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. All 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 claims.

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.

Should D.C. School Reform Act give more power to charter board?

I’ve written much about the hearing before the D.C. Council earlier this month regarding a bill to increase transparency of the city’s charter schools. However, there was a fascinating discussion that occurred towards the end of the session between Phil Mendelson, the Council chairman, and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, that has yet to be reported.

The conversation revolved around the power that the charter board has to force the schools it oversees to comply with its rules. Mr. Pearson was asked by Mr. Mendelson what actions his organization can take if charters refuse to abide by its requests for information. For example, charters are required to provide to the PCSB minutes of its board meetings. What happens, the Council chair wanted to know, if a school decides simply not to comply?

Mr. Pearson indicated that there are number of steps his organization would take. It would start with communication from his group to the school. If this doesn’t work then a letter might go from Mr. Pearson to the school’s board chair. Alternatively, the school’s board may be required to meet with the PCSB. The charter board could also mandate that the school’s board report on the issue at one of its monthly meetings. Finally, Mr. Pearson added, if a school fails to submit material the board would begin charter revocation.

Responding to Mr. Pearson’s remarks, Mr. Mendelson likened charter revocation to taking a sledge hammer to a school to get it to do the right thing. The D.C. Council chairman alluded to the fact that the punishment seemed extreme considering the school’s indiscretion. Mr. Mendelson pondered as to whether it would be better to encode the board’s stipulations into law. Mr. Pearson answered that the PCSB does not distinguish between its regulations and statutes when it comes to information derived from schools. However, the charter board executive director did concede that charters may be more inclined to satisfy obligations if they were part of legislation. “People generally don’t want to break the law,” Mr. Pearson opined.

The back and forth between the two men is interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve written many times about the excessive burdens that the charter board places on its schools. If these commands had to part of D.C. code in order to be in effect, would this step inherently limit the data that the board seeks from its schools? Would this change impose a higher standard on guidelines established by the board?

This topic also calls into question whether the charter board should have other disciplinary tools at its disposal. Should it be permitted to withhold funds if a school is not responding appropriately to the board? Perhaps a grade on compliance should be incorporated into the Performance Management Framework?

As we grow and mature as a local charter school movement these matters will almost certainly increase in importance. However, for today, we will worry about open meetings and FOIA requests.

Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of DC PCSB, regarding the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Yesterday, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education as part of a public hearing on the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019. I am reprinting his remarks today with commentary to follow in future posts.

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen and councilmembers, thank you for inviting me to speak today on the issues of transparency and accountability for our city’s public charter schools. I am Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board.

The Public School Transparency Amendment Act would require public charter schools to be subject to the DC Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and several other requirements.

As I testified in June on another piece of legislation, we support the requirement that board meetings of public charter schools be made public when discussing expansion, budgets, or closure. We believe that there need to be a few closed session exemptions to account for areas where public charter schools as independent 501(c)(3)’s are different from government entities. This includes exemptions for information concerning individual students or staff or matters that would materially affect their competitive position in relation to other schools. By adding clarity to the law, it will benefit both the school’s boards, families, and staff.

To me, transparency is an essential part of the public charter school concept. It goes hand in hand with flexibility and accountability.

The question for me is not whether charter schools should be open and transparent. The question is what is the best way to achieve this end. Our primary goal is that our schools ensure students perform well academically. We have worked for years at the Public Charter School Board to make more information available to the public in the smartest way possible.

• When it comes to how public charter schools spend their money, every public charter school is subject to an annual audit by a third party certified public accountant approved by a committee of the Public Charter School Board, the OCFO, and OSSE. Those audits are published on our website, along with schools’ IRS tax returns and their annual budgets. Each is verified and accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. In addition, we require schools to break down their expenditures into four categories – occupancy, personnel, student support, and administration — so that school expenditures can be compared with each other on an apples to apples basis. This report is released to the public through our Financial Analysis Report.

• Looking at school operations, performance and governance, we post schools’ charter goals, their student handbooks, average high and low teacher salaries, academic data, student commute maps, enrollment and demographic data, annual reports, at-risk funding plans, and contact information for the school’s board. This year we are adding to this board of trustees meeting calendars, including which meetings are open to the public, approved school board meeting minutes, the current salaries of the five most highly compensated individuals in the organization, and the contact information for key staff.

