Exclusive interview with Daniela Anello, head of school DC Bilingual

Wow!  If you want to learn why DC Bilingual PCS is ranked in the top five percent of academically performing charters in the nation’s capital, come with me on an interview with Daniela Anello, the hard-charging, effervescent head of school.  I had the great pleasure of sitting down with her for a conversation.

Ms. Anello explained that DC Bilingual began operating in 2004 as part of CentroNia, the organization founded in 1986 by Beatrice “BB” Otero to assist in educating low-income immigrants to this country.  The school was at first completely housed in the same building as CentroNia in Columbia Heights, but by the fifth year it was offering pre-Kindergarten to third grade and needed additional space for its inaugural fourth and fifth grade classes.  The school then added leased space at 14th and Irving Streets N.W., the same location above the CVS Drugstore that incubated several of our city’s charters including E.L. Haynes.  After the DC Public Charter School Board closed the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS in 2015, DC Bilingual consolidated its campuses into CAP’s Keene facility located at 33 Riggs Road, N.E.  Coinciding with the relocation was a break with CentroNia as the school’s management company, a move taken to improve its financial position.  Ms. Anello joined the staff of DC Bilingual at the start of the fifth year.

The DC Bilingual head of school has a fascinating background.  Ms. Anello was born in Chile, and when she was four years old her parents moved her and her sister, four years her senior, to Astoria, Queens.  She attended the local PS17 elementary school while her dad supported his family by working in restaurant and construction jobs.  But he came to America with only a five-year visa, so at age nine she moved back to Chile.  It was a complete culture shock.  “In New York I was basically alone with my family,” Ms. Anello revealed.  “My parents didn’t speak English and I didn’t have many friends.  Then I returned to Chile and we have a large family there with about 25 cousins.  It was then I really immersed myself in my culture and language.”

When Ms. Anello was 13, her parents received green cards and returned to the United States.  But this time they did not settle right next to Manhattan.  Ms. Anello detailed, “I was entering middle school and my mother and father were scared to have me roaming around on my own. They didn’t want me traveling on the subway by myself.  So they decided to locate about 30 miles north of N.Y.C. in a town called Sleepy Hollow.  The school I attended there was incredibly diverse.  It was a complete melting pot.  I was placed in a self-contained  ESL class, and my closest friends came from all parts of the world such as Portugal, Egypt, and Italy.  These were people who were extremely proud of their heritage.  Later I was assigned a general education class and I had tremendous difficulty comprehending the texts that were read.”

Attending the school was also an affluent set of pupils from the other part of town.  Ms. Anello recalled, “There was a boy from this group who was the smartest kid in the classroom.  He consistently volunteered to speak up and he answered all the instructor’s questions.  I decided at age 13 that this was the person I was going to marry.”  Amazingly, years later, her prediction became a reality.

For college Ms. Anello attended the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she started as a psychology major but soon switched to teaching.  “Psychology was too philosophical for me,” the head of DC Bilingual opined.  “I like to plan and implement projects and see them to fruition.  Psychology was just inefficient for me.”

After finishing school Ms. Anello began teaching at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in Boston.  She was an instant hit.  “The school had not had a new teacher in many years,” Ms. Anello stated.  “Most of the instructors  were all people of Italian decent which in the past matched the demographics of the neighborhood.  But now the area was predominately inhabited by Hispanic families.  There was no one at the school that could really communicate with the students and parents except for me.  I became the principal’s right hand person to help with translations and parent communication. Over time people came to respect the work I was doing.”

But after two years at the school Ms. Anello’s husband sought to move to Washington, D.C. His strong interest in politics would eventually lead to landing a job in President Obama’s administration.  Ms. Anello then accepted a teaching position at Friendship Academy Southeast PCS.  The DC Bilingual head of school soon became convinced that she needed to go back to school to hone her skills as an instructional leader.  So, twelve months later she began her Master’s degree at the prestigious Columbia University Teacher’s College.  There she studied under her hero Lucy Calkins.

Upon returning to Washington after her nine-month program she knew she wanted to work at a school that taught dual languages.  She was attracted to DC Bilingual from the moment she walked in the door.  “I immediately hit it off with principal Wanda Perez, who had arrived the school a couple of years earlier,” Ms. Anello remembered.  “I was also attracted to the fact that the charter serves such a high percentage of kids that qualified for free or reduced meals.”

There was, however, a problem at DC Bilingual.  The previous school year’s DC CAS for third graders demonstrated proficiency rates of 3 percent in math and 30 percent in reading.  “We were in crisis mode,” Ms. Anello related, “recognizing that if we didn’t turn the academics around the charter would be closed.  We literally cleaned house. I spent the entire summer writing literacy curriculum as an instructional coach, and became the principal’s right hand person in helping to set up the systems we needed to strengthen the hiring process, teacher coaching, and professional development experiences.”

It was also during this period that Ms. Anello completed an Emerging Leader Program through the New Leaders program.  After moving up the ranks as resident and interim principal, in April 2015 Ms. Anello was named head of school.

