Exclusive Interview with Lauren Maestas, CEO DC Prep PCS

I had the great pleasure of sitting down recently for a conversation with Lauren Maestas, the chief executive officer of DC Prep Public Charter School.  Ms. Maestas had just completed her one-year anniversary on November 5th of her promotion to CEO after serving as the school’s chief talent officer for the previous two and a half years.  Her professional background is fascinating.

Ms. Maestas obtained her law degree at New York University.  Before and after this achievement she worked for McKinsey and Company in a consulting role.  It was six months into her second stint with the firm that Ms. Maestas had an opportunity to join a project for an urban school district.  During this engagement, she recognized the importance of quality public education in a country where too few board rooms include people of color.  She also realized that she wanted human capital work to become the focus of her career.

Her next position was with the New York City Department of Education as the director of school leadership.  The job appealed to her because of the innovative work the NYCDOE was doing under Chancellor Klein’s leadership.  However, her timing was not good.  Joel Klein resigned as Chancellor shortly after she joined, and people started leaving the agency. 

While she was with McKinsey her co-worker and mentor Byron Auguste, husband of Monument Academy PCS’s founder and board member Emily Bloomfield, pointed Ms. Maestas to Uncommon Schools, a charter management organization that now operates 54 schools serving 20,000 students across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, Rochester and Troy, New York.  She was able to land employment with them, becoming their chief talent officer a year later.  She worked with the CMO for four years in New York City. 

Ms. Maestas’ husband then accepted a new job in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and so Ms. Maestas left Uncommon Schools and went to work for Transcend Education, a nonprofit that helps develop new school models that prepare all students to succeed in the 21st century.  But Ms. Maestas was working at home in a city she with which she was unfamiliar, and this fact combined with her personality trait as an introvert convinced her that she needed to be doing something else. It was Maura Marino, the co-founder and CEO of Education Forward, who introduced her to DC Prep.  It was then that she became the charter’s chief talent officer.

I asked the DC Prep CEO what it was like working under DC Prep founder and former CEO Emily Lawson.  She answered as soon as the words escaped my mouth.  “Emily is really amazing,” Ms. Maestas explained.  “She is smart and has a really good heart.  Emily believes wholeheartedly in the mission.  She is always thinking ‘what’s the next step, what’s the next step.’  She has built an excellent team and outstanding board.  Everything she does is in the interest of the students.”

Ms. Maestas related that D.C. Prep currently teaches over 2,000 pupils across five campuses in Wards 5, 7, and 8.  All of these schools are ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.  I wanted to know what makes DC Prep successful.  Again, Ms. Maestas responded without hesitation.  “The staff is extremely passionate about our purpose,” the DC Prep CEO commented. “I am surrounded by some really smart individuals.  We get results together.  Our time here is all about the kids and the values that we share.  This is really about the people doing the work.”

Of course, Ms. Maestas is not the first person to succeed Emily Lawson as head of DC Prep.  Current DC Public Charter School Board chair Rick Cruz tried it years ago.  It was not successful.  I asked Ms. Maestas why her tenure will have a different outcome.  “There is a tremendous difference between the two situations,” Ms. Maestas asserted.  “Rick came in from the outside so that is a difficult circumstance.  I had already been a part of DC Prep for a couple of years.  I had experience partnering with the other members of our senior team.  I played a role in establishing the goals that we are now striving to implement.  I was a part of the process.”

We then began a discussion about the specific objectives Ms. Maestas has for DC Prep.  She detailed three.  “First,” according to the head of DC Prep, “we want to make sure we are serving all students.  Toward this aim we want all of our campuses to score as Tier 1 on the PMF.  Second, we are thinking about how to continue to refine our approach so that we can enable our students to achieve even more in the future.  To accomplish this goal we have embarked on a five-year strategic planning process, where we are thinking about how to make changes in our program model to better serve students and how we can be the best place for great people to work.  Our third priority is to open Anacostia Middle Campus, to ensure that our Anacostia Elementary Campus students can attend a DC Prep school through the eighth grade.”

One area that Ms. Maestas does not want to concentrate on is growth of her charter management organization beyond Anacostia Middle School.  “We had students coming to our campuses in Wards 5 and 7 from Anacostia,” Ms. Maestas informed me.  “Therefore, we wanted to open in Ward 8 to serve these children closer to where they live.  We currently have 560 Ward 8 students enrolled in a DC Prep school.  Our pattern is to create elementary and middle schools in close proximity to each other.  We searched for a building beginning in 2014 in Anacostia that would hold both schools, but due to historic preservation requirements we could not find one.   At first we opened our elementary school in trailers behind the Big Chair and operated there for two years.  However three years ago we purchased a former Catholic school on V Street, Southeast.  We renovated the space and moved in at the start of the 2017-to-2018 term.” 

