Josh Kern should replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

Now that Scott Pearson has resigned his position as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and will leave his office at the end of May, it is time to speculate as to who will replace him. There really is no choice. Josh Kern, the current founder and managing member of TenSquare, should take Mr. Pearson’s place.

I know there has been a lot of controversy drummed up against Mr. Kern and his organization by people who don’t like charter schools. But think about it, is there anyone out there more qualified for this job? The answer is a resounding no.

As a reminder, Mr. Kern was the co-founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, one of the city’s premier high schools that since its start has been closing the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. When Josephine Baker retired as the PCSB executive director, Mr. Kern was a leading candidate to assume her role.

When the entire city expected Options PCS to close due to severe financial improprieties by the school’s management, Mr. Kern spent day and night protecting the severely emotionally and physically disabled children who attended this charter as if these kids were his own as the court appointed receiver. It was one of the most heroic acts I have ever personally witnessed. His team recently helped steer Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy through an exceptionally challenging turnaround situation.

Mr. Kern’s firm TenSquare is improving the academic performance and management of low-performing charter schools in D.C. and across the country. He knows every aspect of charter performance from selecting strong school leaders, to implementing curriculum and running a business office. His firm has also been successful in identifying and securing permanent facilities. Here is just one highlight of his team’s efforts from my interview with Mr. Kern in 2018:

“The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.”

Although detractors will claim that there will be a conflict of interest between Mr. Kern’s work at TenSquare and that of the charter board, there are steps that can be taken to create a clear separation between the two bodies. The TenSquare founder would simply have to end his association with the consulting body.

I am sure that people out there are saying that there are other qualified candidates that would come to this position without the questions that would surround the selection of Mr. Kern. But on the other hand, there is no one else would fight with every ounce of energy in his body for charters in the nation’s capital.

The choice is simple.

Exclusive Interview with Lauren Maestas, CEO DC Prep PCS

I had the great pleasure of sitting down recently for a conversation with Lauren Maestas, the chief executive officer of DC Prep Public Charter School.  Ms. Maestas had just completed her one-year anniversary on November 5th of her promotion to CEO after serving as the school’s chief talent officer for the previous two and a half years.  Her professional background is fascinating.

Ms. Maestas obtained her law degree at New York University.  Before and after this achievement she worked for McKinsey and Company in a consulting role.  It was six months into her second stint with the firm that Ms. Maestas had an opportunity to join a project for an urban school district.  During this engagement, she recognized the importance of quality public education in a country where too few board rooms include people of color.  She also realized that she wanted human capital work to become the focus of her career.

Her next position was with the New York City Department of Education as the director of school leadership.  The job appealed to her because of the innovative work the NYCDOE was doing under Chancellor Klein’s leadership.  However, her timing was not good.  Joel Klein resigned as Chancellor shortly after she joined, and people started leaving the agency. 

While she was with McKinsey her co-worker and mentor Byron Auguste, husband of Monument Academy PCS’s founder and board member Emily Bloomfield, pointed Ms. Maestas to Uncommon Schools, a charter management organization that now operates 54 schools serving 20,000 students across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, Rochester and Troy, New York.  She was able to land employment with them, becoming their chief talent officer a year later.  She worked with the CMO for four years in New York City. 

Ms. Maestas’ husband then accepted a new job in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and so Ms. Maestas left Uncommon Schools and went to work for Transcend Education, a nonprofit that helps develop new school models that prepare all students to succeed in the 21st century.  But Ms. Maestas was working at home in a city she with which she was unfamiliar, and this fact combined with her personality trait as an introvert convinced her that she needed to be doing something else. It was Maura Marino, the co-founder and CEO of Education Forward, who introduced her to DC Prep.  It was then that she became the charter’s chief talent officer.

