Eerie quiet at monthly meeting of D.C. charter board

Last night’s meeting of the D.C. Public Charter School Board can only be described as strange. Missing from the public comment segments of the last few months were the throngs of people supporting the teachers’ union from Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep campus passionately demanding that the charter board force its schools to adhere to open meeting and Freedom of Information Request laws. I do not even think Christian Herr, the Prep teacher behind the collective bargaining agreement effort, was in attendance. It was as if the decision to close two Chavez schools and pass a transparency policy lacking two key components was a fait accompli. The charter school opponents must have decided that their time was better spent before the National Labor Relations Board or in front of the D.C. Council trying to place their stamp on the transparency legislation being introduced today by Charles Allen.

The session started with a longer than usual introduction by board chair Rick Cruz. He has now been in his volunteer position for one year. Mr. Cruz announced that his organization has received 11 applications to open new schools in the 2020-to-2021 school year, a gigantic increase over previous cycles. He said that in April there would be presentations by each of these groups. Mr. Cruz also informed the audience that last Friday a group of students from National Collegiate Preparatory PCS had come to the PCSB headquarters in an effort to reverse the decision to shutter their school. The board chair stated that he appreciated their efforts but that they could not now change a ruling that was based upon the poor academic performance this school has demonstrated over its history.

Lastly, Mr. Cruz revealed that the term is coming to an end for board member Don Soifer who had joined this body in December 2008. I have always greatly appreciated Mr. Soifer’s thoughtful and respectful questions of school representatives, and his strong defense of the autonomy of our local charter school movement.

At the conclusion of Mr. Cruz’s comments the board navigated through its agenda with few delays or detours. The most interesting part to me was the discussion around Friendship PCS’s takeover of WEDJ PCS. It turns out that this is not the typical assumption of management of one LEA by another as we have seen, for instance, with Friendship PCS’s decision to acquire IDEAL PCS. What is transpiring in this case is that the arts-integrated program of City Arts and Prep PCS is being transitioned over to Friendship’s Armstrong campus, along with many of its arts staff. Friendship will do this without needing to request an enrollment ceiling as it has space to incorporate the students from the site that is being closed. The move will result in some extremely fortunate charter being able to move into a truly beautiful school building at 705 Edgewood Street, N.E.

As foreshadowed, the discussion around the plan by Cesar Chavez PCS to close two campuses and consolidate high school students at its Parkside site was anti-climatic. With hardly a whimper the board unanimously went along with the plan, and just like that the first charter school in the nation’s capital to become unionized will become history this June.

Also passed without objection was the revised school transparency policy.

The longest dialog of the night involved an agreed-upon notice of truancy concern issued against Ingenuity Prep PCS. There is a recognized issue at this Ward 8 elementary school around ensuring that kids show up for class each day. It was mentioned by Aaron Cuny, a co-founder of the school and past CEO, when I interviewed him last October, and it was admitted to yesterday by the other co-founder and interim head Will Stoetzer present with board chair Peter Winik. I have to say that the school’s leadership gave little sign that they have a handle on this problem despite the expressed desire of this charter to reverse its slowly declining Performance Management Framework scores and become a Tier 1 facility so that it can replicate. The situation calls for the creation of a solid action plan that incorporates strategies utilized by other institutions teaching this highly at-risk population of kids.

In April comes the review of new school applications.

In trying to save a D.C. charter school, Chavez and TenSquare become the enemy

Two themes emerged at last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board that focused on whether Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy should be allowed to close its Prep and Capitol Hill campuses. The first is that the bromide that has been accepted by the public school reform movement, namely that charters are public schools that are privately run, could not be further from the truth.

Yesterday, as in January’s charter board meeting, DC ACTS, the union associated with the American Federation of Teachers, was out in full-force with teacher after teacher, again wearing their red shirts embossed with the union logo, testifying against the consolidation plan. If charters were privately run, then the Chavez board could have made the decision on its own to shutter campuses and it would have been a done deal. Instead, hours were taken up by testimony by the union, complete with claims that Chavez and TenSquare, the company hired by the school to turnaround its academic performance, were “monetizing its assets.” It was simply a financial decision, the unionized Prep campus instructors asserted, meant to line the pockets of the board and the consulting group. Never mind the significant improvements in Performance Management Framework scores that Chavez has posted since it partnered with this firm.

