FOCUS DC News Wire 8/27/2014

  • District to lease four more school buildings to charters [FOCUS, Shining Stars PCS, and KIPP DC PCS mentioned]
  • D.C. finally leases four more surplus buildings to charters [Harmony DC PCS, Shining Stars PCS, Bridges PCS mentioned]
  • A visit to Friendship Tech Prep Academy Public Charter School [Friendship PCS and Thurgood Marshall PCS mentioned]
  • Bowser opposes Gray’s school boundaries overhaul; Catania seeks delay
  • Like Catania, Bowser Says No To School Boundary Changes
  • Reassign students before improving school quality, not the other way around

District to lease four more school buildings to charters [FOCUS, Shining Stars PCS, and KIPP DC PCS mentioned]
The Washington Post
By Michael Alison Chandler
August 26, 2014

The District is making four more surplus school buildings available for long-term lease by public charter schools this fall.

This is the third group of buildings to become available since early 2013, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) first announced a list of 16 buildings the city intended to release for short- or long-term lease.

Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education, said the city is releasing the buildings over time in small batches so that the complex selection and negotiation process can be managed well and to give more charter schools a chance to compete for them.

Charter advocates have long criticized the city for sitting on buildings left empty when schools close or consolidate while new charters must scramble for space. Shining Stars Montessori Academy, for example, secured a building just days before school opened this year after last-minute problems with two other locations.

“What happened to Shining Stars is an extreme example of what is typical for charter schools, which is a fairly desperate struggle to get the buildings they need to open in or expand into,” said Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a pro-charter advocacy group.

The school buildings the city will make available are Fletcher-Johnson on Benning Road SE; Gibbs on 19th Street NE; Mamie D. Lee on Gallatin Street NE; and M.C. Terrell-McGogney on Wheeler Road SE.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that Fletcher-Johnson is envisioned as an “adult education hub” big enough to offer programs from a charter operator as well as D.C. public schools.

In September — before the city issues an official “request for offers” — city officials will host public hearings in each community so the needs and wishes of the neighborhoods will reflect the charter schools’ requests and the final selections. School officials hope it will be a “more thoughtful process” of matching buildings with community needs, Smith said.

On Monday, city officials toured a KIPP charter school that opened last year in the former Webb Elementary School in Northeast.

Lindsey Hoy, principal of KIPP DC’s Spring Academy, said part of the building had been burned but has been renovated. Officials walked through a gleaming gym, light-filled hallways and a new playground on Monday.

“This is a great example of what we can do when we get a building,” said Darren Woodruff, vice chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

On the first floor, first-graders were learning about subtracting zero. Upstairs, fifth- and sixth-graders were reading quietly and taking notes. “It’s good for the community,” Woodruff said. “You have the choice between an empty building and a school.”

KIPP has six campuses in the District, which house 15 schools. All but one of the campuses were D.C. public school buildings.

The deputy mayor maintains an inventory of surplus school buildings, a list that currently has 54 buildings. Half are listed as being leased to public charter schools, some are used for government office space, and others are leased to private schools, an art gallery and an education-related nonprofit organization. Six are listed as vacant.

Henderson said the city needs the flexibility to open or close schools depending on demand.

Under the city’s new school boundaries plan, which Gray approved last week, city officials will open three closed schools as middle schools, including Shaw and MacFarland in the central part of the city and Ron Brown east of the Anacostia River.

At the KIPP school, Hoy said the space gives them enough room to expand their program and to house a preschool, elementary and middle schools.

“We feel very lucky to have this space, and we’re just glad we can do this for more kids,” she said.

The first round of community meetings have been scheduled for next month:

Gibbs: Sept. 9 at Rosedale Recreation Center, 1701 Gales St. NE.

Fletcher-Johnson: Sept. 10 at Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library, 3935 Benning Rd. NE.

Mamie D. Lee: Sept. 11 at Lamond-Riggs Neighborhood Library, 5401 South Dakota Ave. NE.

M.C. Terrell-McGogney: Sept. 15 at M.C. Terrell-McGogney, 3001 Wheeler Rd. SE.

D.C. finally leases four more surplus buildings to charters [Harmony DC PCS, Shining Stars PCS, Bridges PCS mentioned]
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
August 27, 2014

The Washington Post's Michael Alison Chandler reveals this morning that the District is prepared to lease four more surplus DCPS buildings to charters this fall. Usually, this would be viewed as extremely positive news.

