Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis hired to replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday afternoon that Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis will succeed Scott Pearson as its executive director beginning in July. Ms. Walker-Davis has extremely impressive credentials. She obtained two masters degree’s and a doctorate from the Teachers College, Columbia University, all centered around education leadership.

Her professional career, according to the DC PCSB’s press release, includes seven years in the District of Columbia. She worked under Mayor Anthony Williams as a senior advisor on education and as chief of strategic planning and policy for DCPS, as well as a stint in the city’s Office of Budget and Planning.

After leaving D.C., Dr. Walker-Davis spent nine years employed by the St. Paul, Minnesota Public Schools. She moved up to the chief executive officer role just under the school superintendent. Her most recent position has been as executive director of Generation Next, a policy nonprofit that attempts to close the academic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She has experience as a member of several boards of directors.

Both the DC PCSB and the Washington Post’s Perry Stein remark that Ms. Walker-Davis is “a first-generation African-American of Caribbean descent.” Ms. Stein has added that Dr. Walker-Davis has young children who she has entered into the My School DC lottery to determine where they will be taught in the fall.

Of course, this is an exceptionally interesting time to be assuming the job. Charter school advocacy has been weak recently in our town where charters now educate 46 percent of all public school students, or 46,500 pupils. Word on the street is that a new organization that is being formed by the merging of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools is about to be announced. The FOCUS -driven funding inequity lawsuit against the Mayor is ongoing, and Ms. Bowser continues to ignore demands that she turn numerous surplus DCPS facilities over to the charter sector.

In addition, she will of course be working in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and what that means for the way that public education is delivered in the nation’s capital. Ms. Stein described the current educational landscape this way:

“But charter schools are facing increasing political resistance nationwide. In the District, the latest scores on standardized tests show the traditional D.C. public school system outperforming the city’s charter schools, although both sectors have shown slow improvements in recent years. The board approved five new charter schools to open this summer in Washington despite growing concerns about vacant seats on existing campuses in both sectors. And for the first time since D.C. charters were established in 1996, enrollment dropped in the sector this academic year after the closure of five low-performing or financially troubled campuses.”

Given this environment, Dr. Walker-Davis’s first comments about the unique position of our charters are highly discouraging:

“As a parent of school-aged children, I know from experience that most parents aren’t choosing between traditional and public charter schools,” said Dr. Walker-Davis.  “Parents  want schools that can successfully and effectively educate their children — schools that fit different learning styles, cultures, and interests.”

I will be watching closely to see if Ms. Walker-Davis is the one speaking for the board as was the case with Mr. Pearson, or if this function will revert back to the chair as it operated under Mr. Tom Nida’s leadership. This will offer direct evidence as who is setting the DC PCSB’s future direction.

More than half of all D.C. charter schools ending school year later than DCPS

Not all of D.C.’s charter schools have released their end of the school year date, however, of the 36 school that have, 55.6 percent made the call to close later than May 29th, the day that Mayor Muriel Bowser announced would be the last one for the current school year for the traditional schools. One of the largest charter networks in the city, KIPP DC, teaching 6,800 students on 18 campuses, has decided that it will continue until June 12th, offering its predominately low-income children a full additional two weeks of learning compared to DCPS.

June 12th is in fact the most popular ending date for charters. None is concluding earlier than May 29th. The most interesting decision so far is that of Paul PCS, which is ceasing on May 29 for those pupils in good academic standing. It will teach until June 18th those children that need summer school or recovery work. Some charters are going until June 19th, the original last day of this highly unusual year.

In some other news, it was announced at the first April board meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, before it was interrupted, that Scott Pearson will extend his departure date as executive director by a month, leaving at the end of June instead of May. He should probably stay in his post until August to provide a transition for the new hire. No decision on a replacement has been announced.

Also, as part of that meeting, it is now clear that there is a well-organized effort to damage the reputation of Ingenuity Prep PCS. In the public testimony part of the session nine individuals spoke against the school reading almost identical statements. Apparently, this effort is being led by some employees who had been terminated.

