How did D.C. do after first week of school? Cannot tell based on Washington Post report

Last Sunday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote an article purported to illustrate what parents, students, and teachers experienced during the first week of the new school year in the District of Columbia. She began:

“One week into the academic year, the District’s school system is still struggling to meet its projected enrollment numbers and to deliver technology to some of its hardest-to-reach students. But teachers and parents also say that each day, remote learning in the nation’s capital is improving. Technology troubles are becoming less frequent, more students are showing up to virtual classes, and everyone is becoming more adept at using unfamiliar computer platforms.”

The only problem with her claims is that the lengthy report did not mention one charter school by name. In fact, readers would have no idea that there was another public school sector that teaches 46 percent of all pupils in the city. On this particular day, she left out the accounts of 43,485 students. It is as if the newspaper went back in time to 1995, the year before the first charter opened here. In paragraph seven she even wrote, “D.C. Public Schools educate about 52,000 students.” The total of all those attending public schools is actually approaching one hundred thousand.

In a way, the story did remind me of twenty-five years ago when the traditional schools were crumbling physically and characterized by the frequent absence of professional instruction. Ms. Perry stated that the regular schools were not quite ready for school to start:

“The city’s biggest technological setback has come at the early-childhood level. The school system had wrongly predicted it would be able to get the youngest learners into school buildings a few days a week and did not plan to have virtual learning for them. When officials learned that school would be all virtual in late July, they ordered iPads for thousands of students, which have not yet arrived. They plan to distribute them in mid-September, with many prekindergarten students starting the school year with paper packets.

‘We placed the order later than we did the other technology,’ Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn told residents at the town hall. ‘That is a problem of procurement.'” 

Really? I’m sorry, this was not a “problem of procurement.” It was a failure of planning. Since last spring, chances were never good that kids would be able to return to classrooms like before the pandemic hit. Allow me to remind you that it was before the advent of charters that children in DCPS often started the school year off without textbooks. This was one of the first things that Michelle Rhee corrected when she rode into our city.

There was one area of her article in which charter schools were referenced, but it was in an oblique way. The only teacher interviewed was Liz Koenig, who is identified as a “prekindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Northeast Washington.” Ms. Koenig is known for teaming up with anti-charter school freelance writer Rachel Cohen in attacking the movement, specifically detailing her dismissal from Bridges PCS. This was the best source that Ms. Perry could find?

I will guarantee you that the first week was much different regarding charters. Technology issues aside, I am sure that each was ready to go on day one. But how would we know for sure? The education reporter for the Washington Post is pretending that we are living in a community in which school reform never happened.

Congress needs to immediately expand D.C. private school voucher program

As was written about yesterday, the Covid-19 pandemic is greatly exacerbating the gap in educational opportunities for the affluent compared to the poor. The new school year is rapidly coming towards us and with almost all public schools reverting to distance learning, families with the financial means to do so are figuring out alternative delivery methods for instructing their children. Some are creating pods of small groups of kids and then hiring a teacher to instruct them at participants’ homes. Others are having parents impart lessons to neighborhood boys and girls as an adjunct to the remote classrooms offered from their regular school. A taste of what is going on out there comes from the New York Times’ Melinda Wenner Moyer.

“Instead of hiring teachers, some families are hoping to share the teaching among the parents. Meredith Phillips, a mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old who lives in Croton, N.Y., is hoping to create a pod with three other families this fall that will rotate houses. One of the dads, who owns a tech company, might teach coding, while Phillips, who is an editor, will teach reading and writing. The parents will ideally teach ‘whatever they’re good at, or know about or care about,’ Phillips said, and in doing so expose the kids to lots of different subjects.

Some families are pulling their kids out of school for these learning pods, while others are using pods as a supplement to their schools’ online curricula. ‘Ideally, from our perspective, it would be complementary, rather than a replacement,’ said Adam Davis, a pediatrician in San Francisco who is hoping to create a learning pod with a teacher or college-aged helper for his second grader and kindergartener in the fall.”