Now it is actually the finances that provide the final proof that these alternative schools are not privately run. As pointed out by Andre Bhatia, co-chair of the Chavez Board, the school in 2010 consolidated its debt around the renovation of two schools and the purchase of the Parkside campus into $27.2 million in bonds. The bond payments come to $2.45 million per year. In order to cover this cost the Chavez network needed to grow to 1,500 students. However, currently, there are only 930 students enrolled in the network. The Prep and Capitol Hill campuses have been losing students for years, and the total number will decrease by 130 when Parkside Middle finally closes.

In 2017, according to Bethany Little, also a co-chair of the Chavez board, when the DC PCSB was pondering the decision as whether to shutter Parkside Middle due to poor academic performance, the school warned at least five times that this move would place severe financial pressure on the charter which would most likely result in reconfiguration of its campuses. The situation that Chavez finds itself in now is that it can merge its Capitol Hill High with Parkside and turn out the lights at Prep with the displacement of 133 sixth and seventh grade students, or become insolvent with the result that almost a thousand pupils would have to find new schools in which to enroll.

Of course, if the school’s board could make unilateral decisions, Parkside Middle would still be signing up new pupils. Just as with Excel Academy PCS, City Arts and Prep PCS, and National Collegiate Academy PCHS, the ruling to end operation came from a public governmental body, the DC PCSB, and not from boards that are free to operate without outside interference. We really have to reject the claim that charter schools are privately run at every opportunity.

My second takeaway from the session is that labor unions have really fallen out of favor in this country, and that this is a positive sign. On Monday, Mrs. Irasema Salcido, the founder, first principal, and current board member of Chavez, read a prepared statement and spent more time than any of the school representatives explaining and defending the strategic initiative that was the subject of the evening’s conversation. This is quite a turnaround in her viewpoint, since I remember Mrs. Salcido’s background as I listened to her detail it numerous times to others when I was involved with this school. She was raised by her grandmother in Mexico, and when she was 14 years old she came to this country to join her parents, speaking no English. She picked strawberries in the fields from sunup to sundown with other migrant workers, eventually obtaining a Master’s Degree from Harvard University. Her experience led her to name her charter school after Cesar Chavez, the farm worker union organizer. But here she was for all to see exerting that the singular viable path forward involved closing the only unionized D.C. charter. As an aside, I should mention that since becoming a part of DC ACTS almost two years ago, a collective bargaining agreement has never been finalized with the Prep staff. Unions have no place in an educational movement that depends on being able to make minute-by-minute operational adjustments to meet the needs of scholars.

The charter board will vote at its March meeting whether to approve the Chavez proposal.

Revised D.C. charter board transparency policy missing open meeting and FOIA requirements

The DC Public Charter School Board has released its revised school transparency policy ahead of tonight’s monthly meeting, and absent are two highly controversial provisions that many have insisted need to be included. While the document does add additional requirements for information that schools must include on their websites, such as the salaries of the five top earning officials if they make over one hundred thousand a year, there is no rule that charters must adhere to open meeting laws or have to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. This is going to make a lot of people angry.

The proposed policy does include this language around informing the public regarding the ability to participate in individual charter school board meetings:

“While DC PCSB does not prescribe a particular open meetings policy, schools will be required to develop a policy pertaining to board meeting accessibility. This policy shall include the number of open meetings the school plans to hold per year.”

Regarding the call for charters to be required to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests, the board rejected this suggestion. It commented:

“DC PCSB does not support this largely because staff burden in answering FOIA requests may impede on schools’ academic programs. As an independent government agency, DC PCSB is subject to FOIA, which means that the public may access all documents submitted to DC PCSB by schools. Items that are often requested from DC PCSB via FOIA have been added to the policy and will be posted on school websites (e.g. school budgets, board meeting nibutes). “

The board is exactly following my recommendations on these topics.

