Mayor Bowser takes first step in charterizing all D.C. public schools

Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her choice to replace Hanseul Kang as the State Superintendent of Education. Ms. Bower’s selection is Christina Grant, who oversaw the charter school sector in Philadelphia. 68,364 students attend charters in Philadelphia across 68 schools representing 36.4 percent of city’s public school students. In Washington D.C. there are 66 charter schools located on 125 campuses educating 43,795 pupils. The Mayor’s press release on the nomination of Ms. Grant say this about her qualifications:

“She recently served as the Chief of Charter Schools and Innovation for The School District of Philadelphia, she oversaw a budget of more than $1 billion and a portfolio of both district and charter schools. In this capacity, Dr. Grant managed a complex organization, working closely with the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the Board of Education and Mayor’s Chief Education Officer. Dr. Grant’s career began as a public school teacher in Harlem; since then, she’s held numerous roles in education, including as Superintendent of the Great Oaks Foundation and Deputy Executive Director at the New York City Department of Education.”

Not mentioned in Ms. Bowser’s statement is that Ms. Grant was a teacher in New York City for a KIPP public charter school and that her role as executive director in New York City Public Schools involved managing the process for the opening of new charters. Following her stint with NYC schools, she moved on to become executive director of NYCAN, a New York City-based charter advocacy organization.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Ms. Grant received training at the Broad Academy, a pro-charter educational leadership program that is now run by Ms. Kang at Yale University. Ms. Stein mentions that D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee also attended the Broad Academy.

When schools in the nation’s capital finally reopen fully in the fall I expect that Ms. Grant, in her effort to bring equity in education to all District students, will fight to expand the charter sector by replacing failing DCPS facilities with schools of choice.

Consistent with our efforts in public education to provide a quality seat to any child who needs one is an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federal private school voucher program in our city. But there are storm clouds on the horizon regarding the plan. D.C. Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that as part of President Biden’s proposed budget he supports “winding down” the scholarships. Here Mr. Biden is following in the muddy footsteps of his idol Barack Obama, who stopped new entrants from participating in the O.S.P. when he was President, directly hurting students living in poverty. I think suggesting to make this move after a year of remote learning is especially heartless and cruel.

One more thought for today. When I tuned into the May monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I noticed that Steve Bumbaugh was not present. It turns out that his term had expired. I will greatly miss Mr. Bumbaugh’s presence on the board. His observations and comments were always insightful. He was an especially strong advocate for those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bumbaugh had a profound appreciation of the nature of school choice, and gave great deference to the opinions of parents as to whether a school under review should be allowed to continue operating.

His absence leaves a critical vacancy on the board.

Mayoral control did not fix D.C.’s public schools

Yesterday, the editors of the Washington Post came out strongly against the suggestion by At-Large Councilmember Robert White that a committee be created to study the governance structure of D.C. public schools. They say that the move had one motive and that is to return DCPS to an arrangement in which it reports to the school board. In their piece the editors point out that Mr. White ran on the notion of ending Mayoral control. They wrote:

“Here is what is important: There has been undeniable progress in the city’s schools since mayoral control was instituted. A school system that was once unable to pay its teachers and ensure that buildings were ready for the first day of school has been completely transformed. There have been increases in student achievement across all student groups, and the national report card, the gold standard of testing, has shown D.C. to be one of the fastest improving systems in the country. Additionally, there is a flourishing public charter school sector that offers worthy choices to parents. There is no question that there is still much more to be done. Far too many children can’t read or do math, and the achievement gap between students of color and their White peers persists; new urgency is needed in addressing these challenges.”

But here is where the Post editors are confused. The improvement in the traditional schools had nothing to do with who was in charge. The tremendous change in DCPS came due to competition from the charter sector. I know, because I watched all of this take place being an active participant as a charter school volunteer tutor, board member, and through my coverage of the movement.

Just to recap. As soon as the first charter school opened parents rushed to place their children in these facilities. Their decision was not primarily to provide their offspring with a better education, although that was a consideration. The driving concern was over the safety of their sons and daughters. The regular schools were routinely filled with gang members, drugs, and weapons. As I’ve written many times, it was often safer during this period to keep your kids home than to send them to the neighborhood schools.

As more charters opened, DCPS lost more of its pupils. Those of us who believe in school choice were waiting for DCPS to react, since funding was tied to how many students a school taught. Shockingly, it took DCPS losing more than twenty-five percent of its enrollment before we saw the election of Mayor Fenty over his campaigning on a promise to fix the schools. He brought Mayoral control, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and modernization of school buildings that really should have been condemned due to their poor physical condition.