My wife Michele and I have been conducting remote tutoring for about a month now through the Latino Student Fund. It has been an adjustment but we feel our time is extremely valuable to the kids we are helping. The parents are exceedingly grateful for this effort. The tutoring has been extended and now will continue through the end of July. If you are interested in participating you can sign up here.

D.C. charter board puts school accountability on hiatus

The DC Public Charter School Board had already announced that there would be no School Quality Reports issued for the 2019-to-2020 school year due to the impact of COVID-19. Next Monday evening the board will hold a public hearing regarding its amended policy dealing with the crisis which will then be voted on in May.

In summary, the document states that the Performance Management Framework will not be calculated for schools this term. The board really had no choice regarding this decision. The D.C. Deputy Mayor of Education has stated that he will seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to permit the city to skip conducting the PARCC standardized assessment this year. Much of the School Quality Report findings are based upon student PARCC scores. But this raises an interesting quandary. Many schools that have faced high stakes reviews were required to meet certain PMF scores going forward or face possible charter revocation. Here’s what the revised policy says on this subject:

“DC PCSB will not monitor SY 2019-20 conditions. Instead, SY 2019-20
conditions will be applied to SY 2020-21. In addition, to address unforeseen
long-term consequences of the current situation, the following discretionary clause will be included for SY 2020-21 and SY 2021-22: ‘The DC PCSB Board may, at its discretion, determine that this condition should be waived in SY 2020-21 and SY 2021-22.’ If the condition(s) originally ended in SY 2019-20 or SY 2020-21, the condition(s) will not be extended for an additional year beyond SY 2020-21.”

I recognize that these are the most unusual circumstances that many of us have seen in our lifetimes, but the proposed rules raise some interesting questions. For example, if it was so important that schools attain a particular academic level but now there is no measurement, what are the implications for the quality of the education students at these campuses are now obtaining? Moreover, if it is possible that conditions will waived until the 2021-to-2022 term, then are kids being harmed by lowering our standards?

The answer is that in all likelihood there will be little or no impact on our children. The great majority of charters, even those facing stringent requirements to meet PMF targets, are doing an excellent job educating their pupils.

Every situation is an opportunity to learn new things and gain a fresh perspective. I guarantee from what I have read on social media that organizations are discovering aspects of distance learning that they had never thought about. The same is true about the PCSB’s high stakes review procedure.

Perhaps the next time that a charter comes up for its five, ten, fifteen, or twenty-year review and it is not meeting its academic goals, the response from the board can be more lenient. For instance, instead of demanding that a school meet a target in twelve months, the time period could be two years. Or perhaps the quantity of improvement expected could be more gradual.

I do not think anyone has argued for quality in public education more than me. But simultaneously, we know that closing schools is causing significant disruptions for families. The moral question has to be asked, especially regarding our facilities that enroll extremely high proportions of at-risk students, as to whether the punishment is worse than allowing the status quo to continue.

There are also implications for the rules around charter school replication. Maybe schools should be allowed to grow even if they have not reached Tier 1 status.

I am confident that these questions have always been on the minds of charter board members. But now there is another angle to consider. Hopefully, something good will come out of this tragedy.

Meanwhile, yesterday Mayor Boswer announced that D.C. schools will be closed at least through May 15th.

D.C. charter board reacts to impact on its schools from the coronavirus

Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board, pens a piece about the critical role authorizers have in responding to COVID-19.

This is a critical time for authorizers. How we respond to COVID-19 will make a difference to the lives of the children our schools serve. It could also help shape the future of charter schools. Much will change on the other side of this pandemic. When policymakers and the public look back at how we responded, will they see public charter schools as part of the solution, or contributing to the problem? The charter model earned a huge boost due to its effective response to Hurricane Katrina. Now we face a different crisis and again we need to step up and show that the charter school model can be uniquely effective in response.

