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.