Ms. Anello believes that what sets DC Bilingual apart from other charters is that it is high performing while teaching a low-income population that varies between 76 percent and 82 percent of children living in poverty.  But there are other characteristics as well.  Ms. Anello asserted, “We are closing the achievement gap with our 440 students in grades pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade.  DC Bilingual has a waiting list of 1,623 children.  Students do not leave our school to go someplace else and neither do our teachers.  Most of our staff have been with us for over six years.  People are happy, and part of the reason is that everyone believes that they have an important role in the success of the school.  We set high expectations here but we also provide the support to allow individuals to be successful.  We believe that all children, no matter their background or special needs, can become bilingual and achieve high academic success.”

There is so much depth to this school that it is impossible to capture everything in one article.  Ms. Anello described enrichment activities for the students that link them to the outside world such as learning where food comes from.  There are sports, music, art, dance, and gardening programs.  For the parents there is DACA immigration workshops, English classes, and cooking lessons.  Ms. Anello exclaimed that she absolutely loves the parents “because they remind me of my own family.”

Each minute of the day is planned and everything at DC Bilingual is done intentionally.  I will conclude with one illustration that Ms. Anello shared with me.  When evaluating a job applicant for a teaching position, she has the interviewee teach a mock class in front of a coach.  This makes sense since all of the classes at DC Bilingual have coaches.  Then, when the applicant is through the coach makes suggestions for improvement and then the applicant teaches the class again.  If the teacher can accept the advice and improve the lesson then, and only then, will this individual proceed to the next round.

Ms. Anello indicated to me that there are assessments for all activities instigated at DC Bilingual.  After spending some time with this head of school I came to understand that I would expect nothing less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Implicit Bias in Early Childhood Education: Fight For Children’s inaugural Coffee, Conversation & Controversy symposium

Last Tuesday I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the invitation-only Coffee, Conversation & Controversy breakfast session that was part of Fight For Children’s inaugural Fight For Children Week.  I have been following the activities of this group for years and I’ve observed that whatever it does, it does so with class.  This day was no different.

The morning’s session revolved around an outstanding presentation from Dr. Walter Gilliam.  Dr. Gilliam is an Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center, and Director of the The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. He was introduced by the president and chief executive officer of Fight For Children, the consistently affable Keith Gordon, who explained that one of the driving motivations behind today’s meeting, and others that will occur throughout the year, is the realization that “societal change only happens when the community comes together.”   Dr. Gilliam then began one of the most fascinating talks I have ever heard, entitled “Implicit Bias in Early Education.”

The Yale University professor began the discussion by showing a portion of a 2005 videotape of a five-year=old girl being handcuffed by the police in response to being called by the child’s teacher as a way of controlling her disruptive behavior.  Dr. Gilliam was asked by a St. Petersburg reporter for his reaction to the incident.  After viewing the arrest on Youtube, he became intrigued by the idea that the instructor turned to the police instead of to professionals who could have helped such as social workers, psychiatrists, or guidance counselors.  It was then that he first decided to study expulsion rates in prekindergarten.  The results shocked him.

In his 2005 investigation across the United States, he found that within the last year, 10 percent of teachers reported that they had expelled at least one student.  Of those that had been expelled, 78 percent of teachers had expelled at least one student, 16 percent had expelled two pupils, 3.5 percent had expelled three children and 0.4 percent had expelled four students within a twelve month period.  In fact, the early childhood expulsion rate is more than three times the rate for Kindergarten to high school students.  But these are not the only startling results.  Quoting from the findings:

“Four-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 50 percent greater than three-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4.5 times that of girls. African-American students attending state-funded prekindergarten were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and Caucasian children, and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children.”

The research also found common factors that would lead to student expulsions that include logical situations such as a higher child-to-teacher ratio, a longer program day, increased teacher job stress, and less access to behavioral supports.

Dr. Gilliam summed up the characteristics that would increase the probability of a student being expelled as the three B’s:  being big, black, and a boy.

The report received a tremendous amount of publicity.  But while he was happy that the word was getting into the news, he knew that he needed to switch the emphasis on early childhood student expulsions from being an academic issue to a public policy problem.  He wanted the federal government to become involved so that he and his group could promote solutions to help reduce these high expulsion rates.

This is where Congressman Danny Davis came along.  He and his legislative director, Dr. Jill Hunter-Williams, who became the first American Psychological Association Educational Assessment Congressional Fellow, became extremely interested in this topic.  They put pressure on the civil rights division of the United States Department of Education to begin collecting preschool suspension and expulsion data, which is the practice today.

Every bit of Dr. Gilliam’s talk was interesting to the audience of education stakeholders from throughout Washington, DC including policymakers, educators, and community leaders.  I will conclude with one additional example from his lecture.

His group recently completed a study of implicit bias in early childhood education which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  The results were released last year.  As part of this inquiry, 132 teachers were asked to observe the play of four preschool students that included one black boy, one black girl, one white girl, and one white boy, and identify potential challenging behaviors.  The exercise also included software that tracked the eye movement of the instructors to see who they were watching.  What the teachers did not know is that the students were hired actors who were not going to express any negative behavior.

The bottom line of the findings was that by a statistically significant quantity teachers focused their attention on the African American boy.  Dr. Gilliam explained that we all have implicit biases and this is a fact that will not change.  The issue is whether we recognize those biases and how we handle them.