• We post on our website extensive information about our oversight of each school, including a school’s five- or ten-year review and renewal reports, equity reports, performance reports, compliance review reports, and detailed writeups from our classroom observations.

All the information I’ve just described is publicly available and easy to locate on our website. We’ve tried to include everything a family would want to know about a school. If there is more information folks want, we are certainly open to discussing how we can make that available.

I have noticed that many have been conflating “transparency,” with FOIA. FOIA is a tool of transparency, one which we believe is inappropriate to apply towards small, independent 501(c)(3) organizations. It is a blunt instrument that will do little to provide families with the information they need and want while having the potential, through its cost and time demands, to take resources away from the school quality goals we all share. If our goal is transparency, FOIA misses the mark, especially for families with limited time and resources.

Years ago, policymakers decided to address the issue of sunshine in public charter schools by making DC PCSB subject to FOIA. As a result of working closely with schools across all issue areas, we can provide most, if not all, of the information sought after by the public. We receive requests from all types of citizens including journalists, academic researchers, union representatives, parents, and teachers. For FY 2018, the sum of requests totaled 73. This year, we have already surpassed that number.

But the number of requests only tells part of the story. The key metric in assessing a FOIA request is the scope. Some freedom of information requests are narrow and can be completed in under an hour. However, larger requests can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to complete and have the potential to paralyze a small organization. This is where our overall concern lies.

In recent months, DC PCSB itself has received multiple requests that encompass hundreds of thousands of responsive documents and will require hundreds of hours of review. There is a multiplier effect on the staff cost and hours. Documents must generally be reviewed by multiple staff members, including those with a legal background, to ensure that no protected student data or other confidential or privileged information is accidentally released.

Let me provide two recent examples:

• We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

• Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.

I would hope most schools would not regularly receive requests like these. In fact, some schools may not receive any requests at all. But I would also expect schools experiencing turmoil, the schools that can least afford to spend time digging through and reviewing emails and other documents, will be the ones impacted.

Since many schools do not have an in-house legal team, much of the work of information gathering and review will fall on teachers and staff. Therefore, most will need to work with outside attorneys who are not on school email systems, and do not have the ability to search through the communications of staff. In practice, this means the work of searching will likely be performed by the teachers whose work is implicated by the request. The results will then be sent to the legal counsel to apply any exemptions and redactions, at a substantial hourly fee.

There are more effective and efficient ways to satisfy the public’s desire to understand the work of public charter schools. FOIA will not give families information on their student’s performance or IEP decisions they can’t already obtain under federal law. FOIA will not improve communication between families and schools. FOIA will not help a family understand a budget. FOIA may not even produce deliberative emails between board members, which will be searched, reviewed, and ultimately redacted.

The harmful effects of FOIA go beyond the trouble of searching and reviewing documents and emails. As members and staff of the Council know only too well, the presence of FOIA inhibits free and open electronic communication. This makes decision makers less able to engage in the kind of open electronic communication that allows organizations to operate at peak performance.

The process of FOIA takes time and focus off students and off the operations of the school. And this is the fundamental issue we have with this bill: it will do nothing to improve student achievement; instead, it will make it harder for schools to be truly excellent. We honestly believe that FOIA will not further the cause of quality schools and instead result in school spending hours and dollars that could otherwise be spent on students for a gain in transparency that we believe will ultimately be negligible.

With this reality in mind, I ask that we work together to identify inaccessible information and figure out ways we can make that public instead of subjecting individual schools to this catch-all tool of FOIA. In the long run, it will be more helpful for schools to give families and communities specific information rather than inundate them with thousands of pages of irrelevant documents.

Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019

Before I conclude my testimony, I would like to turn my attention to the Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019 to express my support. As an independent authorizer, DC PCSB is required to hold each public charter school to high standards — we must not only hold school leaders accountable for academic success, but also ensure they are acting in the best interest of all students attending the school.

Over the next two school years, DC PCSB will conduct a high-stakes review of 29 different public charter schools. Some of these reviews could result in a school closure.

