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.

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.

Cesar Chavez PCS is closing Chavez Prep

Yesterday afternoon Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy announced several changes to its network in the wake of lower than expected student enrollment. A letter from the school’s board of directors explains:

“The Board of Trustees, which includes a Chavez graduate, two current parents, our founder, and education, civic and business leaders, has spent more than a year analyzing city enrollment trends and school options, the operations and performance of the network, and the financial viability of operating three disconnected school buildings at a lower-than-planned student enrollment. In 2010, Chavez Schools secured $27.2 million in bonds, financing the purchase and renovation of our three school buildings. This bond structure was based on enrollment growing to 1,500 students, targeting a 2020 refinance. Today, with enrollment at only 956, the network must be reconfigured for the organization to meet its financial obligations and ensure continued viability.”

Chavez is therefore consolidating its Capitol Hill High School, housed in a location that it rents with a lease that concludes next year, with its Parkside High School campus, in a building that it owns. The Capitol Hill site currently enrolls 235 pupils on a site that holds more than 400 students. The relatively low number of students makes it difficult to offer a high school program. Chavez indicates that the majority of children that attend Capitol Hill live in Wards 7 and 8, so the new location will actually be closer to home. When I was on the board of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, and the school was desperately looking for a place to open, we tried to obtain this facility but lost out to Chavez.

In December, 2017, The DC Public Charter School Board forced Chavez to begin the closing of its Parkside Middle School due to low academic performance. It therefore stopped accepting sixth grade students the following term and now instructs only seventh and eight graders. These scholars will graduate in 2020 and will then be able to join the CMO’s Parkside High School. Eventually, Chavez plans to rebuild its middle school at the Parkside campus.

One of Chavez’s goals regarding these changes is to create a truly first rate high school. Again, according to the board’s announcement:

“Investing in the Parkside campus will include: more Advanced Placement (AP) courses and advanced electives, more dual enrollment early college opportunities, more SAT preparation and support, a greater focus on college matching and alumni support, more public policy internships and policy curriculum offerings, more supports for students with special needs and for those learning English, and an even stronger athletic program than we already have. It also means building improvements, technology upgrades and greater support for teachers, staff and community.”

Consistent with focusing on developing a stellar high school program, Chavez also announced that it is shuttering its Chavez Prep Middle School location at the end of the current school year. Similar to the Capitol Hill campus, student enrollment is way under capacity with 238 kids in a building that seats 420. The number of pupils is down 34 percent since 2015 in a structure that a decade ago saw a $10.8 million dollar investment in improvements that is still being financed. But much more important than Chavez getting out of the middle school business is the fact that closing this school will terminate teachers’ union involvement in charters in the District.

As the only unionized charter, there were a lot of shenanigans taking place at Chavez Prep, including teachers protesting on the street and complaints to the National Labor Relations Board. After the staff voted to join the American Federation of Teachers in 2017, and following a series of exceptionally challenging negotiations, a collective bargaining agreement with management has never been finalized. I have consistently expressed the view that teacher union membership is inconsistent with the operational freedoms associated with running a charter school, and therefore have called for Chavez to close this property.

Christian Herr, the Chavez Prep teacher behind the unionization effort, stated that employees were crying after learning on Wednesday that the school was going out of business. I’m sure this is true. He is probably upset that he is losing further opportunities to interfere with the administration of the school. He remarked that the union will investigate this action.

All I can say is that I am tremendously proud of the moves by the Chavez board of directors for their efforts in protecting and strengthening the future of their school.  I also applaud the leadership of Josh Kern as head of the Tensquare Group that is currently leading an academic turnaround at this charter. Just as in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, when the book’s hero architect Howard Roark destroyed his housing complex for low-income residents when it wasn’t being built to his high-level specifications, in closing Chavez Prep Mr. Kern has taken a gigantic step in protecting the integrity of our local movement of innovative schools. Therefore, I now consider Mr. Kern the Howard Roark of the D.C. charter movement.

In addition, the news for me could not come at a better time. Next Wednesday I mark ten years of covering our city’s charter schools through my blog.

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.




