2020 Presidential election is turning into a missed opportunity to improve civil rights of children

The other day I was emailing with Joel Klein, the first Chancellor of New York City School under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The conversation brought me back to his tremendous 2014 book, “Lessons of Hope.” He wrote:

“The issue of poverty and its effect on our ability to educate kids dominates the contemporary debate on school reform and improvement. From the day I became chancellor, many people told me, “You’ll never fix education in America until you fix poverty.” I’ve always believed the reverse is true: we’ll never fix poverty until we fix education. Sure, a strong safety net and support programs for poor families are appropriate and necessary. But we’ve recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, and it seems fair to say that we must seek new approaches as our problems increase.

Safety-net and support programs can never do what a good education can; they can never instill in a disadvantaged child the belief that society can work for for him in the same that it works for middle- and upper-class children. it is the sense of belonging-the feeling that the game is not rigged from the start-that allows a child to find autonomy, productivity, and ultimately, happiness. That’s what education did for me. And that’s why, whenever I talk about education reform, I like to recall the wise, if haunting, words of Frederick Douglass, himself a slave, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair men.”

This election cycle it feels like we have given up trying to build strong children. The subject of public education is rarely mentioned, even though the last civil rights struggle in this country is being able to provide an excellent public education for everyone no matter their socioeconomic status. On the national stage Democratic candidates, if they talk about schools at all, make sure to broadcast their opposition to charters.

Even Mr. Bloomberg, who during his tenure as New York City’s chief executive drove enrollment in charters from 4,442 students in 18 schools to 183 charters serving 71,422 students, said this the other evening about the issue during the Presidential Democratic debate: “I’m not sure they’re appropriate every place.”

It’s all terribly discouraging. With academic proficiency rates across the country in the thirty percent range, an achievement gap between affluent and poor that only continues to rise, and stagnant national standardized test scores, no one is offering a blueprint to reinvent what is clearly not working.

Well, I’m not running for office and no one has asked my opinion but I will provide one anyway.

We desperately need to eliminate the top-down bureaucratic nature of teaching kids. Elected representatives must introduce school choice plans that impact as many children as possible as quickly as possible. These would include private school vouchers, educational savings accounts, tax credit scholarships, or charter schools. I’m completely agnostic about the specific structure, I just know that we need to immediately introduce competition for students that will drive all educational delivery systems to improve.

We say that our goal is to provide a quality seat to every student who need one. But we have been saying this for 25 years now.

Here in the nation’s capital we must greatly increase the number of charters. But first, so that they have a place to open, we need to pass a law that states that any approved charter or replicated campus gets the right to a permanent facility.

I’m done begging Mayor Muriel Bowser for buildings. I see the answer in the courts. Let’s teach her a lesson that no matter your position of power you cannot skirt the law. Hasn’t she said exactly the same thing about the President?

Here’s the bottom line. I’m out of patience and I’m completely frustrated. If you are a parent trying to get your child into a quality school in this city and you find out that there is a wait list of 2,000 kids, then the only option you have is to move. For most families, relocation is not possible.

Is this what we want for our town?

I’m done with the leaders who state they care about public education. They do not.

2 of 4 new charter school applicants should be approved

There was a marathon monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board Monday evening due to a heavy agenda and one and a half hours of public testimony. People signed up to speak mostly to support one of the four applicants for new schools that would open in the 2021-to-2022 school year. One interesting tidbit from this portion of the session came from two former employees of Ingenuity Prep PCS who I’m sure have testified in the past. In response to their comments, Chairman Cruz revealed that the Office of the State Superintendent, as well as the PCSB, has audited the school’s special education program and found deficiencies. I wrote about the activities of the charter board investigating this aspect of the school’s operation that I learned about only by reviewing the PCSB’s answers to questions posed to it from the D.C. Council as part of its 2020 oversight hearings. Why this information has to come out in steady drips in this age of transparency is beyond me.

Besides the consideration of new schools and other business, Friendship PCS was approved to take over Achievement Prep PCs’s Wahler Middle School after the founding charter announced that it would no longer operate this campus next term. My question is why Friendship does not take over all of Achievement Prep? The middle school has 449 students in grades four through eight while the elementary has 375 pupils in pre-Kindergarten three through the third grade with the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation instructing the children in preschool. Perhaps at a later time.