Ms. Maestas continued: “We are opening up a grade a year at Anacostia Elementary and we are up to third grade at the current campus.  Our middle schools start at the fourth grade.  We signed a two-year lease through Building Pathways for the ground floor that Excel Academy is not using in the Birney Building, and there is enough room for us to go through the fifth grade in this area.  Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

According to Ms. Maestas, while all of this was going on a property went up for sale on Frankford Street Southeast.  She said it met their requirements for the middle school in that there is sufficient space for a school building, it is located within a mile of the elementary school, and the price is something DC Prep can afford.  There were other prospective buyers, so they put down a refundable deposit in August which gave them 60 days to conduct diligence on the site. 

Ms. Maestas acknowledges that the last few months have been challenging.  “Summer is our busiest time,” the DC Prep CEO informed me. “We were closing out one school year, while getting ready for the next.  Raymond Weedon, who had been our senior director of policy and community engagement, transitioned to become executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS in July.  We put down a deposit on the Frankford Street site in August, while in parallel we were working to welcome back our teachers.  On August 14,th I reached out to ANC 8B Commissioner Darrell Gaston.  We held a community meeting on August 22nd to share information about DC Prep’s interest in the Frankford Street site with the Fort Stanton community.  I have been in touch with Commissioner Gaston on a weekly basis to update him on our diligence process and answer his questions since that time.  I also asked to present to ANC 8B, which I did in October.  I see now that I should’ve found a way to do more outreach directly to members of the Fort Stanton community, rather than focusing on ANC forums.” 

According to Ms. Maestas, the DC Prep team is working hard to invest in direct community engagement in connection with the purchase of the parcel on Frankford Street.  “Now that we have hired a chief of staff, we have more bandwidth to host community meetings.  We have bi-monthly meetings on the calendar through the end of the year, and will do a similar cadence in 2020.  We hope these sessions will allow us to answer any questions that members of the Fort Stanton community have for us, and we hope that they will allow us to join forces to seek a permanent location that meets our students’ needs while also not requiring that we build on Frankford Street,”  Ms. Maestas was quick to point out that, “if we can find a different solution as to where to place our middle school I would take it.  We are going to try to collect signatures on a petition, which we hope to present to city officials to ask their help in identifying under-utilized city-owned facilities that could be Anacostia Middle School’s permanent home.  I will bring members of the neighborhood to join me if they wish.  Our consistent aim is to serve the Ward 8 community in the best way possible with a strong emphasis on collaboration.”

Two local charter school advocacy groups, DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and FOCUS, to merge

Word came yesterday afternoon that the boards of directors of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools have decided to merge their institutions beginning in 2020. This is big news and at the same time it is not. Every since Irene Holtzman stepped down as FOCUS’s executive director last July, and Education Forward DC sponsored Bellwether Education Partners in completing an analysis of charter school advocacy in our city, the prediction on the street was that these two groups would become a single entity.

The change makes perfect sense. FOCUS was never the same after the retirement of Robert Cane in 2015. It had lost its “take no prisoners” approach to charter school support. This was to be expected. There can be only one Robert Cane. The Association, on the other hand, appeared at times to be unclear about its mission, probably because FOCUS often played the dual roles of political instigator as well as a source of professional development for charter school teachers and leaders. In fact, it has only been recently with the End the List campaign around the release of closed DCPS building to charters that the Association has seemed to become magically reinvigorated.

The press release announcing the unification of the two parties explains the reason behind the move:

“What’s bringing the two organizations together at this moment for public education in the District of Columbia is the mission we share and the need for greater capacity. Both FOCUS and the Association are dedicated to protecting and advancing school quality and choice for DC families by ensuring the autonomy and strength of chartered public schools. By formally merging, we can dramatically increase the work we do on your behalf. The three pillars of this new organization’s work will be advocacy, influence, and school support.”

Both the Association and FOCUS have been in existence since the start of the District of Columbia’s charter school experiment 25 years ago. The announcement continued:

“We’ve decided to take this step after several months in conversation with school leaders and supporters of charter schools, almost all of whom expressed the view that the charter movement would be better served by having one strong organization. By teaming up to form a new organization, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and FOCUS will provide all DC charter schools with a strong and unified voice.

The Association and FOCUS’s boards have only just made the decision to merge. Over the next several months, our steps will be guided by a steering committee that includes Pat Brantley and Sekou Biddle, the chairs of the two organizations, along with Robert Cane, Alison Collier, Ramona Edelin, Donald Hense, Justin Rydstrom, and Jessica Wodatch. During the transition to the new entity, each organization will continue to operate under its current leadership, Ramona Edelin at the Association and Alison Collier and Anne Herr at FOCUS. One of the first actions of the steering committee will be to begin a search for an executive director to lead the new organization.”

This is an exciting endeavor. Several of the key players in this decision were thrilled to be able to comment on the milestone.

“We can be more useful to schools and more influential with policymakers as one organization using our combined skills and extensive institutional knowledge to even better serve DC’s charter schools and families,” observed Alison Collier.

