KIPP DC PCS’s 2018 KIPProm

There is so much beauty in this world and if you look for it you will find it all around you.  A shining example was last Friday night as my wife Michele and I attended the fifth annual KIPP DC PCS 2018 KIPProm.   We headed over to Dock 5 at Union Market from which, appropriately, out the windows you can see KIPP DC College Prep High School.

We entered the event space to find KIPP teachers and supporters attired for an elegant night on the town.  For men, black tie was the wardrobe of choice.  There were open bars all around surrounded by waiters and waitresses passing appetizers appropriate for a party at a Ritz Carlton Hotel.   Silent auction items for which guests could bid were lined up along the perimeter of the hall.  At the conclusion of a fast-paced hour, it was time to transfer to the adjacent room for dinner and the formal program.

The KIPProm fundraiser supports the school’s College to Career Program.  The night’s program explained why this effort is important:

“Every child deserves an excellent education and the opportunity to graduate from college and enter a rewarding career.  Unfortunately, many children in the District of Columbia face a different reality and have limited access to quality educational options.  KIPP Through College & Career is part of KIPP DC’s promise to students and families that we will foster the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to become thoughtful, intentional citizens in the competitive world.  Our alumni have amazing potential and KIPP Through College & Career helps them navigate the world beyond KIPP DC and fully realize this potential.”

The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Trauvello Stevenson, an emerging comedian who is also an alumna of KIPP DC Key Academy and is a teacher at KIPP DC Quest Academy,  She directed us to a lesson plan covering the five keys to college persistence that include having a passion, purpose and plan; focusing on academics; actively networking and navigating; being financially fit; and knowing who you are.

The next portion of the agenda was fascinating.  Situated around the room at various dinner tables were four former KIPP students who took turns standing at their seats to explain their backgrounds and experiences in college.  Each of the five-to-ten minute perfectly articulate speeches brought tears to my eyes as these young adults passionately described the severe struggles they have faced in their lives and the adversity they have successfully overcome.  We heard from Aaron Ford, 2017 graduate of Towson University; August Colbert, 2018 graduate of Bowie State University; Lawrence Davin, 2018 graduate of Radford University; and Toria Walker, 2015 graduate of Mount Holyoke College.

All of the remarks were amazing, but it was Ms. Walker whose words sent chills through my spine.  She recalled growing up in Southeast D.C. where the quality of life experienced during her childhood was about as opposite as you can get from 99 percent of us reading this article.  Of course, the notion of going to college when she was little was the equivalent of being transported to another planet.  Her heroic efforts, together with KIPP DC, turned all of this completely around.

The current mantra of educators is that they are meeting students where they are.  But in the case of Ms. Walker, this is literally what happened.  She described her college adviser traveling across mountains to check up on her at Mount Holyoke.  We learned that efforts like this are the norm, not the exception, when it comes to the higher education school supports provided by KIPP.  College to Career has already raised $3.9 million in scholarships and grants for its 2018 graduating class.

Her story dovetailed perfectly with the conversation we had during the reception with our friend KIPP DC president and chief operating officer Allison Fansler.  She explained that at the charter, 50 percent of their students are completing college once admitted.  She is exceedingly proud of this statistic because across the country students with a background like Ms. Walker’s only earn a college degree 9 percent of the time.  Still, KIPP DC, which now educates over 6,100 students on 16 campuses in six geographic regions of the city, is trying to figure out how raise this number even higher.  It is a goal that I have no doubt this charter network will achieve.

It was now time for dancing.  The event raised over $250,000.






Exclusive interview with Julie Meyer, former executive director The Next Step Public Charter School

I had the great honor of sitting down for an interview recently with Julie Meyer, the recently departed executive director of The Next Step PCS.  I asked her about how she came to the school.  “My family moved to D.C. in 1988,” Ms. Meyer explained.  “I was appalled at  the state of public schools and felt that, with home rule, city officials should be focusing on quality education for all youth.  I myself am a red diaper baby, meaning that my parents were members of the Communist Party.  My mother was a teacher in Los Angeles and worked on issues such as racism in the public school system.  She was actually called before the Hollywood version of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  In college and after graduation, I became an activist involved with the Central America solidarity movement, which was organized around opposition to American military involvement in the region. I also worked for The Central American Refugee/Resource Center, which provides support for immigrants fleeing hostile conditions in that part of the world, and later helped found and direct the Lambi Fund of Haiti.

In 2005, Ms. Meyer met Linda Ohmans, the founding principal of The Next Step.  “The Next Step PCS is the oldest charter school in the city,” Ms. Meyer detailed.  “It was chartered in 1996 by the D.C. Board of Education and opened in the fall of 1998 when our founding organization, the Latin American Youth Center, opened their main site on Columbia Road.  Linda sought a part-time executive director.  She was aware I spoke Spanish and that I knew the Latino community and nonprofit management, but I didn’t have a Masters’ Degree in Education.  She needed someone to interact with the Board of Education and to assist with securing a permanent facility.  We had about 70 students at the time and had severe space constraints. We decided to add an evening program because of demand and economies of scale.  In a matter of about two years my position transitioned to full-time.”

Before I go any further, I just want to include some background information about the The Next Step PCS.  The mission of The Next Step PCS is to “provide students who face extraordinary challenges and who are not supported in traditional high schools with the opportunity to continue their education.”  The school’s website details its main features as follows:

  • TNSPCS offers a bilingual (English/Spanish) ABE (adult basic education), GED, and ESL program open to all youth between the ages 16-24.
  • Class sizes are small and the student support and engagement staff includes social workers, case managers, attendance and transportation coordinators, and college and career counselors.
  • Three free, healthy meals per day are available to students and free childcare is offered both day and evening.
  • The program is offered year-round, with a minimum of 195 instructional days and has developed a curriculum aligned with the national common core standards and the GED examination.
  • TNSPCS uses differentiated instruction, instructional technology, restorative practices and tutors to accommodate a diverse student body. Students receive guidance in order to continue their education beyond the GED at community college, vocational education programs and/or further English proficiency courses.