Through Fight for Children’s Coffee, Conversation & Controversy the chances just became substantially higher that these biases in early childhood education will be addressed.

D.C. charters start new school year in most perilous environment in decades

Yesterday many D.C. charter schools began the new term along with the traditional schools.  This year marks the most difficult environment for these alternative public schools since they were first created more than 20 years ago.  Allow me to provide a snapshot of what I am seeing.

Let’s start with the release of the PARCC standardized test scores last week.  For the first time since public schools began mandated testing under No Child Left Behind, DCPS actually beat charters in academic achievement.  Readers may assume that this is due to the fact that more affluent families are moving to the District, but the regular schools bested charters in the categories of English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged, and for those students with disabilities in the subject of English Language Arts and for most of these subgroups in math.  Serving these groups of pupils was the justification for creating charter schools in the first place.

Next we had the first school vote to become part of labor union in the case of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus.  Some have argued that with a name like Cesar Chavez it was only inevitable that this would transpire, but how in the world a charter brings innovation and spontaneity to operations negotiated across a boardroom table beats me.   This took place only after Paul Public PCS came close to adopting the same union in the aftermath of the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board writing that the introduction of unions in D.C. charters would increase the diversity of the portfolio of schools it regulates.

By the way,  the union that Chavez joined, the American Federation of Teachers, is headed by an individual who recently equated school choice with Jim Crow laws.  The NAACP has also joined the fray calling for an end to the expansion of charters across the country. Back in the nation’s capital we have a lawsuit against the city brought by Eagle Academy PCS, Washington Latin PCS, and the D.C. Associated of Chartered Public Schools engineered by FOCUS that charges that for years DCPS has received around $100 million in revenue illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  No solution to this controversy is in site.

Charters are also being criticized by the very organizations that have strongly backed their creation.  Jeannie Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, has accused the movement of isomorphism, which she defines as the “constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble the others who face similar environmental conditions.”  She asserts that charters more and more are resembling the very schools they were meant to compete against for students.  One symptom of this isomorphism to which she points is the increasingly bureaucratic nature of our own DC Public Charter School Board, a body often highlighted as doing the best job at overseeing charters in the country.

But the board has had a tough time of it lately.  It had great difficulty deciding whether the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy should be shuttered and that uncertainty led to the school losing its leased space.  It demonstrated agonizing ambiguity over the expansion plans of DC Prep, a decision which should have been as uncontroversial as the staff originally described it to the charter.

But with all of this circulating in the air above our students heads there are still some real positives out there.  For example, D.C. charters have never instructed more children. During the 2016 to 2017 term over 41,000 students attended schools in this sector, equating to 46 percent of all public school students.  This year could see us approach equity with those enrolled in DCPS.  In addition, the facility allotment was recently increased by Mayor Bowser and these dollars, together with the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula revenue, represent the highest level of support charters have ever experienced.  Finally, despite the earlier comments about standardized test scores, some schools such as DC Prep and KIPP DC are demonstrating that the academic achievement gap can be closed.  Now its time for the rest of the group to follow their fine example.

 

Based upon release of 2017 standardized test results, D.C.’s charter school experiment may be wilting

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the 2017 PARCC standardized test results yesterday and the findings were sobering.  For all students, including those attending both charter and traditional schools, those scoring in the college and career readiness categories of four and five are just 30.5 percent in reading and 26.9 percent in math.  However, to put a positive spin on the findings, the results are an improvement over last year overall and for all subgroups.  Especially noteworthy is that economically disadvantaged students in both sectors increased in proficiency rates by 5.3 percent in English and 3.8 percent in math.

But it was former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson who pointed out yesterday on Facebook that for the first time since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 and since schools were required to make standardized test scores public, the traditional schools led charters in these findings.   For example, in English, charter school students in grades three through eight overall showed 29.5 percent of students at the four and five level while 32.1 percent of DCPS pupils were in this range.  A similar pattern exists in math with 30.6 percent of charter students earning fours and fives while 32.8 percent of DCPS students are in this category.  When it comes to testing in high school, charters do lead the traditional schools slightly in math but the proficiency rate is so low that its nothing to brag about.  For high school English the trend of DCPS leading charters continues.

But charters, which concentrate on teaching poor students, are better than DCPS in this category, aren’t they?  Not according to the 2017 PARCC.  For economically disadvantaged students, in reading DCPS leads charters in proficiency rates 23.7 percent to 23.5 percent. For English Language Learners, DCPS is ahead 17.7 percent compared to 13.7 percent for charters, and for students with disabilities, DCPS is ahead 6.8 percent to 5.8 percent.  Only in math are low income charter school students ahead slightly of those of DCPS but for the other two categories the traditional school students score higher.

A couple of areas where charters do outperform DCPS are the categories of At-risk students and those that are black.  For the first category, charters lead in English 18.2 percent compared to 14.1 percent proficiency for DCPS, and 17.8 percent compared to 11.9 percent in math.  For African-American students, charters scored higher, 24.4 percent to 19.9 percent in English, and in math charters have 22.5 percent of students proficient while DCPS has this statistic at 15.0 percent.