Closing a school and settling its finances is a complex process that requires robust oversight. During the public charter school closure process, our oversight of school operations is hampered by the fact that the school’s charter has already been revoked or non-renewed. Our ultimate leverage is gone. As such, it becomes more difficult to address issues that may arise during the school’s wind-down period, such as those involving the school’s expenditures and finances; oversight of school personnel; and cooperation with the transition efforts of the acquiring school in the event of an asset acquisition.

The ability to impose conditions will help DC PCSB perform its oversight obligations more effectively during a closing school’s final months of operation. Importantly, DC PCSB will be better able to safeguard public funds that a school might otherwise use inappropriately. For example, we could impose a condition that all of a school’s expenditures over $10,000 would be subject to DC PCSB approval, which could prevent a school leader from receiving a golden parachute. Those funds, if otherwise unspent, would go back to OSSE and be redistributed upon dissolution of the school.

The proposed bill will also help the DC PCSB ensure positive outcomes for students in the closing school, including helping those students enroll in a high-quality school for the following school year. For example, we could require that schools hire more staff if there is an uptick in safety incidents. We could require schools to offer retention bonuses to teachers or employees to help ensure students finish out the school year in a safe and stable environment. We could demand that schools turn over contact lists to our enrollment specialists or require schools to allow us to send enrollment specialists to school property to ensure families are apprised of their options.

I know I usually appear before you to advocate for preserving school autonomy, and I recognize this bill goes in the opposite direction. However, it applies only in the narrowest of cases – specifically those few months between when the board votes to close a school and when it actually closes its doors and winds down its operations. We believe it will considerably improve our ability to safeguard public funds and ensure better outcomes for students in closing schools.

As the sole charter authorizer in our nation’s capital, DC PCSB has been long committed to providing families, students, and the public with information on public charter school performance. That is why we collect and publish so much detailed information about every single public charter school in the District. DC PCSB remains committed to working closely with schools across all issue areas, to provide most, if not all, of the information sought by the public in the interest of what is best for students. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.

DC charter board about to approve two new school campuses

Last night the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting and it was one of the least controversial sessions I have witnessed in years. The session started with former PCSB board member Sara Mead receiving the organization’s Distinguished Service Award. Ms. Mead served on the board from 2009 to 2017. Here’s what I wrote when she stepped down:

“Yesterday was also the final board meeting for PCSB member Sara Mead as her term is up after eight years of volunteer service.  She will be missed as she consistently provided a rational and thoughtful voice, especially in her specialty area of early childhood education.”

On the agenda was Rocketship PCS, which is seeking to open its third location in the District in the Fort Totten area of Ward 5 during the 2020 to 2021 school year. Not discussed on Monday evening was the fiasco Rocketship created when it tried to create a school in this same area in 2018. The charter had 22 students enrolled for the additional location only to find that it was unable to secure a facility. The parents of the children that had signed up scrambled to find spots at Rocketship’s existing Ward 7 and Ward 8 sites a couple of months before the term was to begin. This mess represented the third instance in which Rocketship delayed constructing classrooms in the District. Following the experience a couple of years ago, the charter board required Rocketship to come before it regarding expansion plans with a proposed lease. Rocketship has met this condition through an agreement to rent property from the Cafritz Foundation.

The representatives from Rocketship appeared to have alleviated fears that it has not properly engaged with the local community before moving into a new neighborhood. This was a criticism the public leveled at the school regarding its first two locations. It certainly helps that its Legacy Prep in Ward 7, servicing in 2018 about 100 pre-Kindergarten three through third grade students of which three-quarters are classified as at-risk, scored a 94.6 percent as a Tier 1 school on the Performance Management Framework the very first time it has been graded on this tool. It’s Rise Academy school, teaching 527 pre-Kindergarten three though fourth grade pupils last year, ranks as a high Tier 2. Look for the additional campus to be approved.