The Next Step is a Tier 1 charter as ranked on the DC Public Charter School Board’s 2017 Performance Management Framework, the first time that it has reached this mark in the three years that this tool has been used to benchmark schools.  Here’s what the board had to say about The Next Step reaching this milestone, “The Next Step PCS educates students ages 16-24, with the average student being 21.6 years of age. Over the years, this Tier 1 school has managed to create a school environment that has led to achieving an 88% student enrollment rate throughout the 2016-17 school year. This is the highest retention rate among all the adult education public charter schools.”  The charter now teaches approximately 400 students, with 92.1 percent of its enrollment classified as being composed of Hispanic/Latino and 6.4 percent being black.  Eighty-nine percent of the student body are English Language Learners and 4.5 percent are special education students.

The Next Step was originally located in the same building as the LAYC, and opened with 25 students.  Ms. Meyer related to me that the school quickly ran out of room.  “There was a lot of demand for an evening program and we believed that we could use these classes to help pay for additional square feet,” Ms. Meyer recalled.  “Like a lot of charter schools, two different negotiations for a permanent facility fell through.  The third one was the charm, which we accomplished through the assistance of Ten Square Consulting.”

The charter’s home on 15th Street, N.W. was owned by Capital City PCS, but that school outgrew this location.  In December 2011, Next Step purchased the building and moved in the following summer.  The structure originally served as the headquarters for the Central Presbyterian Church.  Woodrow Wilson became a member of the congregation shortly after becoming President in 1913.  Sometime after 1958 the church vacated the property.  It had been utilized by community groups until Capital City purchased it and renovated the dilapidated space.

Ms. Meyer characterizes The Next Step as “not fitting neatly into any boxes.” She mentioned that the school teaches many of the most at-risk students in the city.  It provides courses in ESL and prepares pupils to take the GED.  The population is composed of  a majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants.  There are 10 native languages represented at the school.

The charter, according to Ms. Meyer, completed a two-year process last summer to develop its strategic priorities.  She summarized them as “keeping the students coming and keeping them enrolled.”  These goals can be a challenge, Ms. Meyer added, because many of the students have jobs and kids of their own.  Priorities include continuing to create more flexible schedules to accommodate student needs, growing the Career and Life Skills department, and, with the assistance of a $500,000 grant from CityBridge Education, implementing Individual Life Plans to encourage greater agency and goal-setting and monitoring by students themselves.

I then wanted to know from Ms. Meyer why she thought the school was able to reach the Adult Education PMF Tier 1 level.  “The school makes every effort to provide supports needed to maintain students in class and approaches young people with respect and kindness, building strong relationships between students and staff,” Ms. Meyer remarked.  She pointed to the fact that Next Step had 57 of its students obtain their GED last year. This statistic represents around an 80 percent pass rate for those academically prepared to take the test.  Students must be reading at at least the 11th grade level to pass the GED, but at The Next Step most students enter on average at a fourth-to-fifth grade level in their native languages.

Ms. Meyer was excited about the efforts the school has made in tracking the progress of its students.  “We remain in contact with alumni as much as possible and continue to support them as they develop their education and careers,” the former executive director beamed.  “We push hard to have them go to college. They often go to the University of the District of Columbia or Trinity Washington University when the idea of obtaining a higher degree never entered their minds. Some students attend culinary school or other vocational training programs. We assist them with applications, financial aid, and more.”

Another goal of the charter which Ms. Meyer is especially excited about is the expansion of career and life skills training provided to the student body,  including, among many avenues: financial literacy, legal workshops, career exploration opportunities, and computer literacy.  “Unfortunately, people take advantage of immigrants, and the poor,” Ms. Meyer exclaimed.  “Our students also receive legal training. They often don’t realize they have rights. We link them with mental health services and organizations that provide legal assistance and provide transportation assistance. Housing remains a major problem for low-income youth in our city.”

Ms. Meyer then summarized the achievements of Next Step PCS.  “We meet the students where they are,” she intoned.  “We have been able to grow the school in size, comprehensiveness, and flexibility.  Every staff member becomes a mentor for these students.  It is a relationship-based school.  All who come in contact with us mention the positive atmosphere. We have students articulate their short and long-term professional, personal, and academic goals.”

In conclusion I wanted to know about Ms. Meyer’s current plans.  Although she said that she has nothing presently lined up, she did want to talk about the transition. “I believe leadership changes are good,” Ms. Meyer stated.  “I feel that transitions become more difficult when the organization becomes linked with one individual and style. The Next Step is fortunate to have an excellent, experienced senior management team and a new executive director who will help take the school to the next level.  We are currently a great school that in three to five years I believe can be a national model for educating older, opportunity youth.  This is really not an easy space within which to operate.  I’m extremely hopeful for the future of Next Step PCS.”

D.C. four year high school graduation rates clearly show the power of charter sector

With the trifecta of controversies recently experienced by D.C.’s traditional school system, it is easy to miss an obvious point about the condition of public education in the nation’s capital:  we desperately need more seats for children in our city’s strong performing charter schools.  My reasoning behind this conclusion is straightforward and compelling.

Last week it was announced that the new estimate for the DCPS 2018 four-year graduation rate will be around 42 percent.  Kate McGee of WAMU presents the background:

“DCPS says it’s releasing this data for the first time to increase transparency after an investigation found that one-third of last year’s graduates received diplomas even though they didn’t meet all the graduation requirements.

‘We are focused on making sure the students who graduate have earned their diploma and the students and communities feels that way as well,’ said Michelle Lerner [no relation], Deputy Chief of Communications for DCPS.”

The low statistic comes after the Office of the State Superintendent of Education just last November claimed that the four-year adjusted cohort high school graduation rate for DCPS was 73.2 percent.  This figure was only slightly lower than the charter school rate of 73.4 percent.  However, we know now that 34 percent of seniors attending the regular schools should not have been given diplomas.  If we subtract the 34 percent from the originally published OSSE rate we get a true percentage of 39.2, exceedingly close to the recent estimate of the size of the graduating class in 2018.

