”

Eventually, with a desire to settle in a place with an emerging charter sector and a city committed to school reform, Mr. Cuny came to Washington, D.C.

Through New Leaders for New Schools, Mr. Cuny became a resident principal at DC Bilingual PCS. There he joined principal Wanda Perez and Daniela Anello, now its head of school. Mr. Cuny commented that the school’s efforts between 2009 and 2012 to significantly improve student achievement was rewarding, but he saw the lack of options that existed for other families around the city, and he wanted to do his part to positively change the situation. He remembered having dinner one evening with E.L. Haynes PCS founder Jennie Niles. “I was inspired by her story of creating the school but fairly intimidated at how overwhelming it seemed,” Mr. Cuny observed. He left that meal with the realization that he was not yet ready.

Then, in fall of 2011, Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer, a colleague at DC Bilingual, set out to build a new school, from the ground up. They began writing the charter, spending their days working at the charter and their evenings interacting with educators, community leaders, and families throughout the city. “We probably met with over a hundred people that fall listening, sharing ideas, gathering feedback. We wanted to innovate, but we also wanted to stand on the shoulders of some of the leading educators who had been doing great work in this city for years,” Mr Cuny reflected.

Now, with a mission of “preparing students to succeed in college and beyond as impactful civic leaders,” Ingenuity Prep is in its sixth term. “We’ve had lots of successes over these past years,” Mr. Cuny stated, “and we’ve learned some hard lessons as well.”

I then inquired of Mr. Cuny to tell me what makes him excited about the future of his school. He asserted, “More important than anything else, a successful school that does right by kids depends on great leaders and great teachers. Growth over these past years, with us now serving over 550 students, has meant we’ve had to bring on a lot of teachers who are new to the profession, and we’ve had consistent retention of leaders and teachers. Our apprentice teacher model, which leverages mentor teachers and coaching from experienced instructors, has helped us grow some really amazing teachers. Because of the strength of this model and pedagogical support, we have teachers who are much better in their second year than I was in my seventh year.”

Ingenuity Prep, which has added a new grade level each year since its opening, now serves students through fifth grade. While the organization is approved to expand through the eighth grade, it aspires to eventually grow into a small Southeast D.C. network that will include several elementary schools, middle schools, and potentially even a high school.

The school’s educational strategy is clearly working. On the 2018 PARCC Assessment, according to the school’s press release:

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

Ingenuity Prep was also recognized this past week by EmpowerK12 as being one of the top schools in the city for out-performing expectations, the second year in a row it’s received this recognition.

Despite academic outcomes that rank among the best in the city for high-at-risk-rate schools, the school is Tier 2 on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework. Among the PMF metrics the school is looking to improve is attendance. “Adverse weather results in us taking a bigger hit in this area than other schools because if a three year old is standing outside waiting for a bus it is more difficult to get here than for a child who is driven,” Mr. Cuny pointed out. As opposed to the more centralized support of attendance the school has tried in the past, this year the school is looking to leverage teachers, those with the closest relationships with families, to address this challenge.

Mr. Cuny, however, is optimistic about the road ahead for Ingenuity Prep. He added, “Our students are already outperforming many of their higher income peers from across the city. No one in our organization is satisfied though. We’re committed to continuous improvement. In the coming years, our students will show that they can compete with the best in D.C.” Mr. Cuny concluded, “The work of running a school is really, really hard. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, in ways most folks who don’t work in schools don’t realize. We encounter tons of challenges on a daily basis, and we don’t always get it right. But I’m optimistic because of the people in our building. We have wonderful and hard-working kids, families who care deeply about the hopes and dreams of their children, and a staff that demonstrates a level of commitment that is truly inspiring. We believe deeply in our scholars, and that belief is going to carry Ingenuity Prep a long way.”

