D.C. charter board proves equity has its limits when it comes to Eagle Academy PCS

When I attended the Education Forward DC event a couple of weeks ago that I recently wrote about, the organization’s new CEO Bisi Oyedele pointed out to me that in the past I used to summarize the proceedings of the DC Public Charter School Board on my blog. I told him that since the COVID pandemic the meetings have not been as interesting as in the past, but I said I would get back to this task. So to be true to my word, yesterday I watched last Monday evening’s session.

On the agenda was a vote on a charter amendment request by Eagle Academy PCS to expand on its two campuses, Congress Heights and Capital Riverfront, its offerings from the third to the fifth grade, with the fourth grade added in 2024 and the fifth grade starting in 2025. This amendment would not involve an enrollment increase. The discussion regarding this change initially occurred as part of the September monthly meeting. Here is some background around this issue.

In September 2021 the DC PCSB announced that it was pausing requests for grade expansion and new school applications for the current year and 2022. I brought this topic up in my interview with board chair Lea Crusey last July and here is what she said about the move:

“The questions around where the Performance Management Framework lands, how many tiers we end up with, the way that we define excellent schools, are at the heart of what we do.  We have a broad range of student achievement coming out of the pandemic.  We acknowledge that there are gaps around the academic offerings at different schools.  Our mission around equity means that we need to address the unique needs of all students.  We are now addressing how we approve new schools and allow others to grow in light of our revised framework of how we evaluate quality.  Simultaneously, D.C.’s population growth is uncertain.  We need to understand how these shifts are impacting the delivery of public education.”

However, despite the fact that the redesigned Performance Management Framework is still in development, charters were apparently informed that bids to add additional grades would now be entertained, with a June 1 deadline for modifications effective with the start of the 2023 to 2024 term. Eagle Academy submitted its charter amendment on June 6th, asserting that this was the due date communicated to the school.

Eagle Academy serves an extremely challenging population of students. I visited the Congress Heights campus in Anacostia six years ago and this is what I observed about the school then:

“The school founded in 2003 has always accepted students with disabilities up to Level 4, the highest category.  Services are readily available for these children.  A sensory room complete with pulleys and other gymnastic equipment allow an occupational therapist to assist with motor skills.  Speech pathologists and mental health workers share a wing of the building where they care for the 120 kids with Individual Education Plans.  Mr. Kline [the school’s principal] related that Eagle follows the inclusionary model in regard to their special education students, placing them in regular classrooms as often as possible.”

As we know, the pandemic has had terrible detrimental effects on our students, with the burden falling particularly hard on those living in poverty. Dr. Joe Smith, Eagle Academy’s CEO/CFO, pointed out to the board that parents have been requesting for years that the school expand to go up to the fifth grade. It is something he has wanted to do but COVID interrupted his plans to seek the enrollment modification. He stated that he believes in consideration of all that his families have gone through, and in light of the special needs of his pupils, he would now try to remove the requirement for a difficult transition to a new school when his kids reached the end of the third grade. However, on this night, the charter board would unanimously deny this plea, focusing on the fact that the school had missed the deadline for the charter amendment by five days. The PCSB did not explain why it entertained the request in the first place if its self-imposed time limit had been reached.

On the same night, Appletree Early Learning PCS brought a proposed charter amendment to the board to add students while staying within it already approved enrollment ceiling. This charter, like Eagle Academy, had missed the June cutoff. However, in this case the board found a workaround. According to the PCSB, “AppleTree PCS submitted its request on July 25, 2022, initially seeking approval to operate a new campus in the proposed facility beginning in SY 2023 – 24. DC PCSB staff informed the school that it was too late to seek authorization to operate a new campus in SY 2023 – 24. However, it was not too late to seek authorization to operate a new facility beginning in SY 2023 – 24. Consequently, AppleTree PCS submitted an updated facility amendment request on August 29, 2022.”

Appletree is seeking to expand into the Spring Valley section of the city. The bid is exciting, for if it is approved, it would be the first D.C. charter school ever located in Ward 3. This would be Appletree’s seventh facility, which would be considered a part of its Oklahoma Avenue N.E. campus, located 8.1 miles away from the new location.

