FOCUS DC News Wire 4/22/2014

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.

  • D.C. officials to consider eight proposals for new charter schools
  • DC may have universal access to preschool, but low-income kids need more than access [KIPP DC PCS, AppleTree PCS, Democracy PCS, and Rocketship PCS mentioned]
  • D.C. Special Education Advocates Optimistic About Extra Funds For Students
  • Exclusive Interview with Lars Beck, CEO of Scholar Academies [DC Scholars PCS mentioned]

D.C. officials to consider eight proposals for new charter schools
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
April 21, 2014

The D.C. Public Charter School Board is slated to hear proposals Tuesday and Wednesday evening from eight applicants who are seeking permission to open new charter schools in the fall of 2015.

Two of the eight proposals would establish boarding high schools, including one that would aim to meet the particular needs of children in foster care and another that would connect students with internships on Capitol Hill.

The other proposals include the city’s first Arabic-English dual-language school; a K-8 school targeting students with special needs; two middle schools focused on international education; an adult-ed school meant to help high school dropouts re-enter the path to education and job training; and a privately funded preschool in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, seeking to convert into a publicly funded charter.

Agendas for the Tuesday and Wednesday meetings are posted online here, and summaries of each proposal (as well as links to each full application) are available here. The charter board is slated to vote to approve or deny each application on May 19.

DC may have universal access to preschool, but low-income kids need more than access [KIPP DC PCS, AppleTree PCS, Democracy PCS, and Rocketship PCS mentioned]
Greater Greater Education
By Natalie Wexler
April 21, 2014

DC has led the country in giving its residents universal access to preschool, and and New York and other cities are now following suit. But if preschool is going to close the achievement gap for low-income kids, it has to be high-quality. And even that may not be enough to do the trick.

A good preschool program teaches all children the social and emotional skills that will help ensure their future success in school: things like how to cooperate with their classmates and how to listen when the teacher is talking.

But research has shown that in the first 4 years of life, high-income children hear about 30 million more words than their low-income peers. So if kids at all income levels are going to start kindergarten on an equal footing, preschools serving poor children need to also provide the vocabulary and background knowledge that wealthier ones get at home.

That's especially important here in DC, where 3 out of 4 entering 4th-graders read below grade level. Should we now follow the lead of other cities and start even earlier than preschool?

In the District, both DCPS and charter schools offer public preschool. There are about 60 charter schools that offer early childhood education, starting at age 3 or 4, according to the Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

All DCPS elementary schools and K-8 education campuses offer pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and most elementary schools also offer preschool for 3-year-olds. DCPS doesn't guarantee pre-K or preschool slots at neighborhood schools. Residents have to enter a lottery to secure one.

Which programs work?

Early childhood programs in DC haven't been evaluated the way K-12 schools have, although the PCSB is working on a system that would do just that for charter schools. DCPS gives preschool children assessments to see how their academic and social skills are developing, but it doesn't use those results to evaluate the programs.

So it can be hard to know which programs are really helping to level the playing field for poor kids and which aren't. It would help if DC had a kindergarten readiness assessment in place, which would inventory the skills all students are coming in with. More and more states are adopting such tests, but DC is part of a consortium that is still working on one, according to a spokesperson for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

DCPS has pinned its hopes on a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which is currently used in 70% of its high-poverty preschool classrooms. KIPP DC, a charter school that serves mostly low-income kids, has also begun using the curriculum this year at one of its 4 early childhood campuses.

Both DCPS and KIPP DC are pleased with the program. Melissa Salmanowitz, a DCPS spokesperson, says that DCPS's assessments show that children who have gone through the Tools curriculum score "significantly higher" on both social-emotional and cognitive assessments.

KIPP DC's chief academic officer for early childhood education, Laura Bowen, said that she's been particularly impressed with the teacher training provided by the Tools of the Mind organization. But she also said that the school has supplemented the curriculum with additional elements, as it does with other early childhood curricula it uses.

Studies have concluded that Tools has positive effects on children's behavior and social skills, but it's less clear that it's giving poor kids the leg up they need in other areas. One study found the curriculum had "no discernible effects" on literacy and math skills for low-income preschool children.

Another study, also focusing on low-income children, found that it improved language development, but that the effects were too small to be statistically significant.

Although a small study of Tools recently found some tweaks that appear to help children learning English as a second language, most other research has found no evidence that the curriculum works better than more traditional approaches.

