Scott Pearson is wrong to consider unions for charter schools

In a recent article published on EducationPost, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board reacted to a blog post by Dirk Tillotson who contends that unions have a place in charter schools.  Mr. Pearson agrees, stating that not one of the charter applications that has come before his organization has included unionized employees, and he believes that the time has come for this innovation to be employed just like others he has seen in his sector.  He could not be more mistaken.

Mr. Pearson begins his argument with the assertion that unions can be a voice for employee concerns.  But what I have seen from working with a bargaining unit in Washington, D.C. is that unions actually become a wall between management and staff.  It inserts a third party between these two groups, and although you would imagine that the union looks out for the interest of its members exactly the opposite becomes true.  The union, almost naturally, does everything it can to protect its place and power, often at the expense of those it is supposed to be supporting.

The PCSB executive director also appears to be a fan of the due process procedures that unions impose to protect their employees from being fired.  But we sadly learned about the DCPS teachers who committed educational malpractice for decades without consequences because they were protected by the union.  We’ve heard the stories of instructors who have been accused of wide ranging offenses collecting full pay while sitting in rubber rooms killing time because they cannot be removed from the system.

In addition, right here in Mr. Pearson’s backyard, unions have fought the very reforms that have led many charters to close the academic achievement gap.  The Teachers’ Union battled Kaya Henderson when she extended the school year on a few of her campuses.  They have obstructed implementation of the IMPACT teacher evaluation tool linking rankings partially to student performance.  Most recently, the DC Teachers’ union went so far as to protest Walmart’s plans to provide free school supplies, making the absurd contention that if company’s foundation had not been promoting the growth of charter schools there would be plenty of money for DCPS to purchase what it needed.

In fact, the unions have opposed charter schools at every opportunity.  Mr. Pearson may assert that this is because they don’t utilize unionized teachers but there is a much more fundamental reason for their dislike of these alternative schools.  Unions, by their nature, do not support the type of managerial entrepreneurship that put kids and families first.

Unions have no place in charter schools.


Basis PCS withdraws application to expand

Tonight is the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board and therefore last week as is the custom I received an email containing the agenda.  When I reviewed it I was confused in that I did not see the anticipated vote on the expansion request of Basis PCS.  I then contacted the PCSB office to ask about the omission.

As you recall at the October session representatives from Basis had asked to grow by an astonishing 936 students in grades Kindergarten through the fourth grade.  The school currently serves 700 children in grades five through twelve.  However, during the discussion regarding the charter amendment PCSB board member Steve Bumbaugh made the following observation:

“He revealed that for the last three weeks he had been studying the student enrollment data at the charter and he frankly found the numbers to be ‘concerning.’ For example, he discovered that across the charter sector in D.C., 79 percent of students are economically disadvantaged but at Basis this number is 17 percent.  Again, he observed, overall for charters 15 percent of pupils are classified as Special Education and at Basis this number is less than five percent.  Moreover, at Basis less than 10 percent of kids are found to be At Risk while for charters that statistic is 51 percent.  Finally, Mr. Bumbaugh explained that charters are characterized by  student populations that include 7 percent English Language Learners while at Basis this percentile is zero.”

In reaction to this information I wrote that “in other words, the fear that I expressed years ago that Basis would create a school in the nation’s capital that ignored the original charter bargain to take care of those students often left behind by the traditional schools has become a reality.”

It appeared to me that the amendment request was consistent with the explicit Basis strategy of opening charter schools utilizing public money to provide essentially a private school education in localities where the law allowed it to execute this plan.  Where no charter school law exists the organization’s tactic is to replicate by offering parents the traditional private school model.  It appears that in response to my comments and those of Mr. Bumbaugh the charter changed its mind regarding the request to add another campus and withdrew its application.

This is not the first time that a request by Basis DC to augment its student body did not go as planned.  After the school opened here in 2013 it asked the charter board to increase its enrollment ceiling by 35 students in order to make loan and rent payments related to its Eighth Street facility.  The PCSB turned down the move citing the large number of kids, 43 out of 443, that had already left the school.  Seven of those pupils were classified as special education students.

Exclusive interview with Dr. LaTonya Henderson, executive director of Cedar Tree Academy PCS

I had the privilege recently of interviewing Dr. LaTonya Henderson, the executive director of Cedar Tree Academy Public Charter School.  The school is named after Cedar Hill, the estate and national historical site of abolitionist Frederick Douglass that is located near its campus.  Ms. Henderson informed me that Cedar Tree currently enrolls 380 students in grades Pre-Kindergarten three, Pre-Kindergarten four, and Kindergarten.  When I asked Ms. Henderson how she obtained her permanent facility I learned that in the past our paths had directly crossed.