Other parents are enrolling their children in private schools that are able to open because of the small class sizes that they routinely provide.

The world of pods and private schools are simply unavailable for those who live in poverty, with one important exception. Since 2004, the District of Columbia has been home to the only national private school voucher program approved by Congress. Currently, about 1,700 low income pupils participate. Many more families would take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program if funding beyond the current $17.5 million per year was allocated.

A tremendous focus of public education over the past several years has been equity for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The Black Lives Matter movement has placed a powder keg under this goal.

Everyone knows that distance learning is far from ideal. Families struggle mightily to have their children participate while they have to work. Basic human fairness means that alternatives to learning in front of a computer should be available to all no matter the income of the parents or the zip code in which they live.

Let’s call on Congress to immediately expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Pandemic brings out inequity in public education like nothing we have ever seen

My oldest grandson is starting first grade in a few weeks in Montgomery County. He and his parents are terribly disappointed that he will not be returning in person to the school he fell in love with during the first part of his Kindergarten year. Like numerous others across the country, my daughter and her husband are struggling to balance work, remote learning, and care for a younger child.

When this is all over I have complete confidence that Oliver will be fine. But what I don’t know is what will happen to those without the means to provide financial security to their family. Covid-19 will be remembered for many things but the most significant I believe is the disparity in education it is highlighting between the haves and havenots.

In the spring the focus was on disadvantages for the poor when it comes to distance learning. Scores of homes lack adequate internet access and computer hardware. Add to this an overnight shift to online classes and the concomitant introduction of uneven instruction and you have a disaster for children that were already 60 academic achievement gap points behind their more affluent peers.

Now with school buildings still closed for the new term adults with means are figuring out alternative methods for educating their offspring. Some are enrolling their children in private schools, many with tuition of over twenty thousand dollars a year. Others are creating pods with other neighbors in which teachers are hired to work with a small number of pupils, while some are using adults to monitor time spent in front of laptops. Both scenarios carry heavy price tags. Yesterday, the Boston Globe featured one family who decided to take their daughter out of the local public school.

“Patricia Callan, who teaches writing at Salem State University, has pulled her 7-year-old daughter out of Beverly Public Schools to form a full-time home-schooling pod with three other families. She loves public schools, but as someone with hypertension and asthma that place her at higher risk of complications from the virus, she worried about her daughter bringing the virus home. The pod will provide her daughter with badly needed socialization and in-person learning, she said. During the spring, online schoolwork kept her daughter occupied for only an hour and half per day at most, Callan said.”

Today, the editors of the Washington Post decry the current situation.

“Everyone — parents, principals, teachers, government officials and the students themselves — desperately wants a return to the classroom. As Mr. Gregorich told The Post’s Eli Saslow in a wrenching account of the dilemma facing the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District, ‘These kids are hurting right now.’ Remote learning, which many schools turned to when they were forced to close in March, is a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Children need the social supports, interactions and friendships that come with attendance. ‘I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom,’ said Mr. Gregorich. ‘Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them.'”

Times such as these call for extraordinary action. So what are we in the nation’s capital to do? One approach is for nonprofits to assist in creating learning pods for at-risk youth. The Boston Globe described one founded by the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, formed through a $235,000 donation from the Shlomo Fund. The DC Education Equity Fund, whose purpose is to bridge the digital divide for low income students, can expand its mission to provide support for learning at home.

We should all reach into our pockets to see how we can support those in our community who are hurting right now. With schools closed until at least November and likely beyond, we cannot turn our backs on those in our community who desperately need our help.

D.C. public school will teach virtually in the fall; this is the right call

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday that D.C. public schools will instruct students utilizing remote learning until at least November. All District of Columbia charter schools are certain to follow suit. The news is extremely disappointing for parents and students. However, it is absolutely the correct decision.