At the DC Public Charter School Board, I’ve laid out six broad priorities for our team.

  1. Collaborate with government partners to organize an effective response. This is not the time to stay in our corner, or to bray about our autonomies. This is the time to work together, to pitch in, and to contribute to solutions. For example, we worked together with our state department of education to allow public charter schools to be citywide food distribution centers. Now 25 public charter and 25 DC public schools are serving as meal sites – all serving all students and open to whoever lives closest.
  2. Facilitate learning and experience sharing. A key strength of public charter schools is their ability to innovate. The rate of learning and problem-solving going on now is astounding. We can help schools improve faster by learning from each other. And we can make charter-district collaboration real. We’re hosting three webinars every day for our schools focused not only on overall approaches, but on specific issues, like delivering related services, or college counseling, or parent perspectives. We’ve established a shared library where we post plans, ideas, and exemplars for all schools to see. And we’ve teamed with our charter association to launch a Slack platform with dozens of channels so that collaboration can happen at every job level across our schools.
  3. Conduct appropriate oversight of distance learning. Right away we told schools that we expected them to do their best to keep learning going, and to reach all students. We aren’t being punitive about this, and we recognize some schools will struggle. But every school we oversee must make a good faith effort to reach all students.
  4. Adjust our accountability standards. We have high standards. But every aspect of accountability needs to be rethought for 2019-20, and possibly for 2020-21. We are convening listening sessions with schools and promised them clarity on accountability by late April.
  5. Communicate three things. Our communications function is dedicated to a) sharing out essential information, b) elevating the heroic stories coming out of our schools every day, and c) facilitating experience sharing between schools.
  6. Enable our agency to function effectively. Over the years we’ve invested in moving our data to the cloud. Now our IT function is on overdrive, ensuring that every staff member has the tools they need to be effective while working from home.

These are times like no other. Effective authorizing can ensure that the charter sector rises to the occasion and that the diversity of our schools is recognized as an advantage in this crisis.

D.C. charter board holds spectacular virtual monthly public meeting

The DC Public Charter School Board, in the face of preventing the spread of COVID-19, delayed its March monthly meeting by a week so that it could coordinate holding its next session using the application Zoom with participants connecting by computer over the internet from different physical locations. The result was nothing less than perfection in the midst of a devastating public health crisis. Executive director Scott Pearson started off the agenda by explaining the PCSB’s six goals during this highly unusual period. They are:

  • Supporting our schools in any way we can by sharing individual campus experiences,
  • Recognizing that the accountability structure will change due to students not taking standardized tests this year with direct consequences on the calculation of the Performance Management Framework,
  • Collaborating as good partners across city agencies and organizations,
  • Effectively overseeing distance learning,
  • Enabling the board to do its work successfully, and
  • Openly communicating to schools and families.

Chairman Rick Cruz then ran a highly structured public comment period in which approximately a dozen people testified. I liked it a lot. Because people had to sign up ahead of time, I could learn the names of each individual speaking. The sound was clearer than in any previous gathering. You could easily see who was speaking. Perhaps we have all learned something from this exercise.

The evening also provided a shocking development in the form of an amendment request from Achievement Prep PCS. We were all prepared to hear the school argue that it should be allowed to pursue its plan of turning its middle school over to Friendship PCS and then reconstitute grades four through eight in coming years. However on March 2nd, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn sent a letter to the charter explaining that by transitioning its students to Friendship and excluding other pupils from a chance to enroll, it was violating the law by not allowing fair and equal access to a lottery. He claimed that over a thousand children would like to gain admission to a Friendship middle school and therefore the process being followed here was illegal.

The letter, according to chair Jason Andrean and founder and CEO Shantelle Wright, had a stunning impact on the Achievement Prep board. Priding itself on providing opportunities for under-served low-income minority students, it did not want to have anything to do with the accusations made by Mr. Kihn. The school called off the deal with Friendship, sending about 355 students scrambling to find a seat for next year. Participation in the My DC School common lottery closed on the day the Deputy Mayor sent his letter to Achievement Prep.

