D.C. charters lose five former DCPS schools that could have expanded movement

Yesterday, Jon Banister of Bisnow Washington D.C. revealed that Mayor Muriel Bowser has turned five former DCPS schools over to developers.  These historic and beautiful buildings could have played a major role in expanding our local charter school movement.  For example, Rocketship PCS and KIPP DC are in desperate need of facilities and I’m sure there are many more charters that could have used the available space to try and meet the wait list of 11,317 children whose parents are trying to get them into one of these institutions.

The re-purposed structure, according to Mr. Banister,  include the Franklin School which will become Planet Word, a museum to the language arts.  It is 51,000 square feet and was built as one of the initial neighborhood public schools in our city.  The Crummell School,  which honors abolitionist and teacher Reverend Alexander Crummell, served black students in the 1900s.  It is 108,000 square feet and will become a mixed use development.

The Grimke School gets its name from NAACP president Archibald Grimke.  It currently houses the African-American Civil War Museum.  The approximately 45,000-square-foot property will continue to be the home of the museum plus office space for its architect.  There will also be some room for a cultural organization.

The Randall School used to be the Francis Cardozo Elementary School and Randall Junior High School.  This approximately 50,000 square foot building will become a museum, office space, and restaurants.

Finally, the Hine School, which used to be Hine Junior High School, has become a Trader Joe’s, taking up 60,000 square feet.

So hundreds of thousands of square feet of surplus DCPS facilities that by law should have gone to charter schools are now being converted to commercial uses.  The next time that you hear Ms. Bowser talk about her support for public education and charter schools please be brave enough to remind her that her claims could not be further from the truth.

 

Charter schools are taking a hit due to national politics

A fascinating commentary appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review section by Conor Williams, a New America senior education policy program researcher.  Entitled “Charter Schools have a Betsy DeVos Problem,” it outlines  the story of Hiawatha Academy’s Morris Park Elementary School, a charter school in Minneapolis in which 90 percent of its students are Hispanic.  Most of the children enrolled here are kids of immigrants.  75 percent of the student body is learning English as a second language.  At this facility, the author points out, proficiency rates for math and English language arts are more than twice as high as those in the rest of the state.  According to Mr. Williams,

“Hiawatha schools should be easy for the left to love. They’re full of progressive educators helping children of color from low-income families succeed.  And yet, they’re charter schools.”

Because Betsy DeVos is such a strong supporter of charter schools and her boss President Trump is so vehemently against illegal immigration, it is putting supporters of these alternative schools in a tough position.  Mr. Williams continues:

“And now the teachers are being forced to respond to criticism from people who by most measures should be their allies.  Robert Panning-Miller, the former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, has called Hiawatha schools emblematic of a ‘corporate reform movement’ that values ‘compliance and test scores over critical thinking’ and criticized them as being part of an ‘apartheid education’ movement, because their children are almost exclusively children of color.”

Of course, the political left has always disliked charters.  It is threatened by charter’s disruption of their dominance of the education monopoly of government schools, and they hate the fact that almost all charters do not have unionized teachers.  But now it seems that the election of Donald Trump, and the selection of Betsy DeVos as his U.S. Department of Education Secretary, has added lighter fluid to their attacks.

So it should come as no surprise that the group leading the collective bargaining agreement negotiations for Cesar Chavez Prep PCS should come under assault by Rachel Cohen writing for the Washington City Paper.  In her recent highly demeaning piece on TenSquare, the charter school consulting group, she includes this quotation that eerily mirrors the words of Mr. Panning-Miller captured in Mr. William’s article,

“Christian Herr, a Chavez Prep science teacher who sits on his union’s bargaining team, says that a major change in his school since TenSquare’s takeover is a greatly increased emphasis on standardized test prep.  ‘It’s not like we needed to spend $140,000 a month to have someone tell us to do more test prep,’ he says. ‘It was really hard for us when our school board decided some things needed to be restructured, but didn’t even come to us, didn’t even ask what we the teachers thought. They have these buildings full of people who live in these neighborhoods and have worked in these schools for a long time, all this expertise, yet you make the choice to bring in someone who knows nothing about it and pay them massive amounts of money.’”

It is a complete mystery how Josh Kern, the co-founder of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, and who was its executive director for a decade, could be accused of being “someone who knows nothing” about creating a high performing school.  That Ms. Cohen considers herself a credible reporter and includes this remark by one of the leaders who brought the American Federation of Teachers to Chavez without challenging its assertion is proof of her motivation in conducting her investigation.