AppleTree's curriculum

AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, which conducts research and runs a network of early childhood charter schools in DC, has developed its own curriculum. AppleTree's CEO, Jack McCarthy, says the curriculum, called Every Child Ready, does a better job than Tools in providing the skills and knowledge that will help narrow the achievement gap.

He cites data showing that 95% of AppleTree students score at or above the normal range on measures of vocabulary and other literacy skills. That reduces the likelihood that they'll need special education services, as 18% of DCPS students currently do.

Several other charter schools are also using the Every Child Ready curriculum, in a total of 40 classrooms. AppleTree provides them with training and support, just as the Tools of the Mind organization does for schools that use its curriculum.

There are promising signs that Every Child Ready helps boost young children's literacy skills, but McCarthy concedes that right now there's no conclusive evidence that Every Child Ready can close the achievement gap between high- and low-income children.

Still, it's almost certainly true that either early childhood curriculum, when implemented well, will prepare low-income kids for school better than no preschool at all, and also better than a low-quality preschool program would. But is even a high-quality preschool enough to close the achievement gap? Or is it necessary, but not sufficient, to do the job?

One problem is that a child can graduate from a terrific early childhood program and go on to a dysfunctional school. If that happens, the benefits of preschool may be lost. That's one reason AppleTree has decided to partner with two high-performing charter organizations, Democracy Prep and Rocketship, that will soon be coming to DC. AppleTree will provide the early childhood instruction within the larger schools.

Is preschool too late?

But some cities aren't waiting until kids are old enough for preschool to begin working on the achievement gap. In Chicago and Providence, programs are underway to visit low-income parents and encourage them to speak more to their infants and toddlers. They also guide parents to interact with their kids differently, giving them more encouragement and asking open-ended questions.

The children are fitted with small electronic devices that record the number of words heard and spoken, as well as the amount of back-and-forth between parents and children.

A program like this obviously costs money, and it won't necessarily work with all parents. But it's likely that many low-income parents simply don't realize the importance of verbal interaction with their children. Getting them to understand that could have effects that last far beyond early childhood.

DC has been out in front in providing universal access to public preschool, and it should be commended for that. But given the size and intractability of our achievement gap, maybe we should now follow the lead of these other cities and try starting even earlier.

D.C. Special Education Advocates Optimistic About Extra Funds For Students
By Kavitha Cardoza
April 18, 2014

Special education advocates for D.C.’s public school children say they are “cautiously optimistic” that more money proposed in the budget for students will disabilities will translate into better care.

Judith Sandalow with Children’s Law Center in D.C. says the overall budget for children with special needs is smaller because of lower enrollment projections.

But the money available for each child is expected to increase from between $80 dollars to $550 dollars, depending on the child's needs. Sandalow says these additional funds will be spent increasing the number of special education teachers, more professional development and hiring paraprofessionals including occupational therapists.

"For the first time, to my knowledge, the D.C. public schools aiming to move students up more than one grade level in a year," she says.

Sandalow says other areas DCPS should invest in include more money to evaluate children with special needs who are younger than 5 years old and to help older students with disabilities prepare for vocational and independent living. Just 18 percent of DCPS students in special education can read at grade level and 21 percent can do math.

Exclusive Interview with Lars Beck, CEO of Scholar Academies [DC Scholars PCS mentioned]
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
April 22, 2014

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting recently with Lars Beck, the chief executive officer of Scholar Academies. You may have already heard of this network of schools. Scholar Academies currently operates six sites: three charters in Philadelphia; one in Trenton, New Jersey; one charter school, D.C. Scholars, in Washington, D.C.; and under a partnership with DCPS it manages Stanton Elementary. The United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Stanton last February and summarized the work Scholars was doing at the school as simply “remarkable.”

Mr. Beck’s organization has a strong history of successful school turnaround efforts. The group’s 15 year-old Young Scholars, one of the Philadelphia charters, is the highest performing high-poverty charter school in Pennsylvania. I asked him how he became involved in this line of work.

“I came from the business world,” Mr. Beck answered. “My job was marketing and management for a firm in Canada. My mom for years ran a private faith-based school in Philadelphia for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds characterized by exceedingly strong academic results. I wanted to do more with my life and the inequities between people of various races and income levels continuously gnawed at me.”

Mr. Beck came to Young Scholars a decade ago at a time when the school was not serving its students well. The founder had become ill and was spending less and less time on the campus. Mr. Beck became the temporary CEO and began the tremendously difficult work of transforming its academic performance. I asked him for the secret to his success.