The presentations by the new applicants were fascinating. Right out of the gate I’ll wager the entire pot on the Capital Experience Lab PCS being given the green light. Sometimes new bids for charters have an alignment in components that cannot be stopped and this is the case with this school. The support from CityBridge Education combined with Friendship’s CEO Patricia Brantley as a board member and the selection of Lanette Dailey-Reese as head of school present a powerful foundation. I hope you remember Ms. Dailey-Reese as the highly impressive individual who almost single-handily saved City Arts and Prep PCS from closure. This mission of the CAPX LAB around utilizing the wealth of resources present in the nation’s capital as its classroom cannot be topped.

I truly wish I felt the same about Global Citizens PCS. It is a terrible idea to go against the other CityBridge Education school but here I go. The idea of providing a dual immersion school in Spanish and Mandarin east of the river is fascinating, and I’m a tremendous supporter of the founders, who come from Sela PCS. I just cannot get my mind past the question from board member Jim Sandman who asked how the school would go about staffing its teachers when it has no idea how many initial scholars would be interested in learning one language versus the other. The other problem I have conceptually is that in this school’s pre-Kindergarten classes the language other than English would be spoken eighty percent of the time, with English going up to fifty percent in higher grades. Is this really what’s best for the academic future of this population of students? Perhaps people with more knowledge on this subject than me will point out that the answer is affirmative. I’m not so sure. For these reasons I vote no for approval.

Here’s another mistake I could be making. I would love to see a charter granted to The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship. This school, which applied for the first time last year, spells out its goals this way:

“At The Garden, our vision is to close the racial wealth gap and break the cycle of generational poverty. Our students will receive career skill-building experiences, learn how to grow their ideas into businesses, and how to use their assets to build wealth. Our school model is not only for the business person or entrepreneur, our school supports all careers. Our model is intended to create and build the mindset and skills needed to move black communities from consumer to producer. College and career is not our grand prize, it’s just the ticket into the arena. We will teach our students about investing, bonds, and stocks. Our students will work to create new ways to generate income – no matter what their degree or career is. We work to change how students think about money and education. For this reason, we are not only focused on academics and our economic design. We are culturally affirming who our students are and supporting them mentally and socio-emotionally. We believe that the most powerful feeling in the world is having control. Not, control over others or a multi-million dollar company. It’s control over yourself, your skills, and your mindset.”

I was especially taken with the young gentleman school representative telling his story about growing up in poverty who now makes millions of dollars through multiple businesses in Ward 8. Let’s give them a chance.

Finally, I reluctantly would not go along with the application from Washington Arabic PCS. This school also tried last year. Although improvements in the bid have been made, and the founding group has been positively augmented, I have lingering concerns about the design of the curriculum.

In most years not more than forty percent of new applicants are approved by the PCSB. I’m going with half this time. Next month we will see if I have the right half.

DCPS Chancellor should have threatened to resign over Council interference with Washington Met

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee last month decided, after conducting a thorough analysis, to close Washington Metropolitan High School, a school serving low-income students who have been unsuccessful learning in traditional classroom settings. Here’s what the editors of the Washington Post wrote recently about Washington Met:

“At Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative school in the D.C. public school system, just 10 percent of students meet expectations on state assessments in English. None of the school’s 157 students meet expectations in math. Attendance is dismal, with data showing only about 28 percent of students attending class on most days, and enrollment has declined. Internal surveys found that students disliked the campus and felt they weren’t being loved, challenged or prepared.”

This is the first school DCPS will shutter since 2013. However, the move was almost reversed due to a D.C. Council that increasingly believes that it knows more about how to educate students than school leadership. It has already set rules around school disciplinary practices and is about to weigh in on charter school transparency. In this case, D.C. Councilperson Robert C. White, apparently unable to find his spine in the face of pressure from the Washington Teachers’ Union, introduced a bill to circumvent the authority of the Chancellor. Eight other weak members of the Council went along with his idea. The only problem is that nine representatives were needed to approve the legislation. Education Committee Chairman David Grosso and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who both sit on the Education Committee, along with Anita Bonds, Brandon Todd, and Kenyan McDuffie voted against it.