In her report, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, is made to appear corrupt because he apparently recommended that a school utilize TenSquare to improve their academic results.  Next, I’m sure she will claim he is in cahoots with Charter Board Partners for his advice that a charter turn to them for assistance with governance issues.  The final icing on the cake will be be his providing of the phone number of Building Hope when a new school needs to find its permanent facility.  Somehow turning to experts has become a crime.

It’s all beyond the pale.  Perhaps for her next submission Ms. Cohen could focus instead on relating the tales of the heroes in our D.C. charter schools who are preparing for college young people who in the past might have ended up in prison or dead.  As Hiawatha School’s English language development teacher Natalie Heath explains to Mr. Williams:

“I wish that people knew that the thing that’s most important to us is that students are achieving at high academic levels and they’re also empowered individuals.  That’s all that should matter.  But when it comes to education priorities in 2018, it seems to be the last thing anyone wants to talk about.”

 

 

 

Study of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program points to struggle teaching low income children

In a balanced story appearing this morning by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, the reporter details a study released this week by the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the “statistics, research, and evaluation arm” of the United States Department of Education that evaluated the performance of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan in the District of Columbia for children living in poverty.

Comparing kids in the program to a control group of students who applied but did not receive a voucher, the group found that after two years of participation students scored lower academically in both reading and math.  The lower reading scores were not significant, but for math the deficit was 10 points for those in the OSP.  D.C.’s non-voting member of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who never misses a chance to denigrate the voucher program, commented to Ms. Perry, “That is my chief regret about the voucher program. . . If Congress is interested in putting money in schools, it should be putting that money where the results show the money should be.”

The funding from Congress for the OSP, which I’m sure Ms. Norton understands, goes equally to DCPS, charter schools, and private schools, and provides each with $20 million in revenue per year.  The dollars have been divvied up this way ever since Joseph E. Robert, Jr. promoted the three-sector approach about 15 years ago.

What I could not find in the highly detailed study was the list of participating schools.  The report does state that 59 schools accepted voucher students, which I consider a high number considering about 1,300 kids utilized the scholarships per term.  The investigation does point out that of the institutions accepting OSP pupils “62 percent were religiously affiliated, and 38 percent were Catholic schools operating within the Archdiocese of Washington.”  An interesting side note is that of those schools in the program, 70 percent charge tuition higher than financial award provided by the voucher.

I hope that the results of this study are going back to the schools that these children attend.  It would be extremely interesting to hear their take on the results and whether this information impacts their approach to teaching low-income children.  With all of the unfortunate politics surrounding providing school scholarships to kids living in poverty, it would be fascinating to see if pedagogical improvements come as a result of this data.

 

Two D.C. Council members want to continue bigotry of low expectations; Ahnna Smith says no

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed yesterday that a couple of D.C. Council members, David Grosso, the chairman of the education committee, and Robert White, Jr., plan to introduce emergency legislation next week that would allow students who had excessive absences from school to receive a high school diploma anyway.  According to Ms. Stein:

“The legislation comes amid stricter enforcement of long-ignored attendance policies, which received scrutiny this year after a city-commissioned report found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes. Some students and teachers have argued it was unfair to change the enforcement of attendance policies midyear.”

Remember that this emergency legislation is coming in the wake of a DCPS graduation scandal that demonstrated for all to see that the 2017 four-year 73.2 rate of students receiving high school diplomas was a sham.  Administrators and teachers let students pass who were chronically truant from class and who also should have failed their classes academically.  It has been calculated that the actual  graduation rate would have been in the 40 percent range if the established rules were followed.  The 2018 traditional school graduation rate has been estimated to be 46 percent.

Now Mr. Grosso and Mr. White want to alter this year’s statistic.  Their preference is to wait until the next school year to enforce attendance requirements that should have been adhered to all along.

This whole episode brings me right back to the article last week by the Washington City Paper’s Rachel Cohen reporting on her investigative look at the work of TenSquare.  One way to view her assertions is that she is arguing that it was perfectly alright for Septima Clark PCS and IDEA PCS to post low academic results for their students.  After all, if the DC Public Charter School Board had not held these schools to strict academic standards, there would have been no need for these institutions when they got in trouble to contract with TenSquare in the first place.  She went out of her way to defend those who are not fulfilling the professional responsibilities they were being paid to do, like the teachers and administrators at Cesar Chavez PCS and William E. Doar, Jr. PCS, and cast Josh Kern and his team as evil for making the changes necessary to build the next generation of our city’s leaders.  It is all right out of an Ayn Rand novel where an ill society has reversed the heroes and the villains.