Washington Post editors miss the main point about public school reform

The editors of the Washington Post came out yesterday strongly against proposals by D.C. Councilmembers David Grosso and Mary Cheh which would divorce the Office of the State Superintendent of Education from strict Mayoral control.  I agree with the representatives, and have argued that having the Chancellor, Deputy Mayor for Education, and State Superintendent all under the authority of the Mayor inherently injects politics into the traditional schools.  Since the city’s chief executive needs votes to stay in office, the individual in this position will use the office to craft a view of the educational landscape that may not match reality.   Under the system currently in place in the nation’s capital regarding the public schools, it is predictable that a scandal would develop regarding a greatly inflated high school graduation rate.  Unfortunately, in this case, young children suffered because of a structure created by adults.

However, all of the recent controversies around diplomas, admission preference provided to the Chancellor, and residency fraud are not my main interest.  I’m trying to figure out how to quickly increase academic achievement for all of our kids, and especially those that are living in poverty, up to the rates seen by those who reside in our affluent neighborhoods.  Instead of PARCC scores in the teens or twenties I want them in the seventies.  Today.  So how do we get there?

I’m an extremely optimistic person but have to admit here that I don’t see a path forward that will lead our scholars to this endpoint, perhaps ever.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of great local charter schools that are closing the achievement gap.  They are doing this for hundreds of kids a year.  This is not what I’m talking about.  I want to change the world for the 91,537 students enrolled in all of our public schools.

To reach this state would take a complete rethinking about how we deliver education in this city.  It says much about what institutions are permitted to continue teaching our young people and expand, and which need to immediately close their doors.  Let’s be honest with each other this morning.  Without naming specific individuals because that may upset them, do you see any of our leaders across the traditional or charter school sectors making the argument for this type of transformation?  The answer is sadly no.

We need a Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, or Michelle Rhee to come to the rescue.  Someone who is willing to fight the fight despite the political bruises that will be received by those fiercely protecting the status quo.  A new hero that will sacrifice his or her time and energy for the betterment of our society.  An individual who will decide to show that it can be done.

Until this knight in shining armor comes along I’m willing to wait.  But I’m inpatient and now I’m pacing around the room.  I know we can do this, I really do.  The only question is when?



Charter school network selected to open on D.C. military base posts low standardized test scores

Yesterday, the D.C. public charter school board announced that a group of four military and four non-military families entitled the Ward 8 Parent Operator Section Team (Post) settled on the Learn Charter School Network to open a new Kindergarten through eighth grade charter school on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB). Last year, the Post group conducted a request for proposal for a charter to operate on JBAB in the aftermath of the D.C. Council passing in 2016 the Military Installation Public Charter School Amendment. The act permits a charter to open on seven acres of land next to the base. The law includes an admission preference for children of parents in the military of up to 50 percent of total enrollment. The work of Post was supported by an advisory board that included Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) and other members of the local community, and it received financial backing from Education Forward. The charter would open during the 2021-to-2022 school year and eventually serve 712 students.

Here is how LEARN describes itself in its application to the DC Public Charter School Board:

“LEARN Charter School Network, an Illinois 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is a proven provider of K-8 college preparatory education for traditionally underserved students. Since opening our first school in 2001, LEARN has grown from one school serving 110 students to a thriving network of ten charter schools serving over 4,000 students in the Chicagoland area. Our schools include LEARN 6 and LEARN 10 in North Chicago, Illinois, which serve military families of the Naval Station Great Lakes as well as the surrounding low-income community.”

LEARN is proud of its academic results and states that it outperforms schools in its neighborhoods. But frankly, the scores are nothing to get excited about. On the PARCC assessment for 2015, the latest statistics featured on the CMO’s website, the percentage of students earning a three or four, meaning they are career or college ready in the subject of math, is 17 percent. For reading this number goes up to 25 percent. This compares to the local school percentages of 13 percent and 18 percent for these subjects, respectively. For subgroups of students the numbers are also not impressive. For low-income students, also for 2015 PARCC scores, the LEARN proficiency rate is 22 percent, compared to 20 percent for Chicago Public Schools. In regard to Black students, its proficiency rate is 17 percent with CPS coming in at 15 percent, and for Hispanic students CPS has a proficiency rate of 25 percent compared to LEARN students’ 22 percent.