Some charters did post some extremely impressive results.  The following proficiency rates are from the DC Public Charter School Board press release:

English Language Arts

  1. BASIS DC PCS (High School) – 71%
  2. Washington Latin PCS – High School – 71%
  3. Washington Latin PCS – Middle School – 65%
  4. Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS – 58%
  5. Washington Yu Ying PCS – 58%
  6. BASIS DC PCS (Middle School) – 57%
  7. District of Columbia International School – 55%
  8. DC Prep PCS – Edgewood Middle School – 54%

Math

  1. BASIS DC PCS (High School) – 75%
  2. KIPP DC – Promise Academy PCS – 74%
  3. KIPP DC – Heights Academy PCS – 65%
  4. KIPP DC Spring Academy PCS – 65%
  5. KIPP DC – Lead Academy PCS – 61%
  6. DC Prep PCS – Edgewood Middle School – 57%
  7. BASIS DC PCS (Middle School) – 57%
  8. Early Childhood Academy PCS – 54%

But overall this was not a great report for D.C.’s charter school sector.

It’s time for charter school supporters to ignore the NAACP and the AFT

Like so many other school choice supporters I am reading the email messages and blog posts combating the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Federation of Teachers attacks on the charter school movement.  Some are even using the assaults from these parties to fundraise for their employers.  My view is that it is time to stop giving these groups so much attention.

Fortunately for me, I follow many of D.C.’s local charters on Twitter.  The messages I’m seeing from schools such as DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, and Lee Montessori PCS, just to name a few, are ones of unbounded optimism.  The Flamboyan Foundaton is gearing up for another year of helping teachers engage with their student’s parents.  This week CityBridge Education is in the midst of re-imaging what classrooms of the future will resemble.

These organizations are closing the academic achievement gap, a feat that only a short time ago could not be put into words because it was so lofty a goal.  While others may wish to go back to a simpler period when kids went to their neighborhood schools; we know that many children, particularly those who are poor and those who are minorities, were not served under this structure.  We recognize that our only real hope for ending hunger and poverty is the power of public education that we are delivering with schools that make parents the customer.

People can always throw stones at those that disrupt the status quo.  But for the heroes that I meet in buildings across this town, those that spend ten or fourteen hours a day at work, that give up their weekends and holidays to build a better future for this country, there is only one way forward.  This path reignites when teachers gather for orientation and builds to a crescendo when young people with tremendous smiles on their faces arrive for the first day of school.  I will be there so that I can tell the stories of educators who are beating incredible odds.  It is frankly their unbelievable drive that keeps me going another day.

 

Charter board reverses itself on DC Prep expansion plans

In a stunning move, the DC Public Charter School Board reversed course and voted to approve the two charter amendments for expansion for DC Prep PCS to add an elementary and middle school that it just rejected during its April meeting.  In fact, the entire exercise was exceptionally strange in that the decision to consider this item was added at the last minute by board vice chair Don Soifer as amendments to the evening’s agenda.

Obviously, the dramatic change in heart came because in the face of public criticism the board realized that it had rejected a charter’s replication request due to concerns over a higher than average out-of-school student suspension rate which is not one of the established criteria used to make this decision.  It didn’t hurt that DC Prep’s Emily Lawson, the founder and chief executive officer, provided a passionate and rational explanation of the reasons behind suspensions at the school together with the fact that among the representatives of the school was Michela English, a DC Prep board member who it was announced would become chair in the fall.  Ms. English, is of course, the recently retired C.E.O. and president of Fight for Children.  The video of their presentation is definitely worth watching.

All board members agreed that Anacostia middle school should be allowed to open.  By a four to three vote, the same ratio that a couple of months ago turned down these charter amendments, the new elementary school as also approved.

In other business, although there was way too much discussion taking up way too much time, a full complement of DC Public Charter School Board members voted Monday night to greatly expand additional numbers of high quality seats available to students living in the District of Columbia.  In fact, it was like traveling back in time to see once again this body approving charter amendment requests unanimously, which stood in stark contrast to recent ballots among the group.

Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, now in its nineteenth year, got the green light to open a second campus serving pre-Kindergarten through fifth graders in the 2018 to 2019 school year.  Enrollment at the charter will grow from its student body of 350 scholars to 750 students by the 2023 to 2024 term.  There are currently 1,595 kids on its admissions wait-list.

KIPP DC PCS is allowed to add 900 pupils, growing to an astonishing population of 7,484 by the 2024 to 2025 school year.  It will do so in part by adding a second high school beginning in the 2019 to 2020 term. The 2017 wait-list to get into one of this charter management organization’s 16 campuses in the nation’s capital is 2,430 students.  One of the highlights of the testimony from Susan Schaeffler, the school’s founder and chief executive officer, is that KIPP will back-fill all grades for which it has space, although this might not be possible for a student wanting to enter the twelfth grade due to having to fulfill graduation credit requirements.

Most of the night’s conversation revolved around Mundo Verde PC’s request to replicate, adding a second campus of 600 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade pupils to its current student body of 635 kids beginning in the 2018 to 2019 school year.  The charter is only in its six year of operation but already has a wait-list of 1,435 pupils.  In the end the charter amendment was approved with the condition that the school be accredited by the time of the expansion.