Moreover, as was documented by the OSSE study looking into this mess, the matriculation scandal did not occur at charters.  If this sector’s four-year graduation rate remains the same this year as in 2017, although we certainly hope it will improve, the astonishing reality is that there will be a 31.4 percent delta between the number of pupils that graduate in four years from a charter high school compared to the number that graduate in four years from a facility that is a part of DCPS.

Charters will therefore graduate one-third more of their students.  In addition, these schools will most certainly greatly exceed the DCPS graduation rates for important at-risk subgroups of students.  When the DC Public Charter School Board released its graduation statistics last year it made the following observation:

“For five consecutive years, public charter high schools have consistently exceeded the four-year citywide averages for: African American (72.6% graduated), economically disadvantaged (74% graduated), and Hispanic (79.2% graduated).”

We now know that the charter board was greatly underestimating the groundbreaking and astonishing achievements of the schools it oversees.  It is therefore not in anyway an exaggeration to state that if you are a parent sending your child to a high school in the nation’s capital the choice of whether to choose a charter or traditional school has become a potentially life-changing event.

The problem is that there are not a sufficient number of quality charter high school seats.  For the 2017-to-2018 school year, the PCSB has estimated that there is a 1,600-student wait-list.

As Miss Bowser selects a new Deputy Mayor for Education and a new DCPS Chancellor, and as the City Council grapples with how to restructure its relationship with the Mayor in order to prevent the recent problems from re-occurring any time soon, it is imperative that charters must expand to serve as many of our kids as possible.  In this case the numbers really do tell the story.


Exclusive interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

Note on the interview:  My meeting with Dr. Woodruff took place shortly before the resignations of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles and DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and a few days prior to Excel Academy PCS announcing that it would become part of DCPS next school year.

I had the privilege of sitting down recently for an conversation with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I have interviewed Dr. Woodruff a couple of times in the past, and sadly, this will be the last one as PCSB chair since his term is ending in the spring.  He has been on the board for the last nine years.  I began by asking Dr. Woodruff for his viewpoint on the situation at Ballou High School.   He had clearly already formed an opinion.

“I think the problems at Ballou are not unique to that school,” the PCSB chairman informed me.  “It is important to me that we not throw the teachers, administrators, and most of all the students under the bus.  I view what took place at Ballou regarding high student absenteeism, and the pressure placed on teachers to graduate these kids, as an opportunity.  If the Mayor, D.C. Council, DCPS Chancellor, and other public education stakeholders take this seriously then we have a chance to improve the situation.  We know we are dealing with an extremely challenging environment with these kids.  We need to figure out a way to support them.  The question is what as a city are we going to do about it.  We should not be talking about these issues two years from now.”

I pointed out to Dr. Woodruff that the same consultants who investigated Ballou on behalf of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also looked at D.C.’s charter schools and did not find the same pattern of irregularities around high school graduations.  I asked him for the reason behind this finding.  “I think we are not seeing these things,” the PCSB chairman opined, “because we have an established a consistent metric for school quality in the Performance Management Framework.  Our sector has persistently and unapologetically focused on quality.  In addition, the PCSB has had consistent leadership.  We look at school transcripts.  I sign all high school diplomas.  We have an infrastructure in place to monitor student academic progress.  The PCSB executive director Scott Pearson and his staff continue to search for ways to further evaluate the advancement of our charter school pupils.  At the same time, I have to give credit to our school leaders that adhere to high standards.”

A controversial topic that came up recently in our local charter movement was the placement of John Goldman, the PCSB’s senior manager, finance, analysis and strategy, on administrative leave after it was discovered that he had written material associated with discriminatory views of the Alt-Right.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if a final decision had been made about his continued employment.  “I’m not exactly sure where we are with this to be frank,” Dr. Woodruff revealed. “ I know that we are in the middle of an investigation.”

I then requested from Dr. Woodruff to understand his overall impression of how charters are doing at this point in their 22-year history.  “Overall, very well,” Dr. Woodruff commented without hesitation. “We now have 51 Tier 1 schools as ranked on the PMF.  With the exception of Ward 3, we have a variety of quality campuses in each of the city’s wards.  Fully 40 percent of our schools are Tier 1.  We have waiting lists at most of our schools.  There are exciting schools opening in the fall.  I contend that we should be celebrating how far we have come.  Families are now at least considering sending their children to charter schools when this was not the case not all that long ago, and we want to see them get even better.  I’ve been exceedingly privileged and blessed to see the improvements in our portfolio of schools.  We must remember that there is no finish line.  We can continually raise our performance.”

The charter board voted last month to close Excel Academy PCS at the conclusion of this school year.  I had heard from some Excel teachers at this year’s FOCUS Charter School Conference that KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS were vying to take over the charter.  I asked Dr. Woodruff if he had the same understanding.  The PCSB chair asserted, “I hope someone does continue its operation.  We don’t want to scatter more than 600 students to the wind.  We hope a strong school will take it over, especially since this is an all-girls school.  It is up to the Excel board, not us, as to the organization that would eventually lead the school.”

During the discussion about the future of Excel, that school and Somerset PCS made the case that the PMF is biased against charters that teach a large percentage of at-risk students.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if he agreed with this assessment.  He responded immediately.  “No, I don’t believe that there is a bias.  Every year our staff does a validity check to determine whether the tool is predisposed against any group, whether it is at-risk kids, African-Americans, boys, or girls.  We have not found a significant correlation that this is occurring.  But based upon the recent testimony by those schools we will take another look.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “There are charters in Wards 7 and 8 that as part of their heroic missions are taking in the most difficult to educate children.  We should be rewarding these schools with special recognition.  It is an exceptionally difficult population to teach.  These pupils are different from those in Ward 1, for example.  We should highlight the work of places like KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, DC Prep, and other schools whose strategies are working with these children.  We can dive deeper and see how they are doing it, and then hopefully share that information with other charters.”