It turns out that Cedar Tree Academy originated from the remnants of Howard Road Academy.   I remember vividly the highly impressive Tracey Johnson who used to be Howard Road Academy’s board chair.  We ran into each other at many of the meetings in the early days of D.C.’s charter school movement.  Then we became competitors.

In February 2008, the DC Public Charter School Board, under the leadership of Tom Nida, was forced to shutter Washington Leadership Academy PCS in Southeast because it had run out of operating funds and was in deep debt that included payroll taxes it had failed to pay.  Mr. Nida invited other interested charters to bid on taking over this school in midyear.  I was then chair of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts and we decided to try and expand.  Three other charters that satisfied the criteria to replicate also put in proposals, and each institution gathered at a Ward 6 church one cold evening to make their case for taking over the failed school in front of the PCSB and about 100 angry Washington Leadership parents.  Multiple times Mr. Nida had to fight back the strong emotions of those in the audience to keep the session moving.  At the end of the tense meeting Mr. Nida announced that Howard Road Academy had won the selection process.

I was terribly upset that we had not been picked but I was also incredibly impressed with Mr. Johnson that night.  He related to Mr. Nida that his staff had put together a series of issues that needed to be resolved in order to have a successful takeover.  I believe the number of items on the list reached into the eighties.

It turns out that Dr. Henderson was the principal at Howard Road Academy at the time and she informed me that she was the one that had assembled the document to which Mr. Johnson referred.   Dr. Henderson then explained that she really wished that William E. Doar had won the request for proposal.  She elaborated.

“Howard Road was doing great at that time,” the Cedar Tree PCS executive director related.  “Academically we were extremely strong.  Financially we were solid and we were not lacking for cash on hand.  But as soon as we assumed control of this school, the situation changed dramatically.”

“We just expanded too quickly,” Dr. Henderson continued.  “We had added two campuses to the two we already operated.  At our peak we were up to 1,000 kids.  Integrating the parents and students into the existing program proved spectacularly problematic.  Our board of directors, which in the past was strongly united, was now bitterly divided over the decision to grow.  The daily frustrations became so great that I decided to leave.”

She was able to stay away from the charter for four years.  Then Mr. Johnson convinced Dr. Henderson, after about five or six unsuccessful attempts, to come back to the school as a board member.  Upon her return she found that the PCSB was on the verge of revoking the school’s charter due to low academic performance.  Just as she had done with the Washington Leadership project, Dr. Henderson put together a plan to rectify the situation.  She proposed sharply reducing the size of the charter by two campuses so that they could focus on their high-performing early childhood program.  One of the four campuses had already been closed by Howard Road due to poor student outcomes.   Dr. Henderson did not know if the PCSB would go along with this idea.  She worked closely with Scott Pearson, the board’s executive director, who Dr. Henderson described as “extremely helpful” in advancing the plan.   Eventually the PCSB went along with the strategy as long as the school was able to demonstrate three years of academic growth.

Cedar Tree is in its fourth year of scholastic advancement.  The charter is now ranked as Tier 1 on the Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework.

The early childhood charter now occupies one of the buildings that was owned by Howard Road Academy.  At the start of the restructuring there were 150 students.  Now there are approximately 19 classrooms with 22 kids or less in each one.  There are about 70 staff members.  The curriculum includes Spanish, music, African American dance, and physical education that even encompasses learning tennis.  Parents have expressed that they would love the school to expand beyond Kindergarten.

I asked Dr. Henderson to describe the children that Cedar Tree serves.  The executive director answered in rapid fashion.  “One hundred percent of our student population qualifies for free or reduced price meals.  These are absolutely the best kids in the world.  They are so innocent.  They are absolute sponges.  In many ways these are traditional Southeast kids.  There are parents living in poverty, maybe addicted to drugs, often led by single mothers.  But you have to understand.  I am the children that we serve.  I grew up in the projects.  My mother, who passed away when I was 15, was an alcoholic.  She had a ninth grade education.  I am the youngest of nine children.  My mom repeatedly stressed to her children that when you reach the age of 18 you either have to go to college or the military.  I chose college.  We also were raised going to church every Wednesday and Sunday.  I had an extremely spiritual foundation.  I am convinced that all the people that prayed for me led me to where I am today.”