Remarked Patricia Brantley, board chair of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and CEO of Friendship PCS, “Every year, nearly half of DC’s families choose chartered public schools for their children. It’s our responsibility to ensure that those schools are thriving, high quality and equitably treated. Merging these two organizations will move us closer to being the strong voice and advocate that our schools and families need.”

Added Sekou Biddle, FOCUS board chair, “Aligning the efforts of supporters of charters, choice and innovative education puts us in a stronger position to work toward every child and family in the District of Columbia having access to an excellent education.”

Summing up this effort is Ramona Edelin, executive director DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. “Talking with school leaders and other supporters of DC’s charter schools reinforced the logic of this merger. They want a voice advocating for our sector loudly and clearly, because there are loud and influential forces trying to undercut families’ choices and make charter educators’ work harder. Creating an organization to be that voice makes a lot of sense for this moment.”

With the stepping down of Scott Pearson as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, the decision the chair of the D.C. Council education committee Councilmember David Grosso not to run for re-election, Councilmember Allen’s charter school transparency bill winding its way to consideration for passage, and a teachers’ union being established at Mundo Verde PCS, this development could not come at a more opportune time.

Fight Night – The Final Round

I know the idea behind this year’s 30th and last Fight Night held on Thursday, November 14th was to hit a high note, but did it really have to be the best one ever?  The quality of the event had the guests, including this one, begging for more.  Isn’t it possible to do one perhaps every other year?  Please?

Anyway, let’s go inside.  The reception hall has become a staple of this celebration.  There were a dozen open bars, four signature drink stations at which most had more than one signature drink, and six silent auction tables focused primarily on sports memorabilia.  The games that attendees could play were in place, such as golf, basketball, and hockey.  Mascots from all of the major District of Columbia sports teams mingled among the guests including Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln from the Washington Nationals.  It was here that I ran into Keith Gordon, the CEO of Fight for Children, the organization that puts on this gala.  I asked him his feelings about tonight.

“When we reflected on this evening,” Mr. Gordon replied, “we thought about Joe [Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the founder of Fight for Children and the creator of Fight Night].  We reminisced about everything Joe would have wanted to accomplish in his lifetime.  When we see all the people supporting this event we picture Joe smiling from heaven.”  Mr. Robert passed away at the end of 2011 from brain cancer.

I then moved over to the Red Carpet to catch a glimpse of the Legends of Boxing.  In attendance were “Buster” Douglas, Ray Mancini, Gerry Cooney, Earnie Shavers, and Sugar Ray Leonard.  They all looked great.

Also present at the Red Carpet was Jim Gibson.  Mr. Gibson was an extremely close friend of Mr. Robert’s.  He produced the first 22 Fight Nights.  I asked him about its origin. 

“We had no money,” Mr. Gibson recalled.  “We had no budget.  Joe said he wanted music so I brought over my home stereo.  Much much different from today’s experience.”

I then moved back to the reception area since transitioning from one space to the other is especially fun.  In the rapidly expanding crowd I found myself standing next to David Fensterheim, Fight for Children’s board chair.  Of course, I also inquired of him regarding his view about the last Fight Night.

“It’s very bittersweet,” the Fight for Children chairman asserted.  “I know that Joe would want us to go out on top.  This may be the end of Fight Night but we are ready for Fight for Children 2.0.”

It was then time to enter the ballroom.  It became immediately clear that Fight Night had been restored to its previous iconic incarnations.  Back, after a year’s absence, were the 180 hostesses, but instead of wearing red cocktail dresses these were dark blue and generally more conservative.  As guests arrived female acrobats were performing routines on the boxing rink stationed as always in the middle of the expansive hall.  They could also be found on the stage in the back behind the tables.  Some danced with incandescent hula hoops.  Loud music and laser lights filled the air.  Images from previous Fight Nights appeared on suspended video screens around the perimeter of the ring.  2,000 attendees, predominately men in black tie, immediately starting smoking the cigars located on each table. 

After the introduction of the Legends of Boxing by Mr. Fensterheim, the attendees were provided with an exceptionally classy act.  All of the previous Fight Night Chairmen were brought onto the ring and presented with red boxing robes with hoods complete with their last name embroidered on the back.  Then it was announced that Luke Robert, one of Joe Robert’s sons, would accept the robe on behalf of his father.  A plaque containing a picture of Mr. Robert accompanied the robe.  Luke then announced to the audience that “Dad is blushing right now.”

Dinner was being served complete with the traditional foot-long steaks and mashed potatoes.  Some things should never change.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Robert’s friend, musician Kenneth Brian Edmonds, known as Babyface, wrote the song “Hey Joe” about him. It was set to a montage of images from Mr. Robert’s time on earth.  For the 30th Fight Night the pictures accompanied the song were redone and the new video was then played for attendees.