By the skin of our teeth, there was almost an extremely terrible precedent set. Washington D.C. has had Mayoral control over the traditional public schools since 2007. All attempts by the D.C. Council or D.C. Board of Education to insert themselves into actions by the Mayor, Deputy Mayor for Education, or Chancellor need to be vigorously rejected.

Yesterday, the Washington Post announced that former D.C. School Superintendent Clifford Janey passed away. I liked and respected Dr. Janey, and I thought his heart was in the right place in the improvements he tried to make. Here is how reporter Bart Barnes described DCPS when Mr. Janey was in charge beginning in 2004:

“Dr. Janey inherited what he later described as a dysfunctional system of poor classroom performance, unreliable computers, a malfunctioning payroll and schools that chronically lacked supplies. Textbooks were in poor condition and often delivered late. Building repairs were made late or not at all, and school officials were unsure how many students were enrolled.”

These problems generally persisted until Michelle Rhee took over under Mayoral control of the regular schools as established by Adrian Fenty.

We cannot move backwards. Ever again. To demonstrate how serious this situation was regarding D.C. Council interference in DCPS affairs, Mr. Ferebee should have announced his resignation if Mr. White’s bill had become law.

Video of empty Spingarn High School is shocking, sad, and motivating

WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle revealed the other day a 26 minute video made by two gentlemen, Bryan and Michael, who call themselves the Proper People, who took an unauthorized tour of D.C.’s Spingarn High School that was closed in 2013. He wrote:

“Opened in 1952 as a segregated high school for African American students, Spingarn came to be known both for its academics and its fearsome basketball program, which produced NBA talents like Elgin Baylor, Sherman Douglas and Dave Bing — who also served as Detroit’s mayor. In 2012, the building was declared a historic site, partially in response to plans by the city to build a streetcar repair facility on the school’s grounds. But dwindling enrollment prompted D.C. Public Schools to close Spingarn in 2013, alongside 14 other schools.

The pictures remind me of other former DCPS facilities in which through the pealing plaster, cracked floors, and mounds of trash, you can imagine the spectacular beauty that once characterized the space. It looks extremely similar to Rudolph Elementary that now houses Washington Latin PCS. More than $20 million was spent renovating that building. This site apparently once had an elegant auditorium, theater, gymnasium, and greenhouse.

The images were particularly moving to me because it appeared that there may have been a school for radiologic technologists based upon the x-ray equipment that was found. I have worked in the medical imaging field for more than 30 years.

There is something terribly wrong here. A 225,000-square-foot building sits empty accumulating damage from wind, water, and vandals, and charter schools struggle on a daily basis desperately trying to figure out where they are going to educate their students. Parents have placed their complete faith in these institutions to provide the optimistic future for their children that they do not have. But due to politics, ego, discrimination, or simply poor public policy judgement, this structure and many others are blocked from their use.

Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people and we do not understand the reason. Injustices persist in this country and around the world. Despite heroic efforts by numerous philanthropic individuals, too many human beings go to bed at night without sufficient food, shelter, and clothing.

No, not every problem in society can be fixed. But there is one issue that could be resolved this morning. Surplus DCPS space can be turned over to charters. Let’s ask Mayor Boswer to take this step today. She simply needs to say O.K.

D.C. charter board transparency has its limits

Last November I described troubling testimony at the monthly DC Public Charter School meeting regarding Ingenuity Prep PCS. I wrote:

“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 accusations.”

So what was the outcome of this complaint? You would not have any idea by sitting through the subsequent public meetings of the DC PCSB in December and January. Did this oversight body investigate the school? Was there any legitimacy to the charges of those who testified? The answers to these questions are affirmative, but to find them you need to do some detective work. The trail starts by going to the charter board’s website. Then you move to the Transparency Hub, followed by paging down to “Oversight testimony and responses to DC Council since 2013.” A button to the right takes you to “View Oversight Testimony and Responses.” Under Q &A click FY19 Performance Oversight Answers.” Next, select “Performance Oversight Questions.”

