FOCUS DC News Wire 11/15/2012

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) is now the DC Charter School Alliance!

Please visit to learn about our new organization and to see the latest news and information related to DC charter schools.

The FOCUS DC website is online to see historic information, but is not actively updated.

  • After D.C. school-closure proposal, a flurry of activity [FOCUS mentioned]
  • D.C. teachers union wants to unionize city's charter schools [FOCUS mentioned]
  • Exclusive interview with Brian Jones, Chairman Public Charter School Board
  • D.C. schools chief, watch your back
  • Higher Achievement tries to start path to success in middle school [Center City PCS mentioned]
  • Even a bad AP score can be good

After D.C. school-closure proposal, a flurry of activity [FOCUS mentioned]
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
November 14, 2012

Aday after D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced her plan to close 20 schools, parents across the city signaled their intent to protest, labor leaders said they would push to unionize charter schools and charter-school advocates vowed to fight for control of vacated buildings.

The reactions to Henderson’s plan were the first salvos in a battle that will unfold over the next several weeks and ultimately decide the shape of the District’s school system.

Parents in Northwest Washington said they will oppose plans to put some middle and high school students in the same building. The chancellor’s proposal would create two campuses shared by sixth- through 12th-graders.

“Our parents will not put our kids in that environment,” said Lee Granados, a mother of two children at Ross Elementary, which would feed into Cardozo High School.

The chancellor said her plan is meant to shift resources from maintaining under-enrolled schools to focus on improving academic programs. She said she will tweak the details of the plan after hearing community feedback but will hold firm on the number of schools to be shuttered.

“We’ve got to close 20 schools,” she told reporters Tuesday. “If it’s not this school, it’s that school.”

Henderson has offered few specifics about how a grade 6-12 school campus would work, Granados said, testing the patience of parents who want to commit to the school system but see no attractive option. Many parents are already fleeing to charter schools for middle school, she added.

“It’s scary,” Granados said of the chancellor’s plan, “and parents aren’t going to risk their children.”

Across the Anacostia River at Ferebee-Hope Elementary in Southeast, parents planned a Thursday afternoon protest of the chancellor’s proposal to close the under-enrolled school and send its students to Hendley Elementary, a half-mile away.

“Hendley is in a drug-infested area,” said Shannon Smith, whose two grandchildren attend Ferebee-Hope.

“Not only that, they have gunshots out there,” she said.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to receive feedback from more than 100 people during two public hearings on the school closure plan. The first is Thursday and will launch the city into a conversation not just about the particulars of Henderson’s plan, but also about how traditional public schools and public charter schools will coexist.

The Washington Teachers’ Union sees the proposal to close schools as a sign that charter schools — which educate more than 40 percent of the city’s students — must be unionized because they will continue to grow quickly.

“It was commonly conceived by our members that many of these schools might receive pressure to reopen as charters,” said the union’s president, Nathan Saunders. “They wanted to look at options for union membership should that happen.”

Saunders said he has the legal right to organize charter schools but that it is difficult because they are exempt from the law that requires the city to enter into collective bargaining with public employees.

The teachers union wants to end that exemption, Saunders said, bringing charter schools under the same labor law that governs the city’s public schools.

That would require the approval of the D.C. Council and Congress, which seems politically unlikely given a Republican-led House with little interest in helping teachers unions grow and strong bipartisan support for charter schools.

“I don’t see how it could be a worse idea, and it’s not going anyplace,” said Robert Cane, who is executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

The freedom to employ nonunionized teachers is part of what sets the charter movement apart from traditional schools, Cane said.

Cane and other charter-school advocates criticized Henderson for indicating that she plans to keep control over the buildings left vacant after schools are closed.

Suitable and affordable school buildings are a rare and coveted commodity among charter schools. City law gives charters “right of first offer” on buildings given up by the school system, and some advocates had hoped that Henderson’s closure plan would yield more facilities.

Henderson said she might rent some of her buildings to charters on short-term leases, but that was little comfort, said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools. Charter schools have trouble getting financing for temporary quarters, she said.

“It’s very disappointing,” Edelin said. “To have 20 closures and offer none of the buildings is shocking.”

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which approves new charter schools, was more measured. He said it was too soon to offer an opinion on a plan that hasn’t been finalized and that the chancellor has pledged to tweak in response to public input.