As a society we have not done what we needed to do to get this pandemic under control. Some of this phenomenon is due to the science behind Covid-19; it took time for scientists and medical professionals to understand the truly basic behaviors that could reduce infection rates. However, and this is the part where mankind has fallen far short of its potential, politics entered the debate over re-opening businesses and other activities which has resulted in thousands of Americans dying unnecessarily.

The drive to bring life back to a new normal has been extremely strong. People have been out of work and many have not been able to pay their rents or mortgages. Food insecurity has risen rapidly throughout the nation. The natural response to the deep despair and severe stress our neighbors have been facing on a daily basis was to hit the ignition switch on our economy, which before the spread of this infection was the strongest in the world. But what adults often learn the hard way throughout their lives is that what you want to happen is often not what should occur.

This is not to say that those who have argued to keep schools closed have acted with behaviors that should be an example to our children. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein, Julie Zauzmer, and Justin George detailed yesterday, with photographs, members of the Washington Teachers’ Union delivering simulated body bags to the headquarters of DCPS. This is beyond disgusting.

We desperately need to get our children back into classrooms. Stories abound about kids falling behind academically as they are forced to stay home, a situation that is significantly amplified for special education students. Social and psychological problems arise due to the current environment. Adults cannot figure out how to balance school and their careers.

We will get through this current state of affairs. Our education leaders will strengthen distance learning programs and do the absolute best that they can for our scholars. They will do the right thing because that’s what we do in this country.

I’ve re-read many times the words of Congressman John Lewis that he requested to be printed on the day of his funeral. He remarked:

“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

School buildings will be closed come August. Let’s teach our children.

D.C. charter schools set bad example by taking PPP funds

Despite my recommendation that charter schools in the District forgo applying for Paycheck Protection Program money from the federal government, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reveals today that “more than 25 charters have applied for and received these dollars, some getting cash in the two to five million dollar range. Below is a list of twenty eight charters, as tweeted by Will Perkins, that apparently obtained PPP received loans, which under the plan can be converted to grants. Mr. Perkins is an analyst at the Office of the DC Auditor.

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The charter schools join a list of prominent private schools in our area such as Sidwell Friends, Lowell School, Georgetown Preparatory, the Field School, the Edwin Burke School, and Gonzaga College High School that also accepted the funding.

According to Ms. Stein, charter and private schools justify their awards by stating that “they are legally entitled to the money and that it is a necessary infusion, with private donations drying up and enrollment numbers unclear for the next academic year. They need the money, they said, to ensure they can keep all of their employees on their payrolls.”

Shannon Hodge, the newly appointed executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, defended the actions of the school’s she represents this way, according to the Post reporter:

“We know that costs will go up, but more importantly, there are lots of things that are unknown. . . . This program allows them to bring some stability to this uncertain situation.”

Kingsman Academy PCS, the school where Ms. Hodge recently resigned as executive director, on the table above is in the three hundred and fifty thousand to one million dollar range for government assistance.

With all of the discombobulation going on out there right now, revenue for charter schools is perhaps one of the only areas where stability actually exists. The D.C. Council recently recommended a three percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for the 2021 fiscal year. In addition, the charter school per pupil facility allotment is slated to go up.

As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.

I wish to thank the many charters that decided to do the right thing.

D.C. charter schools take cash in lieu of permanent facilities

Last February, which now seems like a decade ago, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended a four percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for DCPS and charter schools in her fiscal 2021 budget. Then the coronavirus hit. At the time the city had a $1.43 billion rainy day fund saved up. Now the Bowser Administration has revealed that the economic downturn the District is currently experiencing will result in $722 million less in revenue for the 2020 fiscal year and 774 million fewer dollars next year.

With numbers such as these there was tremendous fear on the minds of public education supporters that the proposed jump in the UPSFF would be eliminated. Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her revised proposed budget for FY 2020 and the bump in the UPSFF went from four percent to three.

