Most interesting parts of last night’s monthly D.C. charter board meeting were not on the agenda

Let me start my summary of Monday evening’s meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board by pointing out the improvements that have been implemented for those who watch the proceedings on the web. The issue around the sound not being at a sufficient level has been solved, and now there are fancy graphics that announce the subject matter before the members. Both changes elevate the professionalism of the experience.

The PCSB gave the green light to 15-year charter renewals, all without conditions, to DC Bilingual PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, and Two Rivers PCS. The schools received tons of accolades from the board, and I’m sure the members were tremendously relieved that attorney Stephen Marcus was not at the witness stand once again trying to fend off charter revocation for one of his clients. It was a welcome respite.

As in the past, many people have figured out that much of the real action occurs during the comment sections that are available at the beginning and end of these proceedings. Yesterday, it was a perfect opportunity for teachers from Cesar Chavez Prep PCS to flood the public testimony list. Just last week the school announced that it would shutter this campus, as well as the one on Capitol Hill, in order to consolidate its offerings as a consequence of declining enrollment. The board will consider the restructuring next month and vote on the plan in March.

One after another the instructors spoke, railing against the administration of Chavez, and specifically, the TenSquare Group, that just helped this charter management organization dramatically improve last year’s results on the Performance Management Framework. From TenSquare’s press release:

“All four Chavez Schools’ scores went up—6 points on average. Chavez Parkside High School (Ward 7) received the highest score in the network—59.8, up 7.6 points over last year—putting the school within striking distance of Tier 1 status.”

It was actually a clever strategy by the Prep teachers. Chavez was not on the agenda so they used the board’s consideration of a new school transparency policy to argue that individual charters should be subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests and have to operate under D.C.’s Open Meeting Act, two stipulations not included in the document. They then went on to complain that the proposed changes at their school were done behind closed doors and without their involvement. I have to say that in the end the entire charade made little sense. These are the same people who voted to have a union intercede in their relationship between themselves and management. That decision really makes it exceedingly difficult to buy into the notion that they should now have a seat at the table. In addition, the employees would have had much more credibility if they had come to the gathering in shirts labeled with the Cesar Chavez logo. Instead, all wore red tops that proclaimed that they were members of DC ACTS, a collective bargaining unit associated with the American Federation of Teachers. It belied who they were really there to support.

Also not on the list for discussion, and passed without discussion, was approval of LEARN DC PCS’s request to extend the deadline to March 1, 2019 for its response to conditions imposed on the school by the board at the December monthly meeting. The original deadline was January 25th. The meeting material states that the delay is needed “because LEARN DC is still having internal discussions about the conditions.” Could it be that LEARN is actually reconsidering whether to come here in the aftermath of having to comply with the long list of rules? I have no evidence that this is the case, but a move of this kind would certainly make a significant statement.

1,700 charter school students may need to find new classrooms next term

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein claimed yesterday that approximately 1,700 students attending charters will have to find new schools to attend for the 2019-to-2020 term. The number is the product of the decision announced a couple of days ago by the Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy to shutter two of its campuses and actions by the DC Public Charter School Board to close City Arts and Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, and National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. This news comes in the wake of charter school enrollment in the 2018-to-2019 school year dropping a percentage point compared to those attending DCPS. The decrease is a first in the over twenty year history of charters in the nation’s capital.

As a reminder, here is the reaction of Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC PCSB, to the demographic shift:

“For the 10th yr enrollment has increased in public schools but the 1st time the percentage of DC charter school students has gone down. This slight decline reflects our commitment to opening good schools and closing low-performing ones. It’s about quality and choice, not numbers.”