The request, which appeared to receive positive feedback from board members, will be voted on during the November monthly meeting.

Now back to Eagle Academy and the closing words by Mr. Smith regarding his school’s amendment that was turned down:

“We are coming out of COVID and I think one of the key things we have to do is to think about what’s best for our students in terms of COVID. And I think coming out of COVID and having a chance to start working with our kids again, it’s very important for them to have stability. Their lives have been disrupted for the last two years. I have a daughter that graduated college in the middle of COVID. She got a master’s degree in the middle of COVID. So, I know how this affects even people who are adults, but children, it’s even worse. And that’s part of the reason I think my board has pressed me and why I have agreed to present this to the Public Charter School Board to see if there was some kind of way you could look at this and realize we’re not asking to add additional students. That’s not what we’re trying to do. All we want to do is to keep the students we have and grow them through grade four and grade five, and COVID is a very big pusher of us for us to go ahead and do this because these children — I understand what you’re doing and your policies, but I’m looking at the children I have in our schools, and for them, I’ve got to make a pitch and see if I can get you to see the importance of this for these kids. It’s important for them to have the stability of being in the same school with the same staff, you know, and also having the same teachers for fourth grade they had for third grade so that they can have that stability running through. So, I think that’s very critical for us and I think that’s what my board, if all of the board members were on, I think they would be saying exactly the same thing. And if you read all of the things that our parents wrote about attending the meetings, those are some of the pushes they’re giving us, that it’s very important for their kids to have additional stability beyond COVID and we can’t provide that unless you let us go to fourth grade.”

A splendid return to the past thanks to Education Forward DC

Last Monday evening Education Forward DC held a conference at the newly renovated Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library entitled “Better Than Before: Building Exceptional Schools Through DC’s Covid Recovery.” There was some extremely interesting information provided at the session, especially by Shalini Shybut, Education Forward’s Partner, Schools and Talent. But the fundamental reason that this meeting was so great is that following the remarks there was a reception that brought attendees back to a time before the terrible pandemic changed our lives.

Prior to the refreshments there was data. Ms. Shybut opined that the 2022 PARCC results are sobering. She showed charts demonstrating that the overall student proficiency rates for English Language Arts, meaning those who score at least a four on the standardized exam, are down to 31 percent for this year, a level we have not seen since 2016. The overall proficiency rate in math is at 19 percent, a number that is lower than we have ever seen in this city since administering the currently utilized standardized examination. When looking into the ELA numbers, Ms. Shybut revealed that a staggering 48 percent of students posted scores in levels one and two, meaning that just about half of our pupils are not able to read.

It was this depressing news that previewed a panel discussion moderated by Jessica Sutter, the current president and Ward 6 representative to the State Board of Education. Participants included Corinne (Corie) Colgan, chief of teaching and learning at DCPS; Hanah Nguyen, school design partner for Transcend; Raymond Weeden, executive director Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS; and Daniela Anello, head of school DC Bilingual PCS. This is when the mood of the room turned around. Strange as it may sound, the discussion was actually uplifting. The star of the show, as is the case anytime you are in her presence, was Ms. Anello, who received practically a standing ovation from the crowd when she announced that the 2022 PARCC scores at her school were the highest they have ever recorded. She attributed the achievement to her staff’s determined focus on the whole child, a theme that united the efforts of all of the educators on the stage. Also impressive was Ms. Colgan from the traditional school system, who is following a strategy similar in scope to what Ms. Anello described. I think that students in D.C. are in exceptionally good hands. I must also compliment Ms. Sutter in her ability to summarize the major discussion points at the end of this segment of the program. A question and answer period highlighted the thoroughly perceptive inquires from two students from TMA who were in attendance.

In closing remarks, Education Forward board chair Reverend Doctor Kendrick Curry brought to the room his skills as a preacher in formally introducing the new chief executive officer of his organization, Bisi Oyedele, who officially started his new job last week. Dr. Curry also lavishly praised outgoing CEO and co-founder of Education Forward DC Maura Marino, which was certainly well deserved. Dr. Curry revealed that Ms. Marino contributed to raising over one million dollars for the group during her six-year tenure.