“I’m not convinced that DCPS has a firm plan for all those buildings,” Pearson said. “I think she genuinely wants to hear from the community.”

As advocates and activists staked out positions on Henderson’s closure proposal, students and teachers at targeted schools showed up for class Wednesday and began coming to grips with the prospect of change.

Librarian Ellen Dodsworth, who amassed 7,000 books and 400 DVDs at Spingarn High over the past seven years, wondered where she’ll find a new home for her collection now that Spingarn is slated to close.

She built the collection volume by volume with the help of donations and her personal bank account. It includes contemporary fiction and nonfiction, books suitable for college-bound kids and students who read far below grade level.

“I have one of the best African American studies collections in the city,” Dodsworth said. “I’m not leaving it.”

D.C. teachers union wants to unionize city's charter schools [FOCUS mentioned]
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
November 14, 2012

Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders said Wednesday that he wants to unionize the city’s charter schools and will push for legislative changes to make it easier to organize their teachers, who educate a growing number of D.C. students.

The move comes in response to Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s proposal to close 20 traditional public schools across the city.

“It was commonly conceived by our members that many of these schools might receive pressure to reopen as charters,” Saunders said, “and they wanted to look at options for union membership should that happen.”

There are some unionized charter schools across the country, but no D.C. charters have been organized.

Saunders said that he has the legal right to organize charter schools but that it is difficult because they are exempt from the law that requires the city to enter into collective bargaining with public employees.

The teachers union is “prepared to dedicate significant resources” to ending that exemption, Saunders said, bringing charter schools under the same labor law that governs the city’s public schools.

That would require approval from the D.C. Council and Congress, which seems politically unlikely given a Republican-led House with little interest in helping teachers unions grow and strong bipartisan support for charter schools.

“I don’t see how it could be a worse idea, and it’s not going anyplace because the Congress will never approve it,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

The freedom to employ non-unionized teachers is part of what sets the charter movement apart from the traditional school system, Cane said.

“We have these two reforms working side by side, and the unionized teacher idea is part of the other reform — the DCPS reform — and it has no place in the charter schools,” he said.

Charter schools enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s students, a proportion that could increase under Henderson’s proposal. Charter teachers are often paid less and have fewer protections than teachers in traditional schools, Saunders said.

“Many teachers have complained to us and have asked us to organize them so they could achieve better working conditions,” he added.

Exclusive interview with Brian Jones, Chairman Public Charter School Board
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
November 15, 2012

It was past time that Mr. Jones and I sat down to catch up on goings on at the PCSB and in the D.C. charter school movement as a whole. The conversation started flowing from the minute I asked the chairman about recent staff changes at his organization.

“Last year was a year of transition for us; we went through a lengthy search for a new executive director, following the tenure of Josephine Baker,” Mr. Jones explained. “Jo Baker was critically important to the growth and maturity of the charter school sector in DC. However, with her retirement my colleagues and I were committed to finding a leader who could lead the sector into a new era of accountability, innovation and growth.” Mr. Jones added, “We needed someone we could rely upon to be in tune with the sector both locally and nationally and who would be able to sell the virtues of the DC charter school community to a national audience, focus on staff development, and be able to attract top talent to the District. We have always been fortunate to have a great staff. However, in Scott Pearson we found someone who I have described as a grand slam for the sector, bringing a wealth of business experience, a national perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of various charter school models in light of his experience at the U.S. Department of Education, and experience as a charter school founder and leader.”

Mr. Jones then talked to me about other recent hires. “We agreed we needed legal counsel so we have brought in Nicole Streeter, as the PCSB’s first in-house general counsel. We also wanted to be certain we are appropriately focused on data about our schools’ performance, so we went out and recruited Naomi Rubin DeVeaux of FOCUS to bring a sharp mind to bear on our quantitative work. Theola Labbe-DeBose, our new communications director, has done an excellent job with this department, bringing a keen and proactive strategic approach to our efforts. So Scott and the staff are well along in continuing to build strong bridges with our government and community stakeholders, while at the same time protecting the autonomy and independence of the charters. We are really humming on all cylinders right now. Scott and his team are in complete alignment with the board’s goals. He has not disappointed.”

