The mystery of lethargic D.C. charter academic performance

The report card came in on Thursday afternoon in the way of the 2018 PARCC assessment scores and the findings were frankly anemic.  It was actually a sad day.  As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported:

“D.C. Public Schools outperformed charter schools on the 2018 PARCC test. Overall, the traditional school system showed greater improvement over 2017 and had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the tests.”

How in the world could DCPS, dysfunctional from the loss of its most recent Chancellor, embroiled in a high school graduation controversy, and reeling from accusations of residency fraud at one of its most prominent institutions, top the collective standardized test scores of D.C.’s charter schools?  After all these are the entities that are free from the constraints of the regular schools to hire their own staff, set many of their own operating rules, design the curriculum, and establish their own goals.  They are provided freedom to innovate in return for being accountable for their results to the DC Public Charter School Board.  In order to reach kids that traditional schools have not, almost all of them have longer school days, smaller class sizes, and describe themselves as extremely tight-knit communities.  Charters are recognized as paying particular close attention to the needs of their students and families because their revenue stream is dependent upon how many children are sitting in its classrooms each October.  With an ecosystem like this in place for over 20 years, and with the exception of one campus a lack of teacher union representation, these nonprofits should be knocking it out of the park academically compared to the bureaucratic DCPS.  What is going on?

Well I think I know the answer.  We have a problem with the way we are conducting our local movement. Here are the issues.

First, the charter school facility problem is proving to be intractable.  We are so fortunate to have Building Hope and other like-minded groups here and banks that now actually have some understanding of charter school finance.  However, it is still, after two decades, much too difficult for a charter to obtain a permanent home.  In fact, the task is almost impossible.  The hunt for a building is a tremendous distraction from educating our scholars, and is restricting the replication of high performing schools that could help more kids.  I do not accept that with so many smart people invested in this cause that a solution to this issue cannot be found.

Second, we desperately have to rethink the PCSB mantra that charters must be “Tier 1 on day 1.”  The pressure to be atop the Performance Management Framework rankings is driving schools to what Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform calls “isomorphism.”  Ms. Allen defines isomorphism as “the process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others who face similar environmental conditions.”  The phenomenon is resulting in charters looking more and more like the traditional schools already failing our children, and is causing them to shy away from true innovation.

The PCSB must be a true partner in reversing this trend.  Some crucially important steps are needed such as:

  • Holding off PMF tiering a new school for two years instead of one,
  • Giving CMOs that replicate a one-year hiatus for the entire system and not just the new campus,
  • Significantly reducing the reporting requirements of the schools it oversees,
  • Simplifying the new school application process, and
  • Redesigning the PMF to emphasize student growth over absolute test scores.

Charters enroll some of the most difficult to teach pupils.  Forty-eight percent of the kids in these schools are classified as at-risk.  Many live in poverty.  Almost all enter these schools years behind their age-appropriate grade level.  Yet, with all of these mighty challenges, some leaders are stating that it appears that the PCSB is running their schools in place of themselves.

Charters are really at a critical juncture.  As evidence for my conclusion consider that just last week, Democracy Prep PCS, which is located in Ward 8 and enrolls 656 students with a wait-list of 111, announced it was abandoning the District rather than face a five-year charter review.  This is exactly the opposite of what our city needs.  We desperately want high performing charter networks moving into the nation’s capital, not the other way around.  But they don’t want to come.  It is too difficult to find a place in which to operate and the regulation is overbearing.

There is no time to waste.  The times call for exceedingly bold actions.




Darren Woodruff receives Exceptional Service Award

Last week at the July monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, past chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff received the organization’s Exceptional Service Award.  This was Dr. Woodruff’s last meeting as his term has come to an end.  He has served on the DC PCSB for ten years in the role of board member, vice chairman and chairman.  While he was head of the board, I interviewed Dr. Woodruff on three separate occasions.  I found him to be exceptionally kind, transparent, and passionately enthusiastic about a charter school movement that now teaches 43,340 pupils or 47.5 percent of all public school students in the nation’s capital.  The following are the remarks that Scott Pearson, DC PCSB executive director, offered when presenting Dr. Woodruff with his award.

DC PCSB’s award for exceptional service recognizes individuals who through volunteer effort, have made substantial contributions over a sustained period of time to DC PCSB, and by doing so, have made it possible for students in the District of Columbia to access quality educational choices.

In recognition of and appreciation for his significant contributions to DC PCSB, we present Darren, with our highest award.  Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine an individual more deserving of this award.  Darren served as Vice Chairman of the board from 2013 – 2015 and chairman of the Board from 2015 – 2018 and contributed 10 years of tireless service to the Board.

Darren’s impact on this board has been profound.  Since Darren joined the Board, public charter school enrollment has grown from 25,732 students to 43,340 students.  More importantly, overall public school enrollment has climbed by 20,400 students.  Indeed, the turnaround of a 50-year slide in enrollment almost perfectly coincides with Darren’s arrival on this board.  There is no question in my mind that he deserves some of the credit for this.

But more than numbers, Darren was committed to quality.  Darren brought to this board the perspective and personal commitment that comes from having children in our schools.  He knew what he expected for his children, and wanted nothing less for all of the families of Washington DC.   It was during Darren’s tenure that we launched the performance management framework, raising the bar for quality.  And Darren never flinched from closing low-performing schools when necessary, the toughest but most essential role of an authorizer.