Next, I brought up a couple of points that attorney Stephen Marcus had addressed in my interview with him.  First, he alerted me to the fact that schools are required by the PCSB to earn a PMF score of at least 45 percent at the 10 year mark of operation and 50 percent at 15 years of teaching.  He related that the PCSB puts pressure on schools to adopt the PMF as their goals, and then eventually raises its floors.  The attorney contends that this action is equivalent to the charter board setting charter school goals which is a violation of the School Reform Act.  I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to these assertions.  “There is nothing particularly magical about a score of 45 or 50,” Dr. Woodruff explained.  “What we want to see is that there is improvement.  We did not establish the expectation that a school would score a 65 percent at a particular period in time which is at the Tier 1 level.  We give schools flexibility to earn Tier 2 but we don’t believe schools should be Tier 3 after being open for 10 or 15 years.  As to Mr. Marcus’s point about the floors, yes, they have gone up, but so has the academic track record of our charters.  It is like grading on a curve.  If all schools had recorded lower performance levels, then the floors would be lowered.  I don’t want to apologize for our increased expectations for student learning.  We want to see all schools do their best for the children they serve.”

The last topic I wanted to raise with the charter board chair was his vote last year against the expansion plans of D.C Prep because of its higher than average student suspension rates.  The board’s initial decision on this matter to not approve the charter amendments caused much controversy as people accused the PCSB of exceeding its authority under the SRA.   I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to the above statement, and that is exactly what he did in a highly emotional manner.  “Here’s the thing,” Dr. Woodruff said.  “I respect the SRA as much as anyone else.  As I mentioned earlier, the board’s primary focus is school quality.  My interest in raising school quality is the reason I joined this board.  What we have found is that school discipline is not being administered uniformly.  Consider these statistics.  During the 2016-to-2017 school year 17 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charter schools had zero suspensions.  40 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade LEA’s suspended less than 10 percent of their pupils.  67 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charters, or 60 percent, saw less than 10 percent of their kids suspended.

The average suspension rate is about 9 percent.  Therefore, here’s what we did as a board.  We took the nine percent figure and tripled it, considering that any school that had a suspension rate three times the average was an outlier.  Schools such as D.C. Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, KIPP DC PCS, Monument Academy PCS, National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, Paul PCS, and Seed PCS are in this category.  11 campuses were outliers that represents only 7 charter school LEA’s.  Moreover, it is not that these suspension rates are leading these schools to become Tier 1 institutions because several are Tier 2 or Tier 3 schools.  I’m personally concerned about these schools and the impact of suspensions on their students.”

Dr. Woodruff had much more to say on this topic.  “The vast majority of our schools, such as Kingsman Academy PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, and DC International PCS, are doing an amazing job in this area.  But the ones that are outside the norm are suspending African American students and students with disabilities.  What I’m concerned about is exclusionary discipline on kids that are already at-risk.  I believe strongly that we should fix this problem internally.  We have tools such as the Equity Reports, and conferences on topics such as restorative justice to help us in this area.  But we desperately need to do more.  I’m baffled by the push back on this subject.  In addition, while I admire Councilman David Grosso’s leadership on this topic, I do not believe legislation is the way to fix it.  I would love to see schools come up with their own solutions.  I feel like we have a board that understands the nuances of this area and can help move the issue forward.”


Excel PCS to remain open; abdicate status as a charter school

News came yesterday about the future of Excel Academy PCS, and it was not the announcement that was expected.  The charter, whose operation beyond the 10 year mark was rejected by the DC Public Charter School Board last month, will remain open beyond this summer but will do so under the authority of DCPS.  It will continue to be an all-girls school.

I will remind you of the charter board’s assessment of the school’s academic progress which was made in November of last year:

“Excel PCS is a single campus local education agency (LEA), serving grades prekindergarten-3 (PK3) through eight, that adopted the Performance Management Framework (PMF) as its goals and academic achievement expectations.  Pursuant to the school’s Charter and Charter Agreement, Excel PCS has not met its goals.  Per its charter and charter agreement, the school committed to achieving an average PMF score of 45% for the past five years of operation. Excel Academy PCS’ average score is 41.4%, and it only exceeded a score of 45% in school year (SY) 2012-13, the first year of this five-year review. The school’s 2016-17 result, 36.7%, is the school’s lowest score yet, and reflects a downward trend, making the improvement provision in its charter agreement inapplicable to assessment of its goals. While the PMF number is an average, the low score reflects overall low academic achievement and school climate. Math results have been consistently poor – both absolute results as well as year-to-year student growth. English language arts (ELA) results have been higher than math, but are on the decline, with student growth now below the state average in ELA as well. Reading and math growth for grades K through two, as measured by NWEA MAP, has been below 50 for the past four years. Both attendance and re-enrollment rates have also been below DC averages in every year of the review period.  Separate and apart from the determination of the school’s goal and academic achievement expectation attainment, DC PCSB staff has determined that the school has not committed a material violation of law or of its charter, has adhered to generally accepted accounting principles, has not engaged in a pattern of fiscal mismanagement, and is economically viable. Based on these findings, DC PCSB staff recommends that the DC PCSB Board vote to initiate revocation proceedings of the school’s charter, with a final date of operation on June 30, 2018.”

Once the board voted to close Excel, the word on the street was that two high performing charter school networks, KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS, were interested in taking over the school.  This information was confirmed to me by teachers from Excel at the 2018 FOCUS Charter School Conference, and again just this week by Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC PCSB.  Whenever there is a decision to revoke a school’s charter, it is the hope that the facility would come under the auspices of schools that have a solid track record of producing strong academic results.  Unfortunately, in this case, this is not the path that the charter decided to pursue.

It frankly saddens me that the Excel students of Ward 8 will not longer be held to the high accountability standards of the DC PSCB.

The move by Excel is not unprecedented.  In 2014, Hospitality High School joined DCPS after it decided to relinquish its charter in the face of low academic performance.  At the end of 2015 it was closed and its students dispersed to one of three traditional schools.