Afterwards Mr. Fensterheim thanked former Fight for Children board chair Raul Fernandez, former Fight for Children president and CEO Michela English, former board member Mayor Anthony Williams, Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Roberts family, and the staff of Fight for Children including Michelle Babst, Kim Stevenson, Liz Warnecki, Ellett Toomey, and Judy Wrench for all of their contributions to Fight for Children.   

Boxing was next on the agenda.  In a 10 round match Sam Teach became the new USBA Jr. Champion when he defeated the previous Champion Sonny Fredrickson.  It was a battle worthy of the significance of the night.

A performance by the Redskins cheerleaders followed the boxing with the women in uniforms identical to those worn for years at this event.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band “Cheap Trick” then gave a highly energetic performance to a boisterous audience.

It was then unfortunately the moment everyone left the ballroom for the after party back at the reception space where we started.  Naughty by Nature, a Grammy award-winning hip hop band, entertained the group.

I just stood wondering if I would ever see this sight again.

Fight Night raised approximately $3 million. Since its inception the function has brought in over $65 million to support the health and education of low income youth.

Sparks fly at monthly meeting of D.C. charter board

Let’s get the easy stuff over with regarding agenda items on the DC Public Charter School Board’s November monthly meeting that took place last Monday. Three schools, Bridges PCS, Howard University Charter Middle School of Mathematics and Science, and Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy PCS, all received 15 year renewals of their charters. The approvals were relatively noncontroversial. However, I did make two notes. The first is that Bridges is only one of two District charters that give an admission preference to students with disabilities. The other being St. Coletta of Greater Washington PCS. My other observation is that relatively new board member Jim Sandman, who has quickly shown in only a few meetings to be taking his volunteer role in an extremely conscientious manner, is a real stickler for schools exactly meeting their Performance Management Framework targets. In other words, if the charter is supposed to be at a score of 50 percent, then it better not come in at 49. This viewpoint has proved divisive in the past, leading to schools hiring the Stephen Marcus firm to dispute the validity of the PMF in regard to their application for facilities teaching a large population of at-risk children.

Also straightforward was DC Prep PCS receiving the green light to open its Anacostia Middle School on the ground level of the Birney School Building. DC Prep’s chief operating officer Laura Maestas started the discussion with prepared remarks refuting some of the comments others made about her campuses at the October PCSB meeting. Highly impressive in her testimony was the extremely dramatic reduction DC Prep has recently experienced in its student suspension rates, something that has been a criticism of the charter in the past. She pointed out that tonight’s vote is about the move into Birney, not the property that she stated the school will buy on Frankford Street, S.E. Ms. Maestas again reiterated that the goal is to find a location going forward for Anacostia Middle other than the Frankford Street location.

Now let’s get to the most remarkable portions of this session, which as usual began with the public comments. Two individuals, one a former vice-principal and the other a parent, with other former school leaders coming up to the testimony table in support, describe concerning activity at Ingenuity Prep PCS. They claim that under CEO Will Stoetzer student behavior is out of control. Descriptions of what is taking place include kids running around hallways, leaving the school building without permission, horseplay, and even exposing their genitals. The former vice-principal stated that students have been abusing staff through violent acts including stabbings. She asserted that she has heard children say that they want to kill themselves and die. The parent described teachers verbally abusing and bullying students. The cause of these problems, according to the former vice-principal, is inappropriate inclusion of special education children without proper teacher training and supervision. It is all difficult to believe and my hope is that the board will bring representatives of Ingenuity Prep to the December meeting to provide an explanation of these claims.

Next up was Rocketship PCS for a discussion around the attempted kidnapping of two students by a registered sex offender revealed by the parent of these children at the October PCSB meeting. If you want to see how a school should not respond when faced with an extremely serious incident, then please watch the presentation by representatives of this school. It was a train wreck. The staff was defensive and appeared to want to blame others for the event. Just to give you a sense of the misguided approach consider the words of the first speaker, regional director Joyanna Smith. She described dropping her son off at a charter school where her identification is never checked because they know her. She concluded her statement by admonishing the board not to prevent Rocketship from opening its third campus because of this occurrence. The testimony seemed to be a non-sequitur to the extremely serious nature of the crime, and appeared strange coming from someone who used to be the Ombudsman for Public Education in the city.

The board was having none of this line of reasoning and asked many probing questions regarding the chronology of events. The members from Rocketship did admit that they did not follow their own communication procedure that resulted in others learning of the incident nearly three weeks after it occurred and at the PCSB October meeting. Vice chair Saba Bireda summed up the impression that the school gave by remarking that “my confidence is severely shaken with your organization.” The end result, Ms. Bireda detailed, will be a list of conditions the board will add onto its approval of the third campus which will need to be met before it can be opened and other schools created.

Tremendously inspiring D.C. charter movement End the List rally

Last Thursday morning at Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center over 1,000 charter school students, teachers, and their supporters gathered in a call to action for Mayor Bowser to release empty surplus former DCPS buildings for use by the city’s public charter schools. As I scanned the expansive room with my eyes I saw not an empty seat. Overflow members of the audience had to stand along the back of the space and up and down the entrance stairs in order to get a glimpse of the activities.