The Washington Post editors do get something perfectly right. There is much more work that needs to be done. This is why I’m struggling. If charters are what caused all schools to increase in quality, then why not have more of them? Will the editors heed my call to turn traditional schools over to the sector that has driven academic standards to soar? Why don’t we allow the competition for students to permanently close the academic achievement gap?

Again, as I’ve written on numerous occasions, now is the perfect opportunity to make such a dramatic change. Schools are mostly closed and trying to figure out how to reopen. Let’s give the regular schools the freedom and opportunity to re-cast themselves as a new version of themselves by offering them self-governance. I concur strongly with the Washington Post editor’s closing statement: “new urgency is needed in addressing these challenges.”

Councilmember White wants to rid D.C. of Mayoral control of schools

Last week I wrote about comments by D.C. At-Large Councilmember Robert White that were critical of student academic progress in D.,C.’s public schools over the last fourteen years. He pointed out:

“In Math
– Only 21% of Black students meet or exceed expectations, compared to 79% of White students.
– 16% of at-risk students, 23% of English learners, and 7% of students with disabilities met or exceeded expectations.

In English Language Arts
– Only 28% of Black students meet or exceed expectations, compared to 85% of White students.
– 21% of at-risk students, 20% of English learners, and 8% of students with disabilities meet or exceeded expectations.”

Mr. White also is concerned about teacher turnover. The Councilmember asserted that “The District has the highest teacher turnover rate in the country. A quarter of our teachers leave our school system every year. Over half of our DCPS teachers leave within three years, and 70% leave within five years.”

What concerns me is that his solution to these serious problems is not to improve the level of pedagogy taking place in the classroom or by supporting the unique needs of at-risk children. He is not seeking to interview teachers to determine why they are leaving town. No, Mr. White wants to create a committee to “review school governance of DC schools.” He is seeking to discover “what structural changes we need to make to give every student and family a chance for success.” In other words, Mr. White wants to take away Mayoral control of the traditional school system.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein backs up my assertion. She wrote on Monday:

“Two separate bills would make the state superintendent of education, who administers standardized tests and ensures all day cares and private and public schools are in compliance with federal laws, more independent of the mayor.

Another resolution — which ran into potentially fatal opposition Monday — would create a special committee on the D.C. Council to explore the effectiveness of the city’s education governance structure.”

The suggestion by Councilmember White to create the special committee was blocked on Monday, according to Ms. Stein, by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who stated that Mr. White had no authority to make this move. The suggestion forced education constituencies to take up sides. According to the Washington Post reporter:

“The prospect of this special committee to discuss the effectiveness of mayoral control already drew a rebuke from many charter school leaders, who wrote letters to the council opposing it. But the Washington Teachers’ Union and other education advocacy groups have supported it, viewing mayoral control as an obstacle to having residents’ and teachers’ voices affect public officials’ actions on education.”

Although I have advocated for a State Superintendent of Education independent of the Mayor, all of this recent talk by the Council of changes to the management structure of public schools is a tremendous distraction. It threatens to take away Washington, D.C.’s Hurricane Katrina moment in education. During this period when the Covid-19 pandemic has completely interrupted the instruction of our children, we should be utilizing this time to completely revise how our kids learn. We should follow the example of New Orleans and charterize all of our schools.

Moreover, just where is the new DC Charter School Alliance on this issue? I thought it was a charter school advocacy organization.

Let’s tune out the noise, focus our attention, and do something positively proactive to permanently close the academic achievement gap.

Let’s really do something to serve children of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities in D.C

Yesterday, WTOP’s Abigail Constantino reported that At-Large D.C. Councilmember Robert White called for a special council committee to study how the city’s public schools can better serve students in the District of Columbia. According to Ms. Constantino, Mr. White remarked:

“Now a decade-and-a-half later, the promises that were made in terms of performance and outcomes for our students just haven’t been met. Today, under 30% of Black students are on grade level … compared to roughly 85% of white students.”

In her article Ms. Constantino stated that “after 14 years of mayoral control, At-Large D.C. Council member Robert White said the city’s public schools aren’t working for students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities.”

Mr. White continued:

“I want the council to take this into our own hands, with the urgency and importance that this issue deserves and actually do something, instead of requesting a study or recommendations from outside the council that will just go on a shelf.”