Negatives and positives of D.C. charter board 2018 Performance Management Framework rankings

Last week the DC Public Charter School Board released the results of the 2018 Performance Management Framework charter school rankings and, as usual, there were fascinating findings.  Let’s start with where the board does in announcing the scores, with the fact that there are more students than ever, estimated at 20,717 or 47.3 percent of all students enrolled in charter schools, that attend Tier 1 institutions.  The number has gone up from 19,498, equating to 45.0 percent of pupils, the year before, and approximately 17,385 pupils, a proportion of 41.3 percent, that attended Tier 1 charters during the 2016-to-2017 school year.  All of this is great news.  The charter board also pointed out that nine schools have moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1 and that “nearly nine out of the ten public charter high schools either earned a Tier 1 rank or improved overall from the previous year.”  This is another strong trend.  Now let’s dive into the individual school results.

On the worrisome side, Breakthrough Montessori PCS, in its first PMF ranking, came in at 28.8 percent, which is a solid Tier 3.  DC Scholars PCS dropped from 54.1 percent to 37.4 percent, which makes it a low Tier 2 facility.  Eagle Academy PCS Congress Heights Campus, its primary location, dropped a staggering 26.2 percent, going from Tier 2 to Tier 3 at 34.2 percent.  I know school leader Joe Smith and I’m sure that this number will not be allowed to stand for his young scholars in Anacostia.

National Collegiate Preparatory PCS is now a Tier 3 school for three years in a row, so look for this charter to be closed.  Paul PCS Middle School went from 45.3 percent, a Tier 2 school, to 34 percent, now ranked at Tier 3.  Sela PCS, which changed leadership this year, lost its Tier 1 status after two consecutive years to fall to 60.7 percent, a Tier 2 number.  Summerset Preparatory Academy PCS is also at Tier 3 for three years in a row, so its future does not look promising.  Finally, and surprisingly, Two Rivers PCS Young Campus came in at 51.4 percent, a Tier 2 ranking, from 73.6 percent or Tier 1 in 2017.

Now on to the good news.  Achievement Prep PCS Walter Place Elementary, jumped out of Tier 3 status to Tier 2, improving from 32.3 percent to 46.6 percent.  I cannot help recognizing AppleTree Early Learning PCS Columbia Heights Campus that scored an amazing 80.9 percent, Tier 1 territory, after being at 68.6 percent last year, which is still at the Tier 1 level.  For the same charter management organization, the Southwest Campus grew from 58.8 percent in 2017, which equates to Tier 2, to 72.9 percent this year, which makes it a Tier 1.  Bridges PCS left Tier 3 at 34.5 percent going to Tier 2 at 42.3 percent.  Capital City PCHS improved to a Tier 1 83.6 percent from a Tier 1 65.3 percent last year.  DC Prep PCS Benning Middle Campus joined the Tier 1 group at 68 percent after being at 59.1 percent or Tier 2 twelve months ago.  Its Edgewood Elementary School was Tier 1 last year at 74.7 percent and now is at a bright 85.1 percent.

Friendship PCS Technology Preparatory High recorded a tremendous 77.9 percent at Tier 1 going from a Tier 2 54.5 percent in 2017.  Its Woodridge International Middle changed from a Tier 2 54.5 percent to a Tier 1 74.7 percent or Tier 1.  I count five out of 12 Friendship campuses being at Tier 1 with the remainder being at Tier 2.  I wonder what founder Donald Hense says about the PMF now?

Harmony PCS said goodbye to Tier 3 at 30.8 percent in 2017 and landed in Tier 2 at 45.4 percent.  Perry Street Preparatory PCS went up 9.1 points to a Tier 2 60.9 percent, and its PMF score has gone up three years in a row.  Washington Latin PCS Upper School, the charter for which I was once board chair, increased its Tier 1 status to 93.4 percent.  Washington Leadership Academy PCS, in the first year that it was ranked, scored at a Tier 1 84.8 percent, and finally, the National Alliance of Public Charter School’s Hall of Fame inductee Washington Yu Ying PCS, came in at 93.8 percent, a Tier 1 score.