The supporting documentation for tonight’s session states that during the PCSB’s January meeting ten people testified in favor of having schools comply with open meeting laws and nine added their support for charters having to answer FOIA submissions.

Expect fireworks to fly later today as the board is also considering the move by Cesar Chavez PCS to close a middle and high school campus.

Most interesting parts of last night’s monthly D.C. charter board meeting were not on the agenda

Let me start my summary of Monday evening’s meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board by pointing out the improvements that have been implemented for those who watch the proceedings on the web. The issue around the sound not being at a sufficient level has been solved, and now there are fancy graphics that announce the subject matter before the members. Both changes elevate the professionalism of the experience.

The PCSB gave the green light to 15-year charter renewals, all without conditions, to DC Bilingual PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, and Two Rivers PCS. The schools received tons of accolades from the board, and I’m sure the members were tremendously relieved that attorney Stephen Marcus was not at the witness stand once again trying to fend off charter revocation for one of his clients. It was a welcome respite.

As in the past, many people have figured out that much of the real action occurs during the comment sections that are available at the beginning and end of these proceedings. Yesterday, it was a perfect opportunity for teachers from Cesar Chavez Prep PCS to flood the public testimony list. Just last week the school announced that it would shutter this campus, as well as the one on Capitol Hill, in order to consolidate its offerings as a consequence of declining enrollment. The board will consider the restructuring next month and vote on the plan in March.

One after another the instructors spoke, railing against the administration of Chavez, and specifically, the TenSquare Group, that just helped this charter management organization dramatically improve last year’s results on the Performance Management Framework. From TenSquare’s press release:

“All four Chavez Schools’ scores went up—6 points on average. Chavez Parkside High School (Ward 7) received the highest score in the network—59.8, up 7.6 points over last year—putting the school within striking distance of Tier 1 status.”

It was actually a clever strategy by the Prep teachers. Chavez was not on the agenda so they used the board’s consideration of a new school transparency policy to argue that individual charters should be subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests and have to operate under D.C.’s Open Meeting Act, two stipulations not included in the document. They then went on to complain that the proposed changes at their school were done behind closed doors and without their involvement. I have to say that in the end the entire charade made little sense. These are the same people who voted to have a union intercede in their relationship between themselves and management. That decision really makes it exceedingly difficult to buy into the notion that they should now have a seat at the table. In addition, the employees would have had much more credibility if they had come to the gathering in shirts labeled with the Cesar Chavez logo. Instead, all wore red tops that proclaimed that they were members of DC ACTS, a collective bargaining unit associated with the American Federation of Teachers. It belied who they were really there to support.

Also not on the list for discussion, and passed without discussion, was approval of LEARN DC PCS’s request to extend the deadline to March 1, 2019 for its response to conditions imposed on the school by the board at the December monthly meeting. The original deadline was January 25th. The meeting material states that the delay is needed “because LEARN DC is still having internal discussions about the conditions.” Could it be that LEARN is actually reconsidering whether to come here in the aftermath of having to comply with the long list of rules? I have no evidence that this is the case, but a move of this kind would certainly make a significant statement.

1,700 charter school students may need to find new classrooms next term

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein claimed yesterday that approximately 1,700 students attending charters will have to find new schools to attend for the 2019-to-2020 term. The number is the product of the decision announced a couple of days ago by the Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy to shutter two of its campuses and actions by the DC Public Charter School Board to close City Arts and Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, and National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. This news comes in the wake of charter school enrollment in the 2018-to-2019 school year dropping a percentage point compared to those attending DCPS. The decrease is a first in the over twenty year history of charters in the nation’s capital.

As a reminder, here is the reaction of Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC PCSB, to the demographic shift:

“For the 10th yr enrollment has increased in public schools but the 1st time the percentage of DC charter school students has gone down. This slight decline reflects our commitment to opening good schools and closing low-performing ones. It’s about quality and choice, not numbers.”

I agree with the charter board’s emphasis on quality.  Moreover, while the decisions by the board may not be purely about numbers, this assessment may at the same time not be completely accurate. Recently, Lenora Robinson-Mills, the PCSB’s chief operating officer, wrote a heart-felt article about her own feelings about charter revocation in which she compared the action to the death of a family member. She opined:

“We’re working internally now to figure out how to provide better support sooner to families affected by the closing of their school, but it’s difficult to navigate the school’s right to due process. Maybe the answer is a lottery preference or lottery bypass for students attending closing schools? Perhaps it’s more and better communication with families before the final decision gets made so that they can take action sooner? Maybe it’s having someone at DC PCSB who can be the life-saving surgeon in my presenter’s death analogy. But that’s outside the role of the authorizer… “

My question today is if the PCSB could provide services that could help turnaround a school, would that really be considered outside the role of the authorizer? After all, the mission of the board “is to provide quality public school options for DC students, families, and communities. ” Is the board actually fulfilling its stated mission if it is authorizing new schools, allowing good schools to grow and replicate, and closing those that are under performing? What about helping those that are in need of assistance before getting to the point of terminating their operations?

With 1,7000 scholars now looking for new places to learn, perhaps we need a different answer to my last question.

D.C. charter board closes National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS

As predicted, yesterday afternoon the DC Public Charter School Board voted to revoke the charter of National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. The members were distressed by the school’s poor academic results, low high school graduation rates, and the inability to retain students from one term to the next. The PCSB also felt that the turnaround plan came too late for them to assess whether it had a realistic chance of succeeding.

The only real debate occurred over the timing of the end of operations. Some argued that the school should be allowed to continue for three more years without accepting new pupils so that those currently enrolled could graduate and others could find a new facility. In the end it was decided that the doors would be shuttered at the conclusion of the 2020 term, unless the charter fails to agree to conditions established by the board in the coming days. Closure would also occur sooner if the school discontinued offering a full range of academic courses, neglected to protect the health and safety of its students, and proved to be not financially viable.

I’m sure that the parents and students of this Ward 8 community are exceptionally upset with the decision of the charter board. However, I would argue that this anger is misdirected. Instead, they should be disappointed with the management of the school and its board of directors, which failed them.

The only hope now is that another charter agrees to come in and takeover this campus. The logical choice is Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS. However, in this case the timing is not good as this school in in the midst of a search for a new executive director. Richard Pohlman announced last November that this school year would be his last in his position.

D.C.’s National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS should be closed

Last Wednesday evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a public hearing regarding its decision at the December monthly meeting to begin charter revocation proceedings against National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. If you are interested in the mechanics of the operation of our local movement then this session is a primer in charter oversight. Come with me for a first-hand excursion through the three hours and fifty minute gathering.

Attorney Stephen Marcus was back representing a school facing closure, and he and his associate Sherry Ingram seemed completely undeterred by their recent loss regarding the saving of City Arts and Prep PCS. Mr. Marcus made a stunningly brilliant first move in facilitating the discussion by flipping the order of presentations. On this night the parents, students, and staff of the school would speak before management. It was smart because most people, like me, would normally watch the arguments by the charter board and the administration and then call it a day. But in having stakeholders go first, it elevated the respect shown to members of this Ward 8 residents while simultaneously setting the stage for sympathy for the plight of the organization.

The long lineup of people testifying did not disappoint. Parent Camilia Wheeler, who last year addressed the board as a mom with a student at WMST PCS, asked where these students are supposed to go if this school no longer exists. She indicated that between the years 2012 and 2017 twenty-six charters have been closed by the PCSB. Ms. Wheeler wanted to understand why the board was taking the easy way out by shutting these facilities. Instead of taking this route, she implored, the body should be helping these institutions.

Common themes that emerged from the highly passionate remarks involved the fact that this is the only school offering an International Baccalaureate program east of the river. Many pointed to the value of a school that allows its eleventh graders to travel to Panama each term, as one student indicated with all expenses paid. Others highlighted the importance of its STEM curriculum that emphasizes computer science, the training students receive in Sankofa, its teaching of soft skills initiative, and the instructors who are willing to assist their scholars at anytime.

However, what made this hearing especially poignant, and at the same time contentious, was the feeling that the PCSB was coming to take action against a population that was completely alienated from its way of life. School supporters said in no uncertain terms that shutting the doors to this school would open the doors to jail or death. The most striking example of the disconnect between the board and the community was when Scott Pearson asked a current student why only one out of three pupils returned to the charter this school year. The seventeen year old responded that he did not know the answer. A teacher soon called out this line of inquiry as an illustration of the lack of dignity that is routinely shown to those living in Anacostia. He explained that the high school student should have been prepared in advance for the interrogation. The accusation resulted in an apology by the PCSB executive director.

Everything was going the school’s way until it was time for the leadership team’s presentation. Here the picture of the path forward became murky. National Collegiate founder and chief executive officer Jennifer Ross put together a turnaround plan for the school that had been delivered to the board earlier in the afternoon. It includes enlisting Heather Wathington, formally the CEO of Maya Angelou PCS and its See Forever Foundation, as its board chair and leader of this effort. A major component includes the hiring of Blueprint, a consulting firm that has worked to improve academic performance with charters in Boston, Denver, and other locations. Founder and CEO Matthew Spengler was in attendance and reported some spectacular results by his company since its start in 2010, especially in the area of math proficiency.

The questions by Mr. Pearson regarding the new structure were instructive. You had to know how to read between the lines of the information he sought to see the points he was trying to make. Through his probing he cast doubt that Ms. Wathington has the time to play the role envisioned for her since she is currently the president of a Philadelphia private school for children of low-income single parents or guardians. He brought to light the fact that Blueprint had just visited Collegiate Prep the week before for three days, and that no actual contract, scope of work, or monetary structure had been finalized for continued assistance. Mr. Spengler also gave the impression that their business model involves communications with the charter remotely with major deliverables dependent on follow-up by the current head of school. It was clear that Mr. Pearson was wondering why TenSquare had not been brought in since it already has extensive experience in the D.C. market, especially since its modus operandi is that it brings in its own manager to increase the probability that desired results are achieved.

The essence of the proposed solution to what ails this charter, and the arguments that ensued over whether it met its established charter goals, is that it is all too little too late. National Collegiate has been graded six times on the Performance Management Framework during its decade of operation and the results in 2018 were its lowest yet at 26.7 percent. It has been a Tier 3 school for the last three years. When the school first reached this level in 2016 is when a serious turnaround should have begun. Let’s sincerely hope for these parents and children that another charter will take it over after its charter is revoked in a special meeting this afternoon.




Exclusive interview with Rick Cruz, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently for an interview with Rick Cruz, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked Mr. Cruz for his feelings about the state of the local charter movement.

“I think there are a number of things that are going well,” he answered without missing a beat.  “We released our School Quality Reports in November and the number of schools ranked Tier 1 continues to grow.  More of our students are attending Tier 1 schools than ever before and the number of Tier 3 schools and the pupils attending them are decreasing.  These phenomenons are, of course, not a complete picture of our sector but it’s a good indication that the schools that are bench-marked against overall city data are improving.  It is definitely a good sign.” 

“The performance of children in our subgroups,” Mr. Cruz added, “is also continuing to get better.  Black and Latino students, kids with different needs, such as special education children or English language learners, are performing well.  There are a number of our schools that teach the most difficult to educate children such as those living in poverty that have reached Tier 1 status.  This is especially hard work.  I feel good about the health of the local charter school movement.  The board is careful about burdening schools but we want to make sure they’re respecting every student’s rights and that’s the role we play when it comes to compliance.  But we also realize that we are a long way from the old days of being a handful of schools with 15 percent of the public school population.  We want cohesion in our buildings, and we want to make sure we are good stewards of public money, but we also need to balance these ideals with a freedom of schools to innovate.”