It was then off to the reception. Waiters and waitresses greeted guests with glasses of wine and passed appetizers, both of which kept coming throughout the night. I had the fantastic opportunity to catch up with long-time acquaintances including Carrie Irvine, CEO and co-founder of Education Board Partners and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, partner, National Charter School Institute. I laughed with Maura about trying to keep up with note taking during my interview of her five years ago. I discussed the happy occasion of DC Bilingual expanding its permanent facility with Daniela. Finally, I caught up with Dr. Curry, who I happily discovered is working with my good friend Dr. Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, founding director of The George Washington University’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences Rodham Institute. The Rodham Institute partners with numerous community associations in Ward 8 in an effort to eliminate negative social determinants of health and Dr. Curry’s church is located in Southeast. It was a fitting end to an outstanding occasion.

D.C. charter support organizations need to buy up empty buildings for future classrooms

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major negative impact on the commercial real estate market in the District of Columbia, hitting especially hard the downtown area as explained by the Washington Post’s Emily Davies and Michael Brice-Saddler in a recent article:

“The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the vacancy rate in the central business district, forcing city leaders to consider drastic alternatives to fill unused office space. They’ve focused on attracting university researchers and medical professionals. Some are even pushing to convert commercial buildings into residences.”

The recent trend has continued a pattern seen before the virus interrupted American society. According to the Post:

“The question of whether the 9-to-5 ethos of downtown Washington will return after a year of mostly virtual work looms large as the city looks toward recovery from the pandemic. The mass exodus to makeshift home offices has led many businesses to reconsider whether they need large and expensive offices. The trend is exacerbating the emptying of downtown as organizations were already downsizing office space in the city’s core and some were moving to cheaper, newer buildings in the region before the pandemic.”

The glut of empty office space creates a tremendous opportunity for the District’s charter schools, which faced an intractable facility shortage as late as the beginning of 2020. The problem led to the creation of the End The List campaign that sought the release of surplus DCPS properties to charters as a way to end an 11,000 student wait list to gain admission to schools.

Now that properties are available and landlords are seeking alternative uses to office space, it is up to D.C.’s charter support organizations to buy these buildings so that new charters will have homes or as a method to provide existing charters places to expand and replicate.

I’m thinking that the logical group to take this bold move is Building Hope. But others can play this part operating on their own or in cooperation with others. I’m thinking of the DC PCSB, Education Forward, and CityBridge Education getting into the act. Perhaps the Walton Foundation can join the effort.

In 2019, I took a tour of Chicago’s Noble Public Charter School Muchin College Prep campus that is located next to the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Art Institute. It is in a high-rise office tower. You might think that it was strange entering such a structure to visit a school but once inside it appeared no different than other classroom buildings. I have to say that it was exciting to be in this busy area of town intermingled with business people. It provides a great example of what kids can aspire to become later in life.

The same experience can be replicated for students in the nation’s capital. The Post article adds,

“D.C. business owners who for decades have thrived with corporate life downtown are desperate for customers to return.”

The time to act is now.

DC Education Equity Fund distributes grants; we can do better, much better

The DC Education Equity Fund, the nonprofit organization supporting schools’ ability to provide distance learning to at-risk children, announced its awards on April 7th of $1.04 million to public schools in the nation’s capital. They were made according to the following guidelines:

  • “Ensure their students’ basic needs are being met so they are ready to learn;
  • Provide their students with internet and device access; and
  • Establish supports and additional learning resources for their students to have a successful transition when school buildings reopen.”

The methodology for the distributing of grants was explained this way:

“Grant amounts were split proportionally, based on overall enrollment, between DCPS and DC public charter schools, and then allocations to public charter school operators were determined based on enrollment of students designated as at-risk, as well as enrollment of adult students. The total amount awarded to each school operator can be found below. We are grateful to our school partners for everything they are doing to support their students and families during this crisis.”

The Fund then lists the awardees and the amount of the money provided. The quantity of contributions received by each charter school is frankly extremely disappointing. As a community, we desperately need to come to the aid of these institutions at this crucial moment. I urge you to give what you can to this cause this morning. You can contribute here.  