The application includes PARCC scores from the year 2017. These demonstrate combined math and reading proficiency rates of around 30 percent, which are similar to the state average. They are, however, significantly above those of the neighborhood schools that are in the basement at eight percent. When you look at subgroup results they come in again at about the 30 percent mark. This proportion is also significantly higher than those of the neighborhood schools. However, I would not call these findings closing the achievement gap.

It would be extremely interesting and valuable to input the charter network’s indicators into the Performance Management Framework and see where it tiers.

There are statistics on the school’s website that show some impressive student academic growth for pupils who have been at the school for at least five years. This may be one of those schools whose standardized test scores are low but whose scholars show great progress over time. But since we are talking about a charter serving military families, whose students are less likely to stay at the school for more than a couple of years, I don’t believe this fact is relevant.

The network’s PARCC test results call into question whether one of D.C.’s local charter schools should instead be selected to operate this new charter. After all, many post much stronger results with at-risk kids and they already are familiar with D.C.’s exceptionally unique public education environment and student population, although they may not have experience teaching military families.

A public hearing will be held October 15th on the LEARN application with a vote being taken by the PCSB at its November meeting.

Pearson vs. great public schools

My attention was grabbed this morning by a commentary that appeared in the New York Daily News last week entitled “De Blasio vs. Great Public Schools” by Jenny Sedlis and Derrell Bradford, who are both associated with Success Academy Public Charter Schools.  In their piece they argue that Mayor de Blasio’s legacy of overseeing the city’s schools will be that there are many parents wanting quality seats for their children who cannot obtain them due to a capacity shortage.  They write:

“When we look back decades from now on Mayor de Blasio’s tenure running New York City schools, one theme will emerge:  There are way more children and families who want great schools than there are great schools for them.

More than a million kids are fighting for a number of great schools that they can’t all fit into.  There’s no excellent school -district or charter- that doesn’t have a waiting list.  Stuyvesant, Beacon, Success Academies:  All these schools have more kids who want to get in than can.”

The article goes on to accuse Mr. de Blasio of poor treatment of Eva Moskowitz, the founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy.

While we do not have a mayor here in D.C. who is actively opposing a dynamic school leader, we do have the same problem with a lack of space in the city’s leading charter schools.  For the school term that just started there is a reported 11,317-student wait list for admission to charters.  We have talked about this topic before, but just to point out a few of the greatest in-demand schools, they include Creative Minds International PCS with 1,574 students seeking admission; D.C. Bilingual PCS with 1,292 students on the wait list; Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS – Brookland Campus with 1,827 pupils on the wait list, and Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS with 1,071 kids trying to get in. The list literally does go on and on.

So I’m sitting at my desk wondering if decades from now this will be the legacy of Scott Pearson as executive director of the Public Charter School Board.  Many people have spoken about the strengthening of  school accountability under Mr. Pearson.  Almost all of the lowest performing Tier 3 schools have been closed.  Others have mentioned the significant professional improvement in the operation of the board through more standardized policies, procedures, and practices.  Charter authorizers across the country look at the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework as the gold standard for the manner in which charters should be benchmarked against each other.  All of these accomplishments are to be commended.

But what about the tremendous frustration that parents in this town face every year when they enter the My DC school lottery?  They literally want to pull their hair out because they cannot get their children into the school of their choice.  I really don’t understand why these people stay here as residents.

So what is Mr. Pearson doing about this issue?  Well, the board is allowing some schools to replicate and increase their enrollment caps.  But as you can see the demand is so much higher than the supply.  What about making it easier for schools to grow?  How about figuring out how to provide them with buildings?  Has he looked into simplifying the application process for new schools and providing some incentives for groups to submit them?

It is fantastic to be known as the group that developed one of the strongest charter school portfolios in the nation.  But if kids cannot get access to them, then what good have you really done?