Urgency on providing quality schools for our scholars is something I have been calling for now for over a decade. No one seems to be listening. I do have one problem with the representative’s recommendation. A six month study is not what we need.

We know the answer. The solution is found in the 68 campuses of the city’s network of charter schools. In these facilities kids from all backgrounds receive what is essentially a private school education for free. While the pandemic has prevented us from visiting these schools right now, once they reopen we will once again travel into spaces where teaching looks extremely different from the offerings of DCPS.

Mr. White added:

“We’ll listen to parents; we’ll listen to students; we will look at governance structures in other jurisdictions.”

There are no other jurisdictions we need to look at except what is taking place in our own backyard. All Mr. White needs to do is take a tour of Washington Latin PCS, for example, which is located near his home in Ward 4.

Let’s not waste another minute. While students are learning remotely the adults in charge of DCPS need to take action. Let’s rid ourselves of the current system and institute charters for all.

Mr. White seems to agree with me. He advised, “At this time, when we are talking about racial justice and talking about equity, we have to take the hard steps forward of doing something about it.”

Yes, it will be hard. It will be a fight. The teachers’ unions will put up the struggle of a lifetime. But this is not the moment to tinker around the edges, to make incremental changes, to hope that somehow everything will turn out all right for our kids.

Hope is not a strategy. Only action matters. A decade from now we do not want our children talking about this moment in history and saying our generation did nothing to turn the situation around regarding our traditional public schools.

Please look yourself in the mirror this morning and decide that today is the day to fix our education in Washington, D.C.

Jessica Wodatch steps down as executive director of Two Rivers PCS

When my Facebook feed popped up yesterday, I really could not believe my eyes. My friend Jessica Wodatch announced that after 16 years it was her last day as executive director of the wildly popular Performance Management Framework Tier 1 Two Rivers Public Charter School that she co-founded. Here is what she wrote:

“After 16 beautiful years, I am stepping down as Executive Director at Two Rivers. Today we had our last closing circle together and my staff shared this beautiful video. It has been a true honor to work alongside such amazing people to do such important work. I have loved getting to see children grow and grow up, getting to know families, and collaborating with brilliant educators to create and nurture a joyful learning community. I’ll be staying on for a few months to help our talented new ED, and then I’ll be setting off to work as a leadership coach. Of course, TR will always be a part of me and in my heart, so I won’t be far away. Thanks to everyone for their long-time support of me and the school, and to the Two Rivers family for such a meaningful and loving celebration!”

I interviewed Ms. Wodatch eight years ago and it made a tremendous impression on me. I remember it like it was yesterday because she did something that I still believe is highly impressive. Upon meeting her, the Two Rivers PCS executive director walked me right up to some randomly assembled students so they could tell me about their school.

That day began a professional association with Ms. Wodatch that I have cherished ever since. One of my favorite times of the year was when I could attend one of the school’s Showcase Nights so I could hear student presentations around the academic expedition that had recently concluded. Almost always my visit ended with me experiencing tears of joy for what these scholars had accomplished. I have reprinted my interview with her below:

My time with Ms. Wodatch began with what I hope will be a new tradition for my exclusive interviews. She marched me right up to a classroom in her bright and colorful middle school off Florida Ave, N.E., and pulled out three young students for me to meet. I even had the opportunity to ask them some questions. But I will come back to these students later.

We then sat down in her office so that I could learn more about Two Rivers. The Executive Director explained to me that it was founded by about three dozen parents who were looking for alternatives to the traditional schools for their children. Ms. Wodatch was familiar with the work being done by Capital City PCS and asked their representatives if they would open a branch on Capitol Hill. While she was told that there were no plans to do so she was informed that there were a group of individuals living in this area trying to form their own school. Ms. Wodatch immediately became involved.

Two Rivers opened in 2004 with 150 students and 25 teachers. It has grown to 450 students pre-K through 8 th located in two buildings across the street from each other. Ms. Wodatch estimates that she experienced “about 20” failed facility deals before they settled on their permanent site.

It is a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school. Their elementary school DC CAS proficiency rate in reading of 78 percent is the highest of all charter elementary schools. The 72 percent DC CAS proficiency rate in math for the elementary school is the fifth highest of all D.C. charters. The scores are not quite as high for the middle school with a 58 percent proficiency rate for reading and a 54 percent proficiency rate for math.