But not today. The timing of the announcement from the Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith comes at a particularly bad moment for the local charter movement. For it was over this summer that we had to witness a new comer to this town, Harmony PCS, publicly attacked by none other than DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson for having the gall to locate across the street from one of her elementary schools that offers a STEM curriculum similar to that of the charter. The Washington Post exposed the story, leaving out the inconvenient fact that Harmony did everything in its power to coordinate the site of its permanent home with the very people in the Gray Administration that control access to shuttered classroom space. All Harmony wants to do is to provide the children of the nation's capital a D.C. Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school beginning on day one.

Following almost immediately after this disaster we collectively cringed as Shining Stars Montessori Academy lost two deals for facilities that threatened to prevent the school form continuing to operate this year. In the first case the charter was actually beat out at the last minute by another charter, Bridges, which exposed an ugly competition for private space from within the family of alternative schools. Shining Stars went on to secure a place in Ward 3 which fell through only after the parents were informed of the new location and the PCSB had given a green light on the move. A final address was acquired 48 hours later and only a few days before the start of the term.

In Ms. Chandler's story she writes that the Deputy Mayor "said the city is releasing the buildings over time in small batches so that the complex selection and negotiation process can be managed well and to give more charter schools a chance to compete for them." I'm sorry but after these two most recent experiences my viewpoint is hopelessly tainted. I think the Administration is torturing us slowly and painfully by reluctantly turning on the faucet just enough to let a few building escape their grasp. Why this would be the case is anyone's guess.

A visit to Friendship Tech Prep Academy Public Charter School [Friendship PCS and Thurgood Marshall PCS mentioned]
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
August 27, 2014

My wife and I were extremely fortunate recently to have a personal tour of the brand-new Friendship Tech Prep Academy Public Charter School in Ward 8. Traveling south in our car on Martin Luther King Avenue in Anacostia away from Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School we passed St. Elizabeths Hospital on a road that resembled one more commonly found in rural America as opposed to a street located just miles from the United States Capitol. Across from Gateway D.C., a park and hub for community activities, on our right appeared a modern blue steel and glass structure that looked like it sprang out of a wishing well. We were joined by Sean Gough, Friendship’s director of corporate and community relations. The visit was lead by Rusty Shaw, Jr., the man who designed the building from the firm Architecture, incorporated.

When you enter the 59,000 square foot building the first impression that you get is that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) focused school was built to emphasize a feeling of community. The common areas are exceedingly large with many of the corridors measuring 20 feet or more. Adorning the walls on each of the three floors are the school’s core values. In extraordinarily tall letters are words such as “caring,” “respect,” “patience,” “responsibility,” and “confidence.” Mr. Shaw explained that these over-sized spaces are intended for students to be able to complete group projects together. I imagined that the concepts high in the air surrounding the young people as they work provide the ground rules for their collaborative efforts.

One of the goals of the LEED Silver certified project, according to Mr. Shaw, was to maximize the use of light. Boy, he was not kidding. Everywhere you go the giant windows let in an abundance of sunshine as if the rays themselves will elevate the academic level of the learning going on inside. On the entrance level we see a multipurpose room and the first of the specialized classrooms. This is the SMART (Science, Math, and Research Technology) Laboratory equipped by Creative Learning Systems, the same company that supplied the devices for the Robotics Laboratory on the school’s third floor. The lab is filled with computers and their associated equipment. Students will be able to share their assignments on expansive monitors, again reinforcing the team approach to learning.

The theme of cooperation extends to the 26 classrooms. Many are separated by sound-proof dividers. I pictured teachers working with their assigned group of 20 to 25 students for part of a period and then at some prearranged point throwing these partitions open so that kids can benefit from the knowledge of two instructors and the power of the collective contemplation of ideas. There are other exciting innovations here. Each space has a smart board but the technology has been upgraded to eliminate the need for a screen. The systems are operated by touching the projected images. The designers have also gotten rid of blackboards. Entire walls, some 40 feet in length, are white boards that work with dry erase markers. The fact that teaching can be conducted without boundaries is a constant reminder of the unlimited potential of each pupil in the room.

Another goal in creating this building, explained Mr. Shaw, was to create an atmosphere that is found at a typical college for the 650 six through twelfth grade students that will shortly inhabit this space. All I can say is job well done. When I entered the biology and chemistry laboratories that are found on the second and third floors it brought me right back to my undergraduate days at the George Washington University. However, these rooms are brighter, neater, and better equipped than I remember from my experience.

I was informed that Friendship has invested $18 million in Tech Prep and it was clear to me that each and every cent was spent intentionally. Teacher workrooms, offices, and conference rooms can be found on each level. The third floor has a roof top greenhouse to support those who choose a career in the environmental sciences.