The charter board appeared extremely frustrated by this turn of events. After all, isn’t this how it has conducted takeovers of academically poor performing charters for years? A school closes and its enrollment is incorporated by the new operator. The difference in this instance appears to be that Friendship was not taking over the charter of Achievement Prep together with its assets, only one of its campuses.

The members of the PCSB were not happy and wondered why Mr. Kihn had not brought up this issue earlier. The question of charter school autonomy was raised. Taking advantage of the chat feature of the software platform we were on, some in the audience asserted that Achievement Prep should have stuck with its original plan.

The whole thing reminded me of the meeting last January when Mayor Muriel Bowser showed up to assert her control over the charter sector.

The charter amendment will be voted on next month.

Next, Paul PCS was up for its 20-year review. Here again the proceedings did not go as anticipated. The school has a Tier 1 ranked high school but its middle school campus has not been able to reach its goal of 50 percent on the PMF during the five year review period. The board was ready to pull the trigger on its usual draconian conditions that the school would have to meet or face closure of this campus. However, things are not as they used to be and the school pointed out, with the assistance of attorney Stephen Marcus, that in the absence of PARCC testing and therefore most likely an omitted PMF ranking for this year, the academic scoring requirements placed on the school that would be effective beginning now are moot.

The charter board did admit that it will be drafting a policy in April dealing with school accountability in the absence of standardized testing as Mr. Pearson alluded to earlier. The decision was then made to delay a decision regarding Paul until this new path forward is developed.

It was an extremely busy few hours for Mr. Marcus as his firm also represented Achievement Prep.

Almost as an afterthought after some captivating discussions, it was time to learn the charter applications that would be approved for opening in the 2021-to-2022 school term. Only one of the four bids, that of Global Citizens PCS, was given the green light. You know that the world has truly changed when only fifty percent of the schools backed by CityBridge Education are given the go-ahead.

Let’s sincerely hope that everything gets back to normal soon.

Scott Pearson should delay leaving D.C. charter board

Last November, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC PCSB, announced that he was relinquishing his position after eight and a half years at the end of May. In the face of the crises facing the public and charter schools in particular around the coronavirus pandemic I think it only prudent that Mr. Pearson should delay this move until the end of the summer.

Charter schools are now basically following the lead of DCPS and closing until April 1st. Chances are good that this date will be delayed. Students are being provided with the opportunity to take classes remotely and food is distributed to those who would go hungry if not for nourishment delivered where they normally would go to class.

The DCPCSB announced that its monthly board meeting that was scheduled for last night will move to Monday, March 23rd. The session will be held virtually. The charter board offices are closed with employees working from home.

Board chair Rick Cruz and Vice-Chair Saba Bireda have been leading a national search for Mr. Peterson’s replacement. We do not know the impact travel and meeting restrictions around personal safety have had on this recruitment effort.

With all that is going on and no immediate idea when life will get back to some form of normalcy, this would not be the right time to make such an important transition. I’m sure after all the dedicated service Mr. Pearson has provided to our 62 schools operating on 123 campuses that enroll 49,000 scholars, he can hang in there a few more months. This is also a crucial moment to have a thorough transition to a new leader.

Dramatic events call for dramatic actions. Mr. Pearson should continue to head the DC PCSB until the nation’s capitol begins to calm down. Perhaps this request should come directly from Mayor Bowser?

2 of 4 new charter school applicants should be approved

There was a marathon monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board Monday evening due to a heavy agenda and one and a half hours of public testimony. People signed up to speak mostly to support one of the four applicants for new schools that would open in the 2021-to-2022 school year. One interesting tidbit from this portion of the session came from two former employees of Ingenuity Prep PCS who I’m sure have testified in the past. In response to their comments, Chairman Cruz revealed that the Office of the State Superintendent, as well as the PCSB, has audited the school’s special education program and found deficiencies. I wrote about the activities of the charter board investigating this aspect of the school’s operation that I learned about only by reviewing the PCSB’s answers to questions posed to it from the D.C. Council as part of its 2020 oversight hearings. Why this information has to come out in steady drips in this age of transparency is beyond me.