Ms. Wodatch was extremely eager to tell me the reasons behind the school’s success.

“First you have to understand that change takes time,” Ms. Wodatch informed me. She said that she has worked closely with her board on this subject and has received their support and encouragement.

“Second,” Ms. Wodatch explained, “you need to pick a curriculum that is research based and stick with it.” Two Rivers uses the Expeditionary Learning, which according to the school’s web site “emphasizes interactive, hands-on, project-based learning. The school focuses on the whole child, recognizing the importance of character education and the social-emotional needs of children while helping them achieve academic excellence.”

I then asked Ms. Wodatch for her motivation behind opening the school. “I have a passion for equality and justice,” she answered without a moment of hesitation. “My father was a civil rights lawyer and one of the authors of the American for Disabilities Act. I started out at Teach for America working with third graders in the Bronx. I have worked with special education children at both St. Coletta and Kingsburry Day School. Engaging with this population of kids instructs you how to teach all children. I believe that all children can learn and that they deserve the same opportunity to do well in life.”

It was at this point that I understood what really drives Ms. Wodatch. She is doing this for the children. This founder has none of the self focus I have seen from others who have created successful schools despite the tremendous odds working against them. Ms. Wodatch believes in her heart that “learning ​should be fun and relevant to the kids’ lives,” and that “building a school involves building a community.” The executive director quickly got to the bottom line. “Walking into school is like walking into a hug. Having a kid here (her three children attend Two Rivers) makes me a want to be a better parent.”

These notions are consistent with her belief that the school needs to be welcoming and diverse. There are other foundations behind her work and that of her staff. For example, they believe that the arts and physical education are not extras to be provided as an obligation but subjects that should be fully integrated into the curriculum. Music and Spanish are also emphasized at the school.

Besides the high academic results, the end result of these efforts to provide a truly special and caring learning environment are an extremely stable staff and student population. “In the history of the school not one teacher has left to accept another teaching position somewhere else,” Ms. Wodatch proudly said. “On the student population side our re-enrollment rate is around 90 percent.”

But the school is not content to stay in one place regarding their progress. The staff spends time every week on professional development and is heavily dependent on data to drive student assessment. According to Ms. Wodatch “the goal is not to just teach the basics but for our kids to learn 21 st century skills. We focus on subjects such as equality, expert thinking, and complex communications.”

Which now brings me back to the students I met at the beginning of my visit. All three were well- dressed, professional, and extremely articulate. They looked me straight in the eye as they spoke. These kids had a confidence you don’t usually see in kids their age.

The students uniformly described their school as a community. When I asked whether they missed their friends since Two Rivers is not a neighborhood school they each shook their heads no. “We have made plenty of new friends here,” remarked one of them, “and the work is harder than it would be at my regular school.”

D.C. Mayor could have closed charter schools; that she didn’t should be applauded

In the wake of this terrible world-wide tragedy regarding the coronavirus, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on March 7th declared a state of emergency and public health emergency in the nation’s capital. According to WAMU’s Jacob Fenston:

“Declaring a state of emergency activates a broad range of powers that enable the mayor to mobilize people and resources more quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That includes things like mandatory quarantines or curfews, freeing up funds more quickly and preventing price gouging on essentials needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Yesterday, she issued new restrictions on the number of people who can be present in bars and restaurants.

In addition, last week it was announced that D.C. public schools would be closed beginning today, Monday, March 16th, and would re-open on Wednesday, April 1st. March 16 is a professional development day for teachers so that remote learning lesson plans can be implemented. The spring break that was originally scheduled for the middle of April is cancelled and instead will take place this week. Beginning Monday, March 23rd students will take classes online.

So that pupils do not miss meals associated with attending school, DCPS has established food distribution sites at 16 campuses. Many students in our city would go hungry were it not for the nourishment they receive while at their classrooms.

The Mayor and the Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn should be congratulated and thanked for the perfectly appropriate response regarding our schools in the face of this crisis.

Most, but not all, public charter schools are following the schedule established for DCPS.

The School Reform Act of 1995 created charter schools in the District, making them autonomous from DCPS. In 2007, Adrian Fenty won control of the regular schools through the Public Education Reform Act. Although the SRA provided charters with clear freedom from the rules governing the regular schools, there is broad agreement that the chief executive and D.C. Council still have authority over the alternative sector when it comes to the health and safety of students.