These are the questions asked by the D.C. Council’s Education Committee in preparation of its February 2020 oversight hearings. Buried on page 49 of 123 pages is this written exchange:

“Q 20. Provide an update on measures taken to address complaints shared at the November 2019 PCSB Board meeting regarding Ingenuity Prep, including:
a. documentation and the results of the original desk audit;
b. the results of the resulting special education audit; and
c. any conditions in place for the school.

In November 2019, DC PCSB received a series of community complaints regarding systemic concerns with student safety and special education programming at Ingenuity Prep PCS. Below is the timeline of events as it relates to the initial complaint, meetings with the school, site visits to the school, and the overall special education audit process.
11/5/2019: Unannounced Visit to Ingenuity Prep PCS
In response to the initial community complaint, DC PCSB staff conducted an immediate visit to the school.
11/20/2019: Staff-to-staff Meeting with DC PCSB and Ingenuity Prep PCS
DC PCSB held a staff-to-staff meeting with Ingenuity Prep PCS to discuss the complaints and the school’s response and potential turnaround efforts.
12/3/2019: Special Education Audit Begins
In response to the complaints alleging systematic issues with the school’s special education program, DC PCSB began a desk audit on Tuesday, 12/3/2019, in accordance with DC PCSB’s Special Education Audit Policy. According to the Policy, a potential trigger is a community complaint that “alleges a systemic issue with the denial of parental safeguards, provision of special education services, or concern for the safety of students with disabilities.” Consistent with the Policy, the school was required to provide data and supplemental documentation.
1/8/2020: Unannounced Visit to Ingenuity Prep DC
PCSB staff conducted a second unannounced visit to the school.
1/16/2020: DC PCSB concludes its audit and submits to the school its conclusions and recommendations

Audit Conclusions
Upon reviewing the documentation submitted through the special education audit and the information gathered during unannounced visits, DC PCSB concluded the following:
•through SY18-19 to SY19-20, students with disabilities at the school are retained at five times the rate as their general education peers;
•the school continues to have staffing challenges, resignations, and transitions;
•extensive training and oversight are needed in special education programming and compliance;
•while the school has developed an internal turnaround strategy, it has also struggled to implement elements of its turnaround (e.g., observing all teachers on a regular basis) and clearly measure success of the turnaround;
•while the school reports that seclusion is no longer in use, there is inconsistent evidence; and
•the school does not consistently follow its own policies regarding restraint and physical escort.

Audit Recommendations
Based on DC PCSB’s audit conclusions, DC PCSB recommended that the school take steps to re-evaluate and improve policies and practices regarding:
•special education student supports and contributing factors to grade retention;
•implementation of the school’s restorative practices; and
•seclusion, restraint, and physical escort practices and policies and notification to parents after every instance.

DC PCSB also recommends that the school take steps to increase its oversight and provide support to its staff in:
•special education compliance;
•teacher observations and coaching; and
•measurement of success on the school’s turnaround plan.

DC PCSB will follow up on the status of the school’s turnaround efforts in future communications, continue to closely monitor community complaints that may potentially come in regarding the school, and conduct follow up unannounced site visits.”

In summary, there were definitely serious issues identified by the PCSB regarding this school’s handling of special education students. While the board should be congratulated for including this information on its website, it is inappropriate that this type of follow-up is not shared in a more open fashion.

When I met recently with PCSB Chairman Rick Cruz for an interview I asked him about this safety incident and the one at Rocketship PCS. We discussed the possibility of something along the lines of a Safety Audit Report that would be included at the monthly meetings.

Based upon the details above, I think the time for such a report is clearly overdue.

Exclusive interview with Stacy Kane, co-founder and executive director Washington Leadership Academy PCS

Let’s start with straight facts about this high school.  It’s been open for three and a half years.  The charter began with 110 students in the ninth grade.  There is now a total of 396 pupils, with roughly 100 kids per grade level.  This year Washington Leadership Academy PCS has its first senior class.  The demographic makeup of the student body is approximately 70 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, 24 percent eligible for special education services, and 54 percent who fall into the category of at-risk. 

Over the previous two years, the only times in the school’s early existence that it has been ranked on the DC Public Charter Board’s Performance Management Framework tool, it scored in the Tier 1 category.

Yet, after reading all of the above information, I feel that I have told you extremely little about this truly amazing place.  Please allow me to try again.