I then wanted to know from the PCSB chair if the board is trying to reduce the amount of information it is requesting from the schools it oversees.  “We think a lot about streamlining the material,” Mr. Cruz responded.  “For example, if we ask for data and the same information is required for The Office of the State Superintendent of Education then we report it to them.  We try and prevent the same statistics from being required of schools in different forms.  The board also invests in systems to improve the efficiency of reporting, and we strive to provide clarity around timelines and expectations.  We will also question the U.S. Department of Education, OSSE, or other groups as to the rationale for asking for numbers from our charters.  We are always looking for ways to make it easier for schools to respond to information requests.”

Mr. Cruz assumed his position at the PCSB last February.  I asked him if he had specific goals for his tenure as chair.  “Yes,” he affirmed.  “The first is the natural continuation of increasing the quality of our schools and the creation of more high quality seats.  I want to stay true to the processes that we have implemented, and we want to find other means to help schools get better, such as our middle schools.  One of the efforts we have made is to increase mental health services.  We want to aid social and emotional learning, decrease depression among our students, reduce bullying, and help young adults that are discovering aspects of their identity that may not be widely accepted.  Our staff tries to connect resources in our city that can benefit our children and families.”

“Next,” Mr. Cruz detailed, “I really want to work to ensure that charters have access to suitable facilities.  Our new schools cannot open, and others cannot grow and replicate, without adequate buildings.  The board has been a strong advocate with city leaders regarding spaces that would make great homes for our charters.  Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, argued the same point on the D.C. Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  One idea our staff has had around facilities is to encourage developers to include charter schools in their projects.  Another avenue we can look at, although it might not be optimal for school leaders, is to expand co-locating with other schools like they do in New York City.  We also need to effectively communicate the facility needs to our parents so that they can understand how important their voice is as advocates.  About a month ago we had more than 200 students in front of the D.C. Council.  Fundamentally we need facilities where children have a place to exercise and to be able to go outside, and therefore our buildings must have gymnasiums and fields.  We have many schools that are obtaining excellent academic results without these amenities, but if we want our children to have a joyful experience then they have to look more like real schools.”

Another focus of the PCSB chairman is to do more work around the ecosystem of education.  Mr. Cruz stated, “We can strive to increase mental health services as I’ve mentioned.  We can also assist with transportation, making sure it is safe for students to travel from one part of town to another, help obtain crossing guards and school resource officers.”

Mr. Cruz mentioned that transparency is a major objective of his time in office.  “This comes from my role as head of the board’s Finance Committee,” he imparted.  “We want to continue to find ways for citizens, school partners, and public officials to have access to financial information about our schools.  For example, we currently share our quarterly report from our Finance and Operations committees meetings online.  This tells you what schools we have concerns about. I asked Mr. Cruz if individual charter schools should be required to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, which will require a change in the law.  The PCSB chair indicated that in his opinion this was not a role for charters.  “One of the challenges,” Mr. Cruz asserted, “is that we need to protect the flexibility of schools. They need to focus on academics, safety, finances, facilities, personnel, and meeting their specific goals.  I think the current level of transparency is sufficient.  Our aim is to make it easier to look inside of these schools.”

I then asked Mr. Cruz if he was concerned about the relatively low number of applications to open new schools the charter board has been receiving in recent years.  It was obvious to me that he has given much thought to this issue.  “For myself,” Mr. Cruz replied, “I love it when there are a lot of groups wanting to open schools.  The current situation does make me take pause.  Is it because of the difficulty of obtaining facilities that prevents them from applying?  Is a 150-page application too long?  Is the board too hard on charters?   But you also have to realize that we are now in a mature charter school market.  There is a lot of competition for teachers, school leaders, facilities, and students.  We need to look at a particular geography and see what we are offering.  We also are interested in learning how to create a pipeline of leaders for our campuses.”

I brought up the subject of schools contracting with the TenSquare Group to improve their academic performance and I wanted to know if Mr. Cruz had an opinion on charters taking this step.  “School turnarounds are immensely difficult,” the PCSB chair offered.  “Some organizations accomplish this by being absorbed by a high performing CMO like ATA PCS did with KIPP DC PCS.  Others need help and contract with TenSquare and have seen some positive results.  Our job on the board is to hold schools responsible for making smart decisions in investing in their kids and teachers.  Academic performance is always the best indicator as to whether they made the right move.”