In all of these figures I also could not help noticing that the schools that are working with Josh Kern’s TenSquare Consulting Group all showed signs of improvement, including Cesar Chavez PCS whose Prep Middle School has received so much press due to its union activity.  A TenSquare press release states,  “After a full year of implementing TenSquare’s multi-year school improvement strategy, ratings for the charter support organization’s clients in the District Columbia have increased 7-9 points, and 15-20 points within two years. At TenSquare’s partner schools in DC, between one-half and three-quarters of students are at-risk, and 12%-20% receive special education services.”

I have only highlighted the significant changes in PMF scores here and I do not want to take away from the great work that many of our city’s charters are doing to educate our children.  Here is the list a the top ranked charters.  Please do yourself a big favor and get your day off to an excellent start by reviewing the outstanding standings of these schools.

 

 

 

D.C. schools standardized test scores go up for fourth consecutive year, results disappointing

The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education yesterday released the PARCC assessment results for 2018 and there are a few clear takeaways.  For the third year in a row the percentage of students scoring in the four and five range, which measures career and college readiness, went up.  In English Language Arts for traditional and charter schools combined, the proficiency rate is now at 33.3 percent, an improvement of 2.8 points compared to last year.  In math the percentages of those ranking four and five also increased, this time by 2.5 percent, to reach 29.4 percent.  What I also liked seeing is that the proportion of students scoring in the categories of one and two, did not meet expectations and partially met expectations, respectively, decreased with level one going down by 3.4 percent to 21.2 percent and level two dropping by 4.0 points to 23.9 percent.  Quoting directly from OSSE’s findings:

  • Scores are up across almost all grades and subjects.
  • There is especially strong improvement in middle grades in both ELA and mathematics.
  • All major groups of students improved.
  • We are proud of our educators and students for the improvements we’ve made since 2015, however, results remain lower than we need, and we continue to see persistent gaps between groups of students.

This is the fourth year that public school students in the nation’s capital have taken the PARCC assessment.  It is especially encouraging to see participation rates in the exam hovering around the 98 percent to 99 percent range depending on sector and whether it is the math or ELA portion of the test.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein makes the point that DCPS scored better than charters.  This is true for overall students.  In ELA, DCPS had 35.1 percent of students coming in at the four and five range while charters had 31.5 percent of students in this category.  In the subject of math, DCPS had 30.5 percent of students scoring in the four and five category and charters had 28.4 percent.  DCPS also showed the greatest improvement from 2017 with a 3.2 percent increase in ELA compared to charters 2.7 percent growth.  In math, DCPS went up by 3.1 percent compared to last year while charters increased by 1.8 percent.

These results are almost certainly due to DCPS having a greater proportion of generally more affluent white students compared to charters.  For example, for black students charters scored higher in English with 26.6 percent of students in the four or higher category and for DCPS this statistic was 22.9 percent.  For math, charters were at 24.4 percent proficient and DCPS was at 17.0 percent.  However, for Hispanics charters post results slightly higher than DCPS in English at 32.3 percent proficient versus 32.0 percent, but are behind DCPS in math with 23.9 percent proficient for charters compared to 30.5 percent for DCPS.  For those students designated as at-risk, charters scored better than DCPS in English and math, and for English as a Second Language learners DCPS did better in both subjects.  However, proficiency rates are extremely low coming in at about 20 percent.

Finally, the achievement gap is alive and well for all to see.  For a student living in Ward 3 the ELA proficiency rate is 72 percent compared to a 17 percent proficiency rate for a kid in Ward 8.  For math, the pattern continues with a Ward 3 proficiency rate of 64.4 percent.  For Ward 8 residents this number is 14.9 percent.  These results are depressing.

There are some charter schools that posted some impressive scores.  In English, besides Basis DC PCS and Washington Latin PCS showing strong results, Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS came in at 59.7 percent of students at the four or five level.  Washington Yu Ying PCS had 58 percent of students in this category, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS had 57.6 percent and the District of Columbia International School PCS had 57.0 percent proficiency.  In math, KIPP DC – Promise Academy PCS had 73.5 percent proficiency, KIPP DC – Lead Academy PCS had 69.7 percent of students at four and above, KIPP DC – Heights Academy PCS was at 67.3 percent, and KIPP DC – Spring Academy PCS was at 61.1 percent.