I asked the DC Prep CEO what it was like working under DC Prep founder and former CEO Emily Lawson.  She answered as soon as the words escaped my mouth.  “Emily is really amazing,” Ms. Maestas explained.  “She is smart and has a really good heart.  Emily believes wholeheartedly in the mission.  She is always thinking ‘what’s the next step, what’s the next step.’  She has built an excellent team and outstanding board.  Everything she does is in the interest of the students.”

Ms. Maestas related that D.C. Prep currently teaches over 2,000 pupils across five campuses in Wards 5, 7, and 8.  All of these schools are ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.  I wanted to know what makes DC Prep successful.  Again, Ms. Maestas responded without hesitation.  “The staff is extremely passionate about our purpose,” the DC Prep CEO commented. “I am surrounded by some really smart individuals.  We get results together.  Our time here is all about the kids and the values that we share.  This is really about the people doing the work.”

Of course, Ms. Maestas is not the first person to succeed Emily Lawson as head of DC Prep.  Current DC Public Charter School Board chair Rick Cruz tried it years ago.  It was not successful.  I asked Ms. Maestas why her tenure will have a different outcome.  “There is a tremendous difference between the two situations,” Ms. Maestas asserted.  “Rick came in from the outside so that is a difficult circumstance.  I had already been a part of DC Prep for a couple of years.  I had experience partnering with the other members of our senior team.  I played a role in establishing the goals that we are now striving to implement.  I was a part of the process.”

We then began a discussion about the specific objectives Ms. Maestas has for DC Prep.  She detailed three.  “First,” according to the head of DC Prep, “we want to make sure we are serving all students.  Toward this aim we want all of our campuses to score as Tier 1 on the PMF.  Second, we are thinking about how to continue to refine our approach so that we can enable our students to achieve even more in the future.  To accomplish this goal we have embarked on a five-year strategic planning process, where we are thinking about how to make changes in our program model to better serve students and how we can be the best place for great people to work.  Our third priority is to open Anacostia Middle Campus, to ensure that our Anacostia Elementary Campus students can attend a DC Prep school through the eighth grade.”

One area that Ms. Maestas does not want to concentrate on is growth of her charter management organization beyond Anacostia Middle School.  “We had students coming to our campuses in Wards 5 and 7 from Anacostia,” Ms. Maestas informed me.  “Therefore, we wanted to open in Ward 8 to serve these children closer to where they live.  We currently have 560 Ward 8 students enrolled in a DC Prep school.  Our pattern is to create elementary and middle schools in close proximity to each other.  We searched for a building beginning in 2014 in Anacostia that would hold both schools, but due to historic preservation requirements we could not find one.   At first we opened our elementary school in trailers behind the Big Chair and operated there for two years.  However three years ago we purchased a former Catholic school on V Street, Southeast.  We renovated the space and moved in at the start of the 2017-to-2018 term.” 

Ms. Maestas continued: “We are opening up a grade a year at Anacostia Elementary and we are up to third grade at the current campus.  Our middle schools start at the fourth grade.  We signed a two-year lease through Building Pathways for the ground floor that Excel Academy is not using in the Birney Building, and there is enough room for us to go through the fifth grade in this area.  Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

According to Ms. Maestas, while all of this was going on a property went up for sale on Frankford Street Southeast.  She said it met their requirements for the middle school in that there is sufficient space for a school building, it is located within a mile of the elementary school, and the price is something DC Prep can afford.  There were other prospective buyers, so they put down a refundable deposit in August which gave them 60 days to conduct diligence on the site. 

Ms. Maestas acknowledges that the last few months have been challenging.  “Summer is our busiest time,” the DC Prep CEO informed me. “We were closing out one school year, while getting ready for the next.  Raymond Weedon, who had been our senior director of policy and community engagement, transitioned to become executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS in July.  We put down a deposit on the Frankford Street site in August, while in parallel we were working to welcome back our teachers.  On August 14,th I reached out to ANC 8B Commissioner Darrell Gaston.  We held a community meeting on August 22nd to share information about DC Prep’s interest in the Frankford Street site with the Fort Stanton community.  I have been in touch with Commissioner Gaston on a weekly basis to update him on our diligence process and answer his questions since that time.  I also asked to present to ANC 8B, which I did in October.  I see now that I should’ve found a way to do more outreach directly to members of the Fort Stanton community, rather than focusing on ANC forums.” 