Darren’s legacy on this board will always be centered on his commitment to equity. Bringing his research and professional background in special education and the impact of poverty on school-age children, Darren led this board to redouble its focus on disparities in performance and discipline rates along race and income lines.  With expulsions down 80% and suspensions down by half, the DC charter sector is a considerably more humane and inclusive place thanks to Darren.

Finally, board service is a lot more than attending these monthly meetings.  Staff is constantly asking board members to meet with school leaders, attend graduations, represent us at events.  Darren always said yes.  He worked incredibly hard for this Board and the schools and students we represent.   And he always did that work with a personal gentleness that was a model for us all.  In ten years of difficult, contentious issues, Darren never raised his voice, never showed rancor, and treated all with respect.  We couldn’t have asked for more in a board member.

Rocketship PCS on the hot seat at last night’s charter board meeting

As I reported regarding May’s meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, it is becoming clear that often the most significant portion of these monthly sessions involves the public comment period that comes before the regular business section of the agenda. Participants appearing before the board are supposedly given a couple of minutes to speak but in reality there is no time limit. Therefore, anyone with a beef regarding D.C.’s nationally recognized charter school movement has an open opportunity to air their grievances for as long as they want to talk and this is exactly what they are doing.

Yesterday, it was Rocketship PCS’s turn to bear the brunt of citizen anger. The outpouring was prompted by a proposal by the brand-new Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS, formally named North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys, to begin its first year of operation by co-locating its facility with Rocketship Legacy Prep PCS on Massachusetts Avenue Southeast. A public hearing on whether Statesman will be permitted to begin its first year serving children at this site is not scheduled until this coming Friday at 4:00 p.m. which is in itself a highly inconvenient time for a function of this type, but this fact is only a technicality. It was as if an approaching battle prompted people to prepare for their defense and their protection on Monday night was the English language.

Individual after individual went on the attack against Rocketship and specifically its new campus in Ward 7. The remarks went on for about an hour. To save you the time of listening to the proceedings I will summarize them as the criticism that has whirled around the expansion of this charter management organization since it came to town in 2014. Citizens feel that the school has not engaged with local residents before entering their communities and has ignored their opinions while treating them as if they are irrelevant bystanders to its plans. Complaints even included the specific location of trash dumpsters and the cutting down of trees.

In fact, the DC PCSB is having its own difficulties with Rocketship. Yesterday’s supporting documentation regarding the charter’s decision to delay opening its third campus contains the following narrative:

“This is the school’s third campus postponement since DC PCSB approved Rocketship PCS’s charter on November 3, 2014. While the school was originally scheduled to open its first campus in SY 2015-2016, Rocketship PCS requested a one-year postponement, resulting in Rocketship PCS – Rise Academy opening in SY 2016-2017.

In preparation for its second campus, Rocketship PCS provided notification to DC PCSB on November 21, 2016 of its intent to open Rocketship PCS – Legacy Prep in SY 2017-2018 at a permanent site in Ward 7. However, the school was unable to obtain necessary permits to complete construction before the start of SY 2017-2018. As a result, on June 19, 2017, Rocketship PCS returned to DC PCSB to obtain urgent approval to operate at two temporary facilities for part of SY 2017-2018, until its permanent site was ready for operation in early January 2018.

Each time that Rocketship PCS has postponed opening one of its campuses or changed a campus location last-minute, the students and families enrolled at those have been affected. Most recently, approximately 22 students who were enrolled at Rocketship PCS’s Ward 5 campus through the DC common lottery were left without a school placement for the upcoming school year when Rocketship PCS announced in May that it will not open the Ward 5 campus until SY 2019-2020. (Of these, 17 were students in grades K-2, and 5 were students in grades PK3-PK4.) To help families find an alternative placement quickly, most PK3-PK4 students were placed at AppleTree PCS at Perry Street, while students in grades K-2 were provided the option to attend either Rocketship PCS’s Rice Academy or Legacy Prep. The school reports that Rocketship PCS helped 21 of these students find a suitable placement for SY 2018-2019, and only one student received an offer that was deemed unsatisfactory to the parent.

Over the past three years, DC PCSB has received several community complaints regarding the school’s lack of community engagement, which played a significant role in the issues the school faced when trying to open its second campus. Parents have also understandably complained about the inconvenience caused by delayed openings and changes in location. Thus, DC PCSB staff wants assurance from Rocketship PCS that in the immediate future the school will increase its community engagement and plan carefully for any future campus openings to ensure it maintains a sufficient timeline.”

During the period that Rocketship was before the board discussing its latest campus fiasco in Ward 5, it was revealed that its Washington Regional Director Jacque Patterson is no longer with the CMO. I cannot help but wonder if his departure is associated with the school’s problems integrating into this city.

There was one bright spot last night. Relatively new board member Naomi Shelton is beginning to show real leadership of this body. Her thoughtful comments were direct and heartfelt. She instantly connected with an inhospitable crowd. Here is someone to keep our eyes on.

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

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

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

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

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



Washington Math Science and Technology PCS will close June 30th

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Math Science and Technology PCS should not be closed

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

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

I wrote at the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is this going to end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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