The two hour perfectly choreographed program made it extremely difficult to turn your attention away from the front of the stage. There were student performances by Rocketship Legacy Prep PCS students together with those of the Friendship PCS Collaborative Choir. At one point on the agenda KIPP DC College Preparatory PCS pupils became the cast of “Newsies: the Musical.” My wife Michele and I had seen Newsies just last week at Arena Stage and I can safely say that the scholars of KIPP are definitely ready for primetime.

Toward the end of the session the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy PCS Drumline proceeded from the rear of the hall to the front. The sound so engulfed the area that the guests had no choice but to jump to their feet in thunderous applause.

Emotions, as demonstrated on the faces of the crowd, were riding exceedingly high. This was due to the purposeful interweaving of prepared remarks by esteemed members of the charter school community, together with student performances, combined with several snippets from the documentary “Open Doors Open Minds“. It was a trifecta of activities that resulted in numerous opportunities for those seated to lift up their “I love Charter School” signs high above their heads and cheer in unison.

Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, was the emcee. She introduced comments by Rick Cruz, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board; former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu; Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS; and Dr. Howard Fuller, of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning.

Throughout the gathering there were constant reminders on two large screens positioned on either side of the dais of the approximately 12,000 students currently on a charter school wait list. The wait list exists in large part because the city is holding onto more than a million square feet of property in the form of shuttered DCPS facilities that by law should have already been turned over to charters. One of the most moving parts of the schedule was when pictures of the exteriors and interiors of many of the 14 vacant school buildings were projected. There they were for all to see, image after image, of structures that could be serving our kids right now.

Mr. Cruz spoke eloquently about his days growing up as a child in the Bronx, N.Y. He remembered vividly watching on television Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. On the program he recalled Mr. Rogers repeating over and over again that “anything big started out small.” He made an analogy to the dreams that the pupils in front of us have that we must ensure have the chance to blossom. Of course, Mr. Cruz intoned, these dreams may never become a reality if these individuals cannot get into our charter schools due to a lack of adequate classroom space.

The remarks of Senator Landrieu especially impressed me. She talked from her heart about this country’s efforts to provide equity in education to our kids. However, with her voice rising, she extolled the fact that there is no equity when students go to schools that lack cafeterias, science laboratories, libraries, gymnasiums, and playing fields. Ms. Landrieu is of course referring to charter schools that, due to the lack of access to permanent homes, are often located in warehouses, church basements, and storefronts.

I feel that my duty as a recorder of these types of events is to share the participant’s remarks directly with you the reader. In this case, however, I will not be successful. It turns out that this terrible travesty of justice that has been taking place in our nation’s capital for over two decades regarding the lack of appropriate charter school facilities has so enraged the morning’s speakers that they felt no need to write down prepared remarks. This was true of the passionate comments of the Senator and it is also the case with Mr. Fuller.

Anytime Howard Fuller is at a lectern there is a one hundred percent chance that people will become riled up, and so it was the case on Thursday. Dr. Fuller reflected that he liked the strong show of support he was witnessing in front of him to wrestle closed buildings away from the traditional school system. But he admonished the crowd that if this effort ends with the conclusion of this gathering then it will all be for naught. The intensity of his will traveled through each and every person’s molecular structure as he reminded us through the words of civil rights icon Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

The organizers of the End the List rally know exactly to what Dr. Fuller is referencing. D.C.’s charter movement has not in the past seen a coalition come together for a common cause as it did four days ago. Every group involved in promoting, supporting, and improving our charters was represented. The Center for Education Reform, with the tremendous assistance of others too numerous to mention, did much of the facilitating. But the man who was the fountainhead of this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime effort was my hero and friend Josh Rales. Mr. Rales, together with the Rales Foundation, has for years now been toiling quietly but fervently behind the scenes to do what he can to provide every child who needs one an exemplary education in the District of Columbia. I caught up with him before most others had arrived and asked him to reflect on his undertakings:

“I’m happy to support children,” Mr. Rales related, “to go to the school that they and their parents want them to attend. However, the Mayor is holding onto the supply of surplus DCPS schools that by law need to go to charters. We need these buildings so that we can end the wait list of 12,000 students seeking slots in our charter schools. These schools that have been allowed to sit and deteriorate will be renovated with private capital that will improve blighted neighborhoods of our town.”

It was an overwhelmingly amazing day.

Tonight is Fight Night and it is the last one

Tonight, as I have for more than a decade, I will head over to the Washington Hilton to attend Fight for Children’s Fight Night Gala. This one will be the 30th anniversary of this event. It will also be the last. I cannot believe it is over.

Fight Night has raised over 65 million dollars to support low-income youth in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It was the creation of Fight for Children founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who raised nearly a billion dollars for healthcare and education for children living in poverty. He passed away at the age of 59 at the end of 2011 from a brain tumor that was diagnosed at the hospital where I work. I was with him when he received the diagnosis. That was not a good day.