Exclusive Interview with Peter Anderson, head of school Washington Latin PCS

I had a nostalgic day recently as I returned to Washington Latin PCS, the charter where I served on the board of governors for six years. During my time as chair the school secured and renovated the old Rudolph Elementary School as it’s permanent facility.  This was also a fantastic opportunity to have my first extended conversation with Peter Anderson, the head of school who three years ago succeeded Martha Cutts in this role.  The discussion was fascinating.  I first asked Mr. Anderson how he thought Washington Latin was progressing.

“Latin is doing extremely well when you consider various indicators,” Mr. Anderson answered without hesitation.  “We continue to retain more than 80 percent of our teachers and, of those to whom we extend contracts, over 90 percent accept them.  This has been the pattern the last three years.  Of course, retaining the teaching staff is important to the overall success of the school.  One of our sayings over here is that ‘people matter’ and who is in the classroom is more important than books, buildings, or budgets.  Being able to keep our talented instructors provides continuity.  We also have some fairly new teachers who are rising stars, and who are taking on added responsibilities under the tutelage of our amazing principal Diana Smith.   These individuals are incredibly smart and acclimating exceedingly quickly.  We have been intentionally trying to develop a diverse faculty both in race and intellectual experience.  We look for a range of backgrounds.  For example, we enjoy meeting teachers who have lived internationally or traveled extensively and we look for people who have been athletes or coaches since they know what it is like to work on a team.  We have teachers who have taught in private schools and urban public schools and those that have these backgrounds who are from other parts of the country. “

The Latin head of school then spoke about other signs that the school is in a strong position.  “Our students continue to perform well on external measures,” Mr. Anderson related.  “Our students post strong scores on Advanced Placement exams, PARCC, SAT, the National Latin Exam, and the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages.  In addition, both our middle and high schools are ranked Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework”

However, following in the exact mold of former head Martha Cutts, the leader of Washington Latin believes there is more to be done.

“Our goal is to improve the academic performance of our at-risk student population and that of African American males,” Mr. Anderson asserted.

With the recent news that many of the city’s independent schools are eliminating Advanced Placement, I wanted to get Mr. Anderson’s take on the value of these courses.  He responded to my question as if he and his team had already spent hours pondering the same issue.  “We still believe that AP is rigorous yet doesn’t pigeonhole us into having to teach to the test.  The instructional staff makes every attempt to make advanced placement more accessible to a wide variety of students.  We have actually added AP classes and designed some of our own more challenging courses, such as Honors Humanities, The History of Jerusalem, and Advanced Arabic.”

Mr. Anderson added that Washington Latin now offers AP Computer Science Principles that appeals to a diverse group of scholars.  He informed me that a goal is for students to track in AP classes in an earlier age.

“This summer we had approximately 250 out of our 700 students attend summer school,” he said. “Only a small percentage of those are there for remediation.  Summer school allows pupils to work in small groups to prepare for more rigorous classes in the future.  For example, we offered a bridge class to Algebra 2.  Now more students are taking geometry in middle school.  One class that was particularly interesting was Underwater Robotics.”

Mr. Anderson then returned to some of the other positive trends currently being experienced at Latin.

“Depending upon the grade level, Mr. Anderson explained, “we retain about 95 percent of our students year after year.  Some grades retain 100 percent of their class.  Our internal surveys of parents and students indicate high levels of satisfaction with the school.  We were recently re-accredited for five years by AdvancED and we solicited intensive feedback from our parents, students and teachers as part of this process.”

When asked about college performance, Mr. Anderson indicated that “in regard to our matriculating seniors, we brought in a record $10.5 million in merit-based scholarships in 2017; this year a smaller graduating class realized $6.6 million.   In addition, the list of colleges and universities that our students are attending grows each term.  This year, there is a student attending New York University in Shanghai.  Another will be studying in Rome.  Past graduating seniors have enrolled in community college, small liberal arts colleges, Ivy League schools, large research universities, and HBCU’s in all parts of the country. Note that fit is of the utmost importance to us.  As such, we are always looking for post-secondary options that can meet the needs of our graduates, whether it is a larger institution like the University of Vermont, a smaller college like Eckerd, the military, or culinary school.”