Lastly, the DC Public Charter School Board highlighted schools that increased scores in ELA and math more than twice as high as the overall state improvements.  These include Harmony DC PCS, Friendship PCS – Woodridge International Elementary, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS, KIPP DC – Lead Academy PCS, KIPP DC – Will Academy PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy – Chavez Prep, Friendship PCS – Technology Preparatory High School, and Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.

You have to wonder whether, even with all the union distractions, Ten Square Consulting is having a positive impact at Cesar Chavez PCs.

Washington City Paper is attempting to shutter Cesar Chavez Public Charter School

Last Friday, Washington City Paper published its third recent article highly sympathetic to the demands of the American Federation of Teacher’s union that last summer was voted in at the Chavez Prep Middle School, and the second in which it blames problems at the charter on the TenSquare consulting group. From the piece:

“In its latest complaint, the union alleges that the charter network and TenSquare have illegally changed the school’s calendar for the 2018-19 school year in ways that affect terms of employment, have bargained in bad-faith (referred to as ‘surface bargaining’), and have walked out of a bargaining session before its scheduled end time, ‘thereby disregarding their bargaining obligation under the [National Labor Relations] Act.’ . . . In late April, Chavez Prep teachers staged two outdoor demonstrations to protest their charter’s TenSquare contract. The educators objected to their school paying the company $138,000 every month while also claiming to be unable to afford filling vacant teacher positions.”

Here is a “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” story if there ever was one. While Chavez chief executive officer Emily Silberstein reflects to City Paper that “the union is seeking to minimize the number of days its members work, and we are trying to maximize the number of days our scholars learn,” the DC Public Charter School Board has its eyes fixed directly on academic performance at the school. Here is what it said at the charter’s twenty-year review last December, and please pay close attention to its findings regarding Chavez Prep:

“Chavez PCS is a multi-campus local education agency (LEA) that adopted the Performance Management Framework (PMF) as its goals and student achievement expectations. Pursuant to the school’s Charter and Charter Agreement, Chavez PCS did not meet its goals and student achievement expectations. The Capitol Hill, Chavez Prep, and Parkside High School campuses had average PMF scores above 50%, which is the minimum required by the school’s Charter Agreement. However, two of these campuses, Capitol Hill and Chavez Prep, have experienced significant declines in almost every metric over the past two years and cannot continue with current performance levels. Additionally, the Parkside Middle campus scored below the 50% threshold, with an average PMF score of 40.5%. The school’s Charter Agreement requires every campus to earn an average PMF score equal to or above 50%. Therefore, the entire LEA has failed to meet the PMF goal.”

The charter board did not take these results lightly, as should be the case when it comes to the extraordinary responsibility of educating our children. It therefore adopted some exceedingly serious action steps:

  • The Parkside Middle campus will close one grade at a time, starting with sixth
    grade prior to SY 2018-19, seventh grade prior to SY 2019-20, and eighth
    grade by the start of SY 2020-21. During this time, the school will not be able
    to admit new students to its middle school grades and will reduce its enrollment ceiling each year by 100 students, ultimately resulting in a maximum enrollment ceiling of 1,320.
  • If the Capitol Hill campus receives a PMF score of below 40 in 2017-18, below
    45 in 2018-19, or below 50 in 2019-20 the campus will close at the end of the
    year following the year the school failed to achieve the target, with a
    commensurate decrease in the school’s enrollment ceiling.
  • If the Chavez Prep campus receives a PMF score of below 40 in 2017-18,
    below 45 in 2018-19, or below 50 in 2019-20 the campus will close at the end
    of the year following the year the school failed to achieve the target, with a
    commensurate decrease in the school’s enrollment ceiling.
  • The internal control environment at Chavez PCS must be strengthened to ensure compliance with relevant laws, regulations, and DC PCSB requirements, including compliance with DC PCSB’s Contract Submission Policy. To do so, the school must draft and submit a financial corrective action plan, subject to the DC PCSB Board’s approval.

