D.C. charter board receives applications to open 4 new schools

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday that it has received four applications for new schools that, if approved, would open during the 2021-to-2022 term.

The applicants include:

Capital Experience Lab (CAPX LAB): A 700-student school going from grades six through twelve that wants to locate in Ward 6 and is based upon “inquiry-based learning experiences.” Fascinating to me is that Patricia Brantley, Friendship PCS’s chief executive officer, is listed as a board member. This, combined with the fact that the school has been incubated by CityBridge Education significantly raises the probability that it will be approved.

Global Citizens: The other CityBridge-sponsored applicant, this 525-student pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade charter would be based in Ward 7 or 8 and would offer a dual language immersion program in either Mandarin and English or Spanish and English. There are people with extremely impressive credentials associated with Global Citizens. The principal of the charter would be Jenifer Moore. I interviewed Ms. Moore when she was the interim head of school for Sela PCS and she blew me away. Listed as advisers are my friends Daniela Anello, head of school of DC Bilingual PCS, Maquita Alexander, executive director of Washington Yu Ying PCS, and Erika Bryant, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS.

The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship: A charter for 410 students in grades nine through twelve that would operate in Ward 8. The school’s executive summary states that it “will be the ultimate soil for building consciously aware, financially free, and holistically intelligent high school students in Washington, D.C. Our business and entrepreneurship model activates the voice, ideas, and confidence in students that are needed to economically succeed in their world.”

Washington Arabic: A second dual immersion school that applied in 2019. This school wants to open in Ward 1, 4, 5, or 6, with a preference on 6, and would teach 544 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three through fifth. Last year’s proposal received enthusiastic support from several board members so the hope is that it can make it across the finish line this time.

It appears that what this list lacks in number it makes up in quality. Let’s sincerely hope that progress is made on the permanent facility issue by the time these schools need to find space.

The applicants will have a public hearing in February and be voted on at the March monthly meeting of the DC PCSB.

Exclusive Interview with Rick Cruz, chair DC Public Charter School Board

I had the great privilege recently of interviewing Rick Cruz, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I had also spoke to Mr. Cruz about a year ago.  I first asked him to reflect on the resignation of Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director.  Mr. Pearson has stated that he will leave his position at the end of May 2020.

“It is bittersweet, there is no other way to describe it,” Mr. Cruz said solemnly.  “We have a really good partnership.  Scott has worked very well with the Board and with our many stakeholders.  He has done so while significantly raising the quality of our systems, processes, and data.  He has built an outstanding team and prepared them for his transition.  The job of the PCSB may sound bureaucratic, but Scott developed a solid environment of trust and for being fair and transparent and steadfast.  Charter schools in D.C. understand the expectations of the PCSB and the standards to which we hold them. The work of authorizing charter schools has advanced greatly under Scott’s leadership and he leaves quite a legacy for us to build upon.  Scott has said that he lives his life in chapters and now we enter a new chapter for the PCSB.”

I then wanted to know from Mr. Cruz what characteristics he would like to see in the next executive director.  “I don’t want to jump the gun,” Mr. Cruz answered, “since there are multiple round tables being held in which students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and the general public can provide input on what is important to them about the next executive director.  However, I do think it’s important that we do much more work to share how public charter schools are successfully impacting the lives of students. I believe we could do more around communication and because we haven’t this has resulted in some push back from certain constituencies.  For example, the 2019 DC Report Card was just released by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and it showed that KIPP Promise Academy PCS and the Congress Heights campus of Center City PCS are the only five star ranked schools east of the Anacostia River.  This is great news and every family and D.C. residents should know that public charter schools are providing a quality education to students living in Wards 7 and 8. Alternatively, we have some people saying that we do not need more charters, and yet we have schools like Friendship Technology Preparatory PCS, Mundo Verde PCS, and District of Columbia International School PCS offering differentiated approaches to educating our youth and parents want these distinct programs.  Others may say that charters are wasting scarce  public funds, but charters teach the same percentages of at-risk and special education students that the traditional schools do.”

One area I was especially interested in was Mr. Cruz’s opinion about the relatively similar standardized test scores charters reported this year in measures such as PARCC and NAEP compared to DCPS.  Mr. Cruz was ready with his response.  “DCPS has had steady improvements that is a fact.  We still score higher with African American pupils and our results continue to improve year after year.  One possible explanation is that over the past several school years we have asked much of our schools.  For example, there are new requirements around exclusionary discipline policies.  However, I am confident that over the next few years we will see charter schools continue to drive increases in academic performance and innovate. For example, we have a crop of new schools that are opening in fall 2020,  each of them offering new types of programming, and most of them founded by local education leaders.  These schools have innovative models that have the potential to spur academic growth.”

We then moved on to the recent controversy regarding DC Prep PCS purchasing a property on Frankford Street Southeast as a possible site for its Anacostia Middle School.  I asked Mr. Cruz if he thought this matter was handled appropriately by school leadership.  “In a perfect world, we would be able to match facilities to new schools early in the process which would markedly smooth engagement with communities and make things easier for families. However, the situation with DC Prep is a stark reminder that we desperately need clarity regarding the freeing up of surplus DCPS building for use by charters.  In addition, we really must consider solutions such as co-locating charter schools with underutilized DCPS schools.  Research shows there are many benefits to doing so. While in the past charter school leaders were uncertain about the feasibility of co-location, I have spoken to many school leaders who now express they are open to this solution for classroom space.”

Next, we pivoted our discussion to Councilmember Charles Allen’s transparency bill before the D.C. Council.  I asked Mr. Cruz for his opinion regarding requiring opening charter school board meetings and the call for individual charters to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Mr. Cruz had a firm stance on each issue.  “I’m comfortable with our policy that dictates schools have designated open board meetings,” the PCSB chair asserted. “I do recommend that when there are certain topics before the board, such as school budgets, the changes need to be discussed in public.  Open meetings are a great opportunity for school leaders to experiment with how their families are engaged in important decisions.”

Mr. Cruz continued, “Regarding FOIA, after receiving input from school administrators, I really agree with them that these inquiries should be handed by PCSB.  To be honest, I have yet to see data points, except for individual teacher salaries, that cannot be found in the information the charter board posts on its website, especially considering all of the documents available on the Transparency Hub.  We certainly do not want to cripple schools due to them trying to comply with FOIA requests.  Also, we have to be sure that concerns focused on individual students are kept confidential.  The PCSB has the staff to redact sensitive information that individual schools do not possess.”

When the two of us got together it was the day after FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Pubic Schools announced that they were merging.  I asked Mr. Cruz if he had a view on this change.  “I do,” Mr. Cruz reflected.  “As a sector over the last five years or more we have become complacent regarding adherence to the [D.C.] School Reform Act.  There has definitely grown a void in the advocacy space.  So the decision to bring these two groups together makes a lot of sense to me.”

I wanted to conclude our meeting by raising the topic of the student safety issues that took place at Monument Academy PCS and Rocketship Rise Academy PCS.  My comment to Mr. Cruz revolved around whether the public should have known about these incidents earlier.  The PCSB chair explained.  “Regarding Monument there were a set of occurrences that ranged from minor to serious for a school that also includes a boarding component.  There were many interactions between the school’s board and the PCSB several months before the media was involved.  Unfortunately issues do arise, but this is not an excuse.  In the case of both Monument and Rocketship the charter board staff followed its policies.  In each instance we followed our Community Complaint policy. ”

As I talked to Mr. Cruz, I’m reminded of the truly significant role public charter schools now play in our community and the important work facing the next executive director.  

D.C. charter board extends life of schools up for review, at extremely high costs

The DC Public Charter School Board held its final monthly meeting of the year Monday evening and you could see on the faces of the members that it is time for a break. Only three of the seven made it to the session in person and one was on the telephone. In the aftermath of an exceptionally tough year that included the closure of several schools, serious concerns around student safety, controversies over permanent facilities, and the resignation of the body’s executive director, it appeared that 2019 could not come to an end sooner.

The public comment period was dominated by speakers testifying in favor of the continuance after five years of Monument Academy PCS. In fact, among the charters up for review on this night, IDEA PCS at twenty years; Kingsman Academy PCS at five years; the Children’s Guild PCS at five years; and Monument Academy PCS; all failed to reach their charter goals. Each, however, was given credit for efforts in implementing improvements over the past three years. I will not go into the details of the findings of each school individually since you can read them here. But I will give you a sense of the serious consequences these charters faced for failing to hit their targets. Please keep in mind that these are only a sample of the conditions imposed by the PCSB.

IDEA PCS

“The school must achieve a PMF score of at least 47, or at the DC PCSB Board’s discretion, a STAR rating of at least three stars, 6 for SY 2019-20, or it will close at the end of SY 2020-21.”

“IDEA PCS will decrease its maximum enrollment ceiling from 600 students to 400 students. The school may not serve additional students unless and until it returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its maximum enrollment beyond 400 students. “

Kingsman Academy PCS

“Kingsman Academy PCS will continue improving academic outcomes for its students. Failure to demonstrate continued improvement may result in a high-stakes charter review prior to the school’s scheduled 10-year charter review in SY 2024-25.”

“Kingsman Academy PCS must provide DC PCSB, by March 31, 2020, a plan to improve school completion rates or reduce dropout rates.”

Children’s Guild PCS

“Children’s Guild PCS must eliminate its eligibility to serve grades 9-12, unless and until the school returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its grade levels served beyond grade 8.”

“Children’s Guild PCS must decrease its maximum enrollment ceiling from 850 students to 450 students. The school may not serve additional students unless and until it returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its maximum enrollment beyond 450 students.”

Monument Academy PCS

“Monument Academy PCS will demonstrate improvement in the following measures: NWEA MAP Math, NWEA MAP ELA, and In-Seat Attendance. Beginning in SY 2019-20 through its ten-year review in SY 2023-24, the school must achieve at least two out of three of the following targets, or it will relinquish its charter at the end of the following school year:
i. NWEA MAP Math Growth: 50.0 or higher
ii. NWEA MAP ELA Growth: 50.0 or higher
iii. In Seat Attendance: 88.0% or higher”

You can sense that the charter board was not in a jovial mood. The somber atmosphere continued with the return of Rocketship Education DC PCS to the dais. Although representatives of the school were there to offer apologies for the incident in which two students were nearly kidnapped from its Rocketship Rise facility, there was really nothing more that needed to be said. The PCSB slapped the following requirements on the charter regarding the actions that it must complete:

“A thorough security assessment, through DC PCSB’s security consultant or other qualified security consultant approved by DC PCSB, of Rocketship PCS’s existing two DC campuses, including an assessment of all dismissal procedures. This security assessment shall be updated to also include the school’s third campus as part of the preopening requirements listed in the checklist.”

“Develop a policy or set of protocols (or provide any existing policy or set of protocols) for communicating with families, the school community, and DC PCSB following serious safety and security incidents. Such policy or set of protocols shall be consistent with those in use by DC public charter schools generally and shall be subject to the reasonable approval of DC PCSB.”

“Provide training of the type and nature in use by DC public charter schools generally for all school staff who have direct interaction with students, including staff in the aftercare program, around student safety and security, risk assessment, dismissal procedures, and the school’s communication protocols.”

“As necessary based on the above actions and consistent with similar protocols in use by other DC charter schools generally, submit to DC PCSB a revised set of 1) its safety and security protocols, and 2) its communication protocols, both for internal communication among school personnel, and for external communication with parents, the school community, and DC PCSB.”

“Undergo ongoing scheduled, or as deemed reasonably necessary, unscheduled monitoring visits from DC PCSB at the school and the aftercare program to assess safety and security, as well as to determine the extent of completion of the above actions. Any written concerns identified during such visits shall be discussed with the Rocketship PCS and addressed by the school within the timeframes mutually determined by DC PCSB and Rocketship PCS.”

“At such times as may be reasonably requested by DC PCSB, appear before the DC PCSB Board to discuss the progress to date made by Rocketship PCS in completing the above actions to the satisfaction of DC PCSB.”

It was now time for everyone to go home.

Sparks fly at monthly meeting of D.C. charter board

Let’s get the easy stuff over with regarding agenda items on the DC Public Charter School Board’s November monthly meeting that took place last Monday. Three schools, Bridges PCS, Howard University Charter Middle School of Mathematics and Science, and Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy PCS, all received 15 year renewals of their charters. The approvals were relatively noncontroversial. However, I did make two notes. The first is that Bridges is only one of two District charters that give an admission preference to students with disabilities. The other being St. Coletta of Greater Washington PCS. My other observation is that relatively new board member Jim Sandman, who has quickly shown in only a few meetings to be taking his volunteer role in an extremely conscientious manner, is a real stickler for schools exactly meeting their Performance Management Framework targets. In other words, if the charter is supposed to be at a score of 50 percent, then it better not come in at 49. This viewpoint has proved divisive in the past, leading to schools hiring the Stephen Marcus firm to dispute the validity of the PMF in regard to their application for facilities teaching a large population of at-risk children.

Also straightforward was DC Prep PCS receiving the green light to open its Anacostia Middle School on the ground level of the Birney School Building. DC Prep’s chief operating officer Laura Maestas started the discussion with prepared remarks refuting some of the comments others made about her campuses at the October PCSB meeting. Highly impressive in her testimony was the extremely dramatic reduction DC Prep has recently experienced in its student suspension rates, something that has been a criticism of the charter in the past. She pointed out that tonight’s vote is about the move into Birney, not the property that she stated the school will buy on Frankford Street, S.E. Ms. Maestas again reiterated that the goal is to find a location going forward for Anacostia Middle other than the Frankford Street location.

Now let’s get to the most remarkable portions of this session, which as usual began with the public comments. Two individuals, one a former vice-principal and the other a parent, with other former school leaders coming up to the testimony table in support, describe concerning activity at Ingenuity Prep PCS. They claim that under CEO Will Stoetzer student behavior is out of control. Descriptions of what is taking place include kids running around hallways, leaving the school building without permission, horseplay, and even exposing their genitals. The former vice-principal stated that students have been abusing staff through violent acts including stabbings. She asserted that she has heard children say that they want to kill themselves and die. The parent described teachers verbally abusing and bullying students. The cause of these problems, according to the former vice-principal, is inappropriate inclusion of special education children without proper teacher training and supervision. It is all difficult to believe and my hope is that the board will bring representatives of Ingenuity Prep to the December meeting to provide an explanation of these claims.

Next up was Rocketship PCS for a discussion around the attempted kidnapping of two students by a registered sex offender revealed by the parent of these children at the October PCSB meeting. If you want to see how a school should not respond when faced with an extremely serious incident, then please watch the presentation by representatives of this school. It was a train wreck. The staff was defensive and appeared to want to blame others for the event. Just to give you a sense of the misguided approach consider the words of the first speaker, regional director Joyanna Smith. She described dropping her son off at a charter school where her identification is never checked because they know her. She concluded her statement by admonishing the board not to prevent Rocketship from opening its third campus because of this occurrence. The testimony seemed to be a non-sequitur to the extremely serious nature of the crime, and appeared strange coming from someone who used to be the Ombudsman for Public Education in the city.

The board was having none of this line of reasoning and asked many probing questions regarding the chronology of events. The members from Rocketship did admit that they did not follow their own communication procedure that resulted in others learning of the incident nearly three weeks after it occurred and at the PCSB October meeting. Vice chair Saba Bireda summed up the impression that the school gave by remarking that “my confidence is severely shaken with your organization.” The end result, Ms. Bireda detailed, will be a list of conditions the board will add onto its approval of the third campus which will need to be met before it can be opened and other schools created.

Scott Pearson stepping down as executive director DC Public Charter School Board

Word came at noon yesterday that Scott Pearson, executive director for eight and a half years of the DC Public Charter School Board, has resigned his position effective May 29, 2020. A national search for a replacement will now be conducted by the PCSB.

I have so much to say regarding this news that at first I had difficulty knowing where to start. But then my initial meeting with Mr. Pearson came back to me as if it had happened yesterday. Shortly after he had assumed his current job in 2012, I noticed that Mr. Pearson was commenting in public regarding various matters facing the D.C. charter movement. It had not been the custom for the charter board’s executive director to make pronouncements in the media. Under the previous administration of board chair Tom Nida and executive director Josephine Baker, it was always Mr. Nida who spoke for his organization. I mentioned this observation on my blog and questioned the new role that Mr. Pearson was playing.

Shortly after the publication of my piece, I joined Mr. Pearson on a tour of Washington Latin PCS upon whose board I served. When I first encountered the PCSB executive director the first words out of his mouth were something along the lines of “So I’m not supposed to comment on issues before the board?” I was taken aback by his directness and explained that I was only raising the topic for further discussion.

Going forward, ups and downs have characterized my relationship with Mr. Pearson. I have been a consistent supporter of his efforts to increase the quality of the charter portfolio. Yet I have been a critic when it comes to the high level of regulatory requirements imposed on our schools and the failure to greatly expand the number of new charters approved by his body. I also do not believe that he did enough to incentivize charter school replication, and could have done more to help solve the facility problem.

We have also strongly disagreed about a couple of school closures he supported that eventually ended up going my way. These include Options PCS, which is now Kingsman Academy PCS, and Latin American Youth Center Career Academy. But my greatest arguments with Mr. Pearson came regarding a couple of published articles that he authored.

In 2015, Mr. Pearson, together with then PCSB chair John “Skip” McCoy, had a column printed in the Washington Post entitled “Getting the Balance Right.” It asserted that the current share of children enrolled in charter schools, which was then at 44 percent, was just about right. The opinion piece delivered a punch to the stomachs of school choice advocates hungry for the day when they envisioned an education landscape in our city where a majority of students attended these alternative schools. We were confused as to which side he was on.

This doubt was greatly amplified by Mr. Pearson’s printed online commentary suggesting that a unionized charter school would add positively to the sector’s diversity of offerings. His encouragement created a fertile environment for the attempted teachers’ union infiltration of Paul PCS, the successful unionization of Cesar Chavez PCS’s Bruce Middle campus, which is now closed, and now the vote last May by staff members to ratify a union at Mundo Verde PCS. Anyone committed to public school reform knows that teachers’ unions are completely incompatible to this effort.

Despite our differences, in 2016 Mr. Pearson agreed to sit down to an interview with me. I found him to be warm, intelligent, transparent, and completely engrossed in the challenges facing our sector. We had a philosophical discussion in which he enlightened me to viewpoints I had not considered in the past. I am still extremely grateful for his time.

So what should we say about Mr. Pearson’s tenure at the charter board? He is an individual dedicated to quality who through his work helped thousands of children receive an education in a high performing school. He raised the bar for classroom instruction and closed charters not making the mark. Mr. Pearson professionalized and standardized the systems, processes, and policies of the PCSB that resulted in it being recognized as the nation’s leading charter school authorizer. He recruited and retained a talented staff. Mr. Pearson is also a leader who developed the Performance Management Framework to be the gold standard of benchmarking our schools. He is too, in an unanticipated turn of events, someone who may have remained in his position had Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, not stepped down as deputy director four months ago. They worked extremely well together and he depended on her advice and counsel.

Emotions raw at October D.C. charter board meeting

It was one of the most fascinating meetings I have seen in my years of watching the proceedings of the DC Public Charter School Board. During the open comment period person after person testified against DC Prep PCS expanding to a new location on Frankford Street, S.E. The entire discussion was confusing because the charter was on the agenda seeking approval to begin operating its new Anacostia Middle School beginning with the 2020-to-2021 school year and beyond at the site of the Birney Building, an incubator location operated by Building Pathways that now is home to Lee Montessori East End PCS and the old Excel Academy PCS that converted in 2018 to be part of DCPS. Yet here they were, a long line of witnesses, many with signs that read “Ø#NoDCPreponFrankford!Ø.”

Sandwiched toward the end of this part of the session, a mom who has two children attending Rocketship Rise Academy PCS, which was hosting the PCSB on this night, announced that a convicted child molester had tried to remove her kids from aftercare on a day in which school was not in session. The attempt, she said, was not successful, but she added that she has heard six different stories about what took place and has been trying to meet with a representative from the charter for three weeks about this issue without success. This prompted a Rocketship staff member to come forward to explain that the man in question had been detained by the police when he tried to leave with her children and that he had just attended a hearing on this matter today. The Rocketship employee also admitted that he had not done a good job reviewing this highly worrisome event with the parent.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein, in an article appearing last Thursday, provided some details around the arrest of this individual. Antonio Burnside, age 30, “was forced to register as a sex offender after pleading guilty in December to attempted kidnapping and was given an 18-month suspended sentence, according to court records.” A police officer stationed at Rocketship let him into the school after he claimed he was with another person entering the building. Mr. Burnside then began playing basketball with a nine year old child and then tried to escort him and his six year old brother outside. A school official stopped him and Mr. Burnside was then arrested on unrelated charges. He is now being held without bail for attempted kidnapping. Rocketship, the PCSB, and the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education are all reviewing security procedures at its schools. A letter went out from Rocketship’s administration to its parents two weeks after the incident occurred.

Next up was AppleTree Early Learning PCS regarding its proposal to co-locate with Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at its new location at 475 School Street, S.W. beginning in 2020. This is the AppleTree campus that was thrown out of its temporary location at Jefferson Middle School Academy when DCPS went ahead with a plan to renovate this facility. No accommodation was made for AppleTree and so the charter had no choice but to close this location. It was a slap in the face to the over 100 disadvantaged children and their families who now had to find somewhere else to send their three and four year olds.

Also as part of its charter amendment, AppleTree is attempting to open a new school at 1000 4th Street S.W. during the 2023-to-2024 school year. What is so exciting about this expansion is that this permanent home would be leased to the school by the developer PN Hoffman. One solution to the crippling charter school facility problem that has been floated in the past is to team with developers to provide classroom space. It appears that AppleTree is about to make this dream a reality.

The board will vote on these plans at the November meeting.

Finally, it was DC Prep’s turn at the table. Here is where things really became interesting. Chief Executive Officer Laura Maestas related that the school would prefer to locate its Anacostia Middle School campus at the Birney Building. However, for over a year DC Prep has been trying to get an answer as to what DCPS plans to do with Excel, whose lease is coming to an end. Without a solution in hand the charter moved quickly to purchase the Frankford Street church property that came on the market and was rapidly receiving interest by others in securing the parcel. Ms. Maestas admitted that her team has not engaged with the community about moving to this address. In fact, the school has kept the deal, which is scheduled to close in December, to itself.

Ms. Maestas added that if a suitable alternative could be identified to Frankford Street, then DC Prep would be open to selling this site.

The discussion clearly ignited the passion of board member Naomi Shelton. She pointed out that all charter operators are aware of the difficulties around finding space. But what she expressed she will not tolerate is the battle between adults over where schools should be located. Ms. Shelton decried the acrimony leveled against charters that are doing their best to close the academic achievement gap and yet she also chided institutions that fail to engage neighbors from the beginning in a respectful dialog about their plans. She pointed out that for years public officials in D.C. have been bystanders to a political problem over empty DCPS buildings that should be utilized for schools and under-enrolled classrooms that are ripe for co-location. Ms. Shelton concluded her remarks by urging all of the parties involved in this controversy to bring their case together as a group to the very politicians, such as D.C.’s Deputy Mayor of Education, that are standing in the way of a resolution.

There was one bit of business on this evening that was remarkable for the lack of contention that it generated. As predicted, Rocketship PCS was approved to open its third campus in the Fort Totten area of the city.

Should D.C. School Reform Act give more power to charter board?

I’ve written much about the hearing before the D.C. Council earlier this month regarding a bill to increase transparency of the city’s charter schools. However, there was a fascinating discussion that occurred towards the end of the session between Phil Mendelson, the Council chairman, and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, that has yet to be reported.

The conversation revolved around the power that the charter board has to force the schools it oversees to comply with its rules. Mr. Pearson was asked by Mr. Mendelson what actions his organization can take if charters refuse to abide by its requests for information. For example, charters are required to provide to the PCSB minutes of its board meetings. What happens, the Council chair wanted to know, if a school decides simply not to comply?

Mr. Pearson indicated that there are number of steps his organization would take. It would start with communication from his group to the school. If this doesn’t work then a letter might go from Mr. Pearson to the school’s board chair. Alternatively, the school’s board may be required to meet with the PCSB. The charter board could also mandate that the school’s board report on the issue at one of its monthly meetings. Finally, Mr. Pearson added, if a school fails to submit material the board would begin charter revocation.

Responding to Mr. Pearson’s remarks, Mr. Mendelson likened charter revocation to taking a sledge hammer to a school to get it to do the right thing. The D.C. Council chairman alluded to the fact that the punishment seemed extreme considering the school’s indiscretion. Mr. Mendelson pondered as to whether it would be better to encode the board’s stipulations into law. Mr. Pearson answered that the PCSB does not distinguish between its regulations and statutes when it comes to information derived from schools. However, the charter board executive director did concede that charters may be more inclined to satisfy obligations if they were part of legislation. “People generally don’t want to break the law,” Mr. Pearson opined.

The back and forth between the two men is interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve written many times about the excessive burdens that the charter board places on its schools. If these commands had to part of D.C. code in order to be in effect, would this step inherently limit the data that the board seeks from its schools? Would this change impose a higher standard on guidelines established by the board?

This topic also calls into question whether the charter board should have other disciplinary tools at its disposal. Should it be permitted to withhold funds if a school is not responding appropriately to the board? Perhaps a grade on compliance should be incorporated into the Performance Management Framework?

As we grow and mature as a local charter school movement these matters will almost certainly increase in importance. However, for today, we will worry about open meetings and FOIA requests.

Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of DC PCSB, regarding the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Yesterday, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education as part of a public hearing on the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019. I am reprinting his remarks today with commentary to follow in future posts.

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen and councilmembers, thank you for inviting me to speak today on the issues of transparency and accountability for our city’s public charter schools. I am Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board.

The Public School Transparency Amendment Act would require public charter schools to be subject to the DC Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and several other requirements.

As I testified in June on another piece of legislation, we support the requirement that board meetings of public charter schools be made public when discussing expansion, budgets, or closure. We believe that there need to be a few closed session exemptions to account for areas where public charter schools as independent 501(c)(3)’s are different from government entities. This includes exemptions for information concerning individual students or staff or matters that would materially affect their competitive position in relation to other schools. By adding clarity to the law, it will benefit both the school’s boards, families, and staff.

To me, transparency is an essential part of the public charter school concept. It goes hand in hand with flexibility and accountability.

The question for me is not whether charter schools should be open and transparent. The question is what is the best way to achieve this end. Our primary goal is that our schools ensure students perform well academically. We have worked for years at the Public Charter School Board to make more information available to the public in the smartest way possible.

• When it comes to how public charter schools spend their money, every public charter school is subject to an annual audit by a third party certified public accountant approved by a committee of the Public Charter School Board, the OCFO, and OSSE. Those audits are published on our website, along with schools’ IRS tax returns and their annual budgets. Each is verified and accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. In addition, we require schools to break down their expenditures into four categories – occupancy, personnel, student support, and administration — so that school expenditures can be compared with each other on an apples to apples basis. This report is released to the public through our Financial Analysis Report.

• Looking at school operations, performance and governance, we post schools’ charter goals, their student handbooks, average high and low teacher salaries, academic data, student commute maps, enrollment and demographic data, annual reports, at-risk funding plans, and contact information for the school’s board. This year we are adding to this board of trustees meeting calendars, including which meetings are open to the public, approved school board meeting minutes, the current salaries of the five most highly compensated individuals in the organization, and the contact information for key staff.

• We post on our website extensive information about our oversight of each school, including a school’s five- or ten-year review and renewal reports, equity reports, performance reports, compliance review reports, and detailed writeups from our classroom observations.

All the information I’ve just described is publicly available and easy to locate on our website. We’ve tried to include everything a family would want to know about a school. If there is more information folks want, we are certainly open to discussing how we can make that available.

I have noticed that many have been conflating “transparency,” with FOIA. FOIA is a tool of transparency, one which we believe is inappropriate to apply towards small, independent 501(c)(3) organizations. It is a blunt instrument that will do little to provide families with the information they need and want while having the potential, through its cost and time demands, to take resources away from the school quality goals we all share. If our goal is transparency, FOIA misses the mark, especially for families with limited time and resources.

Years ago, policymakers decided to address the issue of sunshine in public charter schools by making DC PCSB subject to FOIA. As a result of working closely with schools across all issue areas, we can provide most, if not all, of the information sought after by the public. We receive requests from all types of citizens including journalists, academic researchers, union representatives, parents, and teachers. For FY 2018, the sum of requests totaled 73. This year, we have already surpassed that number.

But the number of requests only tells part of the story. The key metric in assessing a FOIA request is the scope. Some freedom of information requests are narrow and can be completed in under an hour. However, larger requests can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to complete and have the potential to paralyze a small organization. This is where our overall concern lies.

In recent months, DC PCSB itself has received multiple requests that encompass hundreds of thousands of responsive documents and will require hundreds of hours of review. There is a multiplier effect on the staff cost and hours. Documents must generally be reviewed by multiple staff members, including those with a legal background, to ensure that no protected student data or other confidential or privileged information is accidentally released.

Let me provide two recent examples:

• We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

• Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.

I would hope most schools would not regularly receive requests like these. In fact, some schools may not receive any requests at all. But I would also expect schools experiencing turmoil, the schools that can least afford to spend time digging through and reviewing emails and other documents, will be the ones impacted.

Since many schools do not have an in-house legal team, much of the work of information gathering and review will fall on teachers and staff. Therefore, most will need to work with outside attorneys who are not on school email systems, and do not have the ability to search through the communications of staff. In practice, this means the work of searching will likely be performed by the teachers whose work is implicated by the request. The results will then be sent to the legal counsel to apply any exemptions and redactions, at a substantial hourly fee.

There are more effective and efficient ways to satisfy the public’s desire to understand the work of public charter schools. FOIA will not give families information on their student’s performance or IEP decisions they can’t already obtain under federal law. FOIA will not improve communication between families and schools. FOIA will not help a family understand a budget. FOIA may not even produce deliberative emails between board members, which will be searched, reviewed, and ultimately redacted.

The harmful effects of FOIA go beyond the trouble of searching and reviewing documents and emails. As members and staff of the Council know only too well, the presence of FOIA inhibits free and open electronic communication. This makes decision makers less able to engage in the kind of open electronic communication that allows organizations to operate at peak performance.

The process of FOIA takes time and focus off students and off the operations of the school. And this is the fundamental issue we have with this bill: it will do nothing to improve student achievement; instead, it will make it harder for schools to be truly excellent. We honestly believe that FOIA will not further the cause of quality schools and instead result in school spending hours and dollars that could otherwise be spent on students for a gain in transparency that we believe will ultimately be negligible.

With this reality in mind, I ask that we work together to identify inaccessible information and figure out ways we can make that public instead of subjecting individual schools to this catch-all tool of FOIA. In the long run, it will be more helpful for schools to give families and communities specific information rather than inundate them with thousands of pages of irrelevant documents.

Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019

Before I conclude my testimony, I would like to turn my attention to the Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019 to express my support. As an independent authorizer, DC PCSB is required to hold each public charter school to high standards — we must not only hold school leaders accountable for academic success, but also ensure they are acting in the best interest of all students attending the school.

Over the next two school years, DC PCSB will conduct a high-stakes review of 29 different public charter schools. Some of these reviews could result in a school closure.

Closing a school and settling its finances is a complex process that requires robust oversight. During the public charter school closure process, our oversight of school operations is hampered by the fact that the school’s charter has already been revoked or non-renewed. Our ultimate leverage is gone. As such, it becomes more difficult to address issues that may arise during the school’s wind-down period, such as those involving the school’s expenditures and finances; oversight of school personnel; and cooperation with the transition efforts of the acquiring school in the event of an asset acquisition.

The ability to impose conditions will help DC PCSB perform its oversight obligations more effectively during a closing school’s final months of operation. Importantly, DC PCSB will be better able to safeguard public funds that a school might otherwise use inappropriately. For example, we could impose a condition that all of a school’s expenditures over $10,000 would be subject to DC PCSB approval, which could prevent a school leader from receiving a golden parachute. Those funds, if otherwise unspent, would go back to OSSE and be redistributed upon dissolution of the school.

The proposed bill will also help the DC PCSB ensure positive outcomes for students in the closing school, including helping those students enroll in a high-quality school for the following school year. For example, we could require that schools hire more staff if there is an uptick in safety incidents. We could require schools to offer retention bonuses to teachers or employees to help ensure students finish out the school year in a safe and stable environment. We could demand that schools turn over contact lists to our enrollment specialists or require schools to allow us to send enrollment specialists to school property to ensure families are apprised of their options.

I know I usually appear before you to advocate for preserving school autonomy, and I recognize this bill goes in the opposite direction. However, it applies only in the narrowest of cases – specifically those few months between when the board votes to close a school and when it actually closes its doors and winds down its operations. We believe it will considerably improve our ability to safeguard public funds and ensure better outcomes for students in closing schools.

As the sole charter authorizer in our nation’s capital, DC PCSB has been long committed to providing families, students, and the public with information on public charter school performance. That is why we collect and publish so much detailed information about every single public charter school in the District. DC PCSB remains committed to working closely with schools across all issue areas, to provide most, if not all, of the information sought by the public in the interest of what is best for students. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.

DC charter board about to approve two new school campuses

Last night the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting and it was one of the least controversial sessions I have witnessed in years. The session started with former PCSB board member Sara Mead receiving the organization’s Distinguished Service Award. Ms. Mead served on the board from 2009 to 2017. Here’s what I wrote when she stepped down:

“Yesterday was also the final board meeting for PCSB member Sara Mead as her term is up after eight years of volunteer service.  She will be missed as she consistently provided a rational and thoughtful voice, especially in her specialty area of early childhood education.”

On the agenda was Rocketship PCS, which is seeking to open its third location in the District in the Fort Totten area of Ward 5 during the 2020 to 2021 school year. Not discussed on Monday evening was the fiasco Rocketship created when it tried to create a school in this same area in 2018. The charter had 22 students enrolled for the additional location only to find that it was unable to secure a facility. The parents of the children that had signed up scrambled to find spots at Rocketship’s existing Ward 7 and Ward 8 sites a couple of months before the term was to begin. This mess represented the third instance in which Rocketship delayed constructing classrooms in the District. Following the experience a couple of years ago, the charter board required Rocketship to come before it regarding expansion plans with a proposed lease. Rocketship has met this condition through an agreement to rent property from the Cafritz Foundation.

The representatives from Rocketship appeared to have alleviated fears that it has not properly engaged with the local community before moving into a new neighborhood. This was a criticism the public leveled at the school regarding its first two locations. It certainly helps that its Legacy Prep in Ward 7, servicing in 2018 about 100 pre-Kindergarten three through third grade students of which three-quarters are classified as at-risk, scored a 94.6 percent as a Tier 1 school on the Performance Management Framework the very first time it has been graded on this tool. It’s Rise Academy school, teaching 527 pre-Kindergarten three though fourth grade pupils last year, ranks as a high Tier 2. Look for the additional campus to be approved.

Proceeding the discussion about Rocketship, Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts was up to discuss moving to a different location during the second half of the next school year. The charter has outgrown the “Blue Castle” where it has operated the last eight years, and the building is about to be redeveloped. The school is seeking to move to 475 School Street SW, also in Ward 6 as is its current address. The proposed property is quite a bit larger than its present campus, coming in at 62,500 square feet versus its existing 42,500 square feet. The upgraded site, which will provide an auditorium, media studio space, and a dance studio, will cost $2,000 more per student than the school currently spends. This raised concerns by the board, especially in light of the fact that Richard Wright successfully completed a Financial Corrective Action Plan in 2017. Dr. Marco Clark, the school’s CEO, testified that Richard Wright will be able to meet its operating budget by enrolling additional students and subleasing space to another charter. The board requested a revised budget representing these revenue projections, and, as with Rocketship, I anticipate this amendment being granted without difficulty in October.

On a purely philosophical note, I found the questions the members of the PCSB asked regarding future cash flow at Richard Wright to be perfectly appropriate and consistent with its role as a board. Why then could it have not initiated a similar line of inquiry when problems first surfaced regarding student safety issues at Monument Academy PCS?

D.C. charter board executive director explains apparent contradiction in treatment of Monument Academy before and after becoming chartered

In yesterday’s post entitled “No Surprise Here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein Don’t Like Charter Schools,” I wrote:

“It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.”

I was reacting to the criticism by Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein that the charter board was aware for months of student safety concerns at Monument Academy PCS but took no action to remedy the situation. My point was that the board has no difficulty setting a long list of conditions for a new charter when it is about to be approved to open, as it did in the case of Monument, but then appears to support school autonomy when operational issues arise. Here is the public comment responding to my assertion by Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director:

“Conditions prior to opening are legally allowed as the applicant is not yet a charter school with exclusive control over its operations. Once a school has a charter it has exclusive control as guaranteed by the School Reform Act and it is then generally inappropriate for PCSB to direct a school to take specific actions. Pre-opening conditions are designed to ensure the school opens strong. Given the struggles of Monument Academy we probably should have set more.”

Mr. Pearson seemed to offer a similar line of argument to the Post when asked about the situation at the charter:

“It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting. We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.”

I appreciate Mr. Pearson’s viewpoint. It helps to understand the thinking of the charter board. However, it is not completely satisfying.

When a D.C. charter school is facing serious academic problems, the PCSB sets concrete goals for continuance at the high stakes reviews that it conducts every five years of a charter’s existence. When cash flow problems arise that may threaten the ability of a school to meet its fiscal obligations, the board will issue a detailed Financial Corrective Action Plan.

Protecting the health and safety of students by law is an obligation of D.C.’s charter schools. When the board is apprised of such issues it may not have the power to issue proclamations such as “hire two new full-time security guards.” But I contend that it can set goals just as in the case of academics and fiduciary matters. In the case of Monument, it has been reported that over the last school term it reported more than 1,800 safety and security incidents.

The board should have insisted that in order for the charter to continue operating these occurrences must be reduced to a particular number by a specific date. Perhaps that number should be zero.