There are seven co-founders of this institution.  They are Duane Rollins, Joey Webb, Miles Taylor, Natalie Gould, Phil Stephen, Seth Andrew, and of course, Stacy Kane.  With the exception of Ms. Kane, and Ms. Gould, who is the school’s chief operating officer, the others are involved with the charter these days in a less direct manner.  Mr. Taylor and Mr. Andrew were Congressional pages when they were younger, and especially now that the Congressional page program is closed, they were interested in creating a high school that allowed its pupils to have real world experiences.  Mr. Rollins and Ms. Kane were focused on integrating technology and computer science into the new school.

Ms. Kane has an intriguing background.  Her mother is a social worker and her father is retired.  She attended Vanderbilt University on a full community service scholarship.  The Washington Leadership Academy executive director graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Human and Organizational Development and Sociology.  During her undergraduate years she started a college preparation and mentoring program.  Ms. Kane went on to earn a Masters’ degree in Public Policy and Education Policy, also at Vanderbilt, then obtained a law degree at Emory University

Her next move was to join the Presidential Management Fellowship program and later became the deputy director of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program.  It was during this time that she became acquainted with the Washington Leadership Academy co-founders with whom she shared a passion for quality in public education together with a driving interest in technology.

I asked Ms. Kane about her motivation to start Washington Leadership Academy.  Her response came quickly and eloquently.  “It was my study of sociology,” she intoned.  “I grew up confused about racial inequality in my community in Cincinnati, Ohio. My college course work in sociology resolved my confusion. I finally understood that the reasons were historic, structural, and even intentional, specifically with regard to race. I wholeheartedly subscribed to the philosophy that human liberation is bound up together; if some of us aren’t free and equal, none of us are. I began to dedicate myself to equity work, and I’ve never slowed down. I never intend to.”

The trying to do something about it became immensely personal to Ms. Kane.  She and her husband became foster parents to a young man who was at the time 15 years old.  He is now studying at Howard University, and still comes home every weekend for family dinners and laundry.

“It is part of my ethos about everyone being deserving of opportunity, in this case, of a loving family,” Ms. Kane related. “He has added so much joy and love to my life and to my immediate and extended family. I’m incredibly lucky he’s in my life and I’m so proud to call him my son.”

Which brings us to Washington Leadership Academy.  Ms. Kane explained that during the formation of the charter the founding group was extremely fortunate to win a $400,000 incubator grant with City Bridge Education.  The grant allowed her to be able to work full-time on the creation of the school as her team researched and imagined what the high school of the future would look like.

While her students come to Washington Leadership Academy with academic skills in reading and in math anywhere from grades pre-Kindergarten three and above, the charter was established as a college preparatory institution with a technology focus. It is a unique vision in that it is a school that provides training so that its students are prepared both for college and for meaningful employment in the computer science field.

With such an academically diverse population of students, I inquired of Ms. Kane how those who are behind are brought up to grade level. 

“We have a number of strategies,” she remarked.  “We try everything we can.  The school employs a large number of special education teachers.  Many of our classrooms have two teachers who work in parallel to make sure students have extra support.  Students in their freshman and sophomore years receive double periods of English Language Arts and math.  The use of technology has also been a game changer.  It allows our teachers to differentiate instruction tied directly to the progress of our students. Of course, the most important tool is our incredible team of teachers and staff. All of our outstanding results are a direct result of their efforts.”

The Washington Leadership Academy executive director then reflected that at this charter, because of the use of blended learning and other characteristics integrated into the school’s pedagogy, “In every class each day may look different.  Our teachers have flexibility in the way they approach teaching and their subject matter.” 

Another aspect that makes Washington Leadership unique is that eleventh graders participate in internships on Fridays in businesses, nonprofits and government.  Beginning in the fall semester they receive assistance preparing resumes and cover letters.  The program teaches interviewing skills and students are trained in professional behavior in the workplace.  Then there is a match day in which they are paired with a site based upon their interests and abilities.  Teachers visit the students when they are at their assignments.  Ms. Kane observed that the internships are all part of the real world experience the school strives to provide its pupils.