In other words, due its inability to reach its scholastic targets, the board closed one of four Chavez campuses and has its sights on ending the operation of another two. This is a crisis for this charter school. Its current state of affairs is about as opposite as you can get from the enthralling, optimistic high-spirited vision provided by founder Irasema Salcido that was ever-present when I first joined her in 1999 trying to advance the organization’s mission of creating the next generation of our city’s leaders.

City Paper can of course continue to write again and again in support of Chavez Prep teachers whining to the National Labor Relations Board, and attack the group hired to turn the school’s dire situation around. But if the union prevails and the contract with TenSquare ends, the final result, tragically, may be empty buildings.

CityPaper’s depiction of TenSquare is deeply flawed

I read with profound sadness the strikingly undeserving and destructive article by Rachel Cohen appearing last Thursday in the Washington City Paper regarding the work of TenSquare in D.C.’s charter sector.  It is an extremely long, uneven piece which makes it exceedingly challenging to refute.  So in order to give it a try, I will focus on one portion of her investigation regarding the consulting group’s involvement with Septima Clark PCS.

I was contacted approximately five years ago by Jenny DuFresne, who Ms. Cohen identifies as “Septima Clark’s founder and longtime principal,” during the period that Josh Kern, the founder and managing partner of TenSquare, and James Costan, the school’s board chair, were attempting to close the charter and consolidate it with Achievement Prep PCS.  Based upon Ms. DuFresne’s perspective, I wrote multiple intensely passionate stories about the underhanded way in which this resolution was reached and the pure disrespect shown toward her and her staff.  At the time my blog was being hosted by Examiner.com and when it shutdown in July, 2016 unfortunately I lost access to my posts.  Therefore, you will understand why I cannot link to these commentaries.

Mr. Kern read my columns and was understandably upset.  So what action did he take?  Did he do what others have done over the years when I write something they don’t like such as threaten to sue me, call me nasty names, or try and coerce me into making a correction?  No, Mr. Kern took a different route.  He invited me for a cocktail.

At a downtown hotel I joined both Mr. Kern and Mr. Costan.  For a couple of hours, they patiently went through their logical and detailed reasoning behind the merger and the framework of their communication strategy.  Their approach emanated from the low academic performance of the all male student body at the school combined with severe financial challenges around securing a building in which it could continue to operate.  The impression I came away with from this conversation with Mr. Kern and Mr. Costan was their firm belief that it was an enormously difficult decision but one that was being made solely for the benefit of the low-income children attending Septima Clark.  The only emotion the two men exhibited toward me was kindness.

It would be a natural assumption due to the length of the City Paper expose to believe that it provides a comprehensive overview of TenSquare’s track record.  But one reason for doubting the validity of the author’s assertions is that Ms. Cohen, in support of the slant of her thesis, conveniently leaves out a significant chapter in the company’s history.  This involves the saving of Options PCS.

Toward the end of 2013, the DC Public Charter School Board and Scott Pearson, its executive director, desperately sought to close Options in the aftermath of the monetary crimes committed at the school that served the city’s most emotionally and physically disabled pupils.  In fact, at one point the PCSB voted in favor of charter revocation.  Mr. Kern had been appointed the D.C. Superior Court’s Receiver for the facility.  While he was working feverishly to turn it around I was writing ferociously to keep it going.  My motivation came after reviewing one of Mr. Kern’s status reports to the judge that contained his team’s implementation plan.  The document demonstrated to me in absolute clarity the stellar professional leadership and operations management he was demonstrating to help these kids that no one else could or would teach.

I communicated not infrequently with Mr. Kern while he was overseeing Options, mostly by text message, although there were few details of the case he was allowed to discuss.  But at one especially low point, when it appeared that the fate of the school was bound for extinction, we decided to meet one afternoon at a restaurant across from where I am employed.  While we discussed the current situation for a few minutes it was clear that Mr. Kern could hardly keep his eyes open because he was so tired from the strain of trying to keep Options PCS alive.  Option’s charter was eventually continued under a new administration, and Kingsman Academy PCS is currently in its third school year with an enrollment of approximately 216 scholars.  Mr. Kern introduced its dynamic executive director Shannon Hodge to the charter.  You can read my interview with Ms. Hodge here.