The location was also purposely selected. Right next door is the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, which will offer a ready-made location for future internships and employment. Also on this campus will be a college or university combined with a cluster of high technology businesses. Each student will be prepared to enter the workforce not only due to the school’s academic training but because all eleventh and twelfth graders will be dual-enrolled in college at no cost to themselves. Also found a few feet away is Friendship’s Southeast Elementary Academy, a pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade charter school that will act as a feeder to Tech Prep.

It is well recognized that children from this area of town have been under-served, as is often unfortunately the case with those living in poverty. It is impossible not to be optimistic regarding the future of kids from Anacostia when you see Friendship’s Tech Prep for yourself. The trip made me feel overwhelmingly grateful once again for the efforts to help others that characterize our local charter school movement, and it was clear from our time here that Friendship PCS is setting the standard in this regard.

Bowser opposes Gray’s school boundaries overhaul; Catania seeks delay
The Washington Post
By Aaron C. Davis, Michael Alison Chandler and Mike DeBonis
August 26, 2014

Mayoral candidate Muriel E. Bowser said Tuesday that she would undo newly adopted plans to redraw the District’s school boundaries, distancing herself from the education policies of the city’s current mayor and the schools chancellor she has vowed to keep on if elected.

Bowser stridently criticized the boundary plan, saying the city’s move to alter school assignments for tens of thousands of District students simply was “not ready.” The plan, the first major overhaul of the city’s school boundaries in four decades, emerged from 10 months of discussion and debate in scores of public meetings and among a citizen advisory council convened by the office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). Gray adopted the new boundaries last week, with the goal of implementing them at the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

“His plan serves to exacerbate educational inequality and does little to move school reform forward faster,” Bowser, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said in a statement Tuesday.

Bowser’s position threatens to derail a process that city officials hope will bring coherence to the city’s haphazard school assignment policies and encourage investment in neighborhood schools. Education officials said Tuesday that they would continue implementing the boundary changes, including plans to use the new maps when the city’s school lottery opens in December, before the next mayor takes office. It is unclear what ramifications the school system would face if a new mayor upends the process, a move that could leave many families in limbo.

Bowser said her push to restart the process sets her apart from her most outspoken opponent on education policy, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who is running for mayor as an independent.

Catania said in a statement Monday that he would delay implementation of the boundaries for at least one year. He said he did not support the current plan in part because it would move some students from higher-performing schools to lower-performing ones.

Gray’s “recommendations are silent as to how we intend to improve those lower-performing schools,” Catania said. “Asking parents and guardians to take this leap of faith without more is asking too much.”

Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said criticism from Bowser and Catania would not change the mayor’s stance. In releasing his plan last week, Gray suggested he was doing the next mayor a favor by making a politically perilous decision about boundaries before leaving office.

“The mayor has said that if either council member has any substantive proposals to put forward, we’ll certainly look at them,” McCoy said. “We stand by the plan and we urge the candidates to do the same. After more than 40 years of kicking the can down the road, it is time for city leaders to lead.”

The timing and tone of Bowser’s announcement stood in stark contrast to comments from Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who has vocally supported the boundary change process.

On Monday, the District’s first day of school, Henderson praised the boundary overhaul as a much-needed transformation of a “hodge podge system.”

“I’m quite excited about it,” she said.

Improving predictability in school feeder patterns will help the city plan how to invest resources so that students in different areas have more consistent programming, she said.

The District has to work to improve the quality of schools and school-assignment policies simultaneously, she said: “It’s not one or the other.”

Bowser suggested Tuesday that the boundary battle falls outside of Henderson’s purview.

“The system is our system; it belongs to the residents of the District of Columbia,” Bowser said in an interview. “If you go back to the beginning of this process, the chancellor of schools was not involved in this process. . . . I don’t anticipate that the chancellor of schools will be involved in the boundary process moving forward.”

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who oversaw the advisory committee that developed the plan, said Tuesday that the city is moving forward with implementing the plan regardless of the political fallout.

“Obviously we knew as of April 1 that we were going to have a new mayor in January,” Smith said. “But there’s a lot of good work that the government has continued to do and will continue to do. I don’t think anything has changed.”

By next week, school principals will be sending home copies of their school’s new attendance boundaries in children’s backpacks, along with descriptions of how they will be phased in, Smith said. New maps are being uploaded to the city’s Web site, and by the time the online school lottery opens in December, families will apply for schools based on the new boundaries, she said.