All of this is extremely good news for parents wanting to get their children into one of these stellar programs, but as is obvious, the new seats in no way keep up with demand.

 

 

 

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s remarks at the 2017 National Charter School Conference

It’s great to be here with so many pioneers and champions who are fighting to give our nation’s families more quality options in their children’s education. We each have a different story of how we got here. Here’s mine…

Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a “voucher-only proponent,” but the truth is I’ve long supported public charter schools as a quality option for students. I worked with many others to get Michigan’s first charter legislation passed in 1993 — the third state to do so. And my husband founded a charter high school in Michigan that focuses on aviation, educates kids in the STEM fields, and prepares them to contribute in significant ways to our 21st century economy.

Whatever your own journey looks like, we’re here because we came to the same conclusion that, as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids.

We all saw too many kids languishing in schools that did not work for them. We knew that if given choices, these students and their families would find an environment that suited them and challenged them.

Let me be clear up front: This is in no way an indictment of the great teachers working every day on behalf of their students. In fact, they should be honored, celebrated, and freed up to do what they do best. If there are any teachers — past or present — here today, will you please stand up? Thank you for all that you do.

But they — and we — all live with the fact that the current structure of education is outdated and ultimately is not geared toward what is right and best for students.
 

Let me tell two stories that illustrate this reality:

I met Dan a few months ago. Dan and his wife weren’t happy with their children’s assigned school, so they did their research and found a school they thought would be a good fit for them. They had to stretch their family budget to buy a house in that school’s district, but they thought it was a worthwhile investment for their children’s futures.

Unfortunately for them, right after they closed on their house, the school board redrew the lines, and poof — Dan and his family were now assigned to a different school, this one with achievement levels much lower than the one they moved away from and the one they sacrificed their life savings for. When Dan took his case to the district, the response was, “Too bad.”

The second story: Sandy recently moved to Virginia. She was excited to be living in a highly regarded, high-performing district. Her son completed the local school’s assessments, and while he had just finished first grade, he tested at the fourth-grade level. Yet the school told Sandy they didn’t have anything to offer a gifted student like him and he would have to stay in second grade because of his age.

So while the school district is well regarded for its high performance, it shows that not even a great district is the best fit for every child.

I can’t justify either situation to these parents when they ask the same question each of us would ask: “Why?”

“Why can’t my children go to the school I chose?”

“Why isn’t there a program that meets my child at his level?”

“Why?”

The answer should not be “Take it or, literally, leave it.”

How can we be OK with an education structure that is so inflexible and so unaccommodating? Education is foundational to everything else in life, yet the process of acquiring it is based on a family’s income or neighborhood.

A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.

Thankfully, you are among those who are working to give parents the freedom to find that education for their children.

It’s been more than a quarter-century since the first charter law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. That law didn’t evolve out of a vacuum, and it wasn’t developed on a whim. It was passed in response to the stories of families like Dan’s and Sandy’s. Parents were desperate for more options, and they pressed for change.

What began as a handful of schools in Minnesota has blossomed into nearly 7,000 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 3 million students nationwide.

Through your great work, you have proven that quality and choice can coexist. You’ve helped weave charter schools into the fabric of American education.

Charter schools are here to stay. We’re now seeing the first generation of charter students raising children of their own. They know the difference educational choice made in their lives, and now as parents they want the same options for their children.
But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public school works for them.

Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education. Let’s be honest: There’s no such thing as a cure-all in education. Even the best school in the country with the best-trained educators and the most resources will not be the perfect fit for every single child.

I suggest we focus less on what word comes before “school” — whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed — and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.

Today, the United States is third in per-pupil spending among developed countries, yet our students rank 19th in science, 20th in reading, and 24th in math. The problem is not how much we’re spending; the problem is the results we’re getting.

Charters alone are not sufficient. Private schools alone are not sufficient. Neither are traditional schools.

And that’s OK. Let’s humbly admit this fact and recognize that no top-down, one-size-fits-all approach will ever help us achieve the goal of giving every child an equal opportunity for a world-class education. When a learning environment is not the best fit for a student, it’s incumbent on us to facilitate their transition to one that does meet their needs.

I was in Miami a few months ago and saw firsthand how a community is acting intentionally to meet the diverse needs of its students by providing a wide range of educational options.

I visited three distinctly different schools: SLAM Charter School, Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence, or CARE, and Royal Palm Elementary.

SLAM charter school, founded by Armando Pérez – you may know him as “Pitbull” – serves a low-income community with a large number of English learners. Many of the students anticipate being the first in their families to graduate high school, and some even had to enroll themselves in the school. For these kids, SLAM is providing a state-of-the-art learning environment that embraces the arts and athletics.

CARE serves elementary-age children with a focused outreach to those who are homeless or victims of sexual assault. Located in a homeless shelter in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, CARE gives these kids, who often struggled in a larger school setting, a safe and nurturing environment that addresses their unique needs. The vast majority of students attending CARE do so at no cost to their parents through Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Miami-Dade Public Schools’ Royal Palm Elementary serves children from its neighborhood and beyond. Led by a dynamic principal and a creative group of teachers who clearly love their work, it was evident why the parents of these students chose this experience for their children.