According to Ms. Maestas, the DC Prep team is working hard to invest in direct community engagement in connection with the purchase of the parcel on Frankford Street.  “Now that we have hired a chief of staff, we have more bandwidth to host community meetings.  We have bi-monthly meetings on the calendar through the end of the year, and will do a similar cadence in 2020.  We hope these sessions will allow us to answer any questions that members of the Fort Stanton community have for us, and we hope that they will allow us to join forces to seek a permanent location that meets our students’ needs while also not requiring that we build on Frankford Street,”  Ms. Maestas was quick to point out that, “if we can find a different solution as to where to place our middle school I would take it.  We are going to try to collect signatures on a petition, which we hope to present to city officials to ask their help in identifying under-utilized city-owned facilities that could be Anacostia Middle School’s permanent home.  I will bring members of the neighborhood to join me if they wish.  Our consistent aim is to serve the Ward 8 community in the best way possible with a strong emphasis on collaboration.”

Tonight is Fight Night and it is the last one

Tonight, as I have for more than a decade, I will head over to the Washington Hilton to attend Fight for Children’s Fight Night Gala. This one will be the 30th anniversary of this event. It will also be the last. I cannot believe it is over.

Fight Night has raised over 65 million dollars to support low-income youth in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It was the creation of Fight for Children founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who raised nearly a billion dollars for healthcare and education for children living in poverty. He passed away at the age of 59 at the end of 2011 from a brain tumor that was diagnosed at the hospital where I work. I was with him when he received the diagnosis. That was not a good day.

I so wish Mr. Robert were here. He would be proud that his organization recently announced that it has donated five million dollar to Children’s National Hospital to create the Fight for Children Sports Medicine Center.

The press release announcing the news states that it will be “the region’s first sports medicine center dedicated exclusively to the needs of youth athletes. The new center, expected to open in the later part of 2020, will not only provide world class clinical care and rehabilitation services for sports-related injuries, but will also offer programs on injury prevention and performance evaluation, including a state-of-the-art motion analysis and performance lab. In addition, the Center’s mission will include conducting research on youth sports-related medical care, as well as providing a home for education and other community outreach activities. Fight for Children’s gift will ensure that the benefits from the Center will be available and accessible to all youth in the region, particularly those from underserved communities. The Center will be located at the lobby level of the former Discovery Communications headquarters in Silver Spring, MD.”

Children’s Hospital was a favorite cause of Joe Robert, ever since his son had surgery there as an adolescent. He contributed millions of dollars in his own name to the organization, and in 2009 coordinated a 150 million dollar grant to the facility from the United Arab Emirates.

There is more to celebrate this evening. Word from Capitol Hill is that a bill is moving through Congress that would permanently authorize the SOAR Act, the legislation containing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, that provides private school vouchers to low-income children. The law is supported by Senators Ron Johnson, Dianne Feinstein, Tim Scott, and Mike Braum. The move has also received strong backing from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The OSP was a favorite of Mr. Robert, who fought hard for its passage in 2004 and who fiercely challenged attempts by President Obama and his U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to shut it down. His own Washington Scholarship Fund was for years the administrator of the program until it became impossible to carry out this function under the Obama administration.

There are currently approximately 1,700 students taking advantage of the OSP. Additional funding up to 75 million dollars contained in the current legislation would raise this number to 2,000. The SOAR Act contains equal funding for private school vouchers, D.C. charter schools, and DCPS. This three sector approach was championed by Joe Robert.

Permanently authorizing the SOAR Act will be a crowning achievement of Mr. Robert’s legacy. The bill is expected to pass.

We will raise a glass to toast Mr. Robert’s amazing work later this evening.