Because of grandfathering provisions, the number of families that will be affected immediately is relatively small. But parents applying for preschool for the first time, for example, will get an in-boundary preference based on the updated maps.

Smith said that a new mayor could undo or roll back any or all of this work.

“The question is how disruptive will that be,” she said. She also questioned “what message that would that send to a community that has engaged for a year” in shaping this plan.

Matthew Frumin, a member of the advisory committee, said he hopes the new mayor would not scratch all the work that has been done. “It’s a process that was characterized by an enormous amount of public input,” he said.

Independent candidate Carol Schwartz praised aspects of the proposal in a statement Friday, including provisions that aim to minimize the concentration of at-risk students. She also said she was certain a new mayor could “make some changes” to the plan.

Bowser’s opposition was not entirely unexpected. Speaking in May to Democrats in Ward 3, she said she opposed all of three earlier proposals Gray was considering, including one similar to the plan he adopted last week.

In May, that position was popular with Bowser’s upper Northwest audience, where Gray’s plan would shrink the attendance zones for Alice Deal Middle and Wilson High, two of the city’s most sought-after schools.

In an interview Monday, Bowser singled out one aspect of Gray’s plan in particular as “problematic,” opposing boundary changes that reinforce geographic divisions, such as cutting off parts of her own Ward 4, east of Rock Creek Park, from attending Deal and Wilson, to the west, and cutting other boundaries off at the Anacostia River.

In her statement on Tuesday, she went further, saying that Gray’s boundary revamp would exacerbate inequality and that it lacked “necessary budgetary and leadership commitments” to bring about fair school assignments.

The plan was devised by “an advisory committee that made a recommendation to the outgoing mayor,” Bowser said. “We’re going to take a look at those recommendations with a fresh set of eyes.”

Like Catania, Bowser Says No To School Boundary Changes
By Martin Austermuhle
August 26, 2014

D.C. mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser and David Catania may argue over plenty of things, but there is one thing they see eye to eye on: changes to the city's four-decade-old school boundaries and feeder patterns have to be put on hold.

Following a statement by Catania rejecting the changes adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray last week, today Bowser jumped in to say that she too opposes implementing the plan that would redraw the boundaries and tweak the feeder patterns that determine where kids go to school.

"The mayor's plan on school boundary changes is not ready," she said in a statement. "His plan serves to exacerbate education inequality and does little to move school reform forward faster. It lacks the necessary budgetary and leadership commitments to bring about a truly fair neighborhood school assignment policy. I cannot accept these recommendations."

The changes adopted by Gray were debated and discussed for 10 months by a 22-person committee. Proponents of the changes say that the city's current boundaries and feeder patterns — which were last changed in 1968 — leave certain schools over-enrolled while others are starved for students. They also do not reflect population changes and schools that have closed, leaving some students with rights to multiple schools.

But both Catania and Bowser worry that the plan would move kids out of high-performing schools while not specifically addressing school quality citywide.

In Bowser's case, residents of the Crestwood neighborhood in Ward 4 — which she represents on the D.C. Council — have loudly complained that they would lose rights to Deal Middle School and Wilson High School, two of the city's most popular and overcrowded schools, for the less successful MacFarland Middle School and Roosevelt High School.

But Gray and other city officials have said that the changes will be slowly phased in, and that delaying them now will only push off an issue that has gone unaddressed for decades. In her own statement on the plan, mayoral contender Carol Schwartz that while she had concerns with some of the changes, she recognized that Gray "as a non-returning mayor, could take politics out of it."

Proponents of the plan also say that it maintains the city's out-of-boundary application process, as well as sets aside 25 percent of lottery seat at high-performing schools for at-risk students.

It remains unclear what Bowser or Catania could do to stop the changes from being implemented, though. Speaking yesterday on WAMU 88.5's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith said that the new school boundaries would be worked into the citywide lottery that opens in December.

"Well, I suppose nothing's irreversible," she said. "But what we'll be doing over the course of the next few months is to develop the systems to actually provide the guidance for families as to not only what their new boundaries are, but also build that in to the lottery process that we have for out-of-boundary and for pre-K for charter schools and DCPS."

In her statement, Bowser said that any changes should be left until after the November election.

“Only the next mayor can address the plan's unanswered questions, inherent inequalities across neighborhoods, and with the new Council, address significant budgetary implications. If elected mayor, I pledge that my first budget will reflect our commitment to make every school high performing. Then, and only then, will we advance meaningful school reform," she said.