Besides the consideration of new schools and other business, Friendship PCS was approved to take over Achievement Prep PCs’s Wahler Middle School after the founding charter announced that it would no longer operate this campus next term. My question is why Friendship does not take over all of Achievement Prep? The middle school has 449 students in grades four through eight while the elementary has 375 pupils in pre-Kindergarten three through the third grade with the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation instructing the children in preschool. Perhaps at a later time.

The presentations by the new applicants were fascinating. Right out of the gate I’ll wager the entire pot on the Capital Experience Lab PCS being given the green light. Sometimes new bids for charters have an alignment in components that cannot be stopped and this is the case with this school. The support from CityBridge Education combined with Friendship’s CEO Patricia Brantley as a board member and the selection of Lanette Dailey-Reese as head of school present a powerful foundation. I hope you remember Ms. Dailey-Reese as the highly impressive individual who almost single-handily saved City Arts and Prep PCS from closure. This mission of the CAPX LAB around utilizing the wealth of resources present in the nation’s capital as its classroom cannot be topped.

I truly wish I felt the same about Global Citizens PCS. It is a terrible idea to go against the other CityBridge Education school but here I go. The idea of providing a dual immersion school in Spanish and Mandarin east of the river is fascinating, and I’m a tremendous supporter of the founders, who come from Sela PCS. I just cannot get my mind past the question from board member Jim Sandman who asked how the school would go about staffing its teachers when it has no idea how many initial scholars would be interested in learning one language versus the other. The other problem I have conceptually is that in this school’s pre-Kindergarten classes the language other than English would be spoken eighty percent of the time, with English going up to fifty percent in higher grades. Is this really what’s best for the academic future of this population of students? Perhaps people with more knowledge on this subject than me will point out that the answer is affirmative. I’m not so sure. For these reasons I vote no for approval.

Here’s another mistake I could be making. I would love to see a charter granted to The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship. This school, which applied for the first time last year, spells out its goals this way:

“At The Garden, our vision is to close the racial wealth gap and break the cycle of generational poverty. Our students will receive career skill-building experiences, learn how to grow their ideas into businesses, and how to use their assets to build wealth. Our school model is not only for the business person or entrepreneur, our school supports all careers. Our model is intended to create and build the mindset and skills needed to move black communities from consumer to producer. College and career is not our grand prize, it’s just the ticket into the arena. We will teach our students about investing, bonds, and stocks. Our students will work to create new ways to generate income – no matter what their degree or career is. We work to change how students think about money and education. For this reason, we are not only focused on academics and our economic design. We are culturally affirming who our students are and supporting them mentally and socio-emotionally. We believe that the most powerful feeling in the world is having control. Not, control over others or a multi-million dollar company. It’s control over yourself, your skills, and your mindset.”

I was especially taken with the young gentleman school representative telling his story about growing up in poverty who now makes millions of dollars through multiple businesses in Ward 8. Let’s give them a chance.

Finally, I reluctantly would not go along with the application from Washington Arabic PCS. This school also tried last year. Although improvements in the bid have been made, and the founding group has been positively augmented, I have lingering concerns about the design of the curriculum.

In most years not more than forty percent of new applicants are approved by the PCSB. I’m going with half this time. Next month we will see if I have the right half.

D.C. charter board transparency has its limits

Last November I described troubling testimony at the monthly DC Public Charter School meeting regarding Ingenuity Prep PCS. I wrote:

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

So what was the outcome of this complaint? You would not have any idea by sitting through the subsequent public meetings of the DC PCSB in December and January. Did this oversight body investigate the school? Was there any legitimacy to the charges of those who testified? The answers to these questions are affirmative, but to find them you need to do some detective work. The trail starts by going to the charter board’s website. Then you move to the Transparency Hub, followed by paging down to “Oversight testimony and responses to DC Council since 2013.” A button to the right takes you to “View Oversight Testimony and Responses.” Under Q &A click FY19 Performance Oversight Answers.” Next, select “Performance Oversight Questions.”