Coming to the rescue in defiance of those who dwell in the cesspool of low expectations is my friend Ahnna Smith, the interim D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education.  She is having none of the excuses culture.  In an email she wrote, according to the Post, “that the legislation fails to prepare students for college and careers.”

She stated “The proposed legislation would inexcusably exempt absences, signaling to students that mastery of content and preparation for the future are not what are most important.  The legislation also ignores the hard work teachers, administrators, students, and families have put in over the last six months, to create individualized graduation plans that will ensure our students receive the preparation they need for the future.”

Good for her.  Ms. Perry states that her opposition to the law will most likely kill it.  I know that Ms Smith does not want the Deputy Mayor of Education job permanently but perhaps we can persuade her to accept it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Grosso admits that the bill he is co-sponsoring would not return the DCPS graduation rate back to last year’s phony number.  Over 1,000 pupils will not graduate due to poor academic performance.  But give him some time and perhaps he will figure out a solution to this obstacle as well.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

D.C.’s Yu Ying PCS inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame

Yesterday, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools announced that Yu Ying PCS has been inducted into its National Hall of Fame.  A couple of years ago I interviewed Maquita Alexander, the charter’s head of school.  Here is a reprint of our conversation:

Although I have witnessed firsthand some truly amazing sights over my seven years covering the D.C. charter movement, I can honestly say that I was overjoyed during my recent visit with Maquita Alexander, the head of Washington Yu Ying PCS. This Chinese language immersion school currently has 552 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three to fifth. The charter, which opened in the fall of 2008, was started by a dozen parents who were fascinated by the Asian culture and language together with a strong desire for their kids to have an international education. Ms. Alexander came into her position a year after Yu Ying became a reality.

Immediately after meeting this head of school you get the feeling that she never really stops working. Information I requested was available immediately at her fingertips. Ms. Alexander seems so intertwined in the details of what is taking place at the school that I’m hoping at the end of the day she is able to sit back and enjoy all that she and her team have created.

It may be that Ms. Alexander’s drive evolved from her years of experience in the field of education. She has played a multitude of roles in her 19-year career, from being a first and second grade teacher, a reading recovery specialist, a school-based technology specialist, and an assistant principal. Fifteen of those years were spent in Fairfax County Public Schools.

Washington Yu Ying is housed on a sprawling three-acre campus complete with a playground, turf field, and nature center located near the Old Soldiers Home in Northeast D.C. The redbrick building, which looks straight out of an Ivy League college, originally was a Marist seminary that was used by the troubled Joz-Arz Public Charter School before it relinquished its Board of Education charter in 2006. Washington Yu Ying’s previous executive director Mary Shaffner, now the executive director of the D.C. International Public Charter School, played a major role in securing the building which now measures approximately 50,000 square feet after the current occupant augmented the space with two 10,000 square foot additions. Before moving into this permanent facility in the fall 2011, Yu Ying shared a Building Hope charter school incubator space with Potomac Preparatory PCS on Eighth Street, N.E.

The aesthetics of the site is in perfect alignment with the high level of academics going on inside. For example, pre-kindergarten three and four year olds spend their entire day speaking Mandarin. Ms. Alexander wanted me to know that the kids almost universally love learning this language, something I can attest to seeing the broad smiles on their faces as I visited the brightly colored classrooms. Once the children reach Kindergarten then English language classes are paired with those across the hall taught in Chinese. The same pattern repeats though the fifth grade, with pupils learning in English one day and Mandarin the next. Ms. Alexander explained that the rotation between classes does not involve a repeat of the same material in two languages. “The teachers coordinate their lesson plans,” the Yu Ying head of school related, “so that each session adds content to those the students just experienced.”

Besides language immersion, a crucial component of the Yu Ying curriculum is the International Baccalaureate program. Ms. Alexander stated that this course of study begins in pre-Kindergarten three in Mandarin. The pre-Kindergarten four and younger students take four trans-disciplinary units and the older students take six. The combination of the Chinese language with I.B. has led to Yu Ying being quantified as a Tier 1 charter on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework for each of the three years that schools have been ranked. The school is doing so well that there are over 1,000 children on their waiting list.

But I wanted to know from Ms. Alexander what other factors have led to her institution’s outstanding success. It appeared from her immediate response that she has thought about this question before. “We have a tremendous leadership team that has been in place for the last couple of years,” the Yu Ying head of school responded. “We have a fantastic teaching staff. They are completely passionate about what they do. To support them we have half day Friday for professional development and team planning. This is in addition to two weeks of professional development before the start of the school year and additional days throughout the term. We have created an exceptionally interesting curriculum together with the central idea of the Common Core, but simultaneously we provide latitude around how the teachers present the material to their pupils.”

