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.”