I next wanted to know from Mr. Anderson what he is enjoying most about his time at Latin.  “There are a number of things I love here,” the head of school asserted.  “I would have to start with the team that leads this school.  Over the course of my 21-year career I have often gone into leadership roles in which I’ve had to restructure and bring in new people.  That is just not my experience here.  This is the best leadership group with whom I’ve ever worked.  It makes my job so much easier and allows me to think strategically instead of having to be in the weeds.  As you can see I really appreciate them.”

Mr. Anderson continued, “I also truly enjoy the community here.  The people who work here are genuinely interested in the lives of their colleagues.  The level of compassion and empathy toward each other is so rewarding to see and there is a really positive relationship between the teachers and students.  Please allow me to tell you a story about this topic.  When I was a student teacher at NYU I was assigned to work at a Title 1 school in Chinatown.  The second school at which I trained was in Tribeca, which was a highly progressive institution of non-Title 1 children.  One day when I walked into the teachers’ lounge of the first school I heard the instructors bashing the kids.  Now, I knew these pupils were good kids and were compliant, which is a proxy for what many teachers consider to be respectful.  I never walked into that room again.  Here at Latin, the teachers’ lounge is right next to my office.  When you enter this space, you hear philosophical discussions amongst the staff.  You see co-workers in deep conversations about how best to help particular students or engaged in collaborative planning.  It is inspiring.  Being with the faculty demonstrates that they believe in, and constantly reinforce, our motto that “words matter.”

Mr. Anderson also stated that he really enjoys being in Washington, D.C. where it is so charter school friendly.

“When I worked in New York I got involved in charter advocacy,” he recalled. “I would go up to Albany and lobby where I would see Seth Andrews, the creator of Democracy Prep PCS, and Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy PCS.  They received most of the attention.  But my career afforded me a unique prospective because the first charter I led in Harlem, a Kindergarten to eighth grade school, was a conversion from a traditional school.  Therefore, it was unionized.  So, I was able to talk to state representatives from this angle.”

Here in D.C., Mr. Anderson is excited that Washington Latin has now joined the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.  The Latin Head of Schools explained that the group is an association of charters that are not part of charter management organizations.  He detailed that the newly established national group is set up to share best practices, advocate for favorable local, state, and federal policies, and pursue funding and other resources. Latin is also of course a party to the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit brought against the city for equitable charter school funding compared to DCPS.  Mr. Anderson is proud that the initial judgment siding with the traditional schools is being appealed and that Latin is a part of this effort.

An area we briefly touched on, but perhaps the one that speaks volumes about the success of this school, is the student demand to be admitted.  This term there were 2,300 applications for approximately 100 open slots.  As the final part of the school’s five-year strategic plan adopted in 2016 the charter will eventually expand.  With Mr. Anderson’s experience as a teacher, administrator, and school leader in traditional, parochial, and charter schools, together with his high performing leadership team, this appears just the right group to bring Washington Latin to the next level.

U.S. Education Secretary DeVos pays visit to Friendship Public Charter School

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein details today that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited three traditional public schools yesterday to congratulate them on their recent PARCC results.  The DCPS elementary schools, Amidon-Bowen, Hendley, and Simon, each scored greater than the 2.8 city-wide average increase in English and the 2.5 improvement in math over the previous year and each serves primarily low income children.  She delivered cookies and a congratulatory note at each stop.  The appearances were a surprise to the schools.

What Ms. Stein failed to mention is that Ms. Devos also went to Friendship PCS.  Chief Executive Officer Patricia Brantley in her Facebook post does not mention the name of the campus where Ms. DeVos posed for a picture with some of the students but I bet it was Technology Preparatory High School, the same location that was featured by Ms. Stein in a story the other day.  As the DC Public Charter School Board highlighted last week, Tech Prep had the greatest increase in standardized test scores of all charters compared to 2017 rising 22.3 percent in English and 13.6 percent in math.

Ms. DeVos’s show of support is exactly the right move by someone in her position.  As people in leadership know, everything  you do and say is going to be watched and scrutinized by those around you so it is critically important to be intentional in all of your actions.