Ms. Alexander informed me that the school’s staff spends considerable time analyzing student data. They utilize a test that is a predictor of how students will perform on the PARCC, and data specialists create dashboards documenting each child’s progress. Several layers of intervention are available for kids who are falling behind.

The Yu Ying head of school talked to me about the challenges inherent in her program to support a pipeline of qualified teacher applicants. “All of the Mandarin instructors come from mainland China or Taiwan and they must speak English,” Ms. Alexander remarked. “We sponsor them on visas and green cards, and have a partnership with two universities. There is, however, a lottery for visas and as a result we don’t get to keep as many instructors as we would like. The school also has had some interesting experiences with miscommunication. We try and mitigate these situations by assigning our foreign teachers English mentors, and we provide the Chinese teachers with cross-cultural training.”

Another fascinating aspect of the program that needed to be tackled is the whole nature of the dual immersion pedagogy. Ms. Alexander detailed, “Research shows that by the fifth grade students begin to catch up with their traditionally taught peers, but until that year it is important to keep in mind that they are getting half of the instruction in English that pupils in other schools receive. Therefore, our English teachers need to work twice as hard.”

Yu Ying has defied some of the recent fads in education by providing their student body with virtually no test preparation and not a lot of “skill and drill.” Ms. Alexander said that they substitute these activities with an emphasis on writing and having them think about, question, and analyze the material being presented.

Yu Ying has a 95 percent student retention rate, but the staff is still not completely satisfied. They want to better serve those who are behind grade level; in fact, they want to do the best for every child who attends the charter. The teachers and administrators continue to reflect on how to improve their practice, how they can better connect with parents in a transparent manner, and how everyone involved with the school can spend more time in the classroom.

Ms. Alexander stressed that she has a real sense of urgency regarding providing the best education to her students that she can. She commented, “No parent wants to waste a year of his or her child’s educational experience while their school learns how to improve. My kids didn’t have a year to waste. We have to do whatever we need to do now to help our student body learn to the best of their ability.”

Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS students shine at 2018 gala

I just love when organizations that have hosted annual events shake things up by re-imagining the ceremony.  So was the case last Thursday evening with Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS’s 2018 Shining Star Gala.  This year the celebration was moved from the charter’s classic building in Anacostia where it has been held in the past to the downtown D.C. law firm of  Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP.  The chair of Thurgood Marshall’s board of directors Jonathan Stoel, a graduate from Georgetown Law, is a leader in the practice, and many of the school’s program partners such as Crowell & Moring LLP, Latham & Watkins LL, and Williams & Connolly LLP, have offices located in close vicinity to this site.  While Thurgood Marshall’s executive director Richard Pohlman assured the guests that next spring the proceedings will be back at the school, it was fascinating to see the transformation of all of the usual activities to a new space.  Come with me inside.

When attendees entered the expansive first level atrium of the office building, they were whisked to the 13th floor by a TMA student.  Joining me on my elevator ride was Meiko, a sophomore, who explained that she chose to attend the charter because of the many support systems it provides.  Once I arrived at the main level, Destiny, an 11th grader who has spent her entire high school experience at Thurgood Marshall, directed me to the registration desk.  She related that when she first came to the school she was behind academically in math, and shyly pointed out that before coming to TMA she was not so good a pupil.  Now, she beamed that she is on the honor role.

I immediately headed up a grand staircase to the roof terrace with its bird’s eye view of the Washington Monument.  Down a long path where the patio took a turn to the right was seated a musical quartet composed of individuals playing the keyboard, bass, drums, and saxophone. But before I could reach the bar at that end, I was stopped in my tracks by Spanish instructor Jessie Yuan.  She has been teaching this subject at the school for a decade and she was ready for my arrival.  “Working at this charter school offers more flexibility around the design of the curriculum and the administration supports our creativity,” Ms. Yuan exclaimed.  She detailed that while D.C. requires high school students take to two years of a foreign language, TMA has its pupils to take three.  Ms. Yuan informed me that she utilizes Organic World Language, an out-of-the -box pedagogy that encourages students to speak, draw, or circumlocute in the second language 100 percent of the time while in the classroom.  In order to explain circumlocution, the teacher  immediately engaged me in a game with her student London, a junior.  The young woman would hold up a card with a picture of an object with its name written in Spanish beneath it.  Between plentiful appetizers brought around by uniformed waiters and waitresses, Ms. Yuan and I would compete to be the one to act out a replica of the word by being the first to press a buzzer like on the television game show Jeopardy.  I immediately wanted to take Ms. Yuan’s course.