The Cedar Tree PCS executive director then spoke philosophically.  “The way that we approach learning over here is that we are building a solid foundation.  We understand that along the way the structure above the ground may be washed away but the house can always be rebuilt.  It is getting the foundation right that is most important.  It is analogous to putting money in the bank to prepare for the future.”

I believe the next logical inquiry for Dr. Henderson is to understand what led to the school’s success.  Again, it appeared that the words were already sitting on the tip of her tongue as I started to speak.  “We make a personal connection with every parent.  I stand outside Monday through Friday at drop off and recess.  I talk to each of them daily.  We demonstrate that we love all of these children.  I make it a point to call the grownups and visit their homes.  We develop a deep trust with the adults.  We show through our actions that we believe with our hearts that without exception they can succeed at high levels.  Our faculty knows that the amount of love we show changes a child’s life.  It happens daily at our school.  Therefore, if it ever comes to the point in which there is an issue with a child that we need to address, the parents become our strongest advocates.  This is the direct result of the time and effort we have taken to develop this strong trust.”

“Moreover,” the Cedar Tree executive director added, “like all schools now we utilize data to monitor the progress of our children.  One tool that has been particularly effective has been the School Readiness Consulting that is offered once a year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.  Here outside observes assess teacher interactions with students in the areas of emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support.”  Dr. Henderson is proud of the fact that Cedar Tree consistently scores strongly on this measure.

After spending some time with Dr. Henderson, I would not imagine that it would be any other way.

The 2016 Friendship PCS Teacher of the Year Gala

The falling leaves and crisp cool weather means its time again for the Friendship Public Charter School Teacher of the Year Award held annually at the refined J.W. Marriott Hotel.  My wife Michele and I are always eager to attend this inspiring event. We were not disappointed.

Upon arrival at the opening reception I ran right into Patricia Brantley, the former chief operating officer for the school, now Mr. Hense’s replacement who I recently interviewed.  I asked her what it felt like to be in this new role this evening.  She answered without hesitation.  “I was of course exceedingly familiar with the workings of Friendship from my 23 years of being on the staff.  However, it is beyond thrilling to me that I now have the unbelievable opportunity of celebrating the greatest educators in the country.  As CEO, to be able to shake the hands of teachers who make Friendship work and who on a daily basis are in front of our children, is beyond moving.  There are six nominees tonight for Teacher of the Year but I feel like I’m the winner for just having the opportunity to strive to support these amazing individuals.”

Between cocktails and appetizers served by the hotel’s highly professional staff, coincidentally the next person we met was Donald Hense.  Looked relaxed and content he immediately wanted to boast about his new leader.  “Pat is doing a marvelous job,” the past Friendship CEO observed, “She is excellent. We did the absolute right thing.  But this was all intentional.  We had created a succession plan more than a year ago.  Friendship has the individual it needs to conduct this life changing work and she will ensure that our educators are no less than world class.”

I asked Mr. Hense about recent progress at Friendship and he informed me about an exciting initiative regarding their alumni.  He related that about 52 percent of Friendship high school graduates have completed college or are currently enrolled.  Mr. Hense told me that the charter has now created a reclamation program to figure out how to ensure that the remainder of these pupils complete their degrees.

The crowd then moved into the ballroom for the formal dinner program.  Mr. Hense gave a few introductory remarks but it was the words of Ms. Brantley that stirred the audience’s emotions.  She spoke powerfully about the momentous impact of the opening on September 24, 2016 of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.  She stated that there have been many efforts over the years to recognize the contributions of American Americans but none have been as great as the creation of this institution.  She talked about having the privilege of taking Friendship students through a building that provides them with a background that prepares them to make history.  Ms. Brantley explained that it teaches these young people to dream big and to believe that anything is possible to achieve in life.

She thanked all of the teachers of Friendship schools for their strong dedication, exclaiming that “you do so much more for them than we ask you to do and more than we compensate you for doing.”  She remarked that “you take these kids into your lives, your homes, and your classrooms on a daily basis and welcome them in.”  She gave her strong appreciation to Friendship staff no matter what their role “be it security, nutrition, or administration.”

