I had the honor of meeting recently for an interview with Ms. Lea Crusey, recently elected chair of the DC Public Charter School Board. Ms. Crusey got started right away. “It has been an extremely busy time. I am visiting as many schools as I can to see classrooms, students interacting with their teachers and more.”
I wanted to learn about Ms. Crusey’s professional background. “I grew up with parents who were VISTA volunteers in 1969. They taught me the importance of participatory democracy. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey and remember speaking at a school board meeting making an argument in opposition to a charter school application.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree at Claremont McKenna College, the PCSB chair began her career as a fourth through eighth grade teacher through Teach for America, following in the professional footsteps of her paternal grandmother and her own mom. In fact, it was her own mother’s work teaching English as a Second Language at the local YMCA at night that made her realize that there were numerous children whose needs were not being met by traditional public schools. After completing graduate school at the University of Chicago and working for a few years in transportation, she joined Michelle Rhee’s organization StudentFirst. She found her work there fascinating, as she enhanced her upbringing in participatory democracy by attempting to advance public school reform to places like Jefferson City, Missouri and Des Moines, Iowa. This was during the heyday of the Race to the Top competition run by the U.S. Department of Education. One of her proudest achievements during this period was her contribution to the creation of the Missouri state-wide charter authorizing body.
After about two and a half years at StudentsFirst, a position as Deputy Director with Democrats for Education Reform brought her to D.C. working under Joe Williams, who was based in New York City. After more than two years at DFER, she moved over to the U.S. Education Department as a senior policy advisor toward the end of President Obama’s Administration. As is evident from Ms. Crusey’s resume, she is more than qualified to assume the position of chair of the DC Public Charter School Board.
I wanted Ms. Crusey’s opinion as to how well she thought the PCSB was operating. She answered without hesitation. “The DC charter board is the most effective charter authorizer in the country. I have been on the board for four years. Last year we released our three-year Strategic Roadmap. We also managed the process around the recruitment and selection of our new excellent executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis, and I am extremely proud of how it worked out. We have an amazing opportunity now to fulfil the Board’s vision, which is to ensure that “every D.C. student receives a quality education that makes them feel valued and prepares them for lifelong learning, fulfilling careers, and economic security.”
I brought up the fact that the PCSB has begun the process of revising the Performance Management Framework. I asked the leader of the charter board what the intended outcome of this review would be. “The goal,” Ms. Crusey detailed, “is to allow our oversight body to have good information to evaluate the quality of our schools. Having a summary rating for a charter is important, however, now that there are very few Tier 3 schools remaining, there are a number of Tier 2 institutions. We want to understand how we can move the needle. Our concern had been mostly around the middle school framework that relied heavily on standardized test scores. Staff has worked hard to account for demographic and socio-economic differences in the student bodies between charters. One aim for the final accountability tool is to be able to disaggregate student population measures. Our belief is that if a school is able to create great gains with a hard to reach student population, then we should celebrate this amazing accomplishment.”
I then inquired about new members being added to the PCSB as there are now only four [as of the time of our interview]. Ms. Crusey informed me that shortly Shantelle Wright, known primarily as the founder and CEO of Achievement Prep PCS; Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan, executive director of D.C. Reading Partners and former exectuvie director of Democracy Prep PCS and Imagine Southeast PCS; and Nick Rodriguez, CEO of Delivery Associates, will be joining the board in July bringing the body back up to its full complement of seven officers. “There is a lot going on,” Ms. Crusey added.
The PCSB last year paused the new school application process for a year as well as enrollment increases. I asked the chair the purpose behind these moves. “The questions around where the Performance Management Framework lands, how many tiers we end up with, the way that we define excellent schools, are at the heart of what we do. We have a broad range of student achievement coming out of the pandemic. We acknowledge that there are gaps around the academic offerings at different schools. Our mission around equity means that we need to address the unique needs of all students. We are now addressing how we approve new schools and allow others to grow in light of our revised framework of how we evaluate quality. Simultaneously, D.C.’s population growth is uncertain. We need to understand how these shifts are impacting the delivery of public education.”
Ms. Crusey then became philosophical, allowing her passion for her life’s work to shine through. “It would be easy to think that the actions this board has taken are politically based,” the PCSB chair asserted, “however, everything we do in our work is determined by data. Our principal mission is to serve children. We need to be realistic about what the future looks like and how to meet those needs. I’m extremely excited to see the outcome of our efforts. How will the new accountability framework help drive quality? We need to have equitable access to schools. There must be sufficient capacity. We are wrapping up community conversations and focus groups that will inform the revisions we make to the charter evaluation tool. Soon we will be onboarding new board members. We want to have a cohesive group that successfully continues the implementation of the Strategic Roadmap and the new accountability tool. We understand that D.C. public charter schools are a place where every student thrives and prospers, especially those furthest away from opportunity.”
I noticed that during the June monthly meeting that the board was now considering allowing schools to offer a virtual option. I asked why this choice for families had not been offered earlier. Ms. Crusey responded, “We needed to get some clarity from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education on virtual attendance. All schools are eligible to apply. There are significant operational challenges to teaching online. We are supporting Dr. Walker-Davis’s leadership in this area.”
Finally, I wanted to know how the PCSB was doing during this phase of the pandemic. “We are making strong advances,” Ms. Crusey informed me. “Staff is coming into the office a couple of days a week. We are making plans to once again hold our monthly meetings in person. I just have to say that Dr. Walker-Davis has done an amazing job transitioning into her job during Covid and bringing fresh new talent to the charter board staff.”