Before heading back downstairs I took a minute to review the placards positioned in each of the waist-high flower beds dividing the patio into sections every few yards.  One read “100 percent of  TMA students accepted to college.” Another stated, “TMA’s in-seat attendance rate is 94.5 percent.”  A third said that “80 percent of the alumni class from 2008 and above are enrolled in college.”

I then joined Ahnna Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, who was observing 10th grade geometry students utilizing a computer program to construct windmills.  We were in one of seven classroom explorations set up this evening.  When Ms. Smith asked one of the presenters why she liked this school the student replied that her family has always taught her that her education is the most important thing in life because it cannot be taken away.

In another math classroom I watched as two impressive girls used algebraic equations to calculate their potential future earnings in the careers of nursing and fashion design.  I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the shrimp cocktail prepared with three different seasonings provided for guests on a side counter.  Moving next door, equally smart advanced placement chemistry students tried their best to describe to me Le Chatelier’s principal.  They are taking their AP test today.  I am confident they will pass with flying colors.  Their teacher, Liza Enrich, has been with TMA for seven years and greatly appreciates the trust in the instructional staff exhibited by the charter’s leadership.  “We are allowed to try different stategies,” Ms. Enrich informed me, “and we are never micromanaged.”

The formal program was about to begin.  On the way back upstairs to the enclosed common area that also contained two buffet stations, I heard one of the many soapbox speeches provided by students.  The extensive and well produced booklet for the evening’s activities mentions that TMA students competed in a D.C. soapbox competition sponsored by The Mikva Challenge.  The passionate address I heard spoke about education as a civil rights issue.

Mr. Pohlman in his remarks thanked all of the volunteers that provide important services to his students.  Tutoring, mentoring, and classes teaching the subject of law are just some of the ways those from outside the school work with those enrolled at TMA.  There is even an academy run by Howard University School of Law students that assist with professional development and enhancing the pupils’ legal skills.

But Mr. Pohlman also recalled that it has been a exceedingly tough year for Thurgood Marshall.  Two of its scholars, Zaire Kelly and Paris Brown, were killed by gunfire.  The TMA executive director expressed how proud he was of his school pulling through as a community in the face of these tragedies.  He was especially gratified to see his students bring national attention to the issue of violence in the inner city when Thurgood Marshall hosted students from Marjory Stoneman Doughlas High School to meet with them a few days before the March for Our Lives rally.  You could feel the warmth and admiration that these children and adults have for one another in the way that the students congratulated Mr. Pohlman for his speech at the conclusion of the presentation.   It was a truly magical night.

 

 

D.C. Council passes The Student Fair Access to School Act

Yesterday, the D.C. Council unanimously approved Education Chairman David Grosso’s bill entitled “The Student Fair Access to School Act.”  The legislation is an attempt to limit public schools ‘ ability to suspend students in grades Kindergarten through twelfth grade out of school.  The legislation was opposed by FOCUS, the DC Public Charter School Board, and most charter schools.  There was powerful testimony published here against the bill by Michael Musante, FOCUS’s senior director of government relations; Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC PCSB; and Shannon Hodge, executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS.

Mr. Grosso commented upon the vote of the council:

“The Student Fair Access to School Act is transformational—it breaks the traditional model of school discipline which pushes students out of school and, too often, into the courts.  This shifting mindset will result in students being better prepared to succeed academically and safer school environments for all. . . The Student Fair Access to School Act is the result of over a year of work, which included input from students, parents, teachers, school leaders, student and family advocates, researchers, mental health practitioners, government agency heads, and my colleagues. I appreciate that time and input immensely and urge the mayor to join us in this effort on behalf of students by signing Fair Access into law.”

In other local education news, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reports that Mayor Bowser may be open to having an outside group perform a top-to-bottom review of what ails DCPS.  Apparently there have been discussions between Ms. Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson about creating such a commission, which is modeled after what Virginia Governor McAuliffe did in his bid to reform Metro.  This proposal is in addition to D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh’s idea to create a research arm of the government that would evaluate data coming out of the city’s schools.

I could really save them all a lot of time.  Simply figure out how to increase dramatically the number of charter schools and private school vouchers in the nation’s capital.

 

Washington Math Science and Technology PCS will close June 30th

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

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

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

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

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

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