Proceeding the discussion about Rocketship, Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts was up to discuss moving to a different location during the second half of the next school year. The charter has outgrown the “Blue Castle” where it has operated the last eight years, and the building is about to be redeveloped. The school is seeking to move to 475 School Street SW, also in Ward 6 as is its current address. The proposed property is quite a bit larger than its present campus, coming in at 62,500 square feet versus its existing 42,500 square feet. The upgraded site, which will provide an auditorium, media studio space, and a dance studio, will cost $2,000 more per student than the school currently spends. This raised concerns by the board, especially in light of the fact that Richard Wright successfully completed a Financial Corrective Action Plan in 2017. Dr. Marco Clark, the school’s CEO, testified that Richard Wright will be able to meet its operating budget by enrolling additional students and subleasing space to another charter. The board requested a revised budget representing these revenue projections, and, as with Rocketship, I anticipate this amendment being granted without difficulty in October.

On a purely philosophical note, I found the questions the members of the PCSB asked regarding future cash flow at Richard Wright to be perfectly appropriate and consistent with its role as a board. Why then could it have not initiated a similar line of inquiry when problems first surfaced regarding student safety issues at Monument Academy PCS?

D.C. charter board executive director explains apparent contradiction in treatment of Monument Academy before and after becoming chartered

In yesterday’s post entitled “No Surprise Here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein Don’t Like Charter Schools,” I wrote:

“It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.”

I was reacting to the criticism by Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein that the charter board was aware for months of student safety concerns at Monument Academy PCS but took no action to remedy the situation. My point was that the board has no difficulty setting a long list of conditions for a new charter when it is about to be approved to open, as it did in the case of Monument, but then appears to support school autonomy when operational issues arise. Here is the public comment responding to my assertion by Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director:

“Conditions prior to opening are legally allowed as the applicant is not yet a charter school with exclusive control over its operations. Once a school has a charter it has exclusive control as guaranteed by the School Reform Act and it is then generally inappropriate for PCSB to direct a school to take specific actions. Pre-opening conditions are designed to ensure the school opens strong. Given the struggles of Monument Academy we probably should have set more.”

Mr. Pearson seemed to offer a similar line of argument to the Post when asked about the situation at the charter:

“It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting. We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.”

I appreciate Mr. Pearson’s viewpoint. It helps to understand the thinking of the charter board. However, it is not completely satisfying.

When a D.C. charter school is facing serious academic problems, the PCSB sets concrete goals for continuance at the high stakes reviews that it conducts every five years of a charter’s existence. When cash flow problems arise that may threaten the ability of a school to meet its fiscal obligations, the board will issue a detailed Financial Corrective Action Plan.

Protecting the health and safety of students by law is an obligation of D.C.’s charter schools. When the board is apprised of such issues it may not have the power to issue proclamations such as “hire two new full-time security guards.” But I contend that it can set goals just as in the case of academics and fiduciary matters. In the case of Monument, it has been reported that over the last school term it reported more than 1,800 safety and security incidents.

The board should have insisted that in order for the charter to continue operating these occurrences must be reduced to a particular number by a specific date. Perhaps that number should be zero.

No surprise here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein don’t like charter schools

No sooner does a new school year begin then Washington D.C.’s trifecta of malevolent charter school education reporters spring into action. Last week we witnessed a tome written by Rachel Cohen attacking almost all of the city’s charter school support organizations. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein shot an arrow directly aimed at the DC Public Charter School Board over its lack of oversight regarding problems previously identified at Monument Academy PCS. They wrote:

“Top D.C. education officials knew for months about safety issues plaguing a charter school that serves some of the city’s most vulnerable children but did not force changes, public records and interviews with school employees show.

Students at Monument Academy Public Charter School fought during the school day, routinely destroyed school property and simply left campus without permission. Complaints poured into the city agency charged with overseeing the high-profile school, and some staff members reported to their superiors that they felt unsafe. Some child advocates and parents said they thought the school was dangerous, too.”

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, disagreed with the assessment of Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein. According to the Post:

“In an interview, Pearson said he and his staff acted appropriately as they fielded a high volume of complaints about Monument. Charter board staff members who monitored security, and behavior incidents at the school shared their findings with Monument officials.”

As a reminder, following the May 2019 monthly charter board meeting outlining the more than 1,800 safety incidents the school recorded last term, the Monument board voted to shutter the facility at the end of the school year. Then a dozen of the town’s nonprofits came to the rescue with a commitment of $1.7 million to help the school survive financially. The Friendship Educational Foundation agreed to add Monument under its umbrella. A new principal has been named and the school’s board has been reconstituted. The charter has now reopened.