We then moved on to the Neighborhood Taskforce that Mr. Jones is heading. I asked the chairman whether he is supportive of such a preference for children living near a particular school. “Well, I walked into our first meeting having no preconceived notion of what the ultimate resolution should be,” he responded. “I do know that the data shows that families are already making meaningful choices when it comes to which school their children should attend and much of the time that decision means sending them to a charter in their home Ward. I also know many of those who do travel outside their Ward are students in Wards 7 and 8 who are most in need of improved access to quality seats. I don’t want to do anything that impairs those students’ access to high quality schools.” Mr. Jones continued, “I feel charters are schools of choice with unique missions and that the charter school model was never intended to mean that these facilities were to be neighborhood schools. Each school founder has a unique vision and many families are attracted to the discrete missions of their programs.”

I then asked Mr. Jones what he thought the outcome of the task force’s work would be. “One point of agreement among the members appears to be that any neighborhood preference should be voluntary and up to the individual charter school. It could also make sense to have some preference if a charter is moving in to a closing DCPS school. However, we have to be careful about having families selecting a charter where they are not wedded to the institution’s mission. This could end up undermining the school and creating a bad experience for the family. I don’t yet see consensus beyond these specific options, but we do still have a couple more meeting s to go, including one in which we’ll hear from the public.”

Changing subjects at a rapid pace, the PCSB chairman and I talked about the future of facility availability for charters. Mr. Jones was upbeat. “We are making progress having surplus DCPS schools provided to charters with the Gray Administration,” he commented. “In my view, Mayor Gray has been much more committed to addressing the facilities challenges facing charters than previous mayors have been. Tier 1 PMF schools are getting facilities and this preference is being made based upon the scarcity of space. We might also consider making buildings available to those that are making the most improvement over time.”

The day that we met the 2012 PMF results had just come out. I inquired of Mr. Jones whether he observed any surprises with the findings. He remarked, “I’m very pleased that the vast majority of our portfolio is in Tiers 1 and 2. There are nine schools in Tier 3. This is an important story to tell because it shows to taxpayers and citizens of the nation’s capital that the charter sector is operating well, though we certainly are not yet where we need to be. We are disappointed that more schools did not move from Tier 2 to Tier 1. However, we are definitely moving in the right direction.” Mr. Jones also stressed that an important goal of his is to get this information into the hands of the public. “If people don’t have access to this data then it is meaningless. This is why we are printing thousands of copies of the new Parents Guide to the PMF,” Mr. Jones stated.

I learned sadly that Mr. Jones’s term as board chair ends early next year and cannot be renewed. I’ve greatly enjoyed the time we have spent together and the discussions we have had regarding this terribly exciting school system. So in conclusion I asked Mr. Jones about the legacy that will result from his term in office. “I think I helped guide the board through an important transition. When I joined in 2007 we were still an upstart movement, growing but still on the outside looking in. We are now a credible alternative to the traditional schools. In the beginning we were clearly focused on growth. We are now relentlessly focused on quality and innovation. When I became chair nearly three years ago I wanted to get us as a sector to the point where we are at the leading edge of the national charter school movement, and I think we have achieved that goal. Whether it is preparing for the launch of a blended learning online and on-ground model or getting successful operators from other states to enter our market, we are leading the path forward. Our staff is highly attuned to finding what works across the nation and bringing it here,” Mr. Jones affirmed. But then he thought and asserted, “Perhaps my greatest legacy is bringing in Scott who is the embodiment of what I wanted to hire. He is professional, relentless, focused on setting ambitious goals and executing against them, and, attuned to the challenges facing charters, and engaged with what’s happening in education nationally. But most important, he’s exceedingly committed to this city and to making sure that every kid here has a quality school seat to call his or her own. I couldn’t as Chair ask for any more than that.”

D.C. schools chief, watch your back
The Washington Times
By Deborah Simmons
November 14, 2012

To D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson: Walk with all deliberate speed, make clear tread marks and watch your back.

While it seems as though Ms. Henderson is trying to clear out schoolhouses to help make way for the two things that matter most — teaching and learning — it’s clear not all stakeholders are on the same school-reform road.

For some, their mission is command and control.

This became obvious at last Thursday’s hearing on school truancy and again this Monday evening, where, at a forum on charter schools’ promises and challenges, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells seemed delighted to learn that none of his Ward 6 schools is scheduled to be closed.