I celebrate the fact that each of these schools is helping students succeed in unique ways. The parents I met didn’t care that these were different types of schools; they cared that the school was working for their son or daughter. These schools are simply representative of what is possible in an environment of robust choices.

Education is not a zero-sum game. We should not think of it as such. There is no one right way to help kids learn, and just because a school educates children differently than you might propose to does not make them the enemy. Let’s applaud and encourage others who serve students well. It’s a both/and situation, not an either/or.

A zero-sum myth is continually perpetuated by the education establishment. We cannot — we must not — fall prey to that game. Charter schools were created to address the fact that for too many kids, their assigned public school wasn’t working for them. The early charter school leaders weren’t afraid to color outside of the lines, and in fact, they embraced the creativity, innovation, and flexibility charters represented.

But somewhere along the way, in the intervening 26 years and through the process of expansion, we’ve taken the colorful collage of charters and drawn our own set of lines around it to box others out, to mitigate risk, to play it safe. This is not what we set out to do, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help kids.

No one has a monopoly on innovation. No one has a monopoly on creativity. No one has a monopoly on knowing how every child learns.

Charters’ success should be celebrated, but it’s equally important not to “become the man.” I thought it was a tough but fair criticism when a friend recently wrote in an article that many who call themselves “reformers” have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats — a new education establishment.

We don’t need 500-page charter school applications. That’s not progress. That’s fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.

Innovation, iteration, and improvement must be a constant in our work.

Today we have a great opportunity. While some of you have criticized the president’s budget — which you have every right to do — it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States. It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.

This administration has sent a clear message: We trust parents, and we believe in students. We will fight for every parent and every child, especially those who for too long have been forgotten.

The window of opportunity is narrow and the stakes are too high for us not to act. We must act boldly, and we must act now.

So let’s re-engage and recommit to the entrepreneurial spirit that gave rise to charters 26 years ago. Embracing more change, more choices, and more innovation will improve education opportunities and outcomes for all students.

Take a moment and picture a child whom you have helped get a great education.

For me, I picture Angie and Denisha…

Now think about Dan, and Sandy, and all the other families who need those same opportunities.

Drawing our own new lines won’t help those trapped inside them.

It’s time to put down the permanent marker and straight edge, and instead pick up your brush and palette and paint. Paint in bright, bold colors and continue to add to the colorful collage that was started 26 years ago.

We cannot let the opportunity go to waste.

Act — act now!  For Angie … for Denisha … for Dan … for Sandy … and for every parent and every child across America.

We owe it to them, and we owe it to our nation.

Thank you, and God bless you for all you do for America’s students.

The 2017 Richard Wright PCS Gala

My wife Michele and I had the distinct pleasure of attending last Saturday night’s Richard Wright Public Charter School of Journalism and Media Art’s sixth annual Black Tie Gala Film Festival.  What an elegant and inspiring evening.  The event, as in previous years, was held at the historic Warner Theater where over 1,000 men and women in evening attire gathered to celebrate the Reaching Our Excellence in Education (ROXIE) student productions.  The theme of the occasion was “Inspiring the Next Generation,” and I can attest that you could not walk out of that auditorium without wholeheartedly believing that the theme would be fulfilled.

Perhaps what makes this night so special has to do with the people who are honored.  These individuals included Bern Nadette Stanis, actress known for her role in “Good Times” and author; John Gibson, advisor for inclusion and multicultural outreach of the Motion Picture Association of America; Jim Watkins, WHUR-FM general manager; Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer; U.S. (Shadow) Representative for the District of Columbia Franklin Garcia; Renee Nash, WHUR-FM news and public affairs director; Ezekiel “Zeke” Dennison, Jr., third district representative for the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.; Melissa Macaya, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists D.C. Chapter; and Reverend Tony Lee, founder and senior pastor for the Community of Hope A.M.E. Church.  In addition, a special Lifetime Legacy Award was presented to the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

I want to make a few observations about this portion of the program.  First, the awards were not given out all at once but were interspersed among the viewing of student films, which I thought was a nice touch.  Also, the two emcees, Mr. Joe Clair, host of the “Joe Clair Morning Show” on WPCG, and Dr. Renee Starlynn Allen, founder and chief executive officer of Star Entertainment Group, LLC, did an outstanding job of moving the agenda along at an upbeat pace, with Ms. Allen contributing the calming influence to Mr. Clair’s truly funny comedic antics.  The reaction by those receiving recognition of their careers in the service of others was uniform delight, and had the impact of providing the charter school with added credibility toward the creation, as stated by the charter’s board of director’s chairman Gregory Adams, “of endless possibilities within our school’s community, enabling our students to have the power to decide their futures with confidence.”

Guests could read detailed descriptions of the outstanding achievements of these awardees in the 45-page highly professional glossy brochure that was provided to each guest.  The booklet included declarations by U.S. House of Representative Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, At-Large Councilman and chairperson of the committee on education David Grosso, and six other members of the D.C. Council congratulating the school on reaching the milestone of its sixth annual ceremony.

There were nine student films.  Last year my wife and I had a conflict and could not attend the gala so the last time we were in attendance was in 2015. In just those two years the quality of the movies has gone up exponentially.  We were really blown away.  Immediately from the start of “Because I Love Him,” a piece about a woman who is being physically abused by her male significant other, we sat riveted before the screen.  Exceptionally moving and flawlessly written and produced was “The Perfect Child” which followed from her mother’s point of view the medical diagnosis, treatment, and recovery of her daughter, a Richard Wright student who had contracted stage four lymphoma.  She nearly died from the disease.  The young lady approached the podium at the end to speak to cheers and tears from the audience.

But I think the absolute highlight for us was the still-in-development documentary, “Reverend Jesse Jackson:  Keeping Hope Alive.  Mr. Jackson recently paid a visit to the charter and it is apparent he spent considerable time with the kids.  This segment followed Mr. Jackson as he took the pupils through his front-seat involvement in this nation’s civil rights movement, including the day he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King was shot and killed.  Michele and I visited the hotel a year ago so the film was especially poignant to us.  Mixing news reels in with Reverend Jackson’s passionate reflections made you feel you were standing right next to him at the time.

At the conclusion of the film presentations and before Team Familiar, a high energy band that included vocals and a full horn section, entertained the audience, the founder and C.E.O. of the school and my personal hero Dr. Marco Clark addressed the guests.  But by this point there was little he had to say.  The students had already definitively shown the packed house the superlative progress in academics and character development being made by those attending Richard Wright PCS.

 

Exclusive interview with Shannon Hodge, executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS

I had the fortunate opportunity recently to speak with Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of the Kingsman Academy PCS.  Kingsman Academy, of course, is the school that replaced Options PCS in the aftermath of the financial controversies surrounding the former school’s management group.  I asked Ms. Hodge how things were progressing at the charter.

“Things are going very well,” the Kingsman Academy executive director answered without hesitation.  “We are in our second year.  We took extremely seriously what we committed to doing in our charter.  Our goal is to be a national model for the education of children with disabilities.  It is certainly not a straight line from where we started to where we want to be.  I look back at July, 2015, when we opened, and believe it is now much improved.  I can see where we are going and what we have to do to get there.  During the past two years we have learned much about what works with our students and how to adjust to some of the challenges they face.”  These are remarkably inspiring words coming from a leader of a charter school specializing in teaching at-risk young people.  But how she got here is equally extraordinary.

Ms. Hodge explained to me that she had been introduced to the charter as one of the attorneys working for the Hogan Lovells law firm assigned to represent Josh Kern after he became the court-appointed Receiver for Options PCS.  She had applied to be, and was subsequently hired to become, the charter’s executive director during the last year of the previous school’s operation.

It turns out that since the time that she attended Harvard University to obtain her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Hodge’s interests were always split between law and education.  As an only child, Ms. Hodge throughout her life put significant pressure on herself to do well.  So only naturally when in primary and secondary school Ms. Hodge did everything she was told to do and earned almost straight A’s.  From an early age she saw the opportunity that education presented to address inequalities in society.

While her B.A. is in Afro-American studies, Ms. Hodge also completed the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program in which she graduated as a certified teacher.  While Ms. Hodge finished her undergraduate education she also concluded her student teaching in Boston Public Schools, but she quickly realized that she needed additional preparation to work with students with significant needs and challenges.  So she obtained a master’s degree in educational and psychoeducational studies from Purdue University.  In order to learn the administrative side of teaching, the Kingsman Academy executive director accepted a position as a guidance counselor, first in middle school and then in high school, in Indiana.  She eventually became head of the department, but when she started she was the first professional African-American hired in the school system.

Ms. Hodge noticed many similarities between her students in Boston and those living in poverty in her high school.  She saw her job as helping her scholars see what was possible for their lives after graduation.  It was at this time that the No Child Left Behind law was being implemented.  Ms. Hodge sadly observed that the law’s testing requirements did not account for the challenges that many students and their schools face.

She decided she wanted to go to graduate school and so obtained her second degree from Harvard in educational administration, planning, and social policy.  She was there working on her doctoral degree when a law class that she was taking convinced her to attend Stanford to pursue her J.D.  After obtaining her law degree, and clerking in Richmond and Chicago, Ms. Hodge joined Hogan Lovells.

Ms. Hodge has come to understand that the District of Columbia students she serves need the most and deserve the greatest effort and energy that the staff can provide.  She learned much from Mr. Kern and greatly appreciates his ability to see past the first five or six levels of an issue.  When she became involved in the school through him she became aware of the firm determination of its talented staff which led her to become convinced there was tremendous potential here.  Ms. Hodge thought she could utilize her skills to join the challenge of advancing the charter’s strategic vision.

The 6th through 12th grade charter currently teaches 246 students:  26 in middle school, 208 in high school, and 12 enrolled in non-public schools.  The student to teacher ratio is 12 to 1.  The school demographics include 88 percent of students considered at-risk; 57 percent possess disabilities, and 62 percent of high school students are over-aged and under-credited.  Ms. Hodge informed me that 17 percent of those attending Kingsman Academy PCS are homeless.  Not known is how many have been incarcerated or otherwise detained within the last 12 months, but it is believed to be at least 10 percent of the student population.  79 percent of the pupils come from Wards 6, 7, and 8.