The Education Secretary’s choice stands in sharp contrast to the decision of D.C. Mayor Bowser as to where to start her Monday morning on the beginning of the new school year.  She went to Excel Academy, the closed all-girl charter school that has converted to be part of DCPS.  One reason that has been offered for the institution’s decision to become a regular school instead of being taken over by KIPP DC PCS or Friendship was that it wanted to avoid the strict accountability that it experienced under the PCSB.  Bringing attention to a school that was shuttered for low academic performance is not exactly the message of high expectations that you want to send to each of our public school families and students.

Ms. Bowser sent a similar communication when she stated that she could wait until after her Democratic primary contest was concluded to begin the search for a new Chancellor.  Antwan Wilson, the previous person in this position, resigned on February 20, 2018.  The primary was on June 29th, four months later.  Ms. Bowser had no real opponent.  The decision just shouts loud and clear that education is not a priority.

I am convinced that it is intentionality that separates the charters that succeed from those that do not. I have heard the term consistently emphasized by the school leaders that are in charge of some of the most respected schools in our city.   It is one of most prominent characteristics I see in the heads of organizations that I respect and admire.  Perhaps if we really want to see PARCC scores go up dramatically in this town we all need to adopt a strictly intentional attitude around learning.



D.C.’s Friendship Tech Prep perfectly illustrates problem with charter board’s grading system

Today, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, who is doing some excellent reporting, tells the story of Lakia Mines, a 12 year old homeless young woman who yesterday started seventh grade at Friendship PCS Technology Preparatory Academy High School in Anacostia. Please visit the Post’s website so you can see a picture of this beautiful child.

If you have never seen the Friendship Tech building you are missing something special. The school spent $14 million to build the state-of-the-art facility, and in 2014 my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of touring it right before it opened. But I digress. Please pay close attention to the words of Ms. Stein that brought tears to my eyes early this morning:

“A year ago, Lakia, who has special-education needs, entered sixth grade at Friendship Tech reading at kindergarten level. School officials say she made significant progress last year and starts the seventh grade reading at the fourth-grade level — a feat that has rendered her more confident and her mother proud.

‘She just did a 180 last year and turned around,’ Malonda Mines, her mother, said. ‘I’m so happy she’s doing well. It’s amazing to me.’

At Friendship, Lakia meets with social and mental-health workers regularly. The school provided her family with free uniforms. And she has intensive and personalized academic assistance so she can attend mainstream classes while an aide helps tailor the lessons to her level.

She has a longer commute than most of her classmates, so the school coordinates transportation, which allows her to participate in the dance team’s evening practices.

Because of all of this, Lakia’s first day of school Monday played out like that of any other student.”

Let me repeat. Lakia started Friendship Tech Prep last year in sixth grade at the Kindergarten level academically. She is now in the seventh grade and reading at the fourth grade level. She advanced four grades in one term. For being able to perform this miracle, Friendship Prep received a 54.5 percent score on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework, which makes it a middle to high Tier 2 institution. Last year, the charter earned a 50.1 percent, still in the Tier 2 category.

The charter board is extremely proud of its record of steering families to enroll their children in Tier 1 schools. So what does this ranking communicate to parents living in poverty whose sons or daughters cannot read, write, or perform basic mathematics? To me, it says don’t go to Friendship Tech Prep, you’d better find a “better” school. Give up the free school uniforms, social and mental health assistance, and transportation. And those Tier one schools that you may be interest in having your children attend? Many have wait-lists of hundreds of kids.

I think something has to change. The work being done at Friendship and at other schools that educate populations in which every pupil is economically disadvantaged needs to be celebrated. Ms. Perry states:

“By the time the bus arrived at 7 a.m., Lakia was ready — and slightly nervous — to travel across town from the District’s Fort Totten neighborhood to Friendship Tech Prep Academy, a charter school in Congress Heights that greeted students with exuberant songs, chants and dances.”

We should be greeting the staff of Friendship Tech Prep PCS every day with songs, chants, and dances for the truly amazing work they are doing.

