D.C. charter board honors top performing schools

Last Thursday I had the honor of attending the DC Public Charter School Board’s Celebrating Best Practices in Public Charter School Education event.  The venue was a perfect setting for the occasion.  It was held at the stately Willard InterContinental Hotel, whose opulence all decked out for the Christmas season seemed a perfect match to the quality of the work being performed in the classrooms of the institutions recognized on this day.  No detail was left for chance.  Upon arrival each individual representing a charter received a personalized program inscribed with a quotation from one of its students highlighting his or her excitement over attending that particular school.  Once the attendees grabbed their breakfast and were seated, a highly professionally produced video was presented that interviewed children attending Tier 1 charters whose adorable comments echoed those found on the cards containing the morning’s agenda.

Thanks to the board’s efforts it really did feel like a special gathering.  This was reinforced by the stature of those in attendance, who included Chairman of the D.C. Council Phil Mendelson, At-large D.C. Councilmember Robert White, Jr., Ward 6 D.C. Coucilmember Charles Allen, and the new Acting D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn.

Next up was Scott Pearson, the PCSB’s executive director, who welcomed the guests.  He congratulated all of the award winners, recognizing all of the challenges they face in practicing their profession.  But then something fascinating happened.  Mr. Pearson became philosophical and provided some comments that I never would have imagined being spoken by this man.  He talked about issues he referred to as impacting the sustainability of an educator’s career:

“The second concerns the growing demands we place on you and your staffs.  Just in the past year the city council has regulated or is about to regulate your discipline policies, how you work with non-English-speaking families, and how you hire your staff.  We now have two evaluation systems, the PMF and the OSSE five-star rating, which nearly doubles the data validation work you must do.  The work we require of you for procurement contracts is greater than ever.   Sometimes I feel like I am slowly witnessing the slow, steady, reconstruction of the traditional public system we were supposed to be the alternative to.  The fact that I’m part of this process is not only ironic to me – given that I used to be a charter school board chair – it’s deeply painful.  And yet there is a logic and a rationale behind each turn of the ratchet.  We’re all good people, trying to do what’s best.  We play our roles.  The council’s is to legislate.  PCSB’s is to oversee.  Yours is to educate.  But it’s also to fight.  To fight for your flexibility, to fight for what makes your schools special.  Acting alone neither PCSB nor OSSE or the Council can anticipate how our well-meaning actions will affect you.  Only you can tell us – and the way things are, you sometimes need to shout it at us.  You have to constantly remind us that your freedom to innovate, your exclusive controls, and your ability to be able to focus you energies on student achievement and well-being as opposed to compliance is not just a nice feature – it’s the essential, the core, the heart and soul of what allows you to succeed.   Only when you are in our faces reminding us of this essential fact do we have a chance to get it right.”

It was as if the PCSB executive director was reading directly from my blog.

Next was the announcement of the 11 best practice honorees.  These were nominated by the schools and picked by a selection committee.  They included:

Community Influence Award:  Joyful Food Markets,
Data Excellence Award:  Jodi Ihaza, Briya PCS,
Program Innovation Award:  Stephanie Remick, Washington Leadership Academy PCS,
Program Innovation Award:  Zeleta Green, E.L Haynes PCS,
TIERific Teacher Award:  Francis Richards, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS,
TIERific Teacher Award:  Alexis Rosario, Cedar Tree Academy PCS,
TIERific Principal Award:  Rachel Tommelleo, Center City PCS,
TIERific Parent Award:  Nicole Fitzgerald, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS,
TIERific Student Award:  Kalkidan Haile, E.L. Haynes PCS,
Excellence in English Language Learner Programming Award:  Alicia Passante, Center City PCS, and
Excellence in Special Education Programming Award:  Wanda Gregory, Capital City PCS

Additional details about those recognized can be found here.

Each of the 53 Tier 1 school was then called to the podium to receive their award recognizing their attainment of the top ranking on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, while a brief narrative was read giving an overview of the mission of the charter.  Afterwords pictures of each school team were taken with Mr. Pearson, Ms. Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, the PCSB Deputy Director, and invited special guests.

In all it was an exceptionally positive ceremony.

KIPP DC PCS to takeover Somerset Prep PCS

Multiple individuals involved in the transition have confirmed to me that Somerset Prep PCS has agreed to be taken over by KIPP DC, and that KIPP will be asking the DC Public Charter School Board to approve the change in the charter management organization overseeing Somerset at its December 2018 meeting.

Somerset is a sixth-through-twelfth grade charter that opened in the 2013-to-2014 school year. It currently serves approximately 424 students of whom 71 percent are classified as at-risk and 60 percent are economically disadvantaged. Last December, the PCSB conducted its five-year review of Somerset and determined that it was not meeting its academic goals. It permitted the school to continue operating under a list of academic conditions. The high school has consistently scored as a low-to-average Tier 2 institution on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, while the middle school has been ranked as Tier 3 for two out of three years.

The charter has a special place in D.C.’s charter school movement. Major support for this school opening here came from Joe Bruno, the president of Building Hope, who served as the school’s first board chair. It receives services from Academica, a charter school support organization, as the Somerset national charter management organization does in many localities in which it operates. Somerset and Academica operate many schools in Florida where Building Hope also has an office. I remember Martha Cutts, the former long-term head of school at Washington Latin PCS, informing me that Mr. Bruno asked her to consult with the principal of Somerset Prep in order to improve the operation of the school.

Due to Somerset’s low academic performance, especially around its middle school, its board of directors initiated a search for a new partner. The process included parent and teacher board members and included school tours, data reviews, and site visits. The decision by Somerset’s board to join KIPP DC was unanimous. The KIPP DC board has also approved the expansion of their network to include Somerset PCS.

KIPP DC now has 16 campuses in Washington, D.C., instructing almost 6,300 students and has 1,800 alumni. Eight of its schools are ranked on the PMF as Tier 1. The Promise Academy campus was recognized this year by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School for its high performance and for closing the academic achievement gap.

KIPP DC’s goal is to begin operating Somerset PCS during the Summer of 2019. It would also like to expand its offerings at the new location to start in the fourth grade. The current principal of Somerset, Lauren Catalano, will continue to have a leadership position at the new school.

Susan Schaeffler, the founder and chief executive officer of KIPP DC commented about the expansion of her CMO, “I am excited to be exploring a partnership with Somerset. A partnership between KIPP DC and Somerset would provide continuity to families and ensure they have education supports that will prepare them for college and rewarding careers. We’re eager to listen to students, families and the community in the coming months about what the school could look like in the near future.”

Look for the PCSB to quickly and easily decide to proceed with this change.

City Arts and Prep PCS forcibly rejects attempt by D.C. charter board to close its school

Last Tuesday evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a public hearing to consider revoking the charter of City Arts and Prep PCS. The action was initiated as part of the board’s fifteen-year review of the school. I have witnessed numerous meetings over the years in which a school is facing closure, but I have never seen a stronger refutation of PCSB’s staff report precipitating this action than that provided by the representatives of City Arts.

This was an emotional session for me. I was a founding board member of City Arts and Prep, which when it was created was called the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts. I also served as its board chair for about five years. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was one of a small group of individuals who was involved in writing the original charter. Julie Doar was the initial board chair and first executive director. The school was named after her father who had passed years before I met her. We often met in Julie’s apartment in the evening or on weekends to work on the application and she would cook for us. Joe Smith, now the CEO/CFO of Eagle Academy PCS, was our charter school consultant, and Stephen Marcus, whose law firm is defending City Arts, was our lawyer. The room where the hearing was held was where my wife Michele and I spent considerable time watching student performances or sitting with guests enjoying the faculty talent show. I also helped secure the facility that houses this charter.

But I digress. If you want to go up against the PCSB in an exceptionally high pressure situation then there are no better people to bring with you than Brandon Daniels, the school’s current board chair; Sherry Ingram, an attorney with The Marcus Firm; and Lanette Dailey-Reese, the school’s executive director. Speaking in the order listed above, you could not help but appreciate the dedication, passion, and energy these individuals bring to this charter. Their knowledge about the school was unparalleled.

Here is the bottom line of the current situation. City Arts and Prep has demonstrated uneven academic performance throughout its existence, at one point hiring The TenSquare Consulting Group to perform a turnaround. The most recent charter agreement with the school, coming at the end of its ten-year review, required it to score at least an average of 50 percent on the Performance Management Framework over the last five years. The charter board states that the school never exceeded this mark in any single year and has an average score of 46.6 percent across this period.

I will focus on the testimony of Ms. Ingram. She spoke as if she was defending a wrongly accused plaintiff and she was the only one on the planet who could get back this man’s freedom. Please don’t take my word for it, you can watch the proceedings here. Her main line of argument, more fully developed here, was the same one used to defend Excel Academy PCS when it was facing closure by the board. Her assertion is that when it comes to the education of at-risk youth, the PMF is biased against this population. She stated that the PCSB has its own report demonstrating this to be the case. City Arts and Prep has a student population that Ms. Ingram reported is approximately 98 percent black and includes 65 percent of kids that are economically disadvantaged. 75 percent of its students come to this Ward 5 school from Wards 7 and 8.

Ms. Ingram went on to explain that when the PMF is recalculated to account for the socio-economic factors of its student body it exceeds the 50 percent mark. Perhaps the most effective part of her presentation was in regard to the treatment of this school by the board in comparison to Harmony PCS. She explained that just last week Harmony, which like City Prep is ranked as Tier 2, was given the green light to continue operating after five years with a PMF total of 45 points. By the PCSB’s own calculation, she continued, City Prep’s results are higher but in this instance the board is talking about shuttering its doors. She also mentioned that City Prep has a student wait-list of about 200 students, while Harmony’s is one child.

I could go on and on regarding the effectiveness of the points made by the Marcus Firm attorney. In addition, I would be remiss if I failed to mention one particularly interesting comment by the school’s board chair. Mr. Daniels related that he is fairly new to this role and that when he first assumed his position at the school he met with Mr. Pearson, the PCSB executive director. This was before the latest PARCC scores were released that determine much of the PMF’s final calculation. At this session, Mr. Daniels stated that Mr. Pearson stated that his goal was to close City Arts and Prep.

The clarity and strength of the school’s remarks seemed to stun the members of the PCSB. While they asked questions of the witnesses it did not appear to me to be the same level of inquiry that I have seen at other forums of this type. At the end of this portion of the meeting, Saba Bireda, the board’s vice chair, observed that there are 11 D.C. charters that have higher proportions of their population of at-risk pupils than City Arts that in 2018 scored in the Tier 1 range of the PMF. She remarked that last year this number was 17, and she added that she is uncomfortable saying that this population cannot reach this level. Perhaps this was a hint of what the decision will be regarding this school at the December meeting.

Growth of D.C. charter school sector comes to a screeching halt

Yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education released the audited enrollment data for the 2018-to-2019 school year, and for the first time since the charter school movement began teaching its first students in 1998, the percentage of pupils being taught in this sector compared to those enrolled in DCPS declined compared to the previous year.  The change is small but the implication is humongous.  47 percent of all public school children in the District of Columbia attend a charter school.

This year 43,958 students have signed up to go to a charter school compared to 43,393 during the 2017-to-2018 school term, representing a one percent increase over the last 12 months.  However, DCPS saw its student body increase by two percent, going from 48,144 pupils on the count last October to 49,103 this fall.  92,994 students now attend public school in the nation’s capital, which represents ten years of growth.