The breakdown of special education levels at Kingsman is as follows:  7 percent are at Level 1, 29 percent are at Level 2, 18 percent are at Level 3, and 47 percent are at Level 4.  This compares to the overall student population in the city as being 36.1 percent at Level 1, 30.5 percent at Level 2, 11.6 percent at Level 3, and 21.9 percent at Level 4.

It was interesting to learn from Ms. Hodge that 43 percent of the student body has no identified disability.  According to the Kingsman Academy executive director, in addition to students who may be drawn to the school because of its programming for students with learning or emotional disabilities, the charter attracts families who simply want their children to attend a small school or are familiar with its mission “to provide an individualized and rigorous education in a supportive environment to prepare scholars for post-secondary success and responsible citizenship.”  That mission is carried out through a project-based academic model and a four-tiered system of interventions designed to meet students’ academic, behavior, and engagement needs.

For most of the student body, Kingsman Academy looks like many charters in the city with a Monday through Friday schedule from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  There are five periods that include subjects such as science, math, Spanish, and humanities.  Each Wednesday morning, students complete electives such as soccer, Community Club, life skills, photography, natural hair, mural arts, and etiquette. Many students participate in ace360, an athletics development program the school designed to prepare student athletes for success after high school. Each Wednesday afternoon there is a half day of professional development for the staff.

For those over-aged, under-credited pupils most at risk of dropping out, Kingsman Academy PCS offers the R.I.S.E. program. The acronym stands for Raising Individual Scholars towards Excellence.  Students participating in R.I.S.E. have before and after school classes and sessions on Saturdays.  The charter has found blended learning to be especially helpful with this population of young people.

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

D.C. charter board approves three new schools

A fascinating evening last night as the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting with a action-packed agenda.   First up was a public hearing regarding consideration of replication of two of our city’s finest charters, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS.  Each of these schools have extensive student waiting lists for next year’s terms, with Whitlow Stokes at 1,595 pupils and Mundo Verde with 1,335 students wanting admission.  Both charters are rated at Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.

The session even included appearances during the public comment period of Theola DuBose, past director of communications for the PCSB, and Ariana Quinones, former PCSB board member and staff member of FOCUS and Fight for Children.

The most interesting part to me of the replication discussion was that both of these schools are feeders into the District of Columbia International PCS.  Therefore, the issue naturally comes up that if these charters begin accepting more students will their scholars eventually gain entrance to DCI when they graduate the fifth grade?  The response from both institutions was similar in that they may work out an arrangement with other schools for acceptance of students if there are no openings at DCI and could consider in the future creating their own middle schools.  There was also hope that DCI would expand in coming years.

The other noticeable aspect of this hearing was that both charters made a point of highlighting that they are no out of school suspension schools, thereby formally institutionalizing the brand-new unwritten requirement first introduced with D.C. Prep PCS this month that charters must have exceedingly low out of school student suspension rates to be candidates to open new campuses.

Elsie Whitlow Stokes will have no problem being approved to add 400 pupils to its current 350 student body in the 2018 to 2019 school year, especially since it wants its new campus for bilingual education to be in Ward 7 or 8.  The story is not the same with Mundo Verde, which seeks to add 600 students to its current enrollment of 635 during the 2019 to 2020 term in a building on 8th Street, N.E.  More than a dozen parents testified that the expansion plans for this school was coming too soon with complaints that there was high teacher turnover occurring at the charter, although the school stated that it has a retention rate of over 80 percent.  They also contended that the school had just reached its current maximum enrollment this year, and therefore it was premature in its relatively short six year history to grow to another site.  The negative statements resulted in spurring PCSB executive director Scott Pearson to interject a couple of times in the discussion to point out Mundo Verde’s impressive track record.

In the past I would say that Mundo Verde would be approved for replication because it meets most of the charter board’s criteria for expansion, but based upon the D.C. Prep experience I’m now not so sure.

Next on the agenda was the approval of new charter school applications.  Here I was surprised with the results.  First, it was announced that CyberTech High School’s bid had been withdrawn.  I thought this school would not be approved.  Also, as I had anticipated, the Adult Career Technical Education Public Charter School was denied a charter.  Digital Pioneers Academy Public Charter School was given the green light which I had felt would happen.  The Family Place was also approved, a school that my heart wanted to be approved to open but whose application I thought had some weaknesses.  North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys was given a charter despite the PCSB staff’s concerns that research has not shown benefits of having an all male school.

Two schools that I thought would be granted charters were not.   The board members liked the idea of the Waldorf approach of the Washington School of Arts and Academics PCS, but expressed that starting with this pedagogy in high school was too late.  The shocker to me was the denial of Citizen of the World’s application.  Apparently, board members whom had visited the other national campuses of this experienced operator were not overly impressed  with what they saw.

Congratulations to those charters that were approved to open in the 2018 to 2019 school year.