I mentioned to Mr. Cruz that I heard him say at a recent board meeting that he was disappointed with the academic performance of national charter management organizations that came to the District.  He was eager to respond to my observation.  “I’m extremely disappointed,” Mr. Cruz indicated, “when you look at Harmony PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, and Somerset Prep PCS.  These are schools that are doing great work in other locations.  We need to question their judgement and ours.  When a school decides to open here it needs to bring its ‘A’ game.  But Rocketship PCS has been an exception.  You look at the two campuses Rocketship has opened so far and the kids that they serve.  It is getting fantastic results.  I believe schools really need to perform a due diligence before coming to D.C.  They need to understand whether they have the right model and are going to offer the right grades.  They need to really get a grasp on who they are going to serve.  In addition, schools must respond extremely quickly to the results they are seeing in the first few weeks and months after opening.  How is the school doing with its homeless population, special education students, and English language learners?

All of this is to say that the board understands how difficult it is running a school.  It is really, really hard.  That is why we approach our roles with humility.  We want to preserve the flexibility and independence of schools.  We want the decision making to be done at the school level and provide them with support.  We recognize that their jobs are vitally important and we really don’t want to interfere with their work.”

Mr. Cruz ended our conversation by reiterating the importance of the DC Public Charter School Board’s role to hold schools to high standards, create the conditions for educators to lead, and to provide lots of quality information to families and provide assurance these public funds.   

D.C. charter board closes City Arts and Prep PCS; starts process to shutter Democracy Prep PCS and National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS

On a crowded night for business, and the first meeting for new board member Lea Crusey, the DC Public Charter School Board voted five to two to close City Arts and Prep PCS (formally the William E. Doar Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (WEDJ)) at the end of the school year. The school failed to meet its PMF target of a 50 percent average over the last five years and also did not show annual progress on its score on this tool over the same period. The charter has had poor academic performance throughout its history.

For me, this was an exceptionally sad turn of events. Maybe the most exciting day of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s holiday in 2005 when, as board chair, WEDJ moved into it permanent facility at 705 Edgewood Street, N.E. Just driving up the ramp to the school’s entrance had my heart racing. My wife Michele and I helped the teachers set up their classrooms on that morning, and I still consider this building that I had a part in acquiring and designing to be the most beautiful school in Washington, D.C. The positive anticipation of those supporting the first 130 students enrolled in this integrated arts curriculum charter was so great that it brought many of us to tears. At its peak, WEDJ would instruct over 660 scholars on two campuses.

Last evening was important for another reason. The board soundly rejected the argument, advanced by the Marcus Firm PLLC and articulated strenuously by attorney Sherry Ingram, that the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework is biased against schools that teach a large percentage of at-risk students. There was a clear unmistakable message for schools that get in trouble over a failure to meet its goals around the PMF. Don’t bother hiring a lawyer, it is just a waste of taxpayer money.

The story around yesterday, however, is larger than this conclusion. The board’s contention about City Arts was that it had no discretion around its decision to revoke its charter. The conditions sealing its fate had been established years ago. Therefore, the board’s action was a foregone conclusion. Member Steve Bumbaugh made the point that if their actions are so cookie-cutter in nature, then fundamentally there is no real reason for this body to exist. He did, in fact, reach the heart of the matter.

Although I watched the meeting online, I really didn’t have to spend all of those hours sitting in front of my computer screen. The meeting material was available at a minimum by last Friday, and the staff reports told me exactly how events would unfold. I could have written this piece over the weekend.

In other news, the board decided on a four-to-three ballot to begin proceedings to close Democracy Prep PCS at its five-year point. The school, after years of low academic performance, had moved to jettison its ties to its charter management organization, put out bids for a different operator, and settled on being run by the TenSquare Group. However, the board had a particularly tough time swallowing this decision in the aftermath of negative press about this organization, and given their erroneous assumption that TenSquare is not in the business of running schools. Never mind that TenSquare actually plays a leadership role in every institution with which it has a contract through its selection of the head, and the fact that this past year each charter engaged with this firm demonstrated strong improvement in its academic ranking. Last month the board tried to come to a consensus about this school but it tied three in favor to three against on a motion to keep the school open and then punted the issue to December.