This is why Ms. Bowser’s announcement regarding DCPS is so important. It demonstrates a restraint that honors the independence of charters as individual local education agencies combined with a deep respect that they will take appropriate actions to protect the lives of those that they educate, as they have done for over 25 years.

We should be proud of our elected representative’s efforts to protect its citizens. Today, we must also celebrate our clearly established system of school choice in the greatest city in the world.

2 of 4 new charter school applicants should be approved

There was a marathon monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board Monday evening due to a heavy agenda and one and a half hours of public testimony. People signed up to speak mostly to support one of the four applicants for new schools that would open in the 2021-to-2022 school year. One interesting tidbit from this portion of the session came from two former employees of Ingenuity Prep PCS who I’m sure have testified in the past. In response to their comments, Chairman Cruz revealed that the Office of the State Superintendent, as well as the PCSB, has audited the school’s special education program and found deficiencies. I wrote about the activities of the charter board investigating this aspect of the school’s operation that I learned about only by reviewing the PCSB’s answers to questions posed to it from the D.C. Council as part of its 2020 oversight hearings. Why this information has to come out in steady drips in this age of transparency is beyond me.

Besides the consideration of new schools and other business, Friendship PCS was approved to take over Achievement Prep PCs’s Wahler Middle School after the founding charter announced that it would no longer operate this campus next term. My question is why Friendship does not take over all of Achievement Prep? The middle school has 449 students in grades four through eight while the elementary has 375 pupils in pre-Kindergarten three through the third grade with the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation instructing the children in preschool. Perhaps at a later time.

The presentations by the new applicants were fascinating. Right out of the gate I’ll wager the entire pot on the Capital Experience Lab PCS being given the green light. Sometimes new bids for charters have an alignment in components that cannot be stopped and this is the case with this school. The support from CityBridge Education combined with Friendship’s CEO Patricia Brantley as a board member and the selection of Lanette Dailey-Reese as head of school present a powerful foundation. I hope you remember Ms. Dailey-Reese as the highly impressive individual who almost single-handily saved City Arts and Prep PCS from closure. This mission of the CAPX LAB around utilizing the wealth of resources present in the nation’s capital as its classroom cannot be topped.

I truly wish I felt the same about Global Citizens PCS. It is a terrible idea to go against the other CityBridge Education school but here I go. The idea of providing a dual immersion school in Spanish and Mandarin east of the river is fascinating, and I’m a tremendous supporter of the founders, who come from Sela PCS. I just cannot get my mind past the question from board member Jim Sandman who asked how the school would go about staffing its teachers when it has no idea how many initial scholars would be interested in learning one language versus the other. The other problem I have conceptually is that in this school’s pre-Kindergarten classes the language other than English would be spoken eighty percent of the time, with English going up to fifty percent in higher grades. Is this really what’s best for the academic future of this population of students? Perhaps people with more knowledge on this subject than me will point out that the answer is affirmative. I’m not so sure. For these reasons I vote no for approval.

Here’s another mistake I could be making. I would love to see a charter granted to The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship. This school, which applied for the first time last year, spells out its goals this way:

“At The Garden, our vision is to close the racial wealth gap and break the cycle of generational poverty. Our students will receive career skill-building experiences, learn how to grow their ideas into businesses, and how to use their assets to build wealth. Our school model is not only for the business person or entrepreneur, our school supports all careers. Our model is intended to create and build the mindset and skills needed to move black communities from consumer to producer. College and career is not our grand prize, it’s just the ticket into the arena. We will teach our students about investing, bonds, and stocks. Our students will work to create new ways to generate income – no matter what their degree or career is. We work to change how students think about money and education. For this reason, we are not only focused on academics and our economic design. We are culturally affirming who our students are and supporting them mentally and socio-emotionally. We believe that the most powerful feeling in the world is having control. Not, control over others or a multi-million dollar company. It’s control over yourself, your skills, and your mindset.”

I was especially taken with the young gentleman school representative telling his story about growing up in poverty who now makes millions of dollars through multiple businesses in Ward 8. Let’s give them a chance.

Finally, I reluctantly would not go along with the application from Washington Arabic PCS. This school also tried last year. Although improvements in the bid have been made, and the founding group has been positively augmented, I have lingering concerns about the design of the curriculum.

In most years not more than forty percent of new applicants are approved by the PCSB. I’m going with half this time. Next month we will see if I have the right half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to eliminate charter school boards of directors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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