I so wish Mr. Robert were here. He would be proud that his organization recently announced that it has donated five million dollar to Children’s National Hospital to create the Fight for Children Sports Medicine Center.

The press release announcing the news states that it will be “the region’s first sports medicine center dedicated exclusively to the needs of youth athletes. The new center, expected to open in the later part of 2020, will not only provide world class clinical care and rehabilitation services for sports-related injuries, but will also offer programs on injury prevention and performance evaluation, including a state-of-the-art motion analysis and performance lab. In addition, the Center’s mission will include conducting research on youth sports-related medical care, as well as providing a home for education and other community outreach activities. Fight for Children’s gift will ensure that the benefits from the Center will be available and accessible to all youth in the region, particularly those from underserved communities. The Center will be located at the lobby level of the former Discovery Communications headquarters in Silver Spring, MD.”

Children’s Hospital was a favorite cause of Joe Robert, ever since his son had surgery there as an adolescent. He contributed millions of dollars in his own name to the organization, and in 2009 coordinated a 150 million dollar grant to the facility from the United Arab Emirates.

There is more to celebrate this evening. Word from Capitol Hill is that a bill is moving through Congress that would permanently authorize the SOAR Act, the legislation containing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, that provides private school vouchers to low-income children. The law is supported by Senators Ron Johnson, Dianne Feinstein, Tim Scott, and Mike Braum. The move has also received strong backing from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The OSP was a favorite of Mr. Robert, who fought hard for its passage in 2004 and who fiercely challenged attempts by President Obama and his U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to shut it down. His own Washington Scholarship Fund was for years the administrator of the program until it became impossible to carry out this function under the Obama administration.

There are currently approximately 1,700 students taking advantage of the OSP. Additional funding up to 75 million dollars contained in the current legislation would raise this number to 2,000. The SOAR Act contains equal funding for private school vouchers, D.C. charter schools, and DCPS. This three sector approach was championed by Joe Robert.

Permanently authorizing the SOAR Act will be a crowning achievement of Mr. Robert’s legacy. The bill is expected to pass.

We will raise a glass to toast Mr. Robert’s amazing work later this evening.

Scott Pearson stepping down as executive director DC Public Charter School Board

Word came at noon yesterday that Scott Pearson, executive director for eight and a half years of the DC Public Charter School Board, has resigned his position effective May 29, 2020. A national search for a replacement will now be conducted by the PCSB.

I have so much to say regarding this news that at first I had difficulty knowing where to start. But then my initial meeting with Mr. Pearson came back to me as if it had happened yesterday. Shortly after he had assumed his current job in 2012, I noticed that Mr. Pearson was commenting in public regarding various matters facing the D.C. charter movement. It had not been the custom for the charter board’s executive director to make pronouncements in the media. Under the previous administration of board chair Tom Nida and executive director Josephine Baker, it was always Mr. Nida who spoke for his organization. I mentioned this observation on my blog and questioned the new role that Mr. Pearson was playing.

Shortly after the publication of my piece, I joined Mr. Pearson on a tour of Washington Latin PCS upon whose board I served. When I first encountered the PCSB executive director the first words out of his mouth were something along the lines of “So I’m not supposed to comment on issues before the board?” I was taken aback by his directness and explained that I was only raising the topic for further discussion.

Going forward, ups and downs have characterized my relationship with Mr. Pearson. I have been a consistent supporter of his efforts to increase the quality of the charter portfolio. Yet I have been a critic when it comes to the high level of regulatory requirements imposed on our schools and the failure to greatly expand the number of new charters approved by his body. I also do not believe that he did enough to incentivize charter school replication, and could have done more to help solve the facility problem.

We have also strongly disagreed about a couple of school closures he supported that eventually ended up going my way. These include Options PCS, which is now Kingsman Academy PCS, and Latin American Youth Center Career Academy. But my greatest arguments with Mr. Pearson came regarding a couple of published articles that he authored.

In 2015, Mr. Pearson, together with then PCSB chair John “Skip” McCoy, had a column printed in the Washington Post entitled “Getting the Balance Right.” It asserted that the current share of children enrolled in charter schools, which was then at 44 percent, was just about right. The opinion piece delivered a punch to the stomachs of school choice advocates hungry for the day when they envisioned an education landscape in our city where a majority of students attended these alternative schools. We were confused as to which side he was on.

This doubt was greatly amplified by Mr. Pearson’s printed online commentary suggesting that a unionized charter school would add positively to the sector’s diversity of offerings. His encouragement created a fertile environment for the attempted teachers’ union infiltration of Paul PCS, the successful unionization of Cesar Chavez PCS’s Bruce Middle campus, which is now closed, and now the vote last May by staff members to ratify a union at Mundo Verde PCS. Anyone committed to public school reform knows that teachers’ unions are completely incompatible to this effort.