For this ninth Teacher of the Year Gala Mr. Roland Martin, the host of News One Now and a commentator for TV One Cable Network, was again the Masters of Ceremonies.  He prodded through jokes and laughter all of the school principals to keep their introductory remarks of their nominees short.  It worked.  The six finalists were then revealed.  They were Bharti Bhasin, Collegiate Campus; Paul Griffith, Technology Preparatory Campus; Prinz Milton, Blow Pierce Campus; Quianna Richburg, Chamberlain Campus; Cinthia Suchorski, Woodridge International Baccalaureate Campus; and Lucy Williams-Price, Friendship Southeast Campus.

Each time we attend this celebration Michele and I attempt to guess the winner by watching the well-produced videos of each teacher at work that accompanies their nominations.  These presentations never fail to bring tears to my eyes and this occasion was no exception.  Hints as to the likely selection may also be obtained by reading the statements of each finalist contained in the elegant brochure provided to each attendee.  But on this night we could not make a decision.  They all appeared fantastic and deserving of the top prize.  The judges had to make an extremely challenging decision.

Mr. Hense announced that the Teacher of Year for 2016 is Quianna Richburg, an English language instructor at Friendship Chamberlain.  In her acceptance speech Ms. Richburg spoke about how humble she felt winning this recognition, especially in light of other teachers at Friendship that “inspire and engage students every day.”  She noted that “their passion is of course unparalleled.  This is not easy work that we do.”

Ms. Richburg went on to say that this victory is extremely personal to her.  She informed the audience that she was the young girl that played school at home.  She created a classroom out of all her figurines, gave them assignments, and called on them.  She added that she even split them up into small groups and went so far as to contact their parents.

But perhaps, in retrospect, it was obvious that she should be the one.  From her brochure statement:

“Many of the students who walk through my door everyday are faced with personal challenges that interfere with their academic achievement.  Poverty, instability, hunger, anger, fear, and illness continue to plague the community I serve.  To an outsider looking in, forming relationships with students who are already shouldering such burdens may seem impossible.  But to me, it is an opportunity to be the adult every child deserves; a time when teachers can make a huge impact. . .

Ultimately, we as teachers hold the keys to unlocking the potential our students possess.  It is our responsibility to create classrooms that are both informative and interactive, where students feel invested and loved each and every day.  While curriculum, standards, and educational policies may change, the value of a great teacher is immeasurable.”

It was then time to move on to the after party.

Will Massachusetts decide the future of U.S. charter schools?

There is a tremendously important vote taking place today and it has nothing to do with who will be the next President of the United States.  There is a ballot measure in Massachusetts that would lift the cap on the number of charter schools.  The outcome at the ballot box could decide whether charters continue to grow in America or whether they turn into a short-term experiment that dies at the vine.  Here is why.

Education policy analysts who rarely agree on anything line up together on one main point.  Children who attend Boston charters that predominately serve low income pupils  significantly academically outperform their peers that go to traditional schools. This is from a New York Times article that ran this past weekend by David Leonhardt:

“When you talk to the professors about their findings, you hear a degree of excitement that’s uncommon for academic researchers. ‘Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance — class sizes, tracking, new buildings — these schools are producing spectacular gains,’ said Joshua Angrist, an M.I.T. professor.”

But because this is a political year objective facts may be insufficient to sway the public.

Democrats, who are often beholden to teachers’ unions, are arguing that the money for charters takes away funds from the regular schools and therefore harms the students that remain in them when there is a option to enroll somewhere else.  Charter schools rarely have unionized teachers.  Here is Senator Elizabeth Warren:

“I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth,” Ms. Warren wrote, “especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”

We have seen the identical impact that powerful unions play when it comes to school choice here in Washington, D.C.  They have exerted every bit of influence they can to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides scholarships for students living in poverty to attend private schools.

Now the sad part.  Because charters are concentrated in Boston but Question 2 is voted on by everyone in the state, where most public schools are good, observers now believe the measure will fail.  But there is always hope.  Many people, despite ideology, will simply look out for the benefit of the children.  For example, despite the opposition, keep in mind that the OSP is still alive here in the nation’s capital after sixteen years.  Let’s conclude with a comment by Susan Dynarski, a University of Michigan professor who was one of those that looked at the performance of Boston charters.

“The gains to children in Massachusetts charters are enormous. They are larger than any I have seen in my career.  To me, it is immoral to deny children a better education because charters don’t meet some voters’ ideal of what a public school should be. Children don’t live in the long term. They need us to deliver now.”

Under Bowser, what does Mayoral control of the public schools mean?

Muriel Bowser has been in office for almost a couple of years now, so I think it’s fair to ask a logical question.  Just what does it mean under this Mayor for her to have control of our public schools?  As someone who follows public policy regarding education closely this was an easy answer when it came to her predecessor.