Charter representatives are beyond thrilled at the news. Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, exclaimed on Twitter, “To raise education funding during this time of fiscal hardship is truly heroic. Well done, @MayorBowser” Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship PCS wrote on the same platform, “‘Our public schools & our children, our teachers, everybody… we know they are going to be coming back. When they come back, we want to send a clear message that their schools are going to be ready. We are not going to take a single step back.’ Thank you @MayorBowser

In a press release dated yesterday, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools interim executive director Anne Herr commented:

“COVID-19 has put incredible pressure on the district’s budget, and we recognize that Mayor Bowser had to make tough choices this year. We applaud her for increasing education funding and investing in DC students. These investments are critical to ensure students have access to the instructional and health supports that will be necessary to have them back on track by Summer 2021. We look forward to working with the Education Committee and other members of the D.C. Council to ensure that these increases are part of the final budget so that students have what they need to thrive.” 

However, an update on finances was not the only information the Mayor shared yesterday that is of interest to our local charter school movement. She also announced several decisions regarding excess DCPS facilities. As captured by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“She plans to move the new Bard High School Early College to a permanent location in 2023 at the original Malcolm X Elementary — a shuttered campus in Southeast Washington — and allocate $80 million to the facility. The closed Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington would be home to the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. Excel Academy Public School will remain permanently at its current location at the old Birney building in Southeast Washington, which the city owns but has been leasing to charters. Bowser’s proposal would give charter school operators the option to lease the closed Wilkinson Elementary in Southeast Washington by 2024.”

Malcolm X and Springarn were two buildings charter supporters loudly and repeatedly called on Ms. Bowser to release for their use. Remember the collective disgust the sector expressed when a video of the empty and deteriorating Springarn made its appearance on social media?

If and when Wilkinson is actually turned over to charters that would make a total of two former DCPS building turned over to charters in Ms. Bowser’s two terms as chief executive. This is a horrible record.

But perhaps the bigger disappointment is what the decision regarding the Birney building means for DC Prep PCS. As you may recall, the charter has leased the ground floor of this location which it plans to use to house the fourth and fifth grade of its Anacostia Middle School. It still needs a permanent home. As detailed by DC Prep’s CEO Laura Maestas during my interview with her last December:

“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.”

In 2018 Excel Academy relinquished its charter and became part of DCPS. Therefore, it really does not have the right to stay at its current location. Now it appears that DC Prep will have to go ahead and develop the property it purchased on Frankford Street, S.E., a scenario that in the past has received heavy criticism from the community. Alternately, it can once again begin the hunt for another space.

Highly discouraging is that in all the high fives delivered to the Mayor there was not a peep about the facility moves. It appears that Ms. Bowser found a perfectly effective way to silence our voices. The solution was money.

D.C. charter schools should not accept CARES Act funding

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein followed up on her original April 2nd article anticipating that D.C. charter schools may apply for federal funding aimed at aiding those who have not been receiving a paycheck due to business interruptions around the Covid-19 virus. At the time I made the case that these schools should look to the city and nonprofits to cover additional incremental costs they may be experiencing due to this crises.

In her most recent story Ms. Stein states that Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS and Digital Pioneers PCS applied for CARE Act dollars and have received them. Both schools defended their decision to the reporter. She sought comment from Steve Hardnett, the founder and executive director of Statesman, who she wrote received a loan of $300,000:

“Hardnett had been relying on private funding until his school hits full capacity in two years. Most of his grants are set to lapse at the end of the academic year, and he had been searching for new private funding. But he says that won’t be possible now, and the federal funds will allow him to keep his staff through the summer and provide his students with extra academic services he says they will require once distance learning concludes.

‘Every dollar we find we should get into this building,’ Hardnett said.”

