D.C.’s charter school movement stuck in malaise

The most interesting part of last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board came at the beginning of the public session.  The city’s residents are slowly realizing that there is a short period at the top of the agenda where they have the opportunity to comment on the issue of their choice.  Yesterday, one individual who has been closely following the revocation proceedings of Washington Math Science and Technology PCS used her time to disparage the PCSB’s handling of the matter.  At the conclusion of her remarks executive director Scott Pearson announced that he was accepting “personal responsibility” for the debacle that was due to his “error in judgement” in not questioning the property value of the school’s permanent facility, and failing to obtain an independent appraisal. The building sold at a price which was approximately $3 million less than anticipated which sealed the charter’s economic demise.  Mr. Pearson did not offer a reason as to why the financial difficulties at the school were not revealed when his staff first discovered them in May 2017, a fact that was uncovered by the Washington City Paper’s Rachel Cohen after a Freedom of Information request.  It would be interesting to know what an acceptance of personal responsibility means exactly when it comes to the shuttering of a public high school.

There was no time for that detail as the board moved to its annual ritual of turning down applications for new charters. Bolt Academy PCS, Capital Village Academy PCS, and MECCA Business Learning Institute PCS were up for consideration. I thought that Capital Village should have been approved but this was not the assessment of the PCSB. Both this school and Bolt Academy were rejected with encouragement to refine their bids and come back twelve months from now. But it is extremely difficult to grasp the incentive to take this step after completing all the necessary paperwork, responding to comments from the PCSB staff, sitting for a capacity interview, and appearing at a fair for new schools.  No wonder there were only three groups seeking to open new schools this cycle.

Actually, it may be a blessing in disguise that they didn’t get the green light because then they would have to try and find space in which to operate.  We learned last week that Rocketship PCS is delaying for a year its plans to open a third campus in the nation’s capital, mostly due to the inability to find an affordable building.  This is the second major charter management organization, with KIPP DC PCS being the other one, whose expansion plans are being blocked because education leaders in this town have been unable or are unwilling to solve the charter school facility problem. Monday, at an excellent book forum at CityBridge Education discussing The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, I learned that Washington Latin PCS has agreed to replicate. The charter of which I was once board chair apparently has a wait list of about 2,000 students.  However, don’t hold your breath waiting for a second site as the charter now enters the permanent facility hunt.

FOCUS’s executive director Irene Holtzman also spoke during the open comment period, offering an assessment that the board’s most recent proposed revisions to its Enrollment Ceiling Increase policy actually violate the School Reform Act.  Eagle Academy PCS also expressed concerns about this document. It’s nice that they care. It actually reminds me of the exciting old days when our local movement was being forged. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

 

 

Washington Math Science and Technology PCS will close June 30th

The DC Public Charter Board announced yesterday that Washington Math Science and Technology PCS was “unable to demonstrate that the school is economically viable” and therefore it will close the school on June 30, 2018.  This action brings to a sad conclusion a dark period of regulatory oversight by the board that began on March 12th of this year with an emergency meeting to approve the start of the charter revocation process.   The teleconference had been hastily arranged only the previous night.  What followed was a pubic hearing for the school on April 5th during which WMST revealed it had successfully accomplished numerous miraculous steps to try and put its financial state back in order.  At this session the school asked for a two-week delay on a final decision while it tried to secure an additional $500,000.

No word was ever uttered as to whether the delay was approved.  But then at the PCSB’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting on April 23rd, a final vote was taken to close the charter, which would be reversed if a pending bank loan could be ratified by 6 p.m. on the 24th and a suitable fiscal plan could be constructed within the next 72 hours.  Again, there was no communication the next day or for days that followed.

What did come to light during this period, however, was that the PCSB was not as transparent as it should have been about when it realized this school could not pay its bills.  On April 26th, Rachel Cohen, writing for the Washington City Paper, used a Freedom of Information Request to determine that the charter board’s staff had recommended that WMST be placed on a Financial Management Plan in June 2017.  Almost a year ago, in May 2017, they had first uncovered that the charter had a severe cash flow problem.

The school was never placed on the plan, apparently because the charter board’s executive director Scott Pearson thought that WMST would borrow against the equity it had in its permanent facility if it ran into desperate situations.  On April 11th, when Mr. Pearson was asked about the sudden problems at the charter when testifying in front of Councilmember David Grosso, Education Committee Chairman, he elected not to go into detail about what the PCSB knew about the school’s budget and when it knew it.  He represented the crisis as requiring a more conservative approach to the board’s charter school financial early warning system.  A short time later, Ms. Cohen’s story broke.