Mr. Gray was an unashamed proponent of charter schools.  He turned over at least a dozen shuttered DCPS facilities to these innovative institutions.  Mr. Gray’s first Deputy Mayor for Education, De’Shawn Wright, completed the Illinois Facility Fund report that calculated in 2002 the number of quality public school seats that needed to be created in the nation’s capital so that every child could receive an education that would prepare them for college.  The number was an astonishing 40,000.  The next Deputy Mayor, Abigail Smith, released the equally groundbreaking Adequacy study which for the first time in the history of local school reform documented the illegal additional revenue that DCPS is receiving compared to charters outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  That number is a sickening 100 million dollars a year.  The document came complete with remedies to fix the situation.

But this is not all.  Mr. Gray solidified the per pupil facility fund for charter schools at $3,000, utilizing for the first time funding solely from the city.  This freed up Congressional Three Sector Approach SOAR grant dollars for charters to allocate for other purposes.  Also under his tenure, the common lottery was introduced and the annual school fair became an event equally promoting charters along with the traditional schools.

Today, the situation is much different.  The recommendations of the Adequacy study sit gathering dust on a book shelf in the Wilson building and the FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit never gets mentioned.  Also covered in filth are the shuttered dilapidated DCPS facilities that are no longer being offered to charters.  The per pupil facility fund is frozen at a level that leads to the sector teaching students in structures that pale in comparison to their regular school counterparts.

This Mayor has created the Cross Sector Collaboration Task Force.  It has apparently been meeting for over a year and according to the chair of the Public Charter School Board the group has “really been focused on getting to know one another.”

Mayor Fenty fought hard to win control of the public schools from the D.C. Council. Perhaps it is time to simply give it back to the Board of Education.  Mayor Bowser obviously has other priorities.

D.C. charter school enrollment approaching equity with traditional public schools

Today, Alejandra Matos of the Washington Post reveals the highly encouraging news that enrollment in D.C.’s charter schools increased by seven percent from a year ago.  This movement, that began just 20 years ago, and which over the past several years has seen its share of public school students seemingly stuck at 44 percent, jumped from 38,905 students to 41,677 this term reaching an astonishing share of 46 percent of all public school students enrolled in the District of Columbia.  The change represents an additional 2,772 scholars attending charters.

Incredibly, the rise in the charter school student body could have been significantly greater.  There are currently an estimated 8,640 pupils on charter school wait lists.

DCPS, which had been growing in enrollment by about one and three quarters percent a year for the last four years following eight years of decline, saw only 338 additional students enter the system for the 2016 to 2017 term.  The Post indicates that 90,500 children are now taught in all D.C. public schools, a rise of three percent from last year.

It appears that even to this day with all of the improvements made to the traditional school facilities and programs, parents continue to vote with their feet in choosing a charter school education as the preferred path to guarantee a strong future for their children.

Of course, the logical question in the face of this data is why is it that charter schools continue to be denied the same level of funding as the regular schools?  A FOCUS engineered funding equity lawsuit brought by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, Washington Latin PCS, and Eagle Academy PCS estimates that DCPS receives for each child an additional $1,600 to $2,600 a year in operating revenue from the city outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula that charters do not get.  This amounts to about $100 million a term.

It is only fair and right that with enrollment equity comes funding equity.  Charters have had to make due with this shortfall from the beginning and therefore for far too many years.

NAACP decides to regulate charter schools

Last Saturday the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People went ahead and ratified a resolution calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.  In a cold effort to manipulate the movement that currently teaches 2.6 million students with another million on waiting lists, the organization listed four conditions under which it would reverse its latest decision.  They are:

(1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
(2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
(3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
(4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Never mind that the NAACP has never called for the closure of the traditional schools that have utterly failed for decades to educate the very people that this non-profit is supposedly serving.  This is clearly a complete capitulation to the teachers’ unions.  There can be no other explanation for a group opposing the heroes that have taken children that may have ended up in prison or dead and turned their lives around so that they are now going to college.

There is really nothing more to say.  It is a sad day.