But there is another crucial reason behind these work assignments.  “For affluent children, internships are a natural part of their high school experience,” said Ms. Kane. “This is often not the case for students who come to WLA.  Providing internships for all of our students is another form of trying to not only achieve equity, but give our students a leg up in college and career.  These jobs can then be placed on their college applications the following year.”

The Washington Leadership executive director went on to explain that ninth and tenth graders participate in project-based learning on Fridays.  There are also year-long classes in the upper grades in Seminar and AP Seminar, and Research and AP Research, in conjunction with the College Board’s AP Capstone Diploma Program.  These efforts are aimed at providing a rich college preparatory curriculum.

I became so impressed with the information Ms. Kane presented to me that I asked her if the school was preparing to replicate.  Her response frankly caught me off guard. 

“To us,” Ms. Kane asserted, “scale is about providing facets of our school to other existing schools so that our impact is much larger than the student population within our walls.  The things we are excelling at we want to share openly and freely with other schools that serve similar student populations.”

At this point Ms. Kane reminded me that in 2016 Washington Leadership Academy was the proud recipient of XQ: The Super School Project prize that provides a total of $10 million, $2 million a year over five years.  At the time of the award, more than 700 teams comprised of over 10,000 members applied for a grant.  XQ is part of the Emerson Collective, which was founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

There are three big projects that Washington Leadership Academy has planned to tackle as a result of receiving these funds and the first is a free, open, online high school English Language Arts curriculum. WLA has partnered with CommonLit to achieve this first goal. Ms. Kane revealed that the curriculum is already being utilized by more than 40 schools across the country, including both charters and district schools. 

The second anticipated project is to try, as Ms. Kane detailed, to delineate “the secret sauce” behind WLA’s high performing instruction in computer science and technology.  The school’s final goal, according to the Washington Leadership Academy executive director, is to design more rigorous classroom material around project-based learning.

With so much activity at the school I wondered if it was difficult to attract the right teaching staff.

“We look for teachers with four to five years of experience.  We generally do not use recently trained instructors.  We also support our staff by providing them with three hours of class preparation a day.  This also provides them time to share best practices with other teachers.”

Teacher retention, according to Ms. Kane, has been excellent as has student retention.  Part of the student retention strategy includes thirty-minute advisory periods in which ten students of the identical gender meet with the same teacher daily.  The student body is also divided up into five houses.  Ms. Kane reflected that the school holds events that promote friendly competition between the houses.

Washington Leadership Academy’s permanent facility is a spectacularly beautiful former seminary college in Northeast that resembles buildings I’ve seen at Cornell or Yale University.  Lee Montessori PCS and a variety of small non-profits share other parts of the campus.  Washington Leadership Academy’s students have now applied to college.  They will hear about admission soon.  Between the campus they learn in everyday and the curriculum designed for college preparation, their future indeed looks bright.

Time to eliminate charter school boards of directors

In an article by my friend Carrie Irvin, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Education Board Partners, she points to a recent study by the D.C. Policy Center entitled “The State of D.C. Schools”. She wrote:

“In the nation’s capital, 2 out of 3 students score below proficient in reading, writing and math.  That number is startling–and it’s just the average.  The picture is even worse at many of our city’s schools.  The report also states that about half of all public school students in this city are designated at-risk, according to the city’s criteria.”

There is nothing new here. It is frankly disgusting that in Washington D.C., after twenty five years of school reform, there is a persistent 60 point academic achievement gap combined with the fact that the proportion of students proficient in English Language Arts and math is in the thirties.

The Education Board Partners CEO calls for stronger boards to fix the problems with academic achievement. In order to have a quality school she suggests, among other recommendations, that boards:

  • “Ask your ED challenging questions that they are not answering readily or proactively, so that you really have the information you need to know if your school is high quality.
  • Use data at all times to drive board decisions.  Make sure you look at ALL data (student achievement, attendance, discipline, staff retention, promotion, pay scale, etc.) broken down by race, gender, special needs status, etc.
  • Pay attention to data about attendance, school safety, etc., as these and many other factors dramatically impact student achievement.
  • In particular, pay attention to staff morale.  Fortune, who now works at the school of which she originally served on the board, noted that most boards ignore this, yet it’s one of the most important factors determining the success of the school.  Ask the ED, and review data, about race relations, pay equity/disparities, and staff satisfaction. Take action to boost morale in meaningful ways.”

I’m sincerely sorry, but at this point I do not feel that any of these steps is going to correct our desperate situation regarding public education in the nation’s capital.

My experience with charter school boards has been decidedly mixed. In the case of Washington Latin PCS the governors were able to turnaround a dire financial situation and eventually secure a permanent facility while creating a budgetary structure that would promote its future success. But other time spent volunteering hours on these bodies has not been nearly as positive.

In fact, I would say that in the great majority of cases the nonprofit boards I have sat on have had little impact on the direction of the organization. They have seemed more of a nuisance then a help to the heads of charters. Much of the activity of these bodies involved instructing members on the proper role of trustees and educating them on how charter schools function. Infighting between the director is common, whether that is between themselves or involving staff.

Do not get me wrong. I definitely see the value that outsiders can bring to the exceptionally difficult job of running a school. People have expertise in areas such as fundraising, real estate, legal issues, and management that can bring tremendous benefits. Americans are generally exceptionally generous with their time and resources. However, I just do not believe anymore that a formal structure is required to obtain assistance from talented hardworking members of our community.

The success or failure of a school is determined by the leader of that school. We are so fortunate in the District to have so many of examples that prove this point. If we are truly serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to support and develop those who can get this job done.

Eliminating charter school boards of directors would also serve to remove the often repeated claim that these institutions are privately run. Charters would report directly to the DC Public Charter School Board, a government entity whose volunteer members are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council.

None of this suggestion is meant in anyway to take away from the outstanding work being done by Education Board Partners. In the past if I had a board issue, I would contact Ms. Irvin. I would do this today.

It would take a change to the law to eliminate charter school nonprofit boards. However, I think we have reached the point where governance can move into the twenty-first century.

Washington Post gets facts wrong in story about Friendship and KIPP DC public charter schools

Yesterday’s blog post was about Perry’s Stein’s article raising skepticism about Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS incorporating multiple campuses of other charters that are failing to meet their academic targets. In that piece, Ms. Stein describes the assimilation of Septima Clark PCS by Achievement Prep PCS this way:

“There’s a measure of irony in Achievement Prep being taken over by another charter operator. In 2013, Achievement Prep was the suitor, assuming control of Septima Clark, an all-boys school that the charter board closed amid low academic performance. But it turned out that Achievement Prep — which has a more successful elementary school that will remain open — could not turn around the school.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. I was intimately involved in the events surrounding the closing of Septima Clark after being contacted by in 2013 by its head of school  Jenny DuFresne. I made the case on multiple occasions that the charter should not be dissolved. Here’s what really happened.

Septima Clark was a low performing school teaching an exceedingly high proportion of at-risk children that toward the end of its operation had reached a Tier 2 ranking on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework. However, there was serious concern by those involved with the school that when it was time for it to go before the PCSB for review it would be closed due to a pattern of poor academic results. The charter also faced the end of a facility lease with no good options as to where it would locate next. The school’s board of directors therefore believed that the best path forward for its students was to close Septima Clark and merge with Achievement Prep PCS. Although Achievement Prep was early in its history, at that time it was highly regarded for its strong academic performance. There was considerable controversy around the school board’s decision. Many Septima parents strongly opposed the plan. As I said it was not one to which I agreed. However, Mr. Pearson, the PCSB executive director, and his board supported the move, and therefore it was executed as designed. Years later I was told by a prominent member of our local charter school movement that of the approximately 230 children who attended Septima Clark, less than 20 made the transition to Achievement Prep. I have not substantiated this claim.

My past columns on this subject are not available but today I link to a Washington Examiner article describing the course of events around the charter.

The goal here is not to disparage the Washington Post staff member. My point is that if as an education reporter a story is going to be written that expresses a particular public policy viewpoint then it is imperative to conduct research to ensure that the facts around the issue being discussed are accurate.

I would say that the irony of this tale is not that Friendship may takeover Achievement Prep’s middle school. Instead, it is the fact that despite constant and consistent claims that charters are public schools run by private entities, in the instance of the Septima Clark, as it throughout this sector, it was a governmental body of volunteers appointed by the D.C. Mayor that made the final decision about the school’s future.

Friendship and KIPP DC charter school networks deserve more students, not less

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein has noticed that both Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS have been taking over campuses of other charters that were facing closure by the DC Public Charter School Board for poor academic performance. Friendship actually started this trend when it assumed control of Southeast Academy in 2005 after the PCSB revoked its charter. KIPP DC then followed suit nine years later when it agreed to bring Arts and Technology PCS into its network at the same time that New York’s Democracy Prep PCS expanded to run Imagine Southeast PCS. Then in 2015 Friendship incorporated Dorothy I. Height’s Community Academy PCS’s Armstrong and on-line campuses in the aftermath of the financial scandal surrounding its founder Kent Amos.

Democracy Prep PCS closed at the end of the 2019 school term when it realized that it could not raise its score on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework.

More recently, Friendship rescued Ideal Academy PCS and brought City Arts and Prep PCS’s program around visual art, performance art, dance, theatre, instrumental music, and vocal music into Armstrong Elementary. KIPP DC this year added Somerset PCS to its roster of schools.

All of this consolidation is worrisome to Ms. Stein. She commented:

“KIPP DC and Friendship, the city’s two largest charter networks, have grown bigger in recent years as they take over floundering charter campuses, revamping the schools and adding the campuses to their already extensive and well-regarded portfolios.

The networks are poised to educate more than 11,500 public school students in the coming years — more than 11 percent of the city’s public school population.”

The Washington Post reporter raised an identical concern when she wrote about KIPP DC being granted the shuttered Ferebee-Hope Elementary School. She stated:

“The city’s decision to lease the vacant Ferebee-Hope Elementary School building in Southeast Washington means citywide enrollment on KIPP campuses could grow to more than 7,600 students in coming years — representing about 15 percent of the city’s charter sector and 7 percent of all public school students.”

Ms. Stein has actually underestimated the impact of Friendship. At the end of last year’s school year, with the help of many of this city’s nonprofits, Friendship’s Educational Foundation incorporated Monument Academy PCS into its fold. The Foundation already runs schools in three states with many more to come.

In addition, news came from Ms. Stein’s piece that apparently Achievement Prep PCS is in discussions to have its Wahler Place Middle School transferred to Friendship. Although Achievement Prep’s elementary school has been slowly increasing its PMF scores over time, the middle school appears stuck at an extremely low Tier 2 level. If Ms. Stein’s report is true, this would be an extremely interesting development since both of Achievement Prep’s campuses are at the same location.

What is truly fascinating is that now that the educational marketplace is working exactly as intended, in that good schools are growing in their span of control and low performing ones are going away, the establishment, as represented by Ms. Stein, is sounding an alarm. I, of course, take a different view.

Charter schools in the national’s capital currently teach 46 percent of all public school students, which equates to 43,446 pupils. This proportion should be much higher by now. In addition, although slowly improving, charter school standardized test scores are not where they need to be and the academic achievement gap, now at about 60 points, is holding steady. If having all kids go to a KIPP or Friendship campus is what it is going to take to turn this situation around, then I am perfectly fine with this outcome.

Support for my position comes directly from the leaders of KIPP and Friendship. Susan Schaeffler, the founder and chief executive officer of KIPP DC explained to Ms. Stein, “If something is working, it makes sense to build on it. . . We did not do this overnight.” Ms. Patricia Brantly, the Friendship CEO, put it much more simply on Facebook. “Go big or go home,” she wrote.

Between KIPP and Friendship there are currently 16 Tier 1 schools, with other campuses at Tier 2 or untiered. If you had a child in the District would you patiently wait while other schools catch up? Not a chance. You would enroll your son or daughter as quickly as you could in one of these fine institutions.

In State of the Union speech, President calls for expansion of private school vouchers

Here are the remarks of President Trump last evening on the subject of school choice:

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 States have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular, that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists. One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia. Janiyah’s mom Stephanie is a single parent. She would do anything to give her daughter a better future. But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s Governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice for 50,000 children.

Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening. But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice!

Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

In the nation’s capital, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that denies our city an additional $15 million a year for the education of our children and denies making this program permanent.

In 2020, no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school. This should be a fundamental civil right.