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.  

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

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

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

IDEA PCS

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

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

Kingsman Academy PCS

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

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

Children’s Guild PCS

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

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

Monument Academy PCS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was now time for everyone to go home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotions raw at October D.C. charter board meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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