We can no longer accept the academic achievement gap

Towards the end of this past summer Washington, D.C.’s annual public school PARCC standardized test scores were released and the academic achievement gap between white and poor students was unambiguously visible for all to see.  For example, when it came to English Language Arts for those students scoring in the college readiness range of four and five the variance between white and low-income children was 56 points.  In math the difference in results between these two groups was exactly the same.  White kids hit the 74 percent range while those living in poverty recorded a proficiency rate of 17 percent.  For the charter sector the disparity was smaller coming in at just under 50 percent for reading and math.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  One of the tremendous highlights of the Amplify School Choice Conference I attended last August sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity was a visit to the Denver School of Science and Technology.  DSST is a network of 12 Denver charter middle and high schools with an enrollment of approximately 5,000 children, with plans to grow to 22 schools educating 10,000 pupils.  64 percent of its scholars qualify for free or reduced priced meals. Once there, besides hearing from three impressive alumni students, one of whom is currently attending Yale University, we learned about the school from its founding principal and chief executive officer Bill Kurtz.   In 2016, Mr. Kurtz was inducted in the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s Charter School Hall of Fame.

I was instantly completely taken with Mr. Kurtz’s remarks.  He started his presentation to the 50 bloggers in the room by talking about the values that his charters endeavor to instill in its student body.  These include respect, courage, integrity, responsibility, curiosity, and doing your best.  Next he described the cooperation DSST promotes with the traditional school system.  Now, the DSST CEO was ready to review the most recent PARCC results.

For all Denver Public Schools, the quantity of students that scored college-ready on the PARCC exam was 67 percent.  But for low-income pupils the percentile that had the same result was only at 22.  This equates to a 45 percent disparity, somewhat narrower than that of D.C. charter schools.  However, the findings of DSST students were dramatically different.  At the charter school network 89 percent of pupils posted a four or five.  For low-income children the proficiency rate came in at 77 percent.  This means that the achievement gap was an impressively slim 12 percent.

What happened next was truly amazing.  Mr. Kurtz paused for what wasn’t but seemed like a full 60 seconds and looked around the room.  Then in a solemn voice he stated, “This twelve point difference is totally unacceptable to us.”

The mission of DSST “is to transform urban public education by eliminating educational inequity and preparing all students for success in college and the 21st century.”  Mr. Kurtz revealed that 100 percent of students from its high schools have been accepted to four year colleges or universities since the founding of the charter network nine years ago.  Perhaps when values are the first subject brought up in a lecture and the initial words that appear when visiting the school’s website, you can obtain academic results such as those of the Denver School of Science and Technology.

Tom Nida to receive Exceptional Service Award

Tonight at the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board my friend Tom Nida will receive the organization’s Award for Exceptional Service.

Mr. Nida was chairman of the PCSB for six years from 2004 to 2010.  His term was characterized by explosive growth of our local charter school movement, with enrollment jumping during his period by an incredible 25 percent a term.  He was a towering strong force on the board, who teamed with PCSB executive director Josephine Baker, also an Exceptional Service Award winner, to develop a great number of the systems and processes that have led the PCSB to become recognized as the nation’s leading charter school authorizer.  Many of the operational ground rules for charters he and the board had to develop in real time since there was no precedent anywhere for the rules under which these schools should operate.   The movement at this point was so young.  The first charter school had only opened in Washington D.C. in 2006.

But I would not be telling the entire story if I talked only about enrollment increases.  Mr. Nida also cared deeply about quality.  The PCSB closed schools that were not performing at a high level, which mostly revolved around financial stability.   If he got wind that a school was deviating from its mission to improve the academic performance of the kids within its walls, Mr. Nida famously held one of his “Come to Jesus” meetings with the school’s board to right the ship.  You did not want to be in one of those sessions.

Mr. Nida was passionate about his volunteer position, perhaps because he was a witness to what was happening with the city’s traditional schools.  Having proudly graduated from Anacostia High School, it must have deeply pained him to see the decrepit state that the traditional schools had become, with buildings that were literally crumbling down, little actual teaching taking place in the classrooms, and drugs and violence filling the hallways.

Mr. Nida was also the first person who agreed to sit down with me for one of my “exclusive interviews.”  These were some of the most enjoyable times in my life.  We had never officially met, but over cocktails and appetizers that Mr. Nida refused to allow me to pay for, we discussed every aspect of charter schools’ governance.  Mr. Nida taught me the importance of the work of nonprofit boards and he has an understanding of facility financing that I’m sure no one one can equal.  Often, I had to simply put down my pen and think about the information that just passed through his lips so I could grasp what he was telling me.  One question I asked turned into dozens more.  The information was especially valuable because over the years that I met with him I was the chairman of two charter school boards and interviewed many public school reform leaders.

Congratulations Mr. Nida for a job well done.