The mystery of lethargic D.C. charter academic performance

The report card came in on Thursday afternoon in the way of the 2018 PARCC assessment scores and the findings were frankly anemic.  It was actually a sad day.  As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported:

“D.C. Public Schools outperformed charter schools on the 2018 PARCC test. Overall, the traditional school system showed greater improvement over 2017 and had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the tests.”

How in the world could DCPS, dysfunctional from the loss of its most recent Chancellor, embroiled in a high school graduation controversy, and reeling from accusations of residency fraud at one of its most prominent institutions, top the collective standardized test scores of D.C.’s charter schools?  After all these are the entities that are free from the constraints of the regular schools to hire their own staff, set many of their own operating rules, design the curriculum, and establish their own goals.  They are provided freedom to innovate in return for being accountable for their results to the DC Public Charter School Board.  In order to reach kids that traditional schools have not, almost all of them have longer school days, smaller class sizes, and describe themselves as extremely tight-knit communities.  Charters are recognized as paying particular close attention to the needs of their students and families because their revenue stream is dependent upon how many children are sitting in its classrooms each October.  With an ecosystem like this in place for over 20 years, and with the exception of one campus a lack of teacher union representation, these nonprofits should be soaring way above the clouds academically compared to the bureaucratic DCPS.  What is going on?

Well I think I know the answer.  We have a problem with the way we are conducting our local movement. Here are the issues.

First, the charter school facility problem is proving to be intractable.  We are so fortunate to have Building Hope and other like-minded groups here and banks that now actually have some understanding of charter school finance.  However, it is still, after two decades, much too difficult for a charter to obtain a permanent home.  In fact, the task is almost impossible.  The hunt for a building is a tremendous distraction from educating our scholars, and is restricting the replication of high performing schools that could help more kids.  I do not accept that with so many smart people invested in this cause that a solution to this issue cannot be found.

Second, we desperately have to rethink the PCSB mantra that charters must be “Tier 1 on day 1.”  The pressure to be atop the Performance Management Framework rankings is driving schools to what Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform calls “isomorphism.”  Ms. Allen defines isomorphism as “the process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others who face similar environmental conditions.”  The phenomenon is resulting in charters looking more and more like the traditional schools already failing our children, and is causing them to shy away from true innovation.

The PCSB must be a true partner in reversing this trend.  Some crucially important steps are needed such as:

  • Holding off PMF tiering a new school for two years instead of one,
  • Giving CMOs that replicate a one-year hiatus for the entire system and not just the new campus,
  • Significantly reducing the reporting requirements of the schools it oversees,
  • Simplifying the new school application process, and
  • Redesigning the PMF to emphasize student growth over absolute test scores.

Charters enroll some of the most difficult to teach pupils.  Forty-eight percent of the kids in these schools are classified as at-risk.  Many live in poverty.  Almost all enter these schools years behind their age-appropriate grade level.  Yet, with all of these mighty challenges, some leaders are stating that it appears that the PCSB is running their schools in place of themselves.

Charters are really at a critical juncture.  As evidence for my conclusion consider that just last week, Democracy Prep PCS, which is located in Ward 8 and enrolls 656 students with a wait-list of 111, announced it was abandoning the District rather than face a five-year charter review.  This is exactly the opposite of what our city needs.  We desperately want high performing charter networks moving into the nation’s capital, not the other way around.  But they don’t want to come.  It is too difficult to find a place in which to operate and the regulation is overbearing.

There is no time to waste.  The times call for exceedingly bold actions.




Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss on Arne Duncan

President Obama’s first education secretary Arne Duncan has written a book entitled How Schools Work, and last Sunday he talked about his work at Politics and Prose. My wife and I would have liked to be there but my grandson Oliver turned five years old and we were instead grateful to be at his ice skating birthday party watching his one year old brother Emmett.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss was in attendance, and as would be expected had much to complain about concerning his remarks. She was never a fan of Mr. Duncan because he advocated policies when he was in office with which she strenuously disagrees such as the expansion of the number of charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and use of the Common Core curriculum. But there was one paragraph in her article about his work as United States Education Secretary that really caught my attention.