Yesterday’s piece does raise some interesting observations about how the PCSB views its supervision of the schools it regulates. For example, Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein included the following comment from Mr. Pearson concerning actions the charter board took regarding Monument:

“’It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting,’ Pearson said. ‘We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.’”

Mr. Pearson is reluctant to dictate the steps Monument should take, I’m guessing, because of the board’s respect for charter school autonomy. But as pointed out many times before on this space, the PCSB seems to have no issue with telling schools exactly what they need to do to open their doors. As an illustration, let’s look at the conditions Monument was required to meet to get its charter back in 2014:

  1. By July 15, 2014, the school will amend its charter petition to (a) reflect a school program that serves grades five through eight, which will also be reflect in Attachment K of the school’s charter agreement, and (b) adopt the Elementary/Middle School Performance Management Framework (“PMF”) as its goals and student academic achievement expectations, thought it may state its intention to seek eligibility for the Alternative Accountability Framework in lieu of the PMF. The school may only serve grades nine through twelve after the approval of an amendment to the school’s charter and charter agreement.
  2. By July 15, 2014, the school will develop and submit to PCSB a revised implementation plan that delineates responsible persons and activities necessary to open the school by the fall of 2016.
  3. By July 15, 2014, the school will provide to PCSB job descriptions and qualifications for the residential staff and a statement that details the operation of its boarding program.
  4. By July 15, 2014, the school will submit to PCSB memoranda of understanding and articulation agreements with the following partner organizations: Flamboyan, Turnaround, and a mental health provider.
  5. By December 15, 2014, the school will submit goals to PCSB consistent with the Alternative Accountability Framework.
  6. By December 15, 2014, the school will develop and a scope and sequence for each subject/content area taught in year one of operation that include: goals/objectives, standards, instructional strategies, summative assessments, and resources (instructional materials).
  7. By December 15, 2014, the school will develop comprehensive Social-Emotional Learning and Life Skills curricula for grades five through eight, inclusive of mission-specific accountability goals to measure the program’s effectiveness, instructional strategies, standards, and resources (e.g., instructional materials).
  8. By December 15, 2014, the school will secure a sufficient school facility that includes all necessary amenities and services for a residential school and the proposed life-skills program, as evidenced by submitting a lease or purchase agreement to PCSB. If, due to circumstances outside of the School’s control, a lease or purchase agreement cannot be secured by that date, the School commits to submitting to PCSB a detailed time line for securing a facility of not more than 60 days by December 17, 2014.
  9. By January 12, 2015, the school will submit to PCSB a signed and executed charter agreement with all attachments consistent with PCSB’s charter school agreement template (attached as Exhibit A) for PCSB Board approval.

A pretty incredulous list. It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.

With these three reporters, labor unions, and politicians circling the charter school sector looking for any reason to pounce, it is imperative as a movement that we get this governance stuff right.

It is even more imperative that we protect the health and safety of all of our students.

At-risk student lottery preference in D.C. school lottery is a bad idea

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote a story about the controversy over Washington Latin PCS’s application before the DC Public Charter School Board to replicate next year.

The only problem is that there never should have been controversy over this issue. Latin clearly meets the charter board’s criteria for a ceiling enrollment increase through its consistent attainment of Tier 1 status for both its middle school and high school and due to the fact that its student wait list is around 1,500 pupils. The charter board, under its own rules, should have given the green light to expansion without six pages of conditions imposed on this institution.

The charter school bargain has always been expressed as autonomy in return for accountability. Washington Latin exemplifies this standard.

If there was ever a definition of mission-creep we have found it in the work of the PCSB.

The charter board was highly critical of the low proportion of at-risk student who attend the school. But as they like to say at Latin “words matter.” This is straight from the school’s website:

“Unlike the majority of public schools, Washington Latin serves a diverse student body; our demographics mirror those of the city. We believe that all students can learn and deserve access to a rigorous, quality education. As a public school, we have civic and moral obligations to accept all students who come to us for an education. We consider a truly integrated school community to be the only way to accomplish our classical education model, helping students develop the ability to discuss ideas and make moral decisions within a diverse community.”