“Of course there is no secret,” Mr. Beck immediately replied. “We raised the level of our expectations for what was taught in the classroom and for the culture of the school. We formed a relationship with Boston’s Excel Academy Public Charter School, which is now one of the highest performing middle schools in Massachusetts. Excel had already gone through its own turnaround. The magic sauce, if there was one, was to set extremely high expectations with the goal of all kids going to college. We then backward mapped from there what we would have to do to prepare our scholars for entering the world of higher education.”

Mr. Beck had much more to say about the reasons behind his schools’ successes. “Some people in the education reform movement shy away from the term ‘no excuses school’ but that is exactly how we can be described. We teach kids who live in poverty, but poverty does not change what is possible for a child. This is why it is so important that we engage parents. In many economically disadvantaged communities the belief schools have in what their students can achieve has dropped. We go ahead and together with families lay the foundation for a turnaround in expectations.”

It has been six years since Mr. Beck began planning to replicate his model at Young Scholars. With financial assistance from various philanthropic institutions including the Flamboyan Foundation, a private family-run philanthropic group that supports family engagement as a means to improve educational outcomes for Pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade students in the District, Scholar Academies has now been operating for four years as a network. Its goal is nothing less than the transformation of low performing schools. Mr. Beck commented that “Mr. Duncan quite some time ago put out the call for school leaders to do this difficult task and Scholar Academies proudly responded to the need.”

The results achieved so far by Scholar Academies serving students in grades Preschool through 8th grade network-wide have been nothing less than astonishing. In Philadelphia the original charter has students demonstrating math and reading proficiency rates of 80 and 68 percent, respectively, 33 and 25 points higher than the district average. For eighth grade, the proficiency rates for both subjects are over 80 percent.

The organization is beginning to see significant improvement here locally at the 570 student DC Scholars Stanton Elementary. Mr. Beck explained that when they came to this facility it was extremely low-performing, had a very poor school culture and was often plagued by violence. The standardized test scores were perfectly aligned with the disorder taking place in the hallways. Both math and reading proficiency rates were at nine percent. On the 2013 DC CAS the math proficiency rates have climbed to 42.4 percent. In reading, the percent proficient is now 19.9 percent. Scholar Academies began operating Stanton in August 2010, two months after being selected to take over the school.

While of course Mr. Beck is not content with where Stanton is academically under his organization’s charge, he is satisfied with the progress. “It looks and feels the way a high performing school should,” the CEO explained. “Teaching and learning is occurring appropriately on a daily basis.” The turnaround at Stanton followed the same process Scholar Academies has utilized at other institutions. The staff is reconstituted, expectations are raised dramatically, families are actively engaged by the school’s team members, and there is significant professional development for the teaching staff. Social workers take part in increasing the probability that students will be at Stanton every day ready to learn. It is, according to Mr. Beck, the application of the whole school model which is focused on the whole child.

Scholar Academies believes that character education is as important as the academic education. In order to ensure progress is made in both areas simultaneously the staff visits students’ homes before the start of the school year. “We seek to understand the hopes and dreams of parents for their children, Mr. Beck asserted. “We then use these goals as a framework for communication to parents throughout the term.”

In Washington, D.C. Mr. Beck’s presence is also at DC Scholars Public Charter School, the facility whose board chair is Mieka Wick, the executive director of the CityBridge Foundation. The charter opened last year serving grades Pre-School through 3rd. This term a 4th grade was added with plans to add an additional grade each year until 8th grade is reached. 310 students now attend DC Scholars with a planned enrollment increase up to 550 pupils when serving all grades. When the initial Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework results are reported next year for the school, Mr. Beck is confident that it will be ranked as Tier 1. Currently, approximately 96 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch.

The future looks exceedingly bright for Scholar Academies. The charter management organization, comprised of a 32 member home office, was recently selected by the Tennessee Achievement School District to eventually open 12 schools serving 6,000 children. The ASD, headed by Yes Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic, is working to take the lowest five percent of academically performing facilities and turn them into the top 25 percent. The first Scholar Academies School is anticipated to open in the fall of 2015.

All of these educational endeavors regarding improving the lives of the less fortunate are consistent with the life-long efforts of Mr. Beck’s mother. “Our drive is to transform low performing schools,” Mr. Beck commented towards the end of our discussion. “We believe in what is possible for students and then we try and let them realize their hopes and dreams.”

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