These are the questions asked by the D.C. Council’s Education Committee in preparation of its February 2020 oversight hearings. Buried on page 49 of 123 pages is this written exchange:

“Q 20. Provide an update on measures taken to address complaints shared at the November 2019 PCSB Board meeting regarding Ingenuity Prep, including:
a. documentation and the results of the original desk audit;
b. the results of the resulting special education audit; and
c. any conditions in place for the school.

In November 2019, DC PCSB received a series of community complaints regarding systemic concerns with student safety and special education programming at Ingenuity Prep PCS. Below is the timeline of events as it relates to the initial complaint, meetings with the school, site visits to the school, and the overall special education audit process.
11/5/2019: Unannounced Visit to Ingenuity Prep PCS
In response to the initial community complaint, DC PCSB staff conducted an immediate visit to the school.
11/20/2019: Staff-to-staff Meeting with DC PCSB and Ingenuity Prep PCS
DC PCSB held a staff-to-staff meeting with Ingenuity Prep PCS to discuss the complaints and the school’s response and potential turnaround efforts.
12/3/2019: Special Education Audit Begins
In response to the complaints alleging systematic issues with the school’s special education program, DC PCSB began a desk audit on Tuesday, 12/3/2019, in accordance with DC PCSB’s Special Education Audit Policy. According to the Policy, a potential trigger is a community complaint that “alleges a systemic issue with the denial of parental safeguards, provision of special education services, or concern for the safety of students with disabilities.” Consistent with the Policy, the school was required to provide data and supplemental documentation.
1/8/2020: Unannounced Visit to Ingenuity Prep DC
PCSB staff conducted a second unannounced visit to the school.
1/16/2020: DC PCSB concludes its audit and submits to the school its conclusions and recommendations

Audit Conclusions
Upon reviewing the documentation submitted through the special education audit and the information gathered during unannounced visits, DC PCSB concluded the following:
•through SY18-19 to SY19-20, students with disabilities at the school are retained at five times the rate as their general education peers;
•the school continues to have staffing challenges, resignations, and transitions;
•extensive training and oversight are needed in special education programming and compliance;
•while the school has developed an internal turnaround strategy, it has also struggled to implement elements of its turnaround (e.g., observing all teachers on a regular basis) and clearly measure success of the turnaround;
•while the school reports that seclusion is no longer in use, there is inconsistent evidence; and
•the school does not consistently follow its own policies regarding restraint and physical escort.

Audit Recommendations
Based on DC PCSB’s audit conclusions, DC PCSB recommended that the school take steps to re-evaluate and improve policies and practices regarding:
•special education student supports and contributing factors to grade retention;
•implementation of the school’s restorative practices; and
•seclusion, restraint, and physical escort practices and policies and notification to parents after every instance.

DC PCSB also recommends that the school take steps to increase its oversight and provide support to its staff in:
•special education compliance;
•teacher observations and coaching; and
•measurement of success on the school’s turnaround plan.

DC PCSB will follow up on the status of the school’s turnaround efforts in future communications, continue to closely monitor community complaints that may potentially come in regarding the school, and conduct follow up unannounced site visits.”

In summary, there were definitely serious issues identified by the PCSB regarding this school’s handling of special education students. While the board should be congratulated for including this information on its website, it is inappropriate that this type of follow-up is not shared in a more open fashion.

When I met recently with PCSB Chairman Rick Cruz for an interview I asked him about this safety incident and the one at Rocketship PCS. We discussed the possibility of something along the lines of a Safety Audit Report that would be included at the monthly meetings.

Based upon the details above, I think the time for such a report is clearly overdue.

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

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

The applicants include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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