Continuing on the theme of closures, the board decided unanimously to begin charter revocation of National Collegiate Preparatory PCHS. This Ward 8 ninth-through-twelfth grade school teaching approximately 276 students has been characterized by low Tier 3 PMF scores, low re-enrollment percentages, and low four-year graduation rates. It didn’t stand a chance of moving beyond its decade of existence. National Collegiate shares a building with Ingenuity Prep PCS so the logical course of events would be for this charter to take in more students. Unfortunately, Ingenuity Prep’s Tier 2 status precludes this from occurring.

There was positive news coming out of the session. KIPP DC will be allowed to assimilate Somerset Prep PCS and Friendship PCS’s expansion will include the students from IDEAL Academy PCS. Lee Montessori PCS was given permission to replicate. Meridian PCS, Perry Street Prep PCS, and Roots PCS all passed their 20-year reviews. Again no surprises.

I think for the January meeting, I will instead just go to the movies.

D.C. charter board is eradicating limits on accountability

I know that the DC Public Charter School Board, operating under the School Reform Act, has the power to close charters based upon poor academic performance, financial irregularities, a failure to meet its goals, and a violation of applicable laws. However, the mandates that it has been imposing on charters go way beyond a reasonable definition of oversight.  For examples, let’s just consider some of the demands placed on schools at last Monday night’s monthly meeting.  I want you to know that these are the actual conditions that the specified charters need to meet in order to continue to operate.

Imposed on Democracy Prep PCS during its five-year review:

“The school must achieve a PMF score of at least 40 for SY 2018-19 on a modified one-year PMF, with all measures using only SY 2018-19 outcomes and no re-enrollment rate, as calculated by DC PCSB, OR must improve by at least 15 points on the standard PK8 PMF between SY 2017-18 and 2018-19. If the school fails to meet at least one of these targets, it will close at the end of SY 2019-20.”

Imposed on Harmony PCS during its five-year review:

Harmony DC PCS must decrease its enrollment ceiling from 480 students to a maximum of 250 students, and submit a five-year budget to describe how the school will remain economically viable with such enrollment; and Given the cost of the school’s turnaround and the reliance on philanthropic funds that largely come from a single source to pay for this turnaround, Harmony DC PCS must provide evidence that at least $500K per year has been secured for SY 2018-19 and SY 2019-20.”

Imposed on LEARN PCS during its application process to open a new school:

“By May 15, 2019, the school will develop and submit a plan to engage non-military connected families in DC (especially Ward 8). The plan will include i. reliable, recent, and comprehensive data demonstrating that there will be sufficient demand among non-military families to sustain the school, and ii. a description of recruiting strategies that have been successful either in DC or other jurisdictions with competitive charter markets serving a similar target population.”

“Enrollment—due to the mixed historical performance of LEARN schools, and lower quality and lack of demand at LEARN 10, enrollment at LEARN DC will be limited to the current enrollment numbers of LEARN 10. . .”

“The school’s opening year may have a maximum enrollment of 180. Enrollment each year may grow by 45 students to a maximum enrollment of 495 students.”

“By December 14, 2018, the school will sign an agreement committing that the following condition will be included in the school’s charter: If the performance on the PMF at the five-year review is below an average of 40%, the school agrees to relinquish its charter. If the school earns a Tier 3 in any three of five years, the school will relinquish its charter.”

And here is my personal favorite:

“The LEARN Network will open no additional schools until at least one year after the opening of LEARN DC.”

The PCSB is now dictating what this charter management organization can and cannot do on a national level in order to open in D.C.  If I was running this school, and if I wholeheartedly believe in school choice for those much less fortunate than myself, and if a vital part of my sworn mission is to provide a high quality education for the offspring of men and women who sacrifice their lives for the protection of this country, I would tell the board “no.”  Actually I would tell them “hell no.”

However, this is what our local movement has become.  Autonomy and accountability.  But the autonomy part is disappearing.