The school’s goal has always been to have a diverse student body. If you visit Latin you will see it for yourself; I don’t believe there is a charter in this town that is more of a melting pot of young people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. It works intentionally toward this goal. As a former board member of the school I have lost track of how many bus routes it runs in order to pull students from each Ward of the District.

Scott Pearson, the PSCB’s executive director, believes that the solution to gain even more diversity at Latin is to provide an at-risk student preference in the My School DC Lottery. Ms. Stein quotes him as stating:

“If we are really serious about equity and if we are serious about making sure that our least advantaged families have the ability to go to our high-performing schools, we need to do more.”

I agree, we do need to do more. But the answer is not to discriminate against certain children gaining admission to some of the city’s highest performing schools due to the color of their skin or their economic status.

No, there is a much more superior solution than tinkering with the lottery. We need to open more charter schools. But the charter board, the same one that is so critical of the tremendously difficult work being done at Latin, seems to make it as arduous as possible to replicate or open new schools.

I’ve talked so much about the obstacles that it puts in place that I don’t really want to repeat them here. But I do want for a minute to provide a taste of what I envision for the District’s educational landscape.

For those of us involved in public school reform, we desperately desire a quality seat for every child. Yet, today, we have numerous low performing traditional schools, many with proficiency rates in reading and math in the single or low double digits. These need to be immediately turned over the charters. I don’t care if they are given to our home-grown versions of these schools or we bring in charter school networks from outside of our city. As charters proliferate by taking over the buildings of DCPS sites or by co-locating in the empty hallways of the humongous number of under-utilized regular schools, we will provide a stellar education to all of those beautiful children that we categorize as at-risk.

But doing this will take courage. It will be the political fight of the century. I am optimistic we can get this done in our lifetimes. Perhaps we need to begin with baby steps. One simple way to get started is to have a unanimous unambiguous vote by our charter board to have a school like Latin replicate.

D.C. public charter school board annual report has one interesting number

The headline is not actually fair. There are lots of fascinating statistics contained in the 2019 Annual Report of the DC Public Charter School Board. In fact, what you will immediately notice if you review this document is how many numbers are included in its pages. For example:

  • 47.3% of public school students attend a public charter school. Down from 47.6% the previous year
  • 20,717 students are attending a top performing, or Tier 1, public charter school. The number of DC students attending a top-ranked public charter school increased for the fourth year.
  • 84.3% of PK – 12 students expressed satisfaction with their schools by choosing to return for the next school year.

Other noticeable information included is the fact that the board conducted 28 Qualitative Site Reviews in the past year and the names of the charters that were visited are listed. Moreover, the student re-enrollment rate continues to climb year after year with the proportion reaching 84.3 percent for the 2017 to 2018 term. Another excellent indicator is that the out-of-school suspension rates and expulsion rates show a steady decline when looked at over the last six years.

However, here’s the finding that I would like to focus on today. The mid-year withdrawal rate for students in charters is listed at 5.2 percent, although the manner of calculating this number has recently changed. For citywide schools this percentage is 6.2 percent for the recently completed school year. The mid-year entry rate for charters is only 1.2 percent, which compares to a 5.0 percentage citywide. In other words, significantly less students are enrolling in charters throughout the school year.

This picture could be due to a number of factors. The reality that many charters do not by policy back fill slots throughout the term, as I wrote about the other day, is certainly a contributing cause. Another reason for the low mid-year entry rate is that charters do not receive additional revenue if more students sign up during a term. The amount of money that a charter receives to educate students and pay for a facility is fixed by the student count that occurs in early October. Although many people have proposed revisions to this system, nothing has been done to resolve this issue.

There also is most likely a bias against bringing in kids who have not been in the school from the start of a year. When the future existence of these schools is based upon high stakes testing, there is not much of an incentive to go after filling empty seats.

However, the low mid-year entry rate strikes me as wrong. We know that charters offer a superior product to the traditional schools. Here is another statistic included in the PCSB’s Annual Report: proficiency rates for 2018 in English and math as measured by students scoring a four or above on the PARCC assessment have increased from the previous year in almost all subgroups.

Now is the time to figure out as a charter school community how to change our rules and financial consequences to encourage more students to enroll in our facilities mid-year.