I agree with the charter board’s emphasis on quality.  Moreover, while the decisions by the board may not be purely about numbers, this assessment may at the same time not be completely accurate. Recently, Lenora Robinson-Mills, the PCSB’s chief operating officer, wrote a heart-felt article about her own feelings about charter revocation in which she compared the action to the death of a family member. She opined:

“We’re working internally now to figure out how to provide better support sooner to families affected by the closing of their school, but it’s difficult to navigate the school’s right to due process. Maybe the answer is a lottery preference or lottery bypass for students attending closing schools? Perhaps it’s more and better communication with families before the final decision gets made so that they can take action sooner? Maybe it’s having someone at DC PCSB who can be the life-saving surgeon in my presenter’s death analogy. But that’s outside the role of the authorizer… “

My question today is if the PCSB could provide services that could help turnaround a school, would that really be considered outside the role of the authorizer? After all, the mission of the board “is to provide quality public school options for DC students, families, and communities. ” Is the board actually fulfilling its stated mission if it is authorizing new schools, allowing good schools to grow and replicate, and closing those that are under performing? What about helping those that are in need of assistance before getting to the point of terminating their operations?

With 1,7000 scholars now looking for new places to learn, perhaps we need a different answer to my last question.

D.C. charter board closes National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS

As predicted, yesterday afternoon the DC Public Charter School Board voted to revoke the charter of National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. The members were distressed by the school’s poor academic results, low high school graduation rates, and the inability to retain students from one term to the next. The PCSB also felt that the turnaround plan came too late for them to assess whether it had a realistic chance of succeeding.

The only real debate occurred over the timing of the end of operations. Some argued that the school should be allowed to continue for three more years without accepting new pupils so that those currently enrolled could graduate and others could find a new facility. In the end it was decided that the doors would be shuttered at the conclusion of the 2020 term, unless the charter fails to agree to conditions established by the board in the coming days. Closure would also occur sooner if the school discontinued offering a full range of academic courses, neglected to protect the health and safety of its students, and proved to be not financially viable.

I’m sure that the parents and students of this Ward 8 community are exceptionally upset with the decision of the charter board. However, I would argue that this anger is misdirected. Instead, they should be disappointed with the management of the school and its board of directors, which failed them.

The only hope now is that another charter agrees to come in and takeover this campus. The logical choice is Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS. However, in this case the timing is not good as this school in in the midst of a search for a new executive director. Richard Pohlman announced last November that this school year would be his last in his position.

D.C.’s National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS should be closed

Last Wednesday evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a public hearing regarding its decision at the December monthly meeting to begin charter revocation proceedings against National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. If you are interested in the mechanics of the operation of our local movement then this session is a primer in charter oversight. Come with me for a first-hand excursion through the three hours and fifty minute gathering.

Attorney Stephen Marcus was back representing a school facing closure, and he and his associate Sherry Ingram seemed completely undeterred by their recent loss regarding the saving of City Arts and Prep PCS. Mr. Marcus made a stunningly brilliant first move in facilitating the discussion by flipping the order of presentations. On this night the parents, students, and staff of the school would speak before management. It was smart because most people, like me, would normally watch the arguments by the charter board and the administration and then call it a day. But in having stakeholders go first, it elevated the respect shown to members of this Ward 8 residents while simultaneously setting the stage for sympathy for the plight of the organization.

The long lineup of people testifying did not disappoint. Parent Camilia Wheeler, who last year addressed the board as a mom with a student at WMST PCS, asked where these students are supposed to go if this school no longer exists. She indicated that between the years 2012 and 2017 twenty-six charters have been closed by the PCSB. Ms. Wheeler wanted to understand why the board was taking the easy way out by shutting these facilities. Instead of taking this route, she implored, the body should be helping these institutions.

Common themes that emerged from the highly passionate remarks involved the fact that this is the only school offering an International Baccalaureate program east of the river. Many pointed to the value of a school that allows its eleventh graders to travel to Panama each term, as one student indicated with all expenses paid. Others highlighted the importance of its STEM curriculum that emphasizes computer science, the training students receive in Sankofa, its teaching of soft skills initiative, and the instructors who are willing to assist their scholars at anytime.

However, what made this hearing especially poignant, and at the same time contentious, was the feeling that the PCSB was coming to take action against a population that was completely alienated from its way of life. School supporters said in no uncertain terms that shutting the doors to this school would open the doors to jail or death. The most striking example of the disconnect between the board and the community was when Scott Pearson asked a current student why only one out of three pupils returned to the charter this school year. The seventeen year old responded that he did not know the answer. A teacher soon called out this line of inquiry as an illustration of the lack of dignity that is routinely shown to those living in Anacostia. He explained that the high school student should have been prepared in advance for the interrogation. The accusation resulted in an apology by the PCSB executive director.

Everything was going the school’s way until it was time for the leadership team’s presentation. Here the picture of the path forward became murky. National Collegiate founder and chief executive officer Jennifer Ross put together a turnaround plan for the school that had been delivered to the board earlier in the afternoon. It includes enlisting Heather Wathington, formally the CEO of Maya Angelou PCS and its See Forever Foundation, as its board chair and leader of this effort. A major component includes the hiring of Blueprint, a consulting firm that has worked to improve academic performance with charters in Boston, Denver, and other locations. Founder and CEO Matthew Spengler was in attendance and reported some spectacular results by his company since its start in 2010, especially in the area of math proficiency.

The questions by Mr. Pearson regarding the new structure were instructive. You had to know how to read between the lines of the information he sought to see the points he was trying to make. Through his probing he cast doubt that Ms. Wathington has the time to play the role envisioned for her since she is currently the president of a Philadelphia private school for children of low-income single parents or guardians. He brought to light the fact that Blueprint had just visited Collegiate Prep the week before for three days, and that no actual contract, scope of work, or monetary structure had been finalized for continued assistance. Mr. Spengler also gave the impression that their business model involves communications with the charter remotely with major deliverables dependent on follow-up by the current head of school. It was clear that Mr. Pearson was wondering why TenSquare had not been brought in since it already has extensive experience in the D.C. market, especially since its modus operandi is that it brings in its own manager to increase the probability that desired results are achieved.

The essence of the proposed solution to what ails this charter, and the arguments that ensued over whether it met its established charter goals, is that it is all too little too late. National Collegiate has been graded six times on the Performance Management Framework during its decade of operation and the results in 2018 were its lowest yet at 26.7 percent. It has been a Tier 3 school for the last three years. When the school first reached this level in 2016 is when a serious turnaround should have begun. Let’s sincerely hope for these parents and children that another charter will take it over after its charter is revoked in a special meeting this afternoon.




Exclusive interview with Rick Cruz, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently for an interview with Rick Cruz, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked Mr. Cruz for his feelings about the state of the local charter movement.

“I think there are a number of things that are going well,” he answered without missing a beat.  “We released our School Quality Reports in November and the number of schools ranked Tier 1 continues to grow.  More of our students are attending Tier 1 schools than ever before and the number of Tier 3 schools and the pupils attending them are decreasing.  These phenomenons are, of course, not a complete picture of our sector but it’s a good indication that the schools that are bench-marked against overall city data are improving.  It is definitely a good sign.” 

“The performance of children in our subgroups,” Mr. Cruz added, “is also continuing to get better.  Black and Latino students, kids with different needs, such as special education children or English language learners, are performing well.  There are a number of our schools that teach the most difficult to educate children such as those living in poverty that have reached Tier 1 status.  This is especially hard work.  I feel good about the health of the local charter school movement.  The board is careful about burdening schools but we want to make sure they’re respecting every student’s rights and that’s the role we play when it comes to compliance.  But we also realize that we are a long way from the old days of being a handful of schools with 15 percent of the public school population.  We want cohesion in our buildings, and we want to make sure we are good stewards of public money, but we also need to balance these ideals with a freedom of schools to innovate.”

I then wanted to know from the PCSB chair if the board is trying to reduce the amount of information it is requesting from the schools it oversees.  “We think a lot about streamlining the material,” Mr. Cruz responded.  “For example, if we ask for data and the same information is required for The Office of the State Superintendent of Education then we report it to them.  We try and prevent the same statistics from being required of schools in different forms.  The board also invests in systems to improve the efficiency of reporting, and we strive to provide clarity around timelines and expectations.  We will also question the U.S. Department of Education, OSSE, or other groups as to the rationale for asking for numbers from our charters.  We are always looking for ways to make it easier for schools to respond to information requests.”

Mr. Cruz assumed his position at the PCSB last February.  I asked him if he had specific goals for his tenure as chair.  “Yes,” he affirmed.  “The first is the natural continuation of increasing the quality of our schools and the creation of more high quality seats.  I want to stay true to the processes that we have implemented, and we want to find other means to help schools get better, such as our middle schools.  One of the efforts we have made is to increase mental health services.  We want to aid social and emotional learning, decrease depression among our students, reduce bullying, and help young adults that are discovering aspects of their identity that may not be widely accepted.  Our staff tries to connect resources in our city that can benefit our children and families.”

“Next,” Mr. Cruz detailed, “I really want to work to ensure that charters have access to suitable facilities.  Our new schools cannot open, and others cannot grow and replicate, without adequate buildings.  The board has been a strong advocate with city leaders regarding spaces that would make great homes for our charters.  Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, argued the same point on the D.C. Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  One idea our staff has had around facilities is to encourage developers to include charter schools in their projects.  Another avenue we can look at, although it might not be optimal for school leaders, is to expand co-locating with other schools like they do in New York City.  We also need to effectively communicate the facility needs to our parents so that they can understand how important their voice is as advocates.  About a month ago we had more than 200 students in front of the D.C. Council.  Fundamentally we need facilities where children have a place to exercise and to be able to go outside, and therefore our buildings must have gymnasiums and fields.  We have many schools that are obtaining excellent academic results without these amenities, but if we want our children to have a joyful experience then they have to look more like real schools.”

Another focus of the PCSB chairman is to do more work around the ecosystem of education.  Mr. Cruz stated, “We can strive to increase mental health services as I’ve mentioned.  We can also assist with transportation, making sure it is safe for students to travel from one part of town to another, help obtain crossing guards and school resource officers.”

Mr. Cruz mentioned that transparency is a major objective of his time in office.  “This comes from my role as head of the board’s Finance Committee,” he imparted.  “We want to continue to find ways for citizens, school partners, and public officials to have access to financial information about our schools.  For example, we currently share our quarterly report from our Finance and Operations committees meetings online.  This tells you what schools we have concerns about. I asked Mr. Cruz if individual charter schools should be required to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, which will require a change in the law.  The PCSB chair indicated that in his opinion this was not a role for charters.  “One of the challenges,” Mr. Cruz asserted, “is that we need to protect the flexibility of schools. They need to focus on academics, safety, finances, facilities, personnel, and meeting their specific goals.  I think the current level of transparency is sufficient.  Our aim is to make it easier to look inside of these schools.”

I then asked Mr. Cruz if he was concerned about the relatively low number of applications to open new schools the charter board has been receiving in recent years.  It was obvious to me that he has given much thought to this issue.  “For myself,” Mr. Cruz replied, “I love it when there are a lot of groups wanting to open schools.  The current situation does make me take pause.  Is it because of the difficulty of obtaining facilities that prevents them from applying?  Is a 150-page application too long?  Is the board too hard on charters?   But you also have to realize that we are now in a mature charter school market.  There is a lot of competition for teachers, school leaders, facilities, and students.  We need to look at a particular geography and see what we are offering.  We also are interested in learning how to create a pipeline of leaders for our campuses.”

I brought up the subject of schools contracting with the TenSquare Group to improve their academic performance and I wanted to know if Mr. Cruz had an opinion on charters taking this step.  “School turnarounds are immensely difficult,” the PCSB chair offered.  “Some organizations accomplish this by being absorbed by a high performing CMO like ATA PCS did with KIPP DC PCS.  Others need help and contract with TenSquare and have seen some positive results.  Our job on the board is to hold schools responsible for making smart decisions in investing in their kids and teachers.  Academic performance is always the best indicator as to whether they made the right move.”

I mentioned to Mr. Cruz that I heard him say at a recent board meeting that he was disappointed with the academic performance of national charter management organizations that came to the District.  He was eager to respond to my observation.  “I’m extremely disappointed,” Mr. Cruz indicated, “when you look at Harmony PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, and Somerset Prep PCS.  These are schools that are doing great work in other locations.  We need to question their judgement and ours.  When a school decides to open here it needs to bring its ‘A’ game.  But Rocketship PCS has been an exception.  You look at the two campuses Rocketship has opened so far and the kids that they serve.  It is getting fantastic results.  I believe schools really need to perform a due diligence before coming to D.C.  They need to understand whether they have the right model and are going to offer the right grades.  They need to really get a grasp on who they are going to serve.  In addition, schools must respond extremely quickly to the results they are seeing in the first few weeks and months after opening.  How is the school doing with its homeless population, special education students, and English language learners?

All of this is to say that the board understands how difficult it is running a school.  It is really, really hard.  That is why we approach our roles with humility.  We want to preserve the flexibility and independence of schools.  We want the decision making to be done at the school level and provide them with support.  We recognize that their jobs are vitally important and we really don’t want to interfere with their work.”

Mr. Cruz ended our conversation by reiterating the importance of the DC Public Charter School Board’s role to hold schools to high standards, create the conditions for educators to lead, and to provide lots of quality information to families and provide assurance these public funds.   

D.C. charter board closes City Arts and Prep PCS; starts process to shutter Democracy Prep PCS and National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS

On a crowded night for business, and the first meeting for new board member Lea Crusey, the DC Public Charter School Board voted five to two to close City Arts and Prep PCS (formally the William E. Doar Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (WEDJ)) at the end of the school year. The school failed to meet its PMF target of a 50 percent average over the last five years and also did not show annual progress on its score on this tool over the same period. The charter has had poor academic performance throughout its history.

For me, this was an exceptionally sad turn of events. Maybe the most exciting day of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s holiday in 2005 when, as board chair, WEDJ moved into it permanent facility at 705 Edgewood Street, N.E. Just driving up the ramp to the school’s entrance had my heart racing. My wife Michele and I helped the teachers set up their classrooms on that morning, and I still consider this building that I had a part in acquiring and designing to be the most beautiful school in Washington, D.C. The positive anticipation of those supporting the first 130 students enrolled in this integrated arts curriculum charter was so great that it brought many of us to tears. At its peak, WEDJ would instruct over 660 scholars on two campuses.

Last evening was important for another reason. The board soundly rejected the argument, advanced by the Marcus Firm PLLC and articulated strenuously by attorney Sherry Ingram, that the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework is biased against schools that teach a large percentage of at-risk students. There was a clear unmistakable message for schools that get in trouble over a failure to meet its goals around the PMF. Don’t bother hiring a lawyer, it is just a waste of taxpayer money.

The story around yesterday, however, is larger than this conclusion. The board’s contention about City Arts was that it had no discretion around its decision to revoke its charter. The conditions sealing its fate had been established years ago. Therefore, the board’s action was a foregone conclusion. Member Steve Bumbaugh made the point that if their actions are so cookie-cutter in nature, then fundamentally there is no real reason for this body to exist. He did, in fact, reach the heart of the matter.

Although I watched the meeting online, I really didn’t have to spend all of those hours sitting in front of my computer screen. The meeting material was available at a minimum by last Friday, and the staff reports told me exactly how events would unfold. I could have written this piece over the weekend.

In other news, the board decided on a four-to-three ballot to begin proceedings to close Democracy Prep PCS at its five-year point. The school, after years of low academic performance, had moved to jettison its ties to its charter management organization, put out bids for a different operator, and settled on being run by the TenSquare Group. However, the board had a particularly tough time swallowing this decision in the aftermath of negative press about this organization, and given their erroneous assumption that TenSquare is not in the business of running schools. Never mind that TenSquare actually plays a leadership role in every institution with which it has a contract through its selection of the head, and the fact that this past year each charter engaged with this firm demonstrated strong improvement in its academic ranking. Last month the board tried to come to a consensus about this school but it tied three in favor to three against on a motion to keep the school open and then punted the issue to December.

Continuing on the theme of closures, the board decided unanimously to begin charter revocation of National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. This Ward 8 ninth-through-twelfth grade school teaching approximately 276 students has been characterized by low Tier 3 PMF scores, low re-enrollment percentages, and low four-year graduation rates. It didn’t stand a chance of moving beyond its decade of existence. National Collegiate shares a building with Ingenuity Prep PCS so the logical course of events would be for this charter to take in more students. Unfortunately, Ingenuity Prep’s Tier 2 status precludes this from occurring.

There was positive news coming out of the session. KIPP DC will be allowed to assimilate Somerset Prep PCS and Friendship PCS’s expansion will include the students from IDEAL Academy PCS. Lee Montessori PCS was given permission to replicate. Meridian PCS, Perry Street Prep PCS, and Roots PCS all passed their 20-year reviews. Again no surprises.

I think for the January meeting, I will instead just go to the movies.

D.C. charter board is eradicating limits on accountability

I know that the DC Public Charter School Board, operating under the School Reform Act, has the power to close charters based upon poor academic performance, financial irregularities, a failure to meet its goals, and a violation of applicable laws. However, the mandates that it has been imposing on charters go way beyond a reasonable definition of oversight.  For examples, let’s just consider some of the demands placed on schools at last Monday night’s monthly meeting.  I want you to know that these are the actual conditions that the specified charters need to meet in order to continue to operate.

Imposed on Democracy Prep PCS during its five-year review:

“The school must achieve a PMF score of at least 40 for SY 2018-19 on a modified one-year PMF, with all measures using only SY 2018-19 outcomes and no re-enrollment rate, as calculated by DC PCSB, OR must improve by at least 15 points on the standard PK8 PMF between SY 2017-18 and 2018-19. If the school fails to meet at least one of these targets, it will close at the end of SY 2019-20.”

Imposed on Harmony PCS during its five-year review:

Harmony DC PCS must decrease its enrollment ceiling from 480 students to a maximum of 250 students, and submit a five-year budget to describe how the school will remain economically viable with such enrollment; and Given the cost of the school’s turnaround and the reliance on philanthropic funds that largely come from a single source to pay for this turnaround, Harmony DC PCS must provide evidence that at least $500K per year has been secured for SY 2018-19 and SY 2019-20.”

Imposed on LEARN PCS during its application process to open a new school:

“By May 15, 2019, the school will develop and submit a plan to engage non-military connected families in DC (especially Ward 8). The plan will include i. reliable, recent, and comprehensive data demonstrating that there will be sufficient demand among non-military families to sustain the school, and ii. a description of recruiting strategies that have been successful either in DC or other jurisdictions with competitive charter markets serving a similar target population.”

“Enrollment—due to the mixed historical performance of LEARN schools, and lower quality and lack of demand at LEARN 10, enrollment at LEARN DC will be limited to the current enrollment numbers of LEARN 10. . .”

“The school’s opening year may have a maximum enrollment of 180. Enrollment each year may grow by 45 students to a maximum enrollment of 495 students.”

“By December 14, 2018, the school will sign an agreement committing that the following condition will be included in the school’s charter: If the performance on the PMF at the five-year review is below an average of 40%, the school agrees to relinquish its charter. If the school earns a Tier 3 in any three of five years, the school will relinquish its charter.”

And here is my personal favorite:

“The LEARN Network will open no additional schools until at least one year after the opening of LEARN DC.”

The PCSB is now dictating what this charter management organization can and cannot do on a national level in order to open in D.C.  If I was running this school, and if I wholeheartedly believe in school choice for those much less fortunate than myself, and if a vital part of my sworn mission is to provide a high quality education for the offspring of men and women who sacrifice their lives for the protection of this country, I would tell the board “no.”  Actually I would tell them “hell no.”

However, this is what our local movement has become.  Autonomy and accountability.  But the autonomy part is disappearing.

D.C. charter board lives up to reputation as tough authorizer

The headline for a story about the DC Public Charter School Board’s November monthly meeting is obvious to anyone watching the session: LEARN PCS was approved by a unanimous vote to open on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB). But nothing about last night’s proceedings was this simple and so it goes with LEARN. While the new charter was given the green light, it is facing an extremely long list of conditions imposed by the PCSB that covers everything from engagement of Ward 8 families to changes to the governance structure of its board. The requirements also include the following statement regarding its future academic performance:

“By December 14, 2018, the school will sign an agreement committing that the following condition will be included in the school’s charter: If the performance on the PMF at the five-year review is below an average of 40%, the school agrees to relinquish its charter. If the school earns a Tier 3 in any three of five years, the school will relinquish its charter.”

In addition, the granting of a local campus has national implications for this charter management organization:

“Enrollment—due to the mixed historical performance of LEARN schools, and lower quality and lack of demand at LEARN 10, enrollment at LEARN DC will be limited to the current enrollment numbers of LEARN 10 and the LEARN Network will not open additional schools prior to opening LEARN.”

In other words by agreeing to come to JBAB, LEARN cannot open another site anywhere across the United States before the 2020-to-2021 school year. I think this requirement could be the definition of strict.

It was easy to anticipate a challenging evening for LEARN. The staff’s report regarding the charter’s application was published ahead of time and it included mixed findings regarding meeting the board’s standards. The representatives from the charter must have been concerned because no one from the school testified during the open comment period in favor of opening at the military complex.

The same approach was applied to Harmony PCS, a Texas charter school that faced its five-year review. While the school was able to land in the Tier 2 Performance Management rankings in 2018, its prior two scores on this report card had it in the lowest category. Therefore, the charter board applied an equaling grueling set of goals for this school to meet in order to continue teaching kids.

The most interesting discussion revolved around Democracy Prep PCS. After being a PMF Tier 2 school during the 2015-to-2016 term, it now finds itself with the lowest score on this measure of any local charter at 21.0 percent. Its board wanted to jettison its Brooklyn, N.Y. – based centralized office and have a high performing D.C. charter take its place. While Rocketship PCS did respond to a request for proposal, instead the school went with the TenSquare Consulting Group to perform a turnaround. It would be an understatement to say that the board was not too sure that this was the right decision. While it would be highly unheard of to have the PCSB close a school at the five-year mark, that is exactly what may happen. The members split three to three as to whether to allow the charter to continue with conditions and so the matter will be taken up again at the December meeting.

The bright side of night came from a proposal from Lee Montessori PCS to replicate in Ward 7 and 8. Yes, I did use the work replicate. The four-year old Tier 1 institution desperately wants to increase the proportion of low-income students that it serves. It now teaches about 177 children in grades pre-Kindergarten through five, eventually going to sixth, and it would mirror this offering at a second location. It currently has a wait list of over 750 pupils. The new school would enroll 400 kids and open in the 2019-to-2020 term. The board will make the decision next month and at that time the charter will have something to celebrate.

D.C. POST parents conduct media campaign ahead of charter board vote to approve LEARN PCS

Next Monday evening, the DC Public Charter School Board will vote on whether to allow LEARN Charter School Network, a Chicago charter management organization, to open a school at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.  In anticipation of the decision, the POST, the Ward 8 Parent Operator Selection Team, has conducted a social media campaign to have their selection of a charter operator approved.   Its members write:

“The entire process we participated in was designed to put parents in charge. So we were especially pleased to find that not only did LEARN present well, they listened to us and asked us some great questions. We wanted a school operator that would listen to the needs of the parents and children and our two communities—not just while we are evaluating them, but during the planning and after they open. We feel that LEARN will do that.”

I’ve documented in the past the highly detailed and lengthy work the parents involved in the process to select a school conducted, a project that was facilitated by Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS, and Maya Martin, executive director of PAVE who would become the new school’s board chair.  I especially enjoyed reading the case study of the POST’s effort.  The team has been highly engaged, evidenced by the fact that my skeptical comments about the charter’s academic results were met by two different uncoordinated communications to me by prominent members of the school choice community.  These resulted in my participation on a conference call with a couple of the leaders of LEARN.

It’s an interesting concept to have parents make the decision about the selection of a school.  The argument reminds me of the position I’ve heard many times asserted by Jeanne Allen, the founder and chief executive officer of The Center for Education Reform.  She consistently states that whether a charter school is permitted to operate should be determined by its popularity with parents and students, and not by an authorizer that has established accountability standards, particularly around standardized test scores.  She believes that charters should develop their own goals and it is the successful meeting of these objectives that should be judged by the body that oversees these schools.

This is not how the movement has operated here in the nation’s capital.  Many charters have been closed, the most recent being Excel Academy PCS, despite the strong belief by parents that this is where they want to send their children.  The DC PCSB has insisted that it knows best which schools should be open and closed, and it has made these decisions under its authority through the School Reform Act, which have revolved around academic and financial results.

It will be fascinating to see whether this tradition continues next week.

 

Growth of D.C. charter school sector comes to a screeching halt

Yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education released the audited enrollment data for the 2018-to-2019 school year, and for the first time since the charter school movement began teaching its first students in 1998, the percentage of pupils being taught in this sector compared to those enrolled in DCPS declined compared to the previous year.  The change is small but the implication is humongous.  47 percent of all public school children in the District of Columbia attend a charter school.

This year 43,958 students have signed up to go to a charter school compared to 43,393 during the 2017-to-2018 school term, representing a one percent increase over the last 12 months.  However, DCPS saw its student body increase by two percent, going from 48,144 pupils on the count last October to 49,103 this fall.  92,994 students now attend public school in the nation’s capital, which represents ten years of growth.

The reaction to this news yesterday by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, may not be the one you would expect.  He posted on Twitter:

“For the 10th yr enrollment has increased in public schools but the 1st time the percentage of DC charter school students has gone down. This slight decline reflects our commitment to opening good schools and closing low-performing ones. It’s about quality and choice, not numbers.”

My blood pressure is going up so much right now that I can hardly sit in my chair to write these words.  Yes, of course, public education reform is about quality and choice but it is fundamentally about providing each and every child a good education no matter where they live.  However, we are so far away from this goal despite the fact that so many of us have been working and fighting and arguing and sweating and giving our hard-earned money to turn this situation around.  This is the civil rights struggle that I’m afraid will never be corrected.  Not when the leader of our sector states that we don’t have to worry about the numbers.

In 2012, The Illinois Facility Fund estimated that our city was in need of approximately 40,000 quality seats in our schools.  Last April, the DC PCSB reported there were 11,317 students on charter wait lists.

I have spoken to so many frustrated parents who cannot get their children into a high-performing school.  I have spoken to so many frustrated parents that cannot get their children into a high-performing school.  I have spoken to so many frustrated parents that cannot get their children into a high-performing school.

Charters teach their kids but they don’t get the same amount of money that the regular schools receive.  The founders have to beg to obtain a building in which teachers can practice their profession.  Then, on top of all this, they get to provide information on every detail of their operation to the PCSB.

We have to start over.  We need someone, anyone, who will go to bat for these alternative schools that are literally closing the academic achievement gap for the first time in the history of public education.  We need to figure out how every child, even if they are poor or black or disabled, can get access to what others have been so fortunate to be able to obtain.