Digital Pioneers chief executive officer and principal Mashea Ashton justified her move to the Post this way:

“The school is concluding its second year, she said, and has high overhead costs, which private donations have enabled the school to afford. She said she spent money during the health emergency on technology and distance-learning training for her teachers.

‘If we don’t have these resources, then I would have to let go my P.E. and art teachers, and those who are not full time with us,’ she said. ‘And those positions are essential to delivering our mission.'” 

Ms. Perry revealed that DC Bilingual PCS and Paul PCS applied for the emergency financial support and did not receive it. She added that Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS have more than 500 employees and so are not eligible for the federal money. The reporter then listed a number of charters that she stated she asked as to whether they sought to participate in the program but did not respond to her inquiry.

I know that both the DC Public Charter School Board and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools have encouraged charters to submit applications doe to the added expenses they have faced and uncertainly over future income. However, let me be as clear as possible. This aid was intended to help those small businesses that are unable to meet their payroll obligations because their revenue streams have been cut off. This is not the case for charter schools. District funding has not ended.

Ms. Perry states that several companies that have been won this cash have decided to return it such as Shake Shack and Ruth Chris Steakhouse. I think charter schools should follow this example. Any assistance that our schools need during this extremely difficult period should come from our local leaders.

Pandemic points to huge gap in online learning between D.C. charters and DCPS

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein delivered some startling news the other day regarding participation rates for DCPS with distance learning in the face of the Covid-19 virus:

“The attendance records look bleak. At an elementary school in Northeast Washington, just 50 percent of fourth- and fifth-graders are logging on to watch the PowerPoints that their teacher spends hours building each weekend. A special-education teacher in Northwest Washington said she’s struggling to schedule individualized virtual meetings with her students, many of whom have working parents who do not speak English and have never before used the school system’s Microsoft platform.

Sean Perin’s fifth-grade students at Garfield Elementary in Southeast Washington have parents who report to work each day at restaurants, stores and medical facilities, leaving their children with older siblings or relatives during the day. He said he has heard that at least two of his students have lost relatives to the virus. . .

The Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed its teachers last month to determine student participation. Fifty-seven percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded — around half of the teacher workforce — said less than half of their students are participating. Teachers at more affluent and more selective schools said attendance has been strong during remote learning.”

This is not what the charter sector has found. Teaching 47 percent of all public school students in the nation’s capital, equivalent to 43,393 scholars, these schools are reaching exceptionally high numbers of those enrolled. On May 1st the DC Public Charter School Board released data regarding the number of students with whom they have not been able to communicate. Here is its conclusion:

“There are 1,334 students in the charter sector that schools have not made contact with since school buildings closed due to the pandemic, based on an analysis conducted by the DC Public Charter School Board. Of those, 119 students are special education (8.9%); and 363 of the unreachable students are adult education students.”

The overall percentage of those who have not been able to be engaged with is 3.1 percent. For special education students the proportion is 1.9 percent.

It is an astonishing accomplishment. It is especially heartwarming to go to school websites and see the resources they have assembled for parents. As an example here is one from Ingenuity Prep PCS, a preKindergarten three to seventh grade school located in the center of Ward 8:

“Ingenuity Prep is committed to supporting student learning during our school’s closure caused by the COVID-19 virus. This page will be updated regularly throughout our closure with materials and resources to support the continued academic growth and development of our students. Check back for updates and more resources. We will also be keeping in touch with our school community through our regular school messaging platform – SignalKit. Should you not find the answer to your question on here, you can: 

Email us: distancelearning@ingenuityprep.org

Call us: (202) 562-0391″

To be fair, Ms. Stein quotes DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee as claiming that “Ninety-six percent of our students have engaged in some way. . . Instead of logging into a learning session, a student may be doing virtual meetings with a counselor or a school psychologist. When we talk about engagement, we’re not just talking about teaching and learning.”

In these exceptionally challenging times I am so proud of our teachers who have adapted to this new world as the professionals that they are. They are all heroes.