It took a full week to learn whether WMST had pulled out another last minute extraordinary accomplishment and had secured the $500,000 loan.  But this is all now history. The PCSB will assist families in finding new schools for WMST pupils for next year and will cover any necessary funds to make sure the school can continue operating until the end of the term.

Today is the last day parents can enroll their children through My School DC for the 2018 to 2019 school year.

 

 

D.C. charter board not responsible for financial problems at Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

Yesterday, in stellar reporting by the Washington City Paper’s Rachel Cohen, it was revealed that the DC Public Charter School Board knew almost a year ago that there were serious financial issues at Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter School.  Through a public records request of electronic messages to and from the PCSB’s executive director Scott Pearson on the issue of WMST’s balance sheet, she discovered the following:

“According to the emails, two PCSB school finance specialists, Mikayla Lytton and Mohammad Bashshiti, met with WMST’s head of school, N’Deye Diagne, and its business manager, Mark Addae, in May 2017 to discuss the school’s financial situation. Among other things, they talked about how between 2015 and 2017, WMST exceeded $704,000 in revenue loss as student enrollment declined, while their expenses grew by $440,000.

On June 15, 2017, Lytton, who no longer works with the PCSB, emailed Diagne and Addae writing, ‘As we discussed over the phone earlier today and as I hope you understood from our [May] meeting, we are very concerned with the school’s financial status and projections.’ Lytton wrote that the PCSB would like to work with the school to develop a ‘Financial Corrective Action Plan,’ which sets specific targets to improve a school’s financial health.”

The Financial Corrective Action Plan was never developed.  This eventually led to the highly unusual emergency meeting on March 12th, which was only announced the evening before it took place.  It was at this session that the charter revocation proceedings against the school were put in motion.

The board never mentioned that it was aware of the cash flow issues at the school as early as May 2017.  In testimony before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee earlier this month, that I don’t honestly feel is unfair to now characterize as misleading, Mr. Pearson was asked by Chairman Grosso why the difficulties at the school were not uncovered earlier.  The PCSB executive director replied that the board has early warning systems that have worked in the past but that his organization did not take a conservative enough approach to this charter’s financial reports.  He added that a more conservative review of the fiduciary books of the schools it oversees has now been implemented.  In her piece Ms. Cohen includes a communication Mr. Pearson sent to his senior staff and board members last March in which he admits, “I did not act on it aggressively enough because I believed that the school’s building had appreciated significantly and so in a worst case they could borrow against the building equity (as Ideal PCS just did).”

All of this speaks to a severe lack of transparency by the PCSB, something Mr. Pearson stated emphatically at the same hearing is a guiding value at his place of employment.  This disregard for providing the public with information continues to this day.  On Monday, April 23rd the board voted to close WMST at the end of the school year, a decision which would be reversed if a pending loan of $500,000 by United Bank to the charter was consummated within 24 hours and a valid financial corrective action plan was submitted within three days.  We are now almost a week away from these proceedings and no update about the status of the school has been released.

However, while the manner in which the board is operating is highly troubling, the difficulties that this charter finds itself in are no one’s fault but its own.  WMST should have been aware long ago that it was running out of money, which then would have led to actions to raise revenue and reduce expenses to correct the situation.  The whole mess points to a tremendous governance failure by the charter’s board of directors.  This is not the fault of the DC Public Charter School Board.

Charters love to talk about their strong desire for autonomy and defiantly rail against efforts by the PCSB to increase oversight and regulation.   But if being left alone is something schools want, then they better be excellent stewards of public funding.

 

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education ended charter school enrollment payment reform

Wednesday, the DC Public Charter School Board testified before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee regarding its fiscal 2019 budget.  As part of the discussion Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, pointed out that several months ago the Deputy Mayor for Education, who must have been Jennie Niles at the time, suspended or stopped talks around reforming the way charter schools are paid for enrolled students.

The subject is important due to a few reasons.  For years charters have explained that the methodology for the manner in which they are provided their per pupil revenue for instruction is flawed.  As we know, charters receive money through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula based upon an October count of the number of pupils sitting in classrooms.  There is actually a designated day on which this record is made.  Here are the problems:

The number of pupils attending a public school throughout the school year changes.  For charters, this statistic is more likely to go down, and for the traditional schools the total may increase.  Individuals can see these trends for each school on the Equity Reports.  But as far as reimbursement goes, the cash paid to schools does not vary with enrollment during the school term.  Therefore, in regard to charter schools, the per student payments could be higher than they should actually be receiving.

