Individual D.C. public schools are having to perform their own Covid-19 contact tracing

Yesterday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson held a seven-hour public hearing to gather information on the process of re-opening schools this fall. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein covered the event, focusing only on the experiences of DCPS. For example, she writes:

“Publicly available data indicates that, as of Friday, D.C. Public Schools had reported 370 positive cases among its 52,000 students and 1,088 students were quarantined. There had also been 120 positive cases among the system’s 7,500 employees. The District has an asymptomatic testing program, but so far, it has failed to meet its goal to test at least 10 percent of students for the virus in every school each week.”

Ms. Stein leaves out the 43,857 scholars who learn in our nation’s capital charters, I guess because she insists that these schools are “publicly funded but privately run.” I mean really, if your job is to put into words what is happening in this town’s classrooms cover both sectors or simply refer to yourself as the government-run school reporter.

In her piece she documents parent complaints about how the year is going, including unstandardized procedures if a student tests positive, the lack of a virtual option for families that would rather keep their kids at home, and a dearth of study material when students have to quarantine. But here is the part that I found particularly disturbing:

“The union representing the principals has said the administration of contact tracing has wrongly fallen to individual schools.”

This statement appears to be accurate because the issue is also mentioned by DC Public Charter School Board executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis in her testimony:

“And schools are adapting protocols to keep up with the evolving guidance. The flexibility afforded to LEAs in the interpretation of the guidance has put a lot of pressure and tough decisions on school leaders. Some of that flexibility, intended to account for the unique characteristics of each school community, has made it difficult to explain protocols and procedures to families to get them comfortable with safety plans.

We also hear contact tracing needs to improve. Currently, contact tracing is done at the individual school level by the school staff, based on guidance from DC Health and with support from OSSE. This process is burdensome, taxing already stressed educators, including those at our state education agency, whose primary focus should be on teaching and learning.”

Really, on top of trying to teach kids wearing masks all day and using energy that should be channeled to instruction on keeping scholars safe, the individual staffs of our charters need to contact trace? You have got to be joking. This is the best plan that Mayor Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, and acting D.C. State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant can come up with after all these months on planning? This is ridiculous.

I wish that the DC PCSB and the DC Charter School Alliance had listened to me. Charters have throughout their history taken matters into their own hands. When no one would provide them with a building, even though they are public schools, they figured out how to get them. When the payment from the city didn’t come on time they somehow managed to meet payroll. When a long line of education experts said they couldn’t close the academic achievement gap they produced standardized test scores as high as selective institutions.

The movement needs to stop feeling like they are somehow inferior to traditional facilities. Also, they have to end their fear of the Mayor. Charters must once again be bold in the face of all the odds stacked against them. That is the way we will reach the golden goal of equity.



D.C. parents and educators fight over bringing children back to in classroom learning

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mandated that children return to the classroom when DCPS starts school on August 30th. But many parents and instructors are raising concerns. Yesterday in an excellent article the Washington City Paper’s Ambar Castillo captured these issues as expressed at a State Board of Education meeting last Wednesday evening, which revolve around fear of the rise of Covid-19’s Delta variant, the inability of students to accomplish social distancing due to a lack of space, the fact that there is no available vaccine for children younger than twelve years old, and the lack of a virtual learning option. In addition, parents argued that lunch should be provided outdoors, which led Raymond Weeden, the Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS executive director, to explain that this is not possible for his attendees because of the large number of shootings around the school’s Anacostia neighborhood.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the City Paper piece was the revelation that the founder and long-term head of Achievement Prep PCS has now joined the DC Charter School Alliance. Sarah Lewis is listed on the school’s website as the interim CEO. Ms. Castillo wrote:

“Shantelle Wright, the DC Charter School Alliance Interim Director of Advocacy and Policy, expressed a need for “a citywide contingency plan should the District have an unexpected outbreak that puts schools remaining open at risk.” She said the alliance is asking the mayor to include charter schools when the city coordinates a protocol to tackle an even worse COVID caseload crisis.”

Ms. Wright is expressing a point of view previously expressed by the Alliance that is driving me up the wall. What happened to the days when charters took control of their own destiny? Isn’t it possible for the Alliance or the DC Public Charter School Board to devise a contingency plan for an unexpected outbreak? How hard can it be? Wouldn’t the answer be to return to distance learning lesson plans?

The DCPCS has granted permission to KIPP DC PCS and Maya Angelou PCS to offer limited virtual learning going forward. The board turned down a request for Howard University PCS’s request to do the same although no reason was given. Apparently, AppleTree PCS withdrew an initial request to be able to provide virtual instruction. Friendship PCS already has an online institute.

At the same meeting complaints were raised about Ms. Bowser’s expressed policy that school nurses will not be allowed to care for students or teachers who may have contracted the virus. This would be handled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. WTOP’s Acacia James captured Washington Latin PCS’s head of school Peter Anderson explaining that his school’s nurse resigned due to this condition. From her article:

“’When we pushed back on this, our nurse also tried to push back on this, was told nothing’s going to change and so she quit,’ Anderson said. ‘And so now we no longer have a nurse and we don’t know what the situation is going to be for us.’”

There is also controversy over testing. Ms. James stated that the city will cover the cost of testing ten percent of students. However, if a school decides to test more than this number, it will have to pay.

It appears that D.C.’s school sectors are about to begin a grand experiment of teaching children in person during a pandemic.

 

Mayor Bowser takes first step in charterizing all D.C. public schools

Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her choice to replace Hanseul Kang as the State Superintendent of Education. Ms. Bower’s selection is Christina Grant, who oversaw the charter school sector in Philadelphia. 68,364 students attend charters in Philadelphia across 68 schools representing 36.4 percent of city’s public school students. In Washington D.C. there are 66 charter schools located on 125 campuses educating 43,795 pupils. The Mayor’s press release on the nomination of Ms. Grant say this about her qualifications:

“She recently served as the Chief of Charter Schools and Innovation for The School District of Philadelphia, she oversaw a budget of more than $1 billion and a portfolio of both district and charter schools. In this capacity, Dr. Grant managed a complex organization, working closely with the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the Board of Education and Mayor’s Chief Education Officer. Dr. Grant’s career began as a public school teacher in Harlem; since then, she’s held numerous roles in education, including as Superintendent of the Great Oaks Foundation and Deputy Executive Director at the New York City Department of Education.”

Not mentioned in Ms. Bowser’s statement is that Ms. Grant was a teacher in New York City for a KIPP public charter school and that her role as executive director in New York City Public Schools involved managing the process for the opening of new charters. Following her stint with NYC schools, she moved on to become executive director of NYCAN, a New York City-based charter advocacy organization.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Ms. Grant received training at the Broad Academy, a pro-charter educational leadership program that is now run by Ms. Kang at Yale University. Ms. Stein mentions that D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee also attended the Broad Academy.

When schools in the nation’s capital finally reopen fully in the fall I expect that Ms. Grant, in her effort to bring equity in education to all District students, will fight to expand the charter sector by replacing failing DCPS facilities with schools of choice.

Consistent with our efforts in public education to provide a quality seat to any child who needs one is an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federal private school voucher program in our city. But there are storm clouds on the horizon regarding the plan. D.C. Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that as part of President Biden’s proposed budget he supports “winding down” the scholarships. Here Mr. Biden is following in the muddy footsteps of his idol Barack Obama, who stopped new entrants from participating in the O.S.P. when he was President, directly hurting students living in poverty. I think suggesting to make this move after a year of remote learning is especially heartless and cruel.

One more thought for today. When I tuned into the May monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I noticed that Steve Bumbaugh was not present. It turns out that his term had expired. I will greatly miss Mr. Bumbaugh’s presence on the board. His observations and comments were always insightful. He was an especially strong advocate for those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bumbaugh had a profound appreciation of the nature of school choice, and gave great deference to the opinions of parents as to whether a school under review should be allowed to continue operating.

His absence leaves a critical vacancy on the board.

In STAR system comparison with PMF, it looks like we are reliant on D.C. charter board measure.

Last Friday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released its DC Report Card which ranks schools in the nation’s capital on a School Transparency and Reporting (STAR) framework of one to five, with five being best.  This effort is the result of the State Board of Education’s effort to comply with the U.S. Congresses’ Every Student Succeed Act which required that states offer a measurement of the quality of its public educational institutions as a substitute for the Annual Yearly Progress measure under the No Child Left Behind law.

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, pointed me to the excellent analysis of the new grading scheme conducted by Empowerk12.  This is only the start for this organization as there is much more number crunching to come.  It offers in great detail a comparison between STAR grading and the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework.  I will not pretend for one minute to understand all the nuances of its conclusions.  But I can offer some overall general observations regarding our city’s charter schools after looking at the data.

My biggest question about the new ranking was whether it would replace PMF.  This issue appears clearly settled in favor of the charter board’s quality school reports simply because the OSSE STAR report does not include all schools.  Excluded are charters that have only early childhood education programs like AppleTree PCS.  It also does not measure schools at the other end of the spectrum such as those that focus on the teaching of adult students.  Alternative programs are also left out.

When you look at charters that offer traditional grades to a general population of students, the picture becomes murky for STAR in relation to the PMF.  For example, going down the list of Tier 1 PMF charters, these schools sometimes received a five, such as Washington Yu Ying PCS or Washington Leadership Academy PCS.  But they can also earn a three, as seen with Lee Montessori PCS and KIPP DC College Preparatory Academy PCS.  Most of the top tier charter schools get a four.  If I were a parent I would be shy about sending my child to a place that only received a three.  In addition, while I might favor a school labeled as a five, there are only a few that measured this high.

Where the PMF and STAR report more closely correlate is in relation to the lower performing schools.  Out of the six of seven Tier 3 charters that receive a STAR number, four receive a one ranking on STAR with two others getting a two.  The message to parents is that if it is academic quality that most interests you in a school, look for a number higher than two.

One weakness of the STAR grading system is that it includes five levels while the PMF only has three.  This makes the PMF easier to understand for the general public.  Although some have expressed serious problems with the charter’s board’s tiering, especially when it comes to schools with a large population of at-risk students, it looks like this is the best that we have at this moment in time.