His relief wouldn’t be newsworthy but for the fact that Mr. Wells is a member of the old-guard school of command and control, using rungs on the school board to climb the ladder to city hall.

A member of the Board of Education from 2001 to 2006, Mr. Wells is pressing for charter schools to come under the heavy thumbs of government control. He wants charter schools to meet many of the same onerous bureaucratic challenges facing traditional public schools, and he wants to burden charters with unreasonable preference demands.

Preference demands work this way: Parents who do not want their children to attend a neighborhood school must seek special permission for them to go elsewhere. Approval to attend a school outside of the neighborhood boundary considers factors like legacy, sibling preference, projected enrollment and proximity to the school. It also gives preferential treatment to children in feeder schools.

That works fine on Capitol Hill, whose cluster of pre-K through grade 12 schools have remained unscathed for a generation, but not so much for other parts of the city.

For example, the closing of two junior high schools in Ward 5 forced some residents to look at traditional public schools in neighboring Wards 4 and 6. Suffice it to say, neither option was pleasing to hundreds of families who did not want tweens and barely teens traversing the city for before-, during- and after-school programs.

And even next year, when Thurgood Marshall Elementary is scheduled to close, D.C. school officials have to develop a safe transportation plan.

Mr. Wells knows as much and should remember parents’ concerns from his days on the school board, where he lobbied for such a school-preference policy.

D.C. charter authorities don’t need the headache.

As one of only two former school board members currently seated on the council (Ward 8’s Marion Barry is the other), Mr. Wells should focus his energies on helping Ms. Henderson and other school authorities replicate the positive academic programs at charter and magnet schools, as well as the much-sought-after Wilson High.

As for Ms. Henderson, she could better serve the school system and the children of the city if she remembers that the inclinations of some can undermine her determination to stay focused on teaching and learning.

Another thing she should keep in mind is the fact that once it becomes apparent that teaching and learning are taking hold in a troubled system, the schools chief disappears — courtesy of command-and-control-style politicians.

At one point during last week’s truancy hearing, Ms. Henderson seemed truly concerned about the high volume of non-educators in our schools.

She said she doesn’t even know who these people are or why most of them are inside schools.

School choicers know it’s because of political meddling, and she can ask any of her predecessors from the past 20 years.

Ms. Henderson appears to be a committed visionary who can clearly see what can be in the face of what is.

The pace of teaching and learning in the name of school reform needs no more obstacles or unreasonable red tape.

It needs to be free to move with all deliberate speed.

Higher Achievement tries to start path to success in middle school [Center City PCS mentioned]
The Washington Post
By Stefanie Dazio
November 14, 2012

Fifth-grader Shayne Burton didn’t know the right words to define “boogie.”

Tasked with translating vernacular phrases into standard English, the Higher Achievement scholar finally decided on “dancing weird.”

Only one more question remained:

“Can I write in bubble letters?” the 10-year-old Washingtonian asked her mentor.

Shayne was getting a literature lesson at the Center City Public Charter Schools’ Capitol Hill campus through Higher Achievement, a local nonprofit organization that provides free, year-long, out-of-school academic support to underprivileged middle school students. It’s an effort to help them get into the best high schools and colleges.

“Talent is everywhere,” said Lynsey Wood Jeffries, Higher Achievement’s D.C. metro executive director. “It’s not just in certain Zip codes.”

The D.C. metro chapter of Higher Achievement, which has programs here and in Baltimore, Richmond and Pittsburgh, is one of six area groups to receive grants from The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund that supports Washington area nonprofit organizations. The organizations operate programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

The $30,000 grant will underwrite the cost of new online resources for the student scholars and help to increase training for staff and volunteers.

“The technology and the training actually work well together,” Jeffries said.

The middle school years are an important time in a student’s life, Jeffries said, and are often an indicator of how well a student will cope with the work in college.

Higher Achievement tries to harness that period with an extra 650 hours of learning a year for students. The average grade-point average for students entering the program is 2.5, but upon completion, it increases to 3.5, according to Jeffries.

Scholars begin the program in fifth or sixth grade and continue until eighth grade, when Higher Achievement helps them apply to high schools. There are six Higher Achievement centers in the Washington area, in Wards 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 and Alexandria.