Mr. Pearson stressed that although charters may be at a disadvantage if the manner in which enrollment is measured is modified, there is a unintended consequence of the count.  Charters, he stated, are reluctant to back-fill slots throughout the year because accepting new students does not bring additional money.  It is his wish that enrollment payment reform would provide charters a financial incentive to take more students after the October report.

There is another concern with these revenue calculations.  DCPS is also paid based upon the number of students in each school, but these number are not derived from a count.  It is instead based upon an estimate made the prior year regarding the number of students that will be attending each site.  The amount of cash is not corrected when this estimate is inaccurate.  This is unfair compared to the way charter payments are determined.

Councilmember Grosso, Education Committee chairman, added that he thought that the goal of the discussions around enrollment payment reform was also to include the use of the My Schools DC lottery to aid in coordinating student transfers between schools and between sectors.  Apparently, this effort has also stalled.  He added that he may use the D.C. Council to reignite these efforts.

Mr. Cruz, the newly confirmed chair of the DC PCSB, opened his organization’s testimony by saying this about the facility issue facing charters in the nation’s capital:

“While there has been some progress, our city needs to have a larger conversation about school facilities and whether it is appropriate for our public charter schools to have to rely on the commercial real estate market. Without a more holistic solution for these facility issues, many of our students will continue to attend school in substandard facilities.”

I sincerely hope that behind the scenes the PCSB is making a much more forceful and frequent argument for the release to charters of more than one million square feet of vacant space in the form of closed and underutilized DCPS buildings.

Washington Math Science and Technology PCS should not be closed

When we last discussed Washington Math Science and Technology PCS, the DC Public Charter School Board had voted in a strange emergency meeting to begin the revocation process against the school.  The action was taken because WMST has found itself in exceedingly dire financial straits, illustrated by the findings of a forensic accounting firm that were pointed out during the March 12, 2018 session:

  • The school is unlikely to have sufficient cash to meet its March 23 payroll, unless it delays paying many bills due now, such as utilities.
  • Even with delaying payables, the school will not have sufficient cash to meet its April 6 payroll.
  • The school is forecast to require $833,991 of additional cash between now and the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2018 to cover all expenses, including payroll, operating costs, mortgage payments, and required debt
    repayment. This number grows to over $1,164,853 when adding the payroll due the current teaching staff in July and August for their work over the
    2017-18 school year.
  • The school has a $300,000 line of credit which is presently fully drawn down.
  • It currently has no other source of new cash or financing.
  • The school’s largest asset is its building. The school has a Letter of Intent from a buyer, indicating a possible, but not certain sale. However, the net proceeds from the sale, at the current proposed purchase price and after closing costs and repayment of the mortgage, is insufficient to cover the $833,991 projected deficit.

I wrote at the time:

“The PCSB executive director hinted that the charter was going to have difficulty even reaching its current enrollment in the fall, based I believe on My Schools DC data.  Moreover, with the vote yesterday it appears that the school’s fate is sealed.  I don’t see why parents would not start trying to move their kids now.  But if the charter will continue to teach until the end of the year,  it seems that this presents more time for WMST to find additional revenue.  I have been in similar situations with each of the three charters I have volunteered with as a board member.  It is a harrowing and difficult place to be, but there is almost always something that can be done.”

Well this school, on the verge of being vanished out of existence, and as I’ve witnessed on multiple occasions during my more than twenty years of following the D.C. charter movement movement, in a matter of four weeks has pulled out nothing less than a miracle.  As reported by PCSB executive director Scott Pearson at last night’s public hearing regarding the decision to close the charter:

  • WMST has secured $97,000 in short term debt and other contributions that enabled it to meet the March 23rd payroll and pay other expenses.
  • The school’s staff has agreed to defer the April 6th payroll until the charter receives its fourth quarter annual payment which is due next week.
  • It has sold its building for $6.25 million with a July closing.
  • The charter has negotiated with the purchaser, Douglass Development, to occupy the building during the next school year rent-free.
  • WMST has reached an agreement with its mortgage and line-of-credit holders to delay payments of principal dollars until the purchase of the building has been finalized.
  • The charter has hired Building Hope to provide back-office financial services.
  • Building Hope has completed a financial forecast that shows that the school will have sufficient funds to complete the 2018-to-2019 term.

This effort is simply stunning.   Even Mr. Pearson, who is not easily impressed, admitted it was a lot.

But even after this heroic effort by school leaders and its board of directors, the school is not yet out of the woods.  It needs another $500,000 to continue operating, and the charter board must assess the projected budget to make sure that WMST can meet its program commitments, especially in the area of special education.  In addition, there is still concern that the charter may not meet its projected enrollment target of approximately 200 students next year.  It should be noted that the school has received $30,000 from an anonymous donor toward hiring a consulting group to assist the school in reaching this goal.

So here’s what we need.  I see that Building Hope is on board, and it has agreed to provide an additional line-of-credit if needed.  The school is negotiating with Industrial Bank to cover the $500,000.  However, there are a number of fine groups out there that could help this school.  You know who you are.  Please pick up the telephone today and offer your support.

The charter board is scheduled to take a final vote on charter revocation this coming Monday.  Mr. Pearson stated that if the board was convinced that there was a real possibility that WMST could successfully line up all of the needed financing it would move the meeting to Thursday April 12th.  Mr. Stephen Marcus, the attorney representing the charter, has requested a delay of a couple of weeks to allow everything to be worked out, especially since the School Reform Act gives the board 30 days to make a decision.

The final vote by the PCSB should be postponed by 14 days and WMST should be allowed to continue to serve its students.

 

 

 

 

D.C. charter board receives three applications for new schools, a number that is way too low

The DC Public Charter School board announced last Friday that it has received three applications to open new charters, plus the request by Friendship PCS to expand its Online Academy PCS through high school that currently serves grades Kindergarten through eight, as I mentioned in my coverage of the 2018 FOCUS Gala.  At the end of four years the Academy is projected to add 100 students.

Capital Village Academy PCS describes itself as a micro-school that would enroll 170 students in grades five through eight, and bases its curriculum on the use of E.L. (Expeditionary Learning) together with a blended pedagogical approach.  It would locate in Ward 1,4, 5, or 6.

A particularly aggressive application is one by The M.E.C.C.A Business Learning Institute-D.C. PCS that wants to open a sixth-through-twelfth grade school that would enroll 990 students.  It already has a preferred location using a vacant building that was the DCPS Fletcher Johnson School located at 4650 Benning Road, S.E. in Ward 7, but will land in Ward 8 if this property does not work out.  M.E.C.C.A. gets its name from the Mentoring by Example Foundation, Inc., which describes itself as “an award-winning nonprofit youth service organization that has been educating at-risk youth and young adults, promoting community engagement, and cultivating the next generation of business leaders, professionals, and entrepreneurs in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area for nearly 20 years.”  Its founder is  LaChaundra Graham.  The proposed school’s name is an acronym for Mentoring by Example College and Career Academy.  It would be a Chinese Mandarin language immersion school with Latin added in.

Bolt Academy PCS would be a high school teaching 400 students located in Ward 7 or 8.  Its application states that “BOLT will provide high school students with a world-class education in the heart of our nation’s capital, with Boundless Opportunities for Leadership and Travel. BOLT students will benefit from fully-funded immersive study abroad opportunities and a rigorous curriculum that will prepare them for the college or career of their choice.”

If given the green light from the charter board, these institutions would open in the 2019-to-2020 school year.  The PCSB states that its approval is based on new schools meeting its “Standard for Approval” which means they must show “a demonstrated need for the school; sufficient progress in developing the plan; consistency of the mission and philosophy; inclusiveness; and founding group ability.”

Based upon the written applications, I don’t expect any of the schools other than Friendship’s to be approved.

This is sad.  For some reason or reasons we are not receiving requests to open schools from the many high performing charter networks around the country.  I attribute it to the difficulty of the application process and the lack of available charter school facilities.

Yesterday I read that this past Sunday Linda Brown passed away, the namesake of the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation of public schools in this country in 1954.  Her father joined four other school discrimination complaints because his daughter, at age nine, had to travel two miles past an all-white elementary school in order to go to class.  Today, here in the nation’s capital, parents still have to send their offspring unacceptable distances to obtain a quality education.   Far too many do not even have the option of sending their children to a good school.

When is this going to end?

In an emergency meeting, D.C. charter board votes to close Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

This has been perhaps the most bizarre series of events that I’ve witnessed by the DC Public Charter School Board since I first began observing its activities about 20 years ago. Sunday night, at about 10:30 p.m., I was tipped off that the board had scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday evening at 5:30 p.m to consider revoking the charter of Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter High School.  The notice on the PCSB website provided no additional information.

Then yesterday afternoon documents were added to the on-line announcement supporting the contention that WMST did not have the financial capacity to continue operating.  Apparently, the PCSB has been receiving highly problematic income statements from the school, which led it to hire a forensic accounting firm to study the issue.  The review, as stated by the PCSB, found:

  • The school is unlikely to have sufficient cash to meet its March 23 payroll, unless it delays paying many bills due now, such as utilities.
  • Even with delaying payables, the school will not have sufficient cash to meet its April 6 payroll.
  • The school is forecast to require $833,991 of additional cash between now
    and the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2018 to cover all expenses,
    including payroll, operating costs, mortgage payments, and required debt
    repayment. This number grows to over $1,164,853 when adding the payroll
    due the current teaching staff in July and August for their work over the
    2017-18 school year.
  • The school has a $300,000 line of credit which is presently fully drawn down.
  • It currently has no other source of new cash or financing.
  • The school’s largest asset is its building. The school has a Letter of Intent
    from a buyer, indicating a possible, but not certain sale. However, the net
    proceeds from the sale, at the current proposed purchase price and after
    closing costs and repayment of the mortgage, is insufficient to cover the
    $833,991 projected deficit.

The reasoning behind calling the emergency meeting is based upon the common school lottery deadlines.  Assuming the board votes for closure last night, the charter has 15 days to ask for a public hearing.  Therefore, the latest this request can be made is March 27th. The PCSB revealed that this hearing will be scheduled before the My School DC announcement of results on March 30th. However, parents have only until March 15th to re-prioritize their school preferences. In addition, although the rankings are made known on March 30th, according to information provided by the PCSB, the lottery is run a week earlier. Following the timeline above, a final decision by the board would come after the lottery has concluded.

So a meeting was arranged for 5:30 p.m. at the PCSB headquarters and a conference line was provided for individuals to call in. There was no live video broadcast available. I am guessing this was because of the short meeting notice. I participated by telephone but it was virtually impossible to hear. Many of the board members who had joined by phone had the same trouble.  It is sometimes astonishing that this school sector spends over $800 million a year and this is how it conducts business.

Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, outlined the results of the investigation by the forensic accountant. The rebuttal came from attorney Stephen Marcus representing WMST.  What I could barely make out was that the school was prepared to continue operating primarily with revenue associated with the sale of its permanent facility.  The charter has a signed letter of intent from a buyer.  Mr. Marcus mentioned that the school’s teachers were even prepared to skip being paid on March 23rd if that would help the situation.  But notwithstanding the extremely short notice of this gathering, the charter board members had made up their minds, and the PCSB voted six to zero to begin the revocation proceedings.

Mr. Pearson did remark that WMST now has two weeks to shore up its cash position, and if there was sufficient evidence that this had indeed occurred the charter board could reverse its decision.  Alternately, he offered that if the school thought there was no hope in turning the finances around that it could relinquish its charter now so that parents could make other arrangement for their children’s education next term.  He added that if the PCSB’s final decision was closure, the charter board was prepared to provide a loan to allow it to continue going through June.

The money problems at the charter appear to be tied to decreasing enrollment, which has gone from a high of 333 students during the 2013-to-2014 school year to 228 pupils currently.  WMST also has consistently failed to meet its enrollment targets. The charter board, in its preparation for its 20 year review of the school that was to be presented at its monthly meeting next week, states that the decreasing size of the student body “has to do with many factors including an increasingly competitive high school environment, a sub-standard facility that the school is seeking to change, and disruptive nearby construction projects.”

The PCSB executive director hinted that the charter was going to have difficulty even reaching its current enrollment in the fall, based I believe on My Schools DC data.  Moreover, with the vote yesterday it appears that the school’s fate is sealed.  I don’t see why parents would not start trying to move their kids now.  But if the charter will continue to teach until the end of the year,  it seems that this presents more time for WMST to find additional revenue.  I have been in similar situations with each of the three charters I have volunteered with as a board member.  It is a harrowing and difficult place to be, but there is almost always something that can be done.

 

Rick Cruz elected chair DC Public Charter School Board

At last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, Rick Cruz was named the new chairman, replacing Dr. Darren Woodruff.  Traditionally, the vice-chairman has transitioned into the chair position when the current leader’s term is up, but in this case that role was being played by Don Soifer, who is now employed out of state as the president of Nevada Action for School Options.  Saba Bireda was elected as vice-chair.  It will be interesting to see how Mr. Cruz handles matters regarding Prep PCS in his new post, and whether he recuses himself when issues concerning the charter come before the board.  Remember that for a little over a year Mr. Cruz was the CEO of the school with the intent of replacing Emily Lawson, but that arrangement did not work out.  In the recent past as a member of the board, Mr. Cruz has weighed in on decisions regarding DC Prep.

The other extremely interesting aspect of yesterday’s session was not on the official agenda.  When the floor was opened for public statements at the beginning and end, a string of disgruntled parents and teachers came forward to relate negative situations occurring at City Arts and Prep PCS.  Remember that City Arts is the renamed William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, of which I was a founding board member and chair.  The school has been going through a turnaround of late, for a time working with Ten Square Consulting and Charter Board Partners to attempt to raise its academic performance.  Look for more fallout from the clearly unstable environment over there.

One other aspect of the proceedings caught my attention.  Usually a section of these gatherings which I don’t follow closely is the PMF policy and technical guide updates.  But prior to opening up for comment the standards for the current school year, the board’s staff made a startling discovery.  From the meeting’s supporting documentation:

“In September 2017, the Board approved the 2017-18 PMF Guide per DC PCSB staff recommendation.  At the time, DC PCSB staff simulated the recommended changes using data from school year 2015-16 (the most recent data available at the time). We projected the PK-8 campuses would lose an average of 0.7 PMF points. Since then, we simulated the approved changes using the newly available school year 2016-17 data. We now project that PK-8 campuses would lose an average of 1.9 PMF points.  Additionally, we determined that some schools would lose as many as 7.7 PMF points, while others would gain as many as 2.2 points.  Appendix B shows the impact analysis for every school based on 2016-17 data with the previously approved floors and targets.  While DC PCSB staff recommend adjustments to the PMF Guide almost annually, we have not recommended changes that result in such dramatic performance shifts.  The Framework is most valuable when it has stability, allowing stakeholders to rely on its outputs over multiple school years.  On January 18, 2018, DC PCSB staff met with the PK-8 task force to share our findings and discuss proposals. An overwhelming majority (87.5%) of schools approved our proposal to revert to the 2016-17 PARCC weights, floors and targets, and to hold the School Environment floors and targets steady for one more year.”

Since the failure of the board to revert back to the 2016-17 PARCC weights, floors, and targets could have a tremendous impact on PMF scoring, schools may want to weigh-in on this proposal.  Comments will be accepted until March 19, 2018.

In other actions, a visibly irritated PSCB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux read into the record a letter received from Excel Academy PCS announcing its decision to become part of DCPS.  In addition, Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS (LAMB) received a renewal for another 15 years, but not before Dr. Woodruff read a prepared statement detailing that despite the exemplary academic results at the school, parents of children enrolled at the facility have expressed severe frustration over leadership changes, a perceived lack of communication, and the situation involving the teacher sentenced a year ago to eight years in prison for sexually abusing six students at the charter.  There was much discussion between the board and school representatives over these issues.

Finally, Maya Angelou PCS was up for its 20-year review, and was granted permission to continue operating under a long list of conditions.  I have been following the history of this alternative education charter for years and the up-and-down trajectory of its standing with the PCSB continued last evening unabated.

 

 

 

Exclusive interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

Note on the interview:  My meeting with Dr. Woodruff took place shortly before the resignations of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles and DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and a few days prior to Excel Academy PCS announcing that it would become part of DCPS next school year.

I had the privilege of sitting down recently for an conversation with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I have interviewed Dr. Woodruff a couple of times in the past, and sadly, this will be the last one as PCSB chair since his term is ending in the spring.  He has been on the board for the last nine years.  I began by asking Dr. Woodruff for his viewpoint on the situation at Ballou High School.   He had clearly already formed an opinion.

“I think the problems at Ballou are not unique to that school,” the PCSB chairman informed me.  “It is important to me that we not throw the teachers, administrators, and most of all the students under the bus.  I view what took place at Ballou regarding high student absenteeism, and the pressure placed on teachers to graduate these kids, as an opportunity.  If the Mayor, D.C. Council, DCPS Chancellor, and other public education stakeholders take this seriously then we have a chance to improve the situation.  We know we are dealing with an extremely challenging environment with these kids.  We need to figure out a way to support them.  The question is what as a city are we going to do about it.  We should not be talking about these issues two years from now.”

I pointed out to Dr. Woodruff that the same consultants who investigated Ballou on behalf of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also looked at D.C.’s charter schools and did not find the same pattern of irregularities around high school graduations.  I asked him for the reason behind this finding.  “I think we are not seeing these things,” the PCSB chairman opined, “because we have an established a consistent metric for school quality in the Performance Management Framework.  Our sector has persistently and unapologetically focused on quality.  In addition, the PCSB has had consistent leadership.  We look at school transcripts.  I sign all high school diplomas.  We have an infrastructure in place to monitor student academic progress.  The PCSB executive director Scott Pearson and his staff continue to search for ways to further evaluate the advancement of our charter school pupils.  At the same time, I have to give credit to our school leaders that adhere to high standards.”

A controversial topic that came up recently in our local charter movement was the placement of John Goldman, the PCSB’s senior manager, finance, analysis and strategy, on administrative leave after it was discovered that he had written material associated with discriminatory views of the Alt-Right.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if a final decision had been made about his continued employment.  “I’m not exactly sure where we are with this to be frank,” Dr. Woodruff revealed. “ I know that we are in the middle of an investigation.”

I then requested from Dr. Woodruff to understand his overall impression of how charters are doing at this point in their 22-year history.  “Overall, very well,” Dr. Woodruff commented without hesitation. “We now have 51 Tier 1 schools as ranked on the PMF.  With the exception of Ward 3, we have a variety of quality campuses in each of the city’s wards.  Fully 40 percent of our schools are Tier 1.  We have waiting lists at most of our schools.  There are exciting schools opening in the fall.  I contend that we should be celebrating how far we have come.  Families are now at least considering sending their children to charter schools when this was not the case not all that long ago, and we want to see them get even better.  I’ve been exceedingly privileged and blessed to see the improvements in our portfolio of schools.  We must remember that there is no finish line.  We can continually raise our performance.”

The charter board voted last month to close Excel Academy PCS at the conclusion of this school year.  I had heard from some Excel teachers at this year’s FOCUS Charter School Conference that KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS were vying to take over the charter.  I asked Dr. Woodruff if he had the same understanding.  The PCSB chair asserted, “I hope someone does continue its operation.  We don’t want to scatter more than 600 students to the wind.  We hope a strong school will take it over, especially since this is an all-girls school.  It is up to the Excel board, not us, as to the organization that would eventually lead the school.”

During the discussion about the future of Excel, that school and Somerset PCS made the case that the PMF is biased against charters that teach a large percentage of at-risk students.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if he agreed with this assessment.  He responded immediately.  “No, I don’t believe that there is a bias.  Every year our staff does a validity check to determine whether the tool is predisposed against any group, whether it is at-risk kids, African-Americans, boys, or girls.  We have not found a significant correlation that this is occurring.  But based upon the recent testimony by those schools we will take another look.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “There are charters in Wards 7 and 8 that as part of their heroic missions are taking in the most difficult to educate children.  We should be rewarding these schools with special recognition.  It is an exceptionally difficult population to teach.  These pupils are different from those in Ward 1, for example.  We should highlight the work of places like KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, DC Prep, and other schools whose strategies are working with these children.  We can dive deeper and see how they are doing it, and then hopefully share that information with other charters.”

Next, I brought up a couple of points that attorney Stephen Marcus had addressed in my interview with him.  First, he alerted me to the fact that schools are required by the PCSB to earn a PMF score of at least 45 percent at the 10 year mark of operation and 50 percent at 15 years of teaching.  He related that the PCSB puts pressure on schools to adopt the PMF as their goals, and then eventually raises its floors.  The attorney contends that this action is equivalent to the charter board setting charter school goals which is a violation of the School Reform Act.  I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to these assertions.  “There is nothing particularly magical about a score of 45 or 50,” Dr. Woodruff explained.  “What we want to see is that there is improvement.  We did not establish the expectation that a school would score a 65 percent at a particular period in time which is at the Tier 1 level.  We give schools flexibility to earn Tier 2 but we don’t believe schools should be Tier 3 after being open for 10 or 15 years.  As to Mr. Marcus’s point about the floors, yes, they have gone up, but so has the academic track record of our charters.  It is like grading on a curve.  If all schools had recorded lower performance levels, then the floors would be lowered.  I don’t want to apologize for our increased expectations for student learning.  We want to see all schools do their best for the children they serve.”

The last topic I wanted to raise with the charter board chair was his vote last year against the expansion plans of D.C Prep because of its higher than average student suspension rates.  The board’s initial decision on this matter to not approve the charter amendments caused much controversy as people accused the PCSB of exceeding its authority under the SRA.   I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to the above statement, and that is exactly what he did in a highly emotional manner.  “Here’s the thing,” Dr. Woodruff said.  “I respect the SRA as much as anyone else.  As I mentioned earlier, the board’s primary focus is school quality.  My interest in raising school quality is the reason I joined this board.  What we have found is that school discipline is not being administered uniformly.  Consider these statistics.  During the 2016-to-2017 school year 17 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charter schools had zero suspensions.  40 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade LEA’s suspended less than 10 percent of their pupils.  67 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charters, or 60 percent, saw less than 10 percent of their kids suspended.

The average suspension rate is about 9 percent.  Therefore, here’s what we did as a board.  We took the nine percent figure and tripled it, considering that any school that had a suspension rate three times the average was an outlier.  Schools such as D.C. Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, KIPP DC PCS, Monument Academy PCS, National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, Paul PCS, and Seed PCS are in this category.  11 campuses were outliers that represents only 7 charter school LEA’s.  Moreover, it is not that these suspension rates are leading these schools to become Tier 1 institutions because several are Tier 2 or Tier 3 schools.  I’m personally concerned about these schools and the impact of suspensions on their students.”

Dr. Woodruff had much more to say on this topic.  “The vast majority of our schools, such as Kingsman Academy PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, and DC International PCS, are doing an amazing job in this area.  But the ones that are outside the norm are suspending African American students and students with disabilities.  What I’m concerned about is exclusionary discipline on kids that are already at-risk.  I believe strongly that we should fix this problem internally.  We have tools such as the Equity Reports, and conferences on topics such as restorative justice to help us in this area.  But we desperately need to do more.  I’m baffled by the push back on this subject.  In addition, while I admire Councilman David Grosso’s leadership on this topic, I do not believe legislation is the way to fix it.  I would love to see schools come up with their own solutions.  I feel like we have a board that understands the nuances of this area and can help move the issue forward.”

 

Now what? Structural changes needed atop D.C.’s traditional schools

The Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education are gone, and in the Chancellor’s case he lasted only a year in his position.  It appears that pressure to increase high school graduation rates exerted on school leaders by the person who preceded Mr. Wilson resulted in kids receiving diplomas who did not attend class and who were given passing grades in classes they should have failed.  Mayor Bowser could simply name new individuals to fill these spots but we really cannot go through anything like this again.  It is simply not fair to our kids.

Today, the editors of the Washington Post assert that pointing the blame on Mayoral control of the traditional public schools is the wrong place to look:

“Such thinking is shortsighted. The school system that exists today is a far cry from the sorry state of affairs a decade ago when schools didn’t open on time, teachers went unpaid, expectations for students were low and parents fled the system. The seriousness of the problems related to inflated graduation rates can’t be discounted, but that does not negate what has been accomplished under school reform. In addition to building a prekindergarten system, rigor has been added to the curriculum, new instructional strategies have been introduced and the teaching force has been transformed into a performance-based profession. Enrollment is up, and test scores, including on the highly regarded ‘nation’s report card,’ show improvements in student achievement.”

Yes, the neighborhood schools are in much better shape than when they reported to the D.C. Board of Education.  But in reality what choice was there?  Charter schools were enrolling students from the regular schools in waves.  In fact, it was not until DCPS lost over 25 percent of its population that Michele Rhee entered the picture to try and turn things around.  If something were not done the neighborhood schools would be a ghost town.

Much more drastic improvements are still needed.  The achievement gap, now at about 60 points, is growing, not shrinking, after 20 years of school reform.  At least a dozen, and in reality many more, school buildings sit vacant that could be going to charter schools.  Many DCPS facilities are significantly under-enrolled.  Charters are receiving about $100 million a year less than the regular schools illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Low performing neighborhood schools are allowed to continue operating in perpetuity, while charters that demonstrate poor academic results are closed.

We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.

I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer.  Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board.  But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative.  When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.