E.L. Haynes PCS’s 15th Anniversary Celebration

Last Thursday evening I attended a perfectly orchestrated celebration of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School’s first 15 years. I just love it when events are fashioned in such a high quality manner.

The gala was held at the ornate National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Upon reaching the entrance there were banners on either side announcing the name of the school with its mantra of “BE KIND, WORK HARD, GET SMART” written across the bottom. The signs announced to the guests that they were about to enter a value-based environment. I immediately ran into Jennie Niles, the founder and former executive director of the school. I asked her what she was looking forward to about tonight. If you have met Ms. Niles you know that she believes that occasions such as these are never about herself. She commented:

“I’m just excited and really feel that its overwhelmingly wonderful to see all the people gathered here today that comprise the E.L. Haynes community. We didn’t even have a school when our first class of parents signed their children up with us. Now those students are in college.”

In college they are. Over 450 graduated seniors. The professionally produced booklet accompanying the festivities lists the post-secondary colleges and universities to which these young individuals have been accepted. Included on the list are American University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, and Wellesley College, just to name a few.

Several dignitaries from D.C.’s education world were in attendance. I always enjoy speaking with Michela English, the former president and CEO of Fight for Children and current board chair at DC Prep PCS. It turns out that E.L. Haynes was Fight for Children’s first Quality Schools Initiative Award winner back in 2008. There was an extensive and passionate conversation I then had with Allison Fansler, president of KIPP DC PCS, and Jack McCarthy, AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation president and CEO, about the seemingly intractable facility issues charters face in our city, It is no secret that KIPP DC is trying hard to win the request for proposal for the shuttered Ferebee-Hope for use as its second high school.

Between the passed Hors D’oeuvres of chicken pupusas, maple cinnamon glazed pork belly lollipops, and mini bison burgers, I then was able to get a few minutes with E.L. Haynes CEO Hilary Darilek. I inquired from Ms. Darilek about her current focus at the school. “I’m really thrilled about the next phase for our charter,” she remarked above the rising level of attendees’ voices as the room filled to the brim. “The fact that we are taking a moment to celebrate our first 15 years with our strong commitment to the second 15 is really important to me. Today’s recognition is all about the students. We are now going through a strategic planning process with our pupils, parents, and teachers. This is also a special time for me because this week is my four-year anniversary at E.L. Haynes.”

I then wanted to know the biggest lesson that Ms. Darilek has taken away from her time at the school. She answered without hesitation. “We need to put student voices at the center of everything we do. If we really are truly focused on improving our program and our support structure for our kids, then we need to listen to what our students are saying.”

It was now time for the formal program. There were warm and concise welcoming remarks from Ms. Darilek and Ms. Niles. However, the highlight for the audience had to be the “Bring Yourself to Haynes” video produced by the school’s students. It was exceptionally well done. In one part you see the scholars filming the piece change their role to acting in the montage. A song was included named after the title of the piece. Here are a few of the words:

Let’s take a trip to two thousand and four,
Jennie had a vision for a school that did more,
She named it after Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes!
Our first building was on top of CVS – oh my!
Times have changed, now you can come by,
Our campuses [yeah two campuses] Georgia and Kansas Ave!
Started out with Pre-K and now we go all,
The way to 12th grade and every fall,
We tour colleges all around the country,
Check the banners on our walls
We believe in each other,
We support one another,
Ooh, we’re shooting for the stars
Don’t test me unless it’s SAT!
I’m out for text evidence to represent me,
Grade point high, uptown, DC,
And I’m measuring my angles, cuz I want a degree – Hey!

Next on the agenda was a high energy performance by the E.L Haynes 15th Anniversary Choir and Dance Ensemble. These students were simply amazing in the way they were able to engage the audience through their movement and voices.

After a few closing remarks by Abby Smith, the school’s board chair, it was time for desserts such as chocolate dipped french macarons and mini caramel cashew tartlets, brought to the guests by waiters and waitresses.

A tremendous time was had by all. The gathering raised approximately $200,000, including over $50,000 during the festivities. This level of support made it the most successful event in E.L. Hayne’s history.


Why school choice is the black choice

Last Friday afternoon, my wife Michele and I attended a fascinating forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation entitled “Why School Choice is the Black Choice.” The session was moderated by Roland Martin, who my wife and I have enjoyed for years as the Master of Ceremonies for the annual Friendship PCS Teacher of the Year Gala. Joining Mr. Roland for a panel discussion was Margaret Fortune, CEO and president Fortune PCS; Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS; Elizabeth Davis, president, Washington Teachers’ Union; and Dr. Steve Perry, founder Capital Preparatory PCS’s.

The lively and argumentative discussion centered on the role of charter schools in public education in this country. Of course, anytime the subject is charters at this moment in time, the issue of transparency is brought up. Here is where Dr. Perry, who was by far the most passionate of the day’s speakers, turned the topic on its head. He pointed out that if you really want to talk about this topic then we have to be transparent about the numerous traditional public schools that are failing to teach our youth, specifically low-income black boys, and the fact that nothing is being done to correct the situation. Dr. Perry related that these schools just continue to exist day in and day out. In essence, the educational malpractice simply continues. Ms. Fortune, Mr. Hardnett, and Dr. Perry highlighted that when it comes to charter schools, if they don’t perform they are closed. In D.C., 35 schools have had their charter revoked for academic reasons.

I think Dr. Perry is on to something here. When charter opponents in our nation’s capital harp on transparency, supporters need to illuminate all of the matters that we need to be open about regarding these schools of choice:

  • The $1,600 to $2,600 per student per year that the neighborhood schools receive each year that charters do not even though by law the two sectors are to receive identical revenue through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula;
  • The over 1 million square feet of unused or underutilized space that DCPS is holding without providing them to charters as is required by law that is a major contributor to a 12,000 charter school student wait list:
  • The reality that the DC Public Charter School Board requires its schools to provide detailed information about every aspect of the operation of the schools it oversees, including financial data, and that almost all of these submissions are publicly available; and
  • The fact that no DCPS schools have ever been shuttered due to poor academic performance. Not a one.

If people want transparency, then transparency is exactly what they will get.

No surprise here: Rachel Cohen doesn’t like charter schools

Yesterday, Washington City Paper released an over 7,000 word article by Rachel Cohen that attacks virtually all of the charter school support organizations operating in the nation’s capital. She goes after Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, the DC Public Charter School Board, Democrats for Education Reform, and Parents Amplifying Voices in Education. It is clear she also doesn’t think much of CityBridge Education’s Katherine Bradley, which is the clearest sign that this writer has absolutely no credibility since it is impossible not to have the utmost respect for this individual.

Somehow Ms. Cohen failed to bring up her arch nemesis TenSquare Consulting, but I guess she feels that she had already destroyed the fine reputation of this group in a previous piece.

I suppose the biggest question I have after slogging through this diatribe is why isn’t her work labeled as an opinion piece? Clearly this is what the City Paper has published.

You don’t have to worry, I will not be taking up nearly as much space this morning in my comments. I’m not even going to try and refute her arguments because they are a one-sided picture of a reality that does not exist. I will however make two points.

First, Ms. Cohen does offer a summary of the reason charter schools exist in this city in the first place. She wrote:

“Congress’ involvement did not happen overnight. DC Public Schools had been declining for decades, as families left the city or turned to private schools. 149,000 students were enrolled in 1970. That number plummeted to about 80,000 two decades later. Academic performance was also a source of embarrassment, and scandal routinely wracked the District’s school administration. In 1995, a federal body created to help restore local public school finances came to the stunning conclusion that ‘for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed.’ Half of all students dropped out before graduation.”

Then in 1996 the first charter schools were approved to open in D.C. The impact has been nothing more than a miracle. The competition for students that charters provided has completely reversed the pitiful state of the traditional schools described above. Thousands of students now learn in high performing classrooms across both the charter and neighborhood school sectors. Children who would have ended up in prison or dead are now graduating from college, many the first in their families to reach this milestone.

But from the time the initial charter enrolled a student they have been viciously assailed. Much of the animosity has come from regular school supporters who have an inherent dislike for an educational marketplace. A significant part of the opposition is fueled by labor union backers who see charters as a threat to their power since these schools usually do not have unionized employees. You can add Ms. Cohen to this second cohort. All you have to do is review her Twitter feed to see her strong unwavering support of organized labor.

In the face of criticism that could at any moment mean the political end to charter schools, nonprofits were created here to defend their work. All of this effort, and the money expended, is depressingly unnecessary since all charters have been trying to do for over 20 years is to provide a quality seat for kids, the great majority of whom live in poverty.

The second part of Ms. Cohen’s editorial that I want to address has to do with her objection to the PCSB, and specifically its executive director Scott Pearson, acting as a charter school proponent. Actually, as is the best practice with a regulatory agency, the board has two roles. It provides oversight and is an advocate. As an analogy you could look at the Federal Aviation Administration. The first two goals of this agency include “regulating civil aviation to promote safety” and “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics.” It is vitally important that the charter board play both parts because if it simply did supervision the tendency would be to make rules that impede charter school operations. Some, including me, have argued that the board has already reached this point while simultaneously advancing the interests of charters with political leaders and the public.

My hope is that the next time Ms. Cohen offers something about charter schools, it appears in the commentary section of her newspaper.

To close the academic achievement gap D.C. charters should follow example of the Denver School of Science and Technology

I cannot believe it has already been three years since I attended the Amplify School Choice conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, now the Franklin News Foundation. There, I joined 50 education bloggers as we studied the charter school movement in Denver, Colorado. I came away from the two days of sessions pondering whether Washington D.C. should adopt a charter and traditional school compact like the one in the city I was visiting.

However, a conversation over breakfast last week with a couple of local charter school supporters clarified for me how much my focus has now changed. After years of charters being treated like second-class citizens in the nation’s capital, as demonstrated, for example, by the lack of access to closed DCPS facilities and inequitable funding compared to the regular schools, my interest in the development of a compact has waned. The main takeaway now from my trip was the visit the writers made to one campus of the high-performing charter network of middle and high schools called The Denver School of Science and Technology. At our meal my friends reminded me of a book they had previously provided to me for information on charter schools entitled Reinventing America’s Schools by David Osborne. Therefore, when I returned home, I immediately turned to the index and found the pages about DSST.

My memory of this trip was of being thoroughly impressed with the charter’s chief executive officer Bill Kurtz. The way I recalled it, Mr. Kurtz showed Powerpoint slides that demonstrated his charter school’s narrowing of the academic achievement gap to 12 points when the difference between standardized test scores for affluent children and at-risk pupils for reading and math in the traditional schools was 45 percent. In my mind, I remembered Mr. Kurtz attributing his success to the values his staff instills in his students. Was I correct in my recollection or had time altered my impression of the information that had been shared on that day?

Here’s what Mr. Osborne writes about DSST:

“Bill Kurtz says it all begins with the core values. DSST builds them into everything it does. Staff evaluations focus on how people are living the values. Student report cards give grades on values, triggering conversations with students and parents. Jeff Desserich, then director of Stapleton High School, told me, ‘I had a kid who had all A’s and B’s, and I’m having a conference with his dad, and all the A’s and B’s is good, but we can see that courage is pretty low, like two out of five. So that can really frame our conversation around what should the student’s development plan be – to speak up in class more, or taken on a leadership role or something.’

New students get a home visit, where deans and teachers talk about the values and attend summer school, which is part culture and academics. Every year all students go through a ceremony at which they sign their allegiance to the core values” (pages 172 to 173).

The author quotes Mr. Kurtz as commenting on this subject:

“We’re not just about compliance. We’re actually about building a values-driven culture with all of our students, so that they all understand what it means to live a set of values. They may not choose our values over time, but hopefully they will learn to choose a set of values that will guide them in the way that David Brooks would say are the eulogy values, the values that really mater in how you live your file – what you care about when you look back on your life” (page 173).

The academic results at DSST, in response to this emphasis on values, are simply astounding. According to Mr. Osborne,

“DSST excels even when one only measures proficiency, despite the fact that 69 percent of its students come from poor families. Among students eligible for subsidized meals, DSST had two of the three highest-scoring schools in the state on the ACT test in 2016. In 2014 its low-income tenth-graders had higher proficiency rates in math, reading, and writing than middle-income students in DPS-operated schools (italics in original text). In 2015, with a third high school open, DSST schools outperformed 87, 90, and 96 percent of Colorado’s public high schools, measured by the percentage of students at or above proficiency on the new PARCC tests. These are numbers an expensive private school would be proud to have, yet in the three DSST schools, respectively, 72, 69, and 53 percent of the students were low income” (page 175).

The values that DSST promotes are respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, curiosity, and doing your best. Perhaps D.C.’s charters should follow DSST’s example.

The tragically sad politicization of charter schools

As I searched the internet for news stories about charter schools, I came upon an editorial written by the New York Post heavily criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s characterization of these institutions last Friday before a National Education Association presidential forum. Mr. de Blasio, as reported by the PBS News Hour, exclaimed:

“’Too many Democrats have been cozy with the charter schools,’ offering the argument that they siphon money away from traditional public education. ‘I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them,’ he said.”

The Democratic candidates have formed a tightly unified firing squad against these alternative school in a slimy effort to solidify union support. Charter schools, of course, as a rule do not have employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement.

It is an extremely depressing situation that brings me back to a much better time when I first became aware of this movement in the year 1999. I was attending a luncheon at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy. I’m not sure if I had yet been invited to join the board of directors but I am confident I was already tutoring a delightful eleventh grader one evening each week.

I had been drawn to charters due to my libertarian political philosophy, and therefore, my ardent support of school choice. So I sat at a gathering where across the room I saw prominent individuals such as Alice Rivlin and Adam Myerson, and I talked about the power of a marketplace in public education. I was stunned by the response I received from those sitting at my table. They actually were opposed to economist Milton Friedman’s theory of school vouchers. They belittled the suggestion that traditional schools were inferior to this new model. In other words, they did not think like me.

Yet, due to the passion and vision of Irasema Salcido, the Chavez founder and school principal, they were instantly drawn to these classrooms that would develop the next generation of leaders of the District of Columbia.

I was a wholly enthusiastic partner in their mission. There was no covert plot to shutter what already existed. We were gathered as part of an intense inspirational drive to fix the problems that had plagued the regular schools for innumerable generations. We would literally do anything we could to help. We were there for the students that others could not, or would not, teach.

So many of us that are involved with our local charters started our involvement exactly the same way. My story is far from unique. We have continued working day and night because of the clear stubborn vision that we can help the children of our community and make the world a better place.

This is exactly what we have done. Kids that would have ended up on the street, in jail, or dead are now graduating from some of the finest colleges in this country. Every year at this time, hundreds of pure miracles cross the stage to proudly receive their high school diplomas.

What is taking place right now regarding the politics around these schools is simply, well, disgusting.

D.C. school year ends and so too does charter advocacy

The 2018 to 2019 school year has concluded, and for charter schools in the nation’s capital it is one to forget. These innovative laboratories of public education have been under attack like in the early days of the movement, and the support mechanisms have all but disappeared.

We used to have Jennie Niles as the Deputy Mayor for Education. She naturally favored charters as the founder and former executive director of E.L. Haynes PCS. Now we have Mr. Paul Kihn, who came in with such high expectations but has proved in eight months to be a charter detractor. First, he tried to put pressure on the DC Public Charter School Board to cap the number of schools. Next, he turned his back on AppleTree PCS, one of the country’s preeminent practitioners of early childhood pedagogy, in allowing one of its campuses serving at-risk students to close for a year rather than delay a DCPS modernization project for a few months so that the charter would have a place to operate.

Simultaneously, a teachers’ union associated with the AFT has gained a foothold at Munde Verde PCS, after being defeated at Paul PCS and Cesar Chavez PCS. By reading the printed playbook, unions are on the search for other sites where they can slowly and deceivingly destroy these schools from within.

While all of this is going on, last Friday Friends of Choice in Urban Schools lost two key individuals. Its executive director Irene Holtzman and senior director of government relations Michael Musante have vacated the organization. This, while a FOCUS coordinated charter funding inequity lawsuit is winding its way through the courts and the City Council is considering mandating that charters adhere to open meeting and freedom of information requirements.

I feel like we are witnessing the opening of the film The Exorcist. Everything on the surface appears to going well on a cool autumn day but the winds are blowing cold and there is terror on the horizon.

Meanwhile, as we struggle through year five of the Bowser Administration, not one vacant traditional school building has been offered to a charter school as is required by statute.

The characters in the movie never give up in the face of evil. Are we ready for this challenge? Perhaps a more appropriate question is who is up for the fight? Was the collaboration and the dedication of resources that we just witnessed around the saving of Monument Academy PCS a unique effort inherently related to the school’s unique mission? Or is this something that can be sustained to charge through the seemingly impenetrable barriers that have been erected to block our path forward?

I feel like the years, months, days, hours, and minutes have not been spent in vain. I still believe that those among us who were born less fortunate than ourselves deserve our help. I contend that when society looks retrospectively on this period in history it should not have the option of contending that we closed our eyes and walked away.

It is summer and we all deserve a break. But instead of bringing a beach book to peruse as you sit in front of the waves, I recommend turning to the reading list of Washington Latin PCS and picking up The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After reaching its final pages you will then be ready for the fall.

D.C. charter school heroes come through in effort to save Monument Academy PCS

In a move that literally brought tears to my eyes and a shiver down my spine, Friendship PCS is making a gallant effort to takeover Monument Academy PCS. I had urged in a couple of recent articles for another charter to come to the rescue to allow this facility that serves some of the most at-risk students in our community to continue. Monument’s mission “is to provide students, particularly those who have had or might have contact with the foster care system, with the requisite academic, social, emotional, and life skills to be successful in college, career, and community, and to create an outstanding school that attracts, supports, and retains exceptional and caring people.”  Now it appears that my desperate hope may indeed become a reality.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein and Valerie Strauss revealed last night that Friendship PCS is working to bring Monument Academy under the Friendship Education Foundation, the organization that runs its schools outside of Washington, D.C. including two in Baltimore and one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But Friendship is not making this effort on its own. It is getting exceptionally strong financial assistance from some of this area’s most prominent school choice advocacy groups. As the Post reports:

“The proposal states that education organizations have committed $700,000 to ensure the budget for the 2019-2020 academic year can support the school. Prominent education groups, including the Bainum, CityBridge and Flamboyan foundations, have committed to helping Monument, according to the proposal.”

Thank you Katherine Bradley.

This has been a particularly busy and prosperous year for Friendship under the exceptional leadership of chief executive officer Patricia Brantley. Already the charter has agreed to assume control of two failed schools, IDEAL Academy PCS and City Arts and Prep PCS, although with City Arts it is more of a situation of bringing parts of this school’s curriculum into its existing network. It has also expanded its on-line institute to high school grades.

Now, the biggest question for me is how Friendship is going to be treated by the DC Public Charter School Board once all these changes are approved. Does the CMO simply get one year of no grading on the Performance Management Framework for each of its new campuses? For all that it is doing to help the most vulnerable children in the nation’s capital, doesn’t it deserve more of a break? Shouldn’t it take steps to encourage other charters to take on the challenges and risks that Friendship is undertaking?