Now we will watch as students, parents, and educators, who were used to functioning under the framework of a charter, make the transition to a traditional school system.






Trajectory of D.C.’s traditional schools is heading south; charters rising

Last week, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the audited student enrollment for the 2017 to 2018 school year and the news for DCPS complimented its recent accumulation of negative press.  The total number of pupils going to neighborhood schools dropped by about 0.9 percent from 48,555 to 48,144.  The last time that DCPS actually experienced a decrease in enrollment from the previous fall was the 2011 to 2012 term.

Charter schools, alternatively, continued to demonstrate a strong improvement in demand.  The number of students in this sector rose by 4.3 percent compared to a year ago, going from 41, 506 to 43,393.  The figure means that another percentage point has been added to the symbolically important market share statistic, with charters now teaching 47 percent of all students attending public schools in the nation’s capital.

Overall in the city the total number of those attending all public schools grew by 1.6 percent compared to the 2016 to 2017 school year.

But there was also groundbreaking news coming out of the DCPS Central Office.  In the wake of the controversy swirling about high school seniors being given diplomas who never should have graduated, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation joining the investigation, the Chancellor has taken the bold move to create, and I’m not making this up, an Office of Integrity to handle concerns or questions by teachers about the system.  The new Chief Integrity Officer (CIO) named to head the OOI is Dr. Arthur Fields.  Mr. Fields was DCPS’s Senior Deputy Chief of School Culture in which he was “responsible for ensuring that schools have the necessary supports to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students.”  But I have to ask.  What supportive learning environment did Mr. Fields offer to the cheated kids of Ballou, Anacostia, and other high schools when they were deliberately socially promoted?

Sorry, one more question.  Isn’t integrity supposed to everyone’s job in DCPS, including the Chancellor’s?

Over at the charters the picture is much different.  We recently witnessed the DC Public Charter School Board voting to shutter Excel Academy PCS, as well as agreeing to close Cesar Chavez PCS’s Parkside middle school campus, and Seed PCS’s middle school.  In addition, the long-term future of Achievement Prep PCS is unpredictable.

Herein lies the most significant difference to our children, families, and community between charters and traditional schools.  Charters are held strictly accountable for their performance.  When they don’t meet established goals they are closed.

However, the regular schools, no matter the quality, just get to keep on going.








Exclusive interview with Stephen Marcus, Attorney at Law

Recently, I had the honor of catching up with Stephen Marcus to discuss his legal representation of many of D.C.’s charter schools and other issues.  We began with a discussion regarding the charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.

Mr. Marcus reminded me that last October a District Court judge granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs, Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools, thereby dismissing the case.  The decison has been appealed and Mr. Marcus stated that the parties are waiting for the D.C. Circuit Court to approve a proposed briefing schedule.  I asked the attorney about the arguments the charters are making in the lawsuit.

“There are three main issues,” Mr. Marcus explained: “First, we believe U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled incorrectly that under the D.C. School Reform Act that the District of Columbia can ignore uniform funding requirements in funding DCPS.  The School Reform Act makes clear that all operating expenses for D.C. public schools, DCPS and public charter schools, must be funded exclusively through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.”

Secondly, Mr. Marcus said “we regard the District’s use of projected enrollment to calculate the annual payment to DCPS, rather than the actual enrollment numbers used for charter schools, to be a violation of the School Reform Act.”

The third issue relates to the Supremacy Clause and the Home Rule Act.  “We contend that both the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and the Home Rule Act prohibit D.C. from legislating or acting in conflict with the School Reform Act.”  Mr. Marcus made an interesting point about D.C.’s Home Rule Law.  “In passing this law, Congress did not want to have to decide which of the laws it enacted exclusively for the District should be revised or repealed.  So it decided that the D.C. Council could amend or repeal only those laws passed by Congress prior to the Home Rule Act.  Statues such as the School Reform Act, which were enacted after the Home Rule Act, cannot be repealed by the Council.  We believe that the District is therefore not authorized to amend or legislate in conflict with congressional post-Home Rule statutes such as the School Reform Act, which it has tried to do.”

I related to Mr. Marcus that I understood the finance stipulations under the School Reform Act, but couldn’t the Mayor or City Council still provide supplemental revenue to its own school system?  Mr. Marcus responded quickly.  “Yes, they can, but then the District must provide an equal amount on a per-student basis to charter schools.  Congress intended equal funding between DCPS and charter schools.  To achieve that goal, the SRA requires that the District establish a funding formula based on an objective determination of what it costs to educate a student and multiply that amount by the number of students attending DCPS or a charter school. Supplemental funding to DCPS without providing equal funding to charter schools defeats Congressional intent.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group that is coordinating the funding lawsuit, has estimated that between the years 2008 to 2015, DCPS has received $1,600 to $2,600 per student every year more than charter schools.  I inquired of Mr. Marcus if there have been attempts to resolve the funding equity issue outside of the courts.  “There were discussions,” Mr. Marcus stated.  “In fact, as part of the lawsuit, mediation was ordered.  However, the District continues to affirm that it has the right to provide additional funding to DCPS without having to provide the same funding to the charter sector.  In this case, they successfully persuaded the judge of their position.”

I have known Mr. Marcus for over a decade.  He was the lawyer that in 2004 negotiated the lease of the permanent facility for the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (now named City Arts and Prep PCS) when I was its board chair.  Moreover, when charters go before the DC Public Charter School Board on important matters, it is not uncommon to see Mr. Marcus in attendance as their legal counsel.  I wanted to understand from Mr. Marcus how he came to have charter schools as clients.

“WEDJ was the first charter school I represented,” Mr. Marcus informed me.  “I had been on the board of the Jewish Primary Day School.  In that role, I became involved in helping the school find a new facility after it was forced to vacate its existing facility. We were eventually successful in finding a school building.  I negotiated the purchase of the building and then a lease of the building back to the school that sold it to us so that it could remain in the building for the rest of the school year. This experience gave me invaluable technical expertise as well as a deep commitment to helping schools at risk of closure survive.”

Mr. Marcus continued, “I knew someone professionally who was on the WEDJ board, who recommended me to represent WEDJ in lease negotiations.  After the lease was signed, I continued to represent WEDJ.  Because of these efforts, Jerry Levine, a D.C. lawyer, recommended me to Josh Kern, who was then the executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS and was starting to develop real estate for charter schools.  Josh retained me to negotiate several leases, including a ground lease with the District.  Josh introduced me to Robert Cane at FOCUS.  My colleague Sherry Ingram and I began advising FOCUS on charter school autonomy issues.   We have now been working with FOCUS for ten years.”

Mr. Marcus’s practice now includes helping charter schools on a wide range of issues such as charter application, compliance, charter review and renewal, and other matters up to revocation, closure and takeover.  He sees many of these efforts revolving around the interpretation of the School Reform Act.  A significant number of his interactions, naturally, are with the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked him how he views the board.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” Mr. Marcus answered.  “I’ve come before them with schools such as IDEA PCS, the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, Achievement Prep PCS, and Excel Academy PCS.  I see an extremely dedicated board of volunteers who spend many hours trying to get it right.  While I may not always agree with the board’s decisions, their level of attention and willingness to spend time to understand the facts is astonishing.  For example, with LAYC, the PCSB board and staff worked very hard to come up with an alternative to closure.  I believe they have tremendous integrity and are always trying to do what they think is best for the kids.”

I wanted to know from the attorney if he saw any weaknesses in their efforts.  This took him a little longer to answer but eventually he did have some exceptionally interesting comment to make.  “I thoroughly agree with the board’s emphasis on quality, but the drive to create metrics has pushed them to pressure schools to adopt the Performance Management Framework as their charter goal.  This is especially true when schools come up for their 5, 10, or 15 year reviews.  Schools used to have mission-specific goals, but these are difficult to benchmark.  But after a school adopts the PMF, the floors and ceilings of the PMF’s performance indicators increase over time.  The notion that a charter school’s goals can be changed unilaterally by the PCSB is contrary to the School Reform Act.”

“I have a couple of other concerns,” Mr. Marcus added.  “An internal PCSB study demonstrated there is a strong statistical bias that reduces PMF scores for charters that have a high percentage of at-risk students.  In addition, under the PCSB’s own rules, in order to continue operating, schools must earn an average score of at least 45 percent on the PMF at their 10-year review and 50 percent when they reach the 15-year mark.  But I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate a correlation between a 50 percent on the PMF and being a good school.”  I asked Mr. Marcus how he thinks these concerns should be addressed.  “What I would really like to see is an open and honest discussion about PMF bias with respect to at-risk students, the use of the PMF as a charter goal, and the lack of research that directly links a PMF score with quality.  This is my hope.”

Mr. Marcus concluded, “I think it is important that a school have legal representation when it goes before the PCSB, especially when high stakes decisions are going to be made.  The law imposes limits on PCSB’s authority through the SRA, administrative law, and PCSB’s own policies that constrain PCSB’s actions and discretion.”





Dramatic difference between charter and DCPS high school student absentee rates

Yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a preliminary report investigating high school student absentee rates in the aftermath of the WAMU and NPR story revealing that students at Ballou High School were graduated even after missing more than three months of class.  It was not flattering.  From the findings:

“Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years absenteeism among students in their fourth year of high school steadily increased, particularly at the highest levels of absenteeism (Figure 1). In the 2016-17 school year, 7.9% of graduates missed more than half of instructional days (extremely chronically absent), up from 3.7% in 2014-15. While the number of non-graduates has decreased over the past three years, the proportion of non-graduates who have missed more than half of instructional days at their graduating school has risen by five percentage points. More than half (51.1%) of non-graduates in 2016-17 were extremely chronically absent. The proportion of graduates among profoundly chronically absent or extremely chronically absent students has increased significantly over the past three years (Figure 2). In 2016-17, 82.6% of the 579 students in their fourth year of high school who missed between 30%-49.99% of school graduated; 44.8% of the 592 students who missed more than 50% of school graduated. The graduation rate for students with extreme chronic absenteeism has increased by more than 20 percentage points between 2014-15 and 2016-17. The number of students graduating in spite of missing more than half of instructional days has more than doubled.

In 2016-17, 11.4% of graduates from D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) high schools had missed more than 50% of instructional days at their graduating school. More than 30% of graduates (30.6%) missed at least thirty percent of instructional days. While the rise in high rates of absenteeism among graduates and nongraduates is alarming, equally concerning is the precipitous decline in the proportion of students in the graduating cohort with satisfactory attendance. In 2014-15, nearly 20% of graduates had missed less than 5% of instructional days, but by 2016-17 the corresponding proportion had dropped to 7.7%. Only 178 graduates out of 2,307 from all DCPS high schools had satisfactory attendance during the 2016-17 school year; more than 75% of graduates met the state definition of chronic absenteeism, missing more than 10% of school days.”

Charter schools, however, have a diametrically opposed record compared to DCPS, eventhough the sector serves a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students:

“High schools in the charter sector have had much more stable patterns of attendance in the past three years than high schools in DCPS (Figures 9 and 10). The distributions of absenteeism for both graduates and non-graduates do not appear to vary significantly from year-to-year. Across the charter sector, there are few students within the highest bands of absenteeism, and students who reach profound or extreme levels of chronic absence tend to be concentrated among non-graduates. In 2016-17, less than 5% of students, fewer than ten students total, who missed more than 50% of instructional days graduated. The graduation rate for profoundly chronically absent students grew between 2014-15 and 2016-17, but has remained below 50%.”

So what are the implications of these numbers?  There are many.  First, as argued here, Mayor Bowser must immediately entertain proposals for a high performing charter to take over Ballou.  Next, we need a replacement for DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson.  In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, new full-time education reporter Perry Stein revealed that Mr. Wilson has finally made the decision that the principal of Ballou when all of the trouble at the school was noticed will not be returning.  In addition, in reaction to the claim that teachers had known about the chronic absentee problem with seniors for sometime and that administrators had taken steps to cover them up, he is going to appoint an ombudsman to listen to employee concerns.

These are baby steps.  When proficiency rates are around 30 percent some bold changes need to be made.  Let’s see how many charters can be permitted to manage low performing DCPS facilities.  We, as a city, need to shift education reform into high gear.  Our students deserve nothing less.  State Board of Education, are you listening?

Shantelle Wright stepping down as CEO of Achievement Prep PCS

I received the following email yesterday afternoon from Shantelle Wright, founder and chief executive officer of Achievement Prep Public Charter School.  With her permission I am posting her message and I will add no commentary, as none is necessary.

Dear Mark,

I’m writing to share some bittersweet news. After more than a decade leading Achievement Prep, I have decided that it is the right time for me personally and professionally to transition out of the role of Chief Executive Officer of Achievement Prep.

Founding and leading Achievement Prep has been my calling, my passion, and one of the most important things in my life. I have spent over a decade of my life dedicated to Achievement Prep and that will never change. I believe we have built an amazing organization that does great things for children, and we will continue to do this important work for many years to come.

Although the Achievement Prep Board of Trustees requested that I reconsider my decision, I know in my heart that it is time to move on. My goal was to get the school through its ten-year charter renewal, and with that done, I feel it is time for me to pursue my next calling.

I am deeply proud of the growth that Achievement Prep has made under my leadership. Over the past ten years, Achievement Prep has grown from a single site school serving 68 fourth and fifth grade scholars to a multi-campus LEA serving nearly 1,000 scholars in grades pre-school through eighth. Our founding scholars are currently freshmen and sophomores at some of the most elite schools in the nation, including Duke, Hampton, Morehouse and George Washington. Our families are among the most courageous and inspirational people I know and they will always be the wind in my sails. It has been my honor to serve as the Founder and CEO of Achievement Prep. It has been beyond my wildest dreams to serve and work amongst the heroes in this important work: my committed Achievement Prep team, the amazing educators in the District of Columbia, and most importantly, my odds-defying scholars. They are the reason I have served at Achievement Prep. I am honored to have served them.

It is my priority for this transition to be smooth in order to pave the way for future success of the schools. My transition is an amazing opportunity for Achievement Prep to identify a leader with a shared commitment to our community who can help to build on our accomplishments to date. I am committed to making sure that this leadership transition causes minimal disruption to our scholars’ learning. Although I will officially step down as CEO in June of 2018, my service is not done – I will stay on as an advisor to the new CEO through the end of the 2018 calendar year. After that, I plan to stay active in the arena of educational excellence and equity, advocating for our scholars and other students of color throughout the DC area. I look forward to the next phase of my journey.

I leave this role humbled, honored and with the utmost respect for the important work that is greater than any one person. I remain unapologetically committed to historically underserved children who, when given the opportunities and support, can soar higher than anyone ever thought. I’ve had the privilege of seeing that first hand over these last ten years in my scholars and they never cease to amaze me. I hope, in my own small way, my service has done the same for them and this city. I know I am leaving Achievement Prep in excellent hands. Our leadership team and Board of Trustees are fully committed to continuing our legacy of three-generational change – knowing if we change the lives of our scholars, we change the lives of their parents and of their future children. I have
attached a letter from our board chair, Jason Andrean, sharing his thoughts about this transition and plans for the immediate future.

Thank you for all your support over these past ten years. I have been blessed. I am honored to know you and eternally grateful.

Yours always in partnership,

Shantelle Wright 
Founder and CEO
Achievement Prep Public Charter Schools

Here is the letter dated January 4th from board chair Jason Andrean that went out to the Achievement Prep community:

I want to share some information around an upcoming leadership transition.  Shantelle Wright, our Founder and CEO, will be stepping down at the end of the 2017 -18 school year.

My fellow board members and I were truly saddened when Shantelle informed us of her decision.  She has been the heart and soul of Achievement Prep since its founding in 2007.  The board tried to persuade her to stay, but she has decided it is time to pursue educational equity in a different capacity.  We will miss her at Achievement Prep and we admire so greatly the work that she has done to date.

Since founding Achievement Prep in 2007, Shantelle has worked to expand high-quality educational options for children in Washington, DC, with a specific focus on children living east of the Anacostia River.  She has helped Achievement Prep grow from 68 scholars to a campus of two schools serving nearly 1,000 students in grades PreK3-8.  Through her leadership, Achievement Prep’s middle school has become one of the top-performing public schools in the District of Columbia.  With her vision and guidance, we’ve empowered families, built relationships throughout our community, and put the name of Achievement Prep on the map as a public charter school of choice in DC.

Although we are sad to see Shantelle go, we are happy to know that she will remain a strong voice in the DC area for equal access in education.  In the meantime, we are focused on finding the right person to fill her shoes at Achievement Prep and build upon our accomplishments to date.  With the guidance and support of On-Ramps, a national executive search firm, we will embark on a national search for Shantelle’s successor.  We will be seeking an innovative, passionate executive with a shared commitment to our community.   The Board hopes to have that person officially enter the role in June 2018.  Shantelle has agreed to stay on as an adviser to the CEO until December 2018, in order to ensure a smooth transition.


Exclusive interview with Jenifer Moore, Sela PCS interim head of school

Sela PCS has a lot going for it right now.  The school just reached its five-year mark since it began operating and sailed through its review by the DC Public Charter School Board.  In addition, Sela learned a few months ago that it is ranked Tier 1 on the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, the second consecutive year that it earned this grade and only the second time that it was eligible for grading.

But I discovered recently that the school has another great asset, and that is its interim head of school Jenifer Moore.  I recently had the fantastic opportunity to sit down with Ms. Moore.  You may never meet a more positive and uplifting individual.

Ms. Moore explained to me that this is her third year at Sela.  For the previous two years she had the position of director of curriculum and instruction.  Her path to the charter school is interesting.