Despite our differences, in 2016 Mr. Pearson agreed to sit down to an interview with me. I found him to be warm, intelligent, transparent, and completely engrossed in the challenges facing our sector. We had a philosophical discussion in which he enlightened me to viewpoints I had not considered in the past. I am still extremely grateful for his time.

So what should we say about Mr. Pearson’s tenure at the charter board? He is an individual dedicated to quality who through his work helped thousands of children receive an education in a high performing school. He raised the bar for classroom instruction and closed charters not making the mark. Mr. Pearson professionalized and standardized the systems, processes, and policies of the PCSB that resulted in it being recognized as the nation’s leading charter school authorizer. He recruited and retained a talented staff. Mr. Pearson is also a leader who developed the Performance Management Framework to be the gold standard of benchmarking our schools. He is too, in an unanticipated turn of events, someone who may have remained in his position had Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, not stepped down as deputy director four months ago. They worked extremely well together and he depended on her advice and counsel.

E.L. Haynes PCS’s 15th Anniversary Celebration

Last Thursday evening I attended a perfectly orchestrated celebration of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School’s first 15 years. I just love it when events are fashioned in such a high quality manner.

The gala was held at the ornate National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Upon reaching the entrance there were banners on either side announcing the name of the school with its mantra of “BE KIND, WORK HARD, GET SMART” written across the bottom. The signs announced to the guests that they were about to enter a value-based environment. I immediately ran into Jennie Niles, the founder and former executive director of the school. I asked her what she was looking forward to about tonight. If you have met Ms. Niles you know that she believes that occasions such as these are never about herself. She commented:

“I’m just excited and really feel that its overwhelmingly wonderful to see all the people gathered here today that comprise the E.L. Haynes community. We didn’t even have a school when our first class of parents signed their children up with us. Now those students are in college.”

In college they are. Over 450 graduated seniors. The professionally produced booklet accompanying the festivities lists the post-secondary colleges and universities to which these young individuals have been accepted. Included on the list are American University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, and Wellesley College, just to name a few.

Several dignitaries from D.C.’s education world were in attendance. I always enjoy speaking with Michela English, the former president and CEO of Fight for Children and current board chair at DC Prep PCS. It turns out that E.L. Haynes was Fight for Children’s first Quality Schools Initiative Award winner back in 2008. There was an extensive and passionate conversation I then had with Allison Fansler, president of KIPP DC PCS, and Jack McCarthy, AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation president and CEO, about the seemingly intractable facility issues charters face in our city, It is no secret that KIPP DC is trying hard to win the request for proposal for the shuttered Ferebee-Hope for use as its second high school.

Between the passed Hors D’oeuvres of chicken pupusas, maple cinnamon glazed pork belly lollipops, and mini bison burgers, I then was able to get a few minutes with E.L. Haynes CEO Hilary Darilek. I inquired from Ms. Darilek about her current focus at the school. “I’m really thrilled about the next phase for our charter,” she remarked above the rising level of attendees’ voices as the room filled to the brim. “The fact that we are taking a moment to celebrate our first 15 years with our strong commitment to the second 15 is really important to me. Today’s recognition is all about the students. We are now going through a strategic planning process with our pupils, parents, and teachers. This is also a special time for me because this week is my four-year anniversary at E.L. Haynes.”

I then wanted to know the biggest lesson that Ms. Darilek has taken away from her time at the school. She answered without hesitation. “We need to put student voices at the center of everything we do. If we really are truly focused on improving our program and our support structure for our kids, then we need to listen to what our students are saying.”

It was now time for the formal program. There were warm and concise welcoming remarks from Ms. Darilek and Ms. Niles. However, the highlight for the audience had to be the “Bring Yourself to Haynes” video produced by the school’s students. It was exceptionally well done. In one part you see the scholars filming the piece change their role to acting in the montage. A song was included named after the title of the piece. Here are a few of the words:

Let’s take a trip to two thousand and four,
Jennie had a vision for a school that did more,
She named it after Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes!
Our first building was on top of CVS – oh my!
Times have changed, now you can come by,
Our campuses [yeah two campuses] Georgia and Kansas Ave!
Started out with Pre-K and now we go all,
The way to 12th grade and every fall,
We tour colleges all around the country,
Check the banners on our walls
We believe in each other,
We support one another,
Ooh, we’re shooting for the stars
Don’t test me unless it’s SAT!
I’m out for text evidence to represent me,
Grade point high, uptown, DC,
And I’m measuring my angles, cuz I want a degree – Hey!

Next on the agenda was a high energy performance by the E.L Haynes 15th Anniversary Choir and Dance Ensemble. These students were simply amazing in the way they were able to engage the audience through their movement and voices.

After a few closing remarks by Abby Smith, the school’s board chair, it was time for desserts such as chocolate dipped french macarons and mini caramel cashew tartlets, brought to the guests by waiters and waitresses.

A tremendous time was had by all. The gathering raised approximately $200,000, including over $50,000 during the festivities. This level of support made it the most successful event in E.L. Hayne’s history.

 

Empowerk12 recognizes Bold Performance D.C. public schools

Empowerk12, a D.C. nonprofit that supports data analytics in education, recently released its list of 28 Bold Performance schools that outperform their predicted standardized test scores on the PARCC assessment. The methodology behind the designation of a Bold Performance school is fascinating. From the organization’s website:

“We analyzed the 2019 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) data and found that at-risk concentration was the most predictive indicator of school-wide PARCC proficiency. Almost 45% of DC students tested in Spring 2019 were considered at-risk. The more at-risk students a school serves, the fewer the number who met expectations on PARCC, our analysis found. Other factors with a statistically significant impact on a school’s proficiency rate after controlling for percent at-risk served include percent special education, English language learners, race, and grade-level configuration. The 2019 model for Bold Performance includes all factors with a statistically significant impact, with at-risk contributing the most weight.

We used an ensemble of machine learning models to project what percentage of students were expected to be proficient at every school given their demographics, and then identified schools with actual proficiency rates significantly higher than expected. The 2019 Bold Performance award-winning schools have actual proficiency rates at least 10 percentage points higher than schools with similar demographics.”

Here’s some of the group’s observation’s about the winning schools:

“KIPP Promise leads the pack with a proficiency rate 33 points higher than similar schools—and combined proficiency higher than a few Ward 3 schools with considerably more affluent populations. At four of the Bold Performance schools, at-risk students have a higher math and ELA combined proficiency rate than non at-risk students District-wide: DC Prep Edgewood MS, KIPP Heights, KIPP Lead and KIPP Promise.

Together, the 28 schools educate 10,759 students, of which 18% receive special education services and 57% are considered at-risk, ranging from 32% to 86%. An at-risk student is a child whose family qualifies for SNAP or TANF benefits, is placed in foster care, or is experiencing homelessness.

Seventeen of the Bold Performance award-winning and honorable-mention schools are located east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7 and Ward 8, three in Ward 6, four in Ward 5, two in Ward 4, and one each in Wards 2 and 1. Six 2019 winners have been Bold Performers each of the last four years, since the awards began: DC Prep Benning ES, DC Prep Edgewood MS, Ketcham ES, KIPP Lead ES, KIPP Heights ES, and KIPP Promise ES.”

Here’s the complete list of schools:

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I could not help to notice that 67.9 percent of the schools on this list are charters. Congratulations to all of the winners. Truly fantastic work.

 

Depressing results on the 2019 National Report Card regarding America’s schools

The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress results were released last week and the findings were not good. The exam, which tests approximately 300,000 fourth and eighth graders in reading and math, were last reported in 2017. According to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“Nationally, scores for reading in fourth and eighth grades dropped from 2017 to 2019. Declines were recorded among students with the highest scores and among those with the lowest scores. In math, there was a small improvement among fourth-graders but a small drop in grade eight, driven by declines among lower-performing students.”

The Center for Education reform was even more direct in its assessment of scores on the test that is referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

“Only 35 percent of 4th grade and 34 percent of 8th grade students performed at or above the proficient level in NAEP reading, and 41 percent of 4th grade and 34 percent of 8th grade students performed at or above the proficient level in NAEP math, and that’s not reflecting the declining performance of historically low performers, precisely the students we should worry the most about. In what world are these acceptable results?”

The only positive in this examination revolves around performance of pupils in Washington, D.C. Again, according to Ms. Stein:

“This year, the District and Mississippi were the only jurisdictions to improve on three of the four metrics evaluated. And when compared with the 50 states, the District made the largest gains in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math over the three decades since the test was first administered. . . The District was the only jurisdiction that experienced a significant increase in eighth-grade reading. The score increased to 250 points, still well below the national state average on the exam. “

In fact, the District’s performance lags compared to the national average for proficiency and above in fourth and eighth grade reading and math. Even more unsettling is that the gains made by D.C.’s students come from the traditional school sector. Ms. Stein indicated that the proficiency percentages for charter school students were flat compared to two years ago.

What is going on here? We saw lackluster 2019 PARCC standardized test scores come out from the charters followed by the NAEP. Do we know the root cause of these indicators?

Well please allow me to repeat what I wrote when the PARCC scores were released:

“There are many reasons that charters are failing to perform when it comes to the PARCC. The facility issue is still proving to be a significant drain on the attention span of school leaders. The financial challenges, especially around teacher salaries, are not helped by the substantial inequity in funding compared to DCPS. The pressure placed on these schools by the PCSB in the way of accountability through the Performance Management Framework, and other regulatory burdens, makes it almost impossible for them to be the centers of innovative learning envisioned when they were created.”

These are issues that can no longer be ignored. They are significantly impacting student achievement. It’s time to start over. I need a group of energized and angry education reformers to lead the charge in Washington, D.C. to get our movement on the right track. The alternative is that our charter school experiment may be coming to an end.