One of the turnaround schools discussed in the City Paper report is IDEA Academy PCS.  When I sat down in 2015 for a conversation with the school’s CEO Justin Rydstrom, he spoke about his charter having received assistance from TenSquare.  But what he was absolutely giddy about was the strikingly miraculous academic results his school had been able to post.  I underscored those statistics in my recent interview with Mr. Kern.  At a celebration for the charter’s accomplishments, Abigail Smith, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education commented, “IDEA is an example of what can happen when dedicated school leaders set a culture of high expectations for both students and staff.  Two years ago, IDEA was on the brink of closure. Today it is a school where students feel welcome, supported, and inspired to learn. The IDEA community should be proud of this remarkable achievement.”

I first met Mr. Kern in 2011 when he was executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, the high performing charter he co-founded in Anacostia.  He introduced me to his academic director Alexandra Pardo, who thoroughly impressed me with her knowledge and commitment. Ms. Pardo would succeed Mr. Kern as executive director of Thurgood Marshall and eventually joined TenSquare.

Ms. Cohen talks to many people who are critical of Mr. Kern and TenSquare who frankly have not done, or are not doing, a good job for our kids.  Here’s the bottom line.  No charter school is required to hire TenSquare.  But when it comes to the critically important job of educating our children, choices must be made.  If you ask me whether I line up on the side of Josh Kern, James Costan, Justin Rydstrom, Shannon Hodge, and Alexandra Pardo, or the naysayers who have utilized TenSquare featured by Ms. Cohen, then I pick Mr. Kern.  Every time.

 

 

 

 

 

Teachers’ unions should be barred from charter schools

This morning the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews bemoans a radio advertisement being run in English and Spanish by the California Teachers Association attacking charter schools.  It says:

“They’re lining up against our local public schools. One after another, out-of-state billionaires are trying to buy our politicians. Following the lead of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, billionaires like Koch brothers allies Jim and Alice Walton have their own narrow education agenda to divert money out of our public schools and into their corporate charter schools. It’s true. Out-of-state billionaires investing millions into politicians who will protect corporate-run charter schools that lack accountability.

“So as California chooses its next generation of leaders this election we must stand up to politicians who divert money out of our neighborhood public schools and say yes to leaders who value the promise of quality public education for all students no matter where they live. And leaders who always put kids before profits. Learn more at kidsnotprofits.com. Paid for by the California Teachers Association.”

On the website the union states that is is spending 1 million dollars to run these spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento.   What a terrible use of its member’s hard earned cash.

These dishonest words mirror those coming from staff supporting the American Federation of Teachers at the Cesar Chavez Prep Middle School, which voted last June to join the union.  As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed last week, Chavez teachers took to the streets for the second time this school year to protest management decisions at the charter.  From her piece:

“A rare battle between teachers and administrators at a charter school has broken into public view, with educators taking to the streets of a D.C. neighborhood to press their case that the school is spending millions of dollars on consultants while cutting core classroom positions.”

The teachers are apparently upset that a couple of vacant positions will not be filled.  In addition, they don’t like the fact that the Chavez board of directors decided to hire TenSquare to turnaround student academic performance.  The Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy has been losing revenue tied to a decline in student enrollment, and is in danger of facing closure by the DC Public Charter School Board for the classroom performance of its pupils.  I recently interviewed Josh Kern, founder and managing director of TenSquare.

Copying the script from California is Christian Herr, a science teacher at the school and a union leader.  He comments, according to Ms. Stein, “It seems to us that TenSquare is coming in and exploiting a broken evaluation system to fill their pockets.”

I have a suggestion for the teachers at this campus.  How about doing your job and instructing the children under your care?  Please stop diverting the attention of the Chavez volunteer board with your shenanigans and allow them to try and improve the charter.

What a complete waste of time and energy.

 

 

Exclusive interview with Josh Kern, founder and managing partner of TenSquare

My recent meeting with Josh Kern marked a milestone in the history of exclusive interviews.  It was the first instance in the nine years I’ve been doing these that I sat down with someone that I have talked to in the past who is now in a different role.  In early 2011, I conversed with Mr. Kern regarding his co-founding of the nationally respected Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School.  Now, I was in the downtown office of TenSquare to understand the story behind the creation of this charter school consulting group.  But first I wanted to go back in time to learn about Mr. Kern’s decision to leave TMA and start TenSquare seven years ago.