The interim head of school spent three years as the lower school principal of Arts and Technology PCS, and she was working there as it was being shuttered by the PCSB for poor academic performance.  KIPP DC PCS ended up taking over this facility.  She was offered the opportunity to become vice principal of the lower school under KIPP, but she decided to push herself out of her comfort zone and join the DCPS Office of Early Childhood Education.  She spent an important year there becoming exposed to multiple early childhood programs such as Creative Curriculum, Tools of the Mind, Readers/Writers Workshop, and Reggio.  She also received the race and equity training that she came to realize would become part of her calling.

During this period something else was taking place.  Ms. Moore had gotten to know Natalie Smith when she too worked at Arts and Technology as the director of academic and staff development.  Dr. Smith was now the head of school at Sela and began recruiting Ms. Moore to come over to the charter.  Ms. Moore turned Dr. Smith down a couple of times but finally agreed to join her in the role of director of curriculum and instruction.

Sela PCS has had a fascinating history.  The Hebrew language immersion school opened its first year with grades pre-Kindergarten four, Kindergarten, and first.  It has added a grade each year but has also grown backwards to add a pre-Kindergarten three.  The charter now goes up to the fourth grade and will conclude its growth at grade five.  The student body of 202 is diverse, composed of approximately 72 percent black, 21 percent white, and 8 percent Hispanic pupils.  Forty-three percent of the children are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Dr. Smith left Sela at the end of last year.  The board of directors, Ms. Moore stated, was completely transparent with the staff and parents saying that its preference would be to grow someone from within the organization.  “The board has provided me with a tremendous amount of support,” the interim principal related.  The decision as to whether she should be made the permanent head of school will come at the end of this school year.

Now I feel I must pause.  Throughout my conversation with Ms. Moore she spoke to me passionately about the help she has received along the way.  When she was the lower school principal at Arts and Technology the first year was challenging, especially around a difficult culture.  In the following years she was able to build a team of educators who did whatever it took to improve teaching and learning.  They developed a shared vision of excellence.  In addition, there was a mentor, Ms. Aleem, who cheered Ms. Moore on and gave words of wisdom at the right time.

Those who worked with her at DCPS did exactly the same thing.  “At DCPS,” Ms. Moore opined, “my colleagues and coaches were extraordinarily skilled.  I had never met so many educators that were both talented and driven about enriching educational experiences of D.C.’s youngest learners.  In a short time, I learned so much from them.”

Once she became interim head of school the staff became excited, announcing that they were now her cheerleaders.  After spending some time with Ms. Moore, I had this sudden urge to assist her becoming head in any way that I could.  Her personality emits warmth toward people that is immediately contagious.  I then asked Ms. Moore why she believes her school has been able to reach Tier 1 status.

“There are a couple of things,” the interim head of school extolled.  “We have a tremendously dedicated staff.  They give a lot of themselves on a daily basis.  The 28 teachers demonstrate true collaboration which is amazing to watch.  Our teachers come from all over the world.  They each bring different experiences and various points of view.  There are many considerations when we think about how we train these professionals and how they interact with parents.  So here’s the other reason that I believe we are Tier 1.  Every adult in this building makes every decision based upon what is best for the child.  I believe it is impossible to be Tier 1 without putting ego aside.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strong foundation that the previous head of school built.  She poured her heart and soul into Sela over the past three years creating systems that would benefit students long term.”

Ms. Moore also wanted to speak about the professional development activities at Sela that support its mission “to offer children of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in the District of Columbia from pre-k to 5th grade, the opportunities to achieve academic excellence in a safe nurturing environment that focuses on Hebrew language immersion, promotes the value of diversity and provides the skills for taking action in the world.”   She revealed that teachers are given time for professional development every week on Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.  “We focus during these sessions on what we can glean in an hour that can go directly into the classroom,” Ms. Moore detailed.  “We also have all-day professional development during which there are sessions led directly by the teachers.  These meetings are data driven.  The teachers are learning how to modify lesson plans based upon the academic measurements we are receiving.”

I then wanted to know why parents select Sela PCS for their children.  Ms. Moore eagerly responded, “Some parents certainly do feel connected to the Hebrew language.  Others think it is really cool.  Many people are attracted to the diversity of the school and the supportive environment that exists here.  There is such a strong community reflected by the strength between the school and families.  Families actively support our school and we encourage them to provide feedback regarding our work.”

We then engaged in a discussion of where Sela is going as an institution.  Ms. Moore listed two buckets. “We want to strengthen the Hebrew program,” the interim head of school stated.  “The language immersion program is not included in the PMF.  We believe that all students can learn Hebrew, even those classified as special education pupils.  Our pre-school students spend 80 percent of the day in Hebrew language classes and the older kids have a Hebrew block during the day.  We have some really strong Hebrew teachers.”

The other area that Ms. Moore was extremely interested in mentioning was the school’s continuing efforts to support diversity and inclusion.  She related to me that student suspensions at Sela are exceedingly rare.  “We provide training to staff around equity beginning in summer training,” Ms. Moore recalled.  “Because some of our teachers come from countries outside of the United States they may have little experience educating African American students or with students with special needs.  We all bring biases to our positions and we strive to understand what they are and to overcome them as much as possible.”

If anyone can lead this school to reach its goals it is Ms. Moore.  She grew up in Washington on New Hampshire Avenue.  Her mother instilled in her the values of family, hard work, and integrity.  She received her undergraduate degree from Howard University and her masters in Educational Administration at Trinity D.C.  Ms. Moore once worked as the Rights of Passage coordinator at the Covenant House and once again one of her supervisors took her on as a mentee.

“I love what I’m doing,” Ms. Moore exclaimed.  “Diversity and equity are extremely important to me.  In my current position I’m still extremely close to teaching and learning.  I am now stretching in my skill sets and I’m comfortable about it.  So many of the people in my life have come together to help and prepare me to teach other adults how to serve children.  It is all about service.”