“What he didn’t do, which some in the education world argue is the most important thing he could have attacked, is this: attempt to change the way the United States funds its public schools. School districts rely in large part on property taxes, which guarantees that poor communities have schools with fewer resources. Federal funding aimed at closing the gap doesn’t come close, and, so, in this country, standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives, making reforms that place high stakes on the scores nonsensical.”

It is tragically true that in 2018 for far too many students standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives. But a policy that dramatically changes this equation, private school vouchers, is attacked at every opportunity by Ms. Strauss and Mr. Duncan. When he served in Mr. Obama’s cabinet, Mr. Duncan took every step at his disposal to shutdown D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan created by Congress for kids living in poverty. He so restricted the number of families that could participate that instead of continuing to administer the awards, Joseph E. Robert, Jr. closed the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization he had founded to provide private school tuition for low-income scholars. Here is the letter Mr. Robert sent to Mr. Duncan in 2009 about his decision.

This is what I would have asked him about if I could have attended the book forum. I would have wanted to know how he could sleep at night knowing that while his children received a high quality education, be personally blocked hundreds of young people without means from the same chance.

D.C.’s local charter school movement needs to learn from Democracy Prep

In nearly a decade of writing about charters in the nation’s capital, I have never seen a decision by a school like the one revealed by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein last week.  Here is Democracy Prep PCS, a stellar charter network with facilities in six cities, deciding before the new school year had even begun that it would shutter its classrooms here in Washington, D.C. at the end of the term.  It has announced it will find another operator for the site.  Here’s how the school’s website describes its track record:

“Founded in 2005 and opening our first school in 2006, Democracy Prep set out to prove what is possible for public education in America. Our flagship school, Democracy Prep Charter Middle School, first opened its doors in August 2006. By 2009, DPCS became the highest performing school in Central Harlem and was ranked the number one public middle school in New York City.

Democracy Prep Public Schools currently operates 22 high-performing schools and one program in New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Baton Rouge, and Las Vegas educating 6,500 citizen-scholars. The incredible growth of the scholars is possible through the tireless and dedicated work of the educators who make up our DREAM Team.

By proving that students, regardless of what ZIP code they are born into, can perform at high academic levels, we seek to transform not only the lives of the students at Democracy Prep but also the expectation of what public schools can achieve.”

I guess there is an exemption for closing the achievement gap if the zip code is in Washington, D.C.  But this is absurd.  This is not the way charter schools operate.

What has happened to the can-do, beat-the-odds no matter what is thrown at us, attitude that has characterized this movement since its inception more than twenty years ago?  It was perfectly captured this year in the efforts of Washington Math Science and Technology PCS that fought with all its might to stay open despite intractable financial difficulties.  It is the fortitude that is found in any of the city’s charters that has been successful in securing a permanent facility.  It is the guts and bravery of the heroic individuals who believe they can start a school from nothing and hire the staff, design the curriculum, recruit the families, and balance a budget as part of the start-up business that a charter school represents.

So if Democracy Prep is really going to throw in the towel, we really have to understand the reason.  We need to know because we cannot let it spread to other institutions.  We need to stamp it out like we would a racial slur or the words of someone who defends the status quo in public education as the best that we can do.  We cannot let it infect people who believe with every cell in their bodies that today is going to be a better day than the one before it.

I only ask one thing of Democracy Prep.  Please don’t let the entire school school year go by before you select another operator.  Make that choice immediately so we don’t have to be tortured watching the slow demise of a school with a proud and distinguished history.  Get out of town now.  Its bad enough you are going to abandon over 650 children living in poverty, but I urge you not to let this tragedy linger in our minds like some plague that has been foisted upon the citizens of our city.

Am I upset?  You bet I am.  The move by Democracy Prep is a direct shot at the bright optimism of all of us that fight around the clock to improve the lives of others who in the past have been told in no uncertain terms that they are not important.  At the end of the day, it is often only the optimism that we have left.