“I felt like I had accomplished what I set out to do in co-founding the school,” Mr. Kern indicated.  “It was an amazing personal journey that began with my teaching an introduction to law class at Ballou High School to juniors and seniors when I was in my second year at Georgetown Law through the Street Law program.  I saw the challenges that these kids had in obtaining their education.  They would sometimes have to stand outside the building for 30 minutes in the cold during the winter months in order to go through a metal detector and be patted down.  In the classroom it seemed like announcements were broadcast continually over the loudspeaker which sent a strong signal that learning was not a priority.  But I loved the involvement with the students and they really enjoyed the curriculum that culminated in a mock trial.”

The experience led Mr. Kern, in the spring of his second year of law school, together with a team of 10 others, to submit an application to create Thurgood Marshall.  After it was approved, he spent his third year at Georgetown Law preparing to open the charter.  In May 2001, Mr. Kern graduated with honors and in August of the same year TMA began its operation.  Four years later it moved into its permanent location at the former DCPS Nichols Avenue School in Ward 8 after spending $12.5 million to renovate the facility in the classic tradition.  The agreement to take over the building involved negotiations between the school, the U.S. Congress, the District of Columbia, and the private sector.  Thurgood Marshall was the first charter to take advantage of New Market Tax Credits to reduce its loan amount.

Academically, the charter has consistently scored some of the city’s highest standardized test scores of open enrollment schools in reading and math while instructing a population of students of which 74 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.  It has been ranked as Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework since the tool was introduced in 2012.  Mr. Kern informed me when I interviewed him the first time that education researchers had studied TMA to find that they were years ahead of leading-edge practices.  The U.S. Department of Education has used methods at TMA as the standard when comparing processes at other schools.

Therefore, with his mission accomplished, Mr. Kern was ready to move on.  During his decade at Thurgood Marshall he thought he had learned much and made a lot of mistakes.  He believed that the charter sector needed a stronger ecosystem to support the local movement.  The co-founder of TMA felt that many schools would experience the same hurdles that he did, including recruiting high performing teachers and administrators and setting up systems to effectively use student data to inform classroom instruction, and that schools deserved a resource that could provide help.

He then explored an opportunity to serve as executive director of the DC PCSB following Josephine Baker’s retirement.  At that point the Washington Post claimed that Mr. Kern was the board’s choice to lead the institution.

“The position appealed to me because I thought I could make an impact, but ultimately I felt that I could make a bigger difference for students by creating a charter school support organization.  Starting TenSquare was also a better fit with my entrepreneurial nature.  Leading an authorizer is a very challenging job, and Scott Pearson has been a great leader at the PCSB.”

In 2011 Mr. Kern, along with Jerry Levine, who had been on the advisory board for the financing of the Nichols campus, established TenSquare.  The firm is named, according to Mr. Kern, after Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution that defines a federal district “not to exceed 10 miles square.”

The business began, recalls Mr. Kern, by doing some work around facilities for Next Step PCS and Eagle Academy PCS.  But it was Norm Johnson, the former executive director of IDEA PCS, who was the first to utilize TenSquare for the school turnaround improvement interventions for which TenSquare is most widely known.  When the company was formed, IDEA was a Performance Management Framework Tier 3 school facing its 15 year review.  Mr. Johnson was about to retire, and he was fearful that the charter would be revoked.  The situation IDEA found itself in was exactly the right one for TenSquare’s mission.

Mr. Kern explains, “It is getting harder and harder for stand-alone charter schools to prosper, in D.C. and in other cities and states.  The expectations around academics, facilities, compliance, regulatory requirements, and back office duties are increasing and becoming more and more complex.  The implicit and explicit belief is that charter schools can meet these demands on their own.  School leaders and boards often feel that they don’t need assistance.  But as authorizers mature in their oversight of charters, the requirements a school must meet for it to be defined as successful are going up exponentially.  It doesn’t count if a school was great 10 years ago.  What matters is the school’s performance right now.”