I have had the opportunity to tutor a couple of students remotely over the last two weeks. The experience was highly frustrating. These were kids that clearly were not on grade-level academically. It was exceptionally difficult to reach these children with my words and that was made much more challenging by not being able to sit next to them. I feel deeply for the teachers that now have to practice distance learning on a daily basis. I am confident that as professionals these instructors are doing the very best that they can, especially with little or no opportunity to prepare lesson plans. It is our charge to support these heroes.

Let’s not let our scholars down.

DC Education Equity Fund raises $1.1 million to support distance learning

Yesterday was the first day for distance learning for D.C.’s traditional schools. It also marked an announcement by Mayor Muriel Bowser that Education Forward DC, in collaboration with the DC Public Education Fund, has created at the Greater Washington Community Foundation the DC Education Equity Fund. The goals of the fund are:

  • Ensuring students’ basic needs are being met so they are ready to learn
  • Providing students with internet and device access
  • Support for students to have a successful transition when school buildings reopen with additional learning resources

The Education Equity Fund’s website states that “Education Forward DC will pay for all donation processing costs so that 100% of funds raised will go to organizations directly serving DC students and families.”

Ms. Bowser revealed that $1.1 million dollars have already been raised in this effort. The money will support all public school students including those enrolled in charters and DCPS. The public can contribute to the fund here. Below are some examples of what the donations can do:

  • $50 buys a wifi hotspot for a family without internet connectivity
  • $250 buys a device—a Chromebook, for example—for a student in need
  • $5,000 buys a classroom set of devices for students

Contributors include:

  • A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation
  • CityBridge Education
  • CityBridge Foundation
  • The City Fund
  • Terry and Lindsay Eakin
  • Education Forward DC
  • The Lois and Richard England Family Foundation
  • The Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund
  • Joseph E. Robert Jr. Charitable Trust, G. David Fensterheim, Trustee

All are heroes. As the Mayor remarked on Tuesday:

“We are grateful for everyone in our community who is stepping up during these unprecedented times – students, families, and community partners. We will be learning together, and we will get through this together.”

Yes we will. Again, from the new organization’s website:

“The District and the nation are facing unprecedented challenges due to the current public health emergency. Public schools in the District of Columbia have transitioned to a modified operating status to support the District’s efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Beginning Tuesday, March 24, schools launched distance learning; during this time, students will learn from a combination of online lessons, printed materials, and virtual check-ins with teachers.

While distance learning is new for most families, for many in our community it also means immediate challenges to ensure digital equity. Today, there is an urgent need to ensure that all DC students – especially those furthest from opportunity – are provided the resources and support they need to continue their education.”

Exclusive Interview with Maura Marino, CEO Education Forward DC

I had the great opportunity recently to sit down for a conversation with Maura Marino, the chief executive officer of Education Forward D.C.  Ms. Marino started our discussion by relating to me the mission of her organization.  She explained that Education Forward DC “accelerates the work of visionary education leaders to foster a city of high-quality, equitable public schools for every DC student and family..”  I asked Ms. Marino about the founding of Education Forward.

“Education Forward DC  began as the DC Schools Fund, an investment area under NewSchools Venture Fund. I joined NewSchools in 2008, and served as the DC Schools Fund’s managing partner from 2013 until we spun off to become a separate entity in 2016.  Originally, the DC Schools Fund was a three-year project that eventually extended to eight because of the incredible work happening in DC.”

Last July, after 18 months of planning, the DC Schools Fund team began this new endeavor, supported by a $1 million grant from NewSchools. The effort came out of a strong desire to uplift educational opportunity in Washington, D.C. and to strengthen the ecosystem for school quality and equity.  In many ways, Education Forward DC continues the work of the D.C. Schools Fund, including managing the remaining grants made under that fund.

As one example, Education Forward DC will continue to fund the production and analysis by local partners of school-by-school Equity Reports, a project the DC School Fund first underwrote.

As background, I asked Ms. Marino about the founding of NewSchools Venture Fund.  She detailed that NewSchools came about 19 years ago as a result of Vice-President Al Gore approaching entrepreneur Kim Smith and venture capitalists John Doerr and Brook Byers about bringing about transformative change in public education the way that Silicon Valley businessmen and women revolutionized other industries.  When I inquired about a major accomplishment of NewSchools, Ms. Marino pointed to the creation of the concept of the Charter Management Organization.  “In 1998, Aspire Public Schools was in one location and wanted to open one hundred more in California.  NewSchools Venture Fund invested in them and assisted in building its capacity to replicate, and Aspire then led the field as others created non-profit organizations designed to scale effective school models.  Other significant grantees have included Achievement First, Noble Street Network, Uncommon Schools, The Achievement Network, Urban Teachers, NewsELA and Goalbook.  In Washington, D.C., NewSchools was the first outside investor in the Fellowship for Race and Equity in Education, Charter Board Partners and many others.”

Now I have just one note about the interview.  Ms. Marino started her career as a high school teacher at Aspire Public Schools in Northern California after obtaining her undergraduate degree at Stanford University.  She then went on to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a Master in Business Administration from Harvard Business School.  Her online biography from the Education Forward website states that “During graduate school, Maura worked on the Network Growth Team at the KIPP Foundation, implementing their national growth strategy.”  The point I’m attempting to make, in case you have not already noticed, is that Ms. Marino is exceedingly intelligent.  The trait came across from the moment I started talking with her.  In addition, as she mentioned to me, she thinks about public education and how to improve it one hundred percent of the time.  To give you an idea of the brain power of Ms. Marino, during our session she indicated that she doesn’t consider our public schools classified simply as being charters or traditional.  She sees them as being in one of four categories that include neighborhood, citywide, selective, and specialized, with both DCPS and charter schools playing various functions in our educational ecosystem.

NewSchools’ DC Schools Fund has supported many of the leading charters in this town, among them D.C. Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, KIPP D.C. PCS, Mundo Verde PCSIngenuity Prep PCS, Inspired Teaching PCS, Appletree PCS, DC International, and D.C. Scholars Academy PCS.  The Fund also played a major role along with the CityBridge Foundation, now CityBridge Education, in bringing Rocketship PCS here.  But Education Forward DC wants to do more.  The group’s five-year goal is aggressive:  double the number of underserved pupils who score four or above on the PARCC Assessment.  The Fund plans to accomplish this feat through three core areas of work:

  • A great school for every student in D.C.
  • Schools led by excellent principals and teachers, and
  • A school system designed for D.C. families

There was much Ms. Marino had to say under each of these goals so here are some highlights.  In reference to having a great school for every student she revealed that her organization is prepared to assist 35 new or redesigned charter or district schools in order to reach this target.  So that schools are led by excellent principals and teachers, her group is focusing on supporting high quality teacher and leader pipelines and improving talent management.  The Education Forward CEO was also quite eloquent in elaborating on the need to have a school system designed for D.C. families.  Ms. Marino wants to amplify parent voices so that there is a much better match between what parents want for their children’s education and that which is provided.  For example, she referred to a commonly expressed need for bilingual schools east of the Anacostia River.

I then explained to Ms. Marino that last summer I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to Denver and get an understanding about how school choice operates in this city.  One of the most intriguing aspects of the environment there is the presence of a District-Charter School Collaboration Compact.  I mentioned that the document spells out specific actions the district schools and charters will take to increase cooperation between the two sectors.  D.C. has taken a different but similarly collaborative approach, Ms. Marino noted. While there’s no formal compact, there’s close and collegial communication among DCPS, the DC Public Charter School Board, and the Deputy Mayor for Education. For instance, district and charter school principals are jointly pursuing a master’s degree in leadership from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. For families, My School DC, the one-stop resource for selecting and applying to DC district and charter schools, is another outgrowth of citywide collaboration, Ms. Marino pointed out.

In closing she expressed excitement about Antwan Wilson becoming the new DCPS Chancellor.  “I don’t think he would have been selected if he hadn’t not come from cities like Oakland and Denver that have collaboration agreements between charters and traditional schools in place,” she commented.  “Having the two sectors increase their level of working together I believe is one of the primary reasons that he was picked for this role.”