The reaction to this news yesterday by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, may not be the one you would expect.  He posted on Twitter:

“For the 10th yr enrollment has increased in public schools but the 1st time the percentage of DC charter school students has gone down. This slight decline reflects our commitment to opening good schools and closing low-performing ones. It’s about quality and choice, not numbers.”

My blood pressure is going up so much right now that I can hardly sit in my chair to write these words.  Yes, of course, public education reform is about quality and choice but it is fundamentally about providing each and every child a good education no matter where they live.  However, we are so far away from this goal despite the fact that so many of us have been working and fighting and arguing and sweating and giving our hard-earned money to turn this situation around.  This is the civil rights struggle that I’m afraid will never be corrected.  Not when the leader of our sector states that we don’t have to worry about the numbers.

In 2012, The Illinois Facility Fund estimated that our city was in need of approximately 40,000 quality seats in our schools.  Last April, the DC PCSB reported there were 11,317 students on charter wait lists.

I have spoken to so many frustrated parents who cannot get their children into a high-performing school.  I have spoken to so many frustrated parents that cannot get their children into a high-performing school.  I have spoken to so many frustrated parents that cannot get their children into a high-performing school.

Charters teach their kids but they don’t get the same amount of money that the regular schools receive.  The founders have to beg to obtain a building in which teachers can practice their profession.  Then, on top of all this, they get to provide information on every detail of their operation to the PCSB.

We have to start over.  We need someone, anyone, who will go to bat for these alternative schools that are literally closing the academic achievement gap for the first time in the history of public education.  We need to figure out how every child, even if they are poor or black or disabled, can get access to what others have been so fortunate to be able to obtain.





“Oh! You’re the charter school candidate.” I’m not.

The title of this post is also the lead of an article by Ward 6 D.C. State Board of Education candidate Jessica Sutter.  Apparently, her opponents have tried to paint her as an individual who favors charters over traditional schools since she was once a teacher at KIPP LA and KIPP DC and because she completed her Phd dissertation on the subject of the closing of charters.

I personally like Jessica and I hope she wins her race.  This is how she summarizes her philosophy on public education:

“All of this boils down to my favorite pillar of leadership used at KIPP: If there is a better way, we find it. We as a District must keep seeking better ways forward in public education that will serve all of our students and families. Better ways are not sector-specific. We’ve got a great deal to learn from all of our schools and I support a robust, equitably-resourced system of public education that meets the needs of all our students—no matter where they live.”

Unfortunately, her policy position is critically flawed.  This is the type of thinking that is actually harming school reform in the nation’s capital.  It is vitally important that those of us who desperately want to close the academic achievement gap, and bring an end once and for all to the cycle of poverty, be sector specific.

I say this for a couple of fundamental reasons.  First, in the charter environment good schools are permitted to grow and replicate, while poor performing ones are closed.  There is absolutely no equivalent to this scenario when it comes to the regular schools.  In regard to DCPS, those facilities that are scoring at the bottom in standardized test scores are permitted to just keep on committing the educational malpractice that has characterized their historical performance.

Second, charter schools are provided with the autonomy to determine how best to educate its students.  There is no top-down bureaucratic control exerted by a centralized office.  We may argue among ourselves, and I have certainly played an active part in this discussion, how much freedom charter schools in our city are actually provided by the DC Public Charter School Board, but the bottom line is that operating as a school of choice is vastly more liberating than working under the rules controlling a DCPS facility.  Think of Fedex versus the United States Postal Service.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 people fled to the democratic west away from the communist east.  Just six years later, parents in D.C. flocked as fast as they could to the new schools being created by the charter board.  Competition has forced DCPS to greatly improve from those dark days.  However, if we want to get to where we really need to go, if we want innovation to allow us to reach the point where a child’s education is truly finally independent of their address, then we have to – with all of our might, energy, and resources – come down on the side of charter schools.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Post editors miss the main point about public school reform

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearson vs. great public schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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