TenSquare engaged with IDEA PCS for three years and the results were astonishing.  On December 16, 2014, then-Mayor Vincent Gray joined school leaders in celebrating the charter’s academic improvement.  The press release for the event listed these statistics:

  • IDEA’s PMF scores increased 26 percentage points during the two probationary years, from 28.4 in 2012 to 54.4 in 2014
  • IDEA earned the designation of a DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education Reward School, an honor reserved for the top five percent of schools showing the greatest growth in student achievement, for two consecutive years
  • IDEA scholars outperformed all other high schools in Ward 7 on the DC-CAS in reading and math combined
  • Achievement on the DC-CAS math test increased by 29 percentage points to 67%, the greatest student gain of any DC high school in 2013–2014
  • Student progress in reading exceeded the growth target set by the PCSB, earning IDEA 100% of the points possible for this metric on the 2014 PMF

TenSquare has refined its approach over the years.  It now begins its school improvement engagements with charters by completing a comprehensive performance audit.  This document then leads to development of a customized improvement plan that normally spans four to five years.  The cost of the support depends upon the intensity of TenSquare’s day-to-day involvement. TenSquare charges based on the personnel it assigns to a school, distinguishing it from charter management organizations, which tend to charge a percentage of a school’s funding. During the first year or two, TenSquare might hire a new head of school as one of its staff members, who will eventually either become an employee of the charter or move on to another position.

The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.

One interesting aspect I found about the way in which TenSquare operates is that when it comes into a school it often significantly raises teacher salaries.  “Underperforming schools generally underpay their teachers,” Mr. Kern observed.  The dollars needed to improve compensation come from substantial reductions in operating costs, which TenSquare is able to realize due to its expertise.  “We consistently see improvement in the school’s balance sheet and cash position,” Mr. Kern related.

TenSquare’s staff of 28 includes specialists with first-hand school experience leading academics, culture, operations and finance, facilities acquisition and development, talent management, and data analysis and compliance.  It currently operates in eight states, including Minnesota, Louisiana, Nevada, and North Carolina, and lists as its clients 25 charters,  In addition, TenSquare works directly with state and local authorizers on policy, charter reviews, and as receivers for under-performing schools.

Here in the nation’s capital TenSquare has partnered with Imagine Hope Community PCS’s Lamond Campus, and the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (now renamed City Arts and Prep PCS).  Perry Street Prep PCS, YouthBuild PCS, Meridian PCS, and the Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy are currently using its services. In the school year 2016 to 2017, according to Mr. Kern,

  • Perry Street Prep was recognized by the DC PCSB as having the highest student growth among all charter schools,
  • YouthBuild Public Charter School not only attained Tier 1 status, but had the second highest GED attainment rate among charter adult programs, and
  • Meridian Public Charter School was acclaimed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education for the largest growth in student in-seat attendance among all public schools.

Mr. Kern stressed that schools should not wait until they get into trouble before seeking outside help.  “In D.C. there is a high-stakes review every five years,” the TenSquare co-founder stated.  “If a school has a couple of bad years or even stays stagnant, then that means there has been lack of progress for 40 percent of that period.  It is therefore dangerous for charter boards of directors to see a year of declining academic results as an anomaly and wait to see if there is a trend.  Adding to all of the complexity of this situation is the fact that board members and school leadership frequently change.  In this environment of ever-rising accountability, it is especially important that schools enlist help before issues worsen. Also, schools are not immutably high or low performing. In any school, there’s always need for improvement and the possibility for success.”

I have to admit that it was a tough sell for me that charters should sign up for a performance audit even when indicators are pointing in the positive direction.  But perhaps Mr. Kern is correct.  After all, his instincts have been right before.  He founded one of D.C.’s leading high schools.  He was also the one who orchestrated an orderly transition of Options PCS, a school serving severely physically and emotionally disabled children, and one that the DC PCSB was about to shutter, to a new charter school serving the same students.  The reports he filed to the court in his time as Receiver are a primer in operations management.  For these efforts Mr. Kern justly deserves our gratitude.  In all likelihood the same is true with TenSquare.