Bowser's statement also puts her at odds with D.C. School Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who said that changing the school boundaries will allow her to better plan for future years and will accelerate school reform efforts.

"These recommendations are important as we build new schools so that we build schools with the right capacity. These recommendations are important for solving over-crowding, these recommendations are important because they’ll give some folks greater access to better quality schools," said Henderson in an interview with WAMU 88.5 last week.

Bowser has said that if elected, she would keep Henderson. Catania has not committed to keeping the chancellor.

Reassign students before improving school quality, not the other way around
Greater Greater Washington
By Natalie Wexler
August 26, 2014

Both of the leading candidates in the DC mayoral race have come out against Mayor Gray's new school assignment plan, saying school quality should be addressed first. But reassigning students may be the only real way to inspire parent confidence in less desirable schools.

Councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania announced yesterday that he will "take action to delay" the new school assignment plan recently approved by Mayor Vincent Gray, saying that DC first needs to focus on improving school quality. And today his rival Muriel Bowser said that only the next mayor can address the "unanswered question" of "inherent inequalities across neighborhoods."

Catania issued his statement as chair of the DC Council's education committee, although it's not yet clear what he can do in that capacity to delay implementation of the plan. Nor is it clear how Bowser could do that from her current seat on the Council. But obviously, if either is elected mayor he or she will have a lot more power in that regard, even if some of the planned changes will already be underway.

Catania also says he's concerned there isn't enough time to do the planning that's necessary before the recommendations take effect a year from now, as scheduled. For that reason, he intends to take action to delay their implementation "until at least school year 2016-2017."

Catania, Bowser, and others who insist that improvements in quality must come before reassignment have a point. Telling people they have to send their kids to a school they regard as inferior will not only make them angry, it risks driving them out of the system entirely.

But if the core issue is equalizing school quality across the District, it's hard to see how the essence of the plan could be implemented as soon as 2016, as Catania suggested he might do. In fact, it's impossible to predict when DC schools will be equal enough in quality that families will be happy to attend any school they're assigned to.

The limits of improvement plans

Catania has called upon DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to come up with a plan for school improvement. Catania spokesperson Brendan Williams-Kief elaborated on that by saying DCPS needs to be able to tell families who are being reassigned that "this is the new school leader, and this is the curriculum, and this is how it's going to look." The idea is that these plans will instill confidence in, for example, middle-class families who don't want to leave the coveted Deal-Wilson feeder pattern for lesser schools.

But will they instill that confidence? Eastern High School, which sits on the eastern edge of largely middle-class Capitol Hill, was the target of just such a plan. The school, which had a troubled history and served an almost entirely low-income population from across the Anacostia River, was closed for a year and underwent a dazzling $77 million renovation.

It reopened 3 years ago with a dynamic new principal and an energetic new staff. Last year it began offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program, just the kind of thing that should inspire confidence in nearby middle-class families and attract them to the school.

The school now has the second-highest test scores of all non-selective high schools in the District. But so far, it hasn't attracted middle-class families from its neighborhood. Eastern is still almost entirely low-income.

That's partly because its boundaries largely extend to the east—all the way to the Prince George's County border. Some Capitol Hill residents as close as 6 blocks from Eastern are zoned for Dunbar High School. Others in the neighborhood are actually zoned for Wilson, in Upper Northwest. But even those middle-class families who live within Eastern's current catchment area aren't sending their kids there.

The new assignment plan would extend Eastern's boundaries all the way west instead of all the way east, giving some reality to its slogan, "The Pride of Capitol Hill." But no doubt many Capitol Hill families who are now within Wilson's boundaries are dismayed at the prospect of sending their kids to Eastern instead, despite the improvements there.

The importance of a critical mass

Maybe that's because parents are looking for more than just a good plan, or even a good principal, faculty, and curriculum. They also want some assurance that there will be other kids like theirs at a school—and not just in terms of race and socioeconomic status, but in terms of academic preparation and achievement level.

And it's a sad but undeniable fact that, at this point in our history, kids who are more affluent generally achieve at higher levels. Many people are working to change that fact, but there are no guarantees about when, or if, that will happen.

There are, of course, plans to improve DCPS schools. DCPS may not have formulated the plans in exactly the way Catania wants, but the fact is the school system is trying all sorts of things. Some of them are working better than others.

But if what middle-class parents want is a critical mass of middle-class kids at a school, the only way to get to that point may be through reassignment. Yes, some of the reassigned families may leave the system. But let's hope that, given the lead time engineered into the plan, others will band together and commit to sticking around—and being, as the bumper sticker says, the change they wish to see.

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