The students attend the program three times per week during the school year and five days per week during the summer, as well as go on a college visit. They work with volunteer mentors on math, literature and special seminar topics in addition to their regular schoolwork.

Stuart-Hobson Middle School eighth-grader Kenneth Brewer, 13, is a Boy Scout, basketball player, school peer mediator, brown belt in karate and Higher Achievement scholar. He’s planning to study law in college. How does he find the time to do it all?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Immediately when I get home, I go straight to my bed.”

Next summer will be Kenneth’s first since sixth grade without the rigorous Higher Achievement program.

“Every year, I’ve learned something new,” he said. “But this summer, I’m sleeping till 12.”

Center City fifth-graders Shayne and her friend Jasmine Campbell have several summers to go.

Working on a vocabulary work sheet littered with words including “unabridged” and “grammatical” at the Ward 6 Higher Achievement Center in October, the girls tackle it with literature mentor Damian Fagon, 25.

Shayne decides she’s going to make up her own language, all about space, instead. She wants to be an astronaut when she grows up.

“It all starts here,” Fagon said, trying to bring Shayne’s attention back to the work sheet.

Even a bad AP score can be good
The Washington Post
By Jay Matthews
November 14, 2012

I am approaching the 30th anniversary of my Dec. 7, 1982, encounter with East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante. That day changed my life. If I had not met the guy who was helping so many Hispanic kids master calculus, I wouldn’t be writing columns today. I also wouldn’t be having frequent arguments about how much low-income students can learn.

Escalante proved that the children of day laborers can do well in challenging Advanced Placement courses if given enough time and encouragement to learn. In 1987, he and his Garfield High School colleague Ben Jimenez were responsible for 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who passed AP calculus exams.

Several of these students were not doing well in other subjects. And many people, including some educators, still believe that AP can’t help you if you are not already a good student. That is why many schools still bar average students from taking AP.

Some readers regularly attack my reports on research suggesting that AP courses help the lowest-performing students prepare for college and that they benefit even if they fail the AP exam. So let me aggravate them again by offering a just-released report by the Mass Math + Science Initiative that reveals what AP has done for more than 8,000 students in their program.

The MMSI, created by the nonprofit Mass Insight Education, is designed to increase student participation and performance in AP math, science and English courses. In 2010, more than 7,800 AP exams were taken in MMSI schools with an eligible student population of 18,955. Only 3,685 AP exams were taken in a comparison group of schools that had 22,911 eligible students.

College matriculation rates for low-income students in MMSI schools were 14 percent higher than state and national averages. The rates for African American students in the program were nearly 20 percent higher than state and national averages.

Getting into college, however, has proved to be weak indicator. Plenty of campuses take anyone who applies. Perhaps a better test of a high school program’s value is, out of those who enroll, what percentage survive the first year and show up for a second year. Scholars call this the persistence rate. Students coming out of MMSI schools have a 77 percent persistence rate in two-year colleges and a 90 percent rate in four-year colleges. This is substantially above the two-year college persistence rate of 54 percent for Massachusetts students not in MMSI, and the four-year college persistence rate of 79 percent.

The most powerful argument in the new report comes from an examination of students in the MMSI program who took AP courses but did poorly on the grueling three-hour exams. The highest score on an AP exam is 5; the lowest is 1. Some critics have said high schools should not allow students to take AP courses if they are likely to get that bottom grade. The MMSI study suggests they are wrong. I welcome their cranky reactions on my blog.

The college attendance rate for MMSI students who got a 1 on an AP exam was 77 percent, much higher than the 53 percent college attendance rate of MMSI students who did not take AP exams. MMSI students with scores of 1 who go to two-year colleges have a persistence rate of 70 percent, more than those who don’t take an AP exam. But the news is even better for another group of low-scorers. MMSI students who got just a 1 and attended four-year colleges have a persistence rate of 92 percent, compared to 92 percent for those who score a 3, 94 percent who score a 4, and 99 percent of those who score 5.

That was one of the lessons Escalante taught me. He railed against teachers who dropped low-performing students from AP courses and did not let them take the final exam. Even struggling students, he said, are learning things that will give them an advantage in the next stage of their lives.

Mailing Archive: