FOCUS News Wire 1/7/2013

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.

  • Thousands attend D.C. charter school expo
  • D.C. school closings push parents to charter schools
  • D.C. charter schools expel students at far higher rates than traditional schools [YouthBuild, Friendship Collegiate Academy, KIPP, Thurgood Marshall mentioned]
  • Exclusive Interview with Rick Cruz, CEO of DC Prep Public Charter School [DC Prep mentioned]
  • 'Frontline' raises questions about test-score tampering under Rhee

Thousands attend D.C. charter school expo
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
January 5, 2013

Thousands of parents streamed into the Washington Convention Center Saturday for the District’s annual charter-school expo, eager to find a way to navigate the city’s large — and increasingly popular — universe of public charter schools.

For many moms and dads staring down aisle upon aisle of booths — each representing a different school with a different curriculum, a different teaching philosophy, a different set of extracurricular activities and after-care arrangements — the day was as daunting as it was exciting.

“I can’t figure out what is the best for my daughter,” said Lowrey Redmond, the mother of a 3-year-old, who said she already had studied reams of school data online. With a list of 20 prospective schools, she was hoping the expo would help narrow down the number of schools she’ll have to visit.

“I have to go through the rat race of it because I need to know that I’ve done everything I can to get my kid into a good school,” said Redmond, who lives in Logan Circle and fears that the proposed closure of her neighborhood school — Garrison Elementary — will leave her without a guaranteed school option nearby.

Kerry and Dan Mustico, the parents of twins who will be preschoolers next fall, carried a spreadsheet that organized details about 25 charter, traditional and private schools.

The Musticos said they’re grateful for the options — and for the entrepreneurial spirit they noticed in the convention center ballroom Saturday. “You can sense that they have to be better than the competing schools, and that’s good,” Dan Mustico said.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of the traditional school system. They are open to all students across the city, with admission by lottery if there is more demand than space available. This year they enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s students.

Charter leaders are well aware that navigating the city’s education choices can be exhausting and frustrating, and have recently taken some steps to ease the process.

Parents now have a new way to get information about each of the city’s charter schools, officials announced at Saturday’s expo: “MyDCcharters,” a free mobile phone app that compiles test scores, re-enrollment rates, transportation details and other data about each school. It is sortable by location, for parents who want to limit their search to nearby schools.

“In order to really empower parents to be able to make good choices, having access to information is critical,” said Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which developed the app with a grant from the Wireless Foundation.

In the past, each charter school set different application and lottery dates, which meant parents had to be ultra-organized to avoid missing important deadlines.

This year, most of the city’s charter schools have agreed to use the same dates, giving parents one less thing to think about. Applications to those schools are due March 15 and lotteries will be held March 22.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), appearing at the expo, praised those efforts and credited the charter sector with pushing the District’s traditional public school system to improve.

“Competition creates better outcomes for children,” Gray said. “There’s no longer a monopoly.”

D.C. Council Member David Catania (I-At Large), recently named chairman of the council’s newly reconstituted education committee, said the traditional school system — which is preparing to close 20 schools due to low enrollment — would do well to engage in the kind of marketing and recruitment efforts on display at Saturday’s expo.

“This is a very impressive turnout. What’s missing here is DCPS,” said Catania. “Right here is exhibit 1 as to why charter schools are attracting so many of our children.”

Charter leaders — particularly of newer schools — said the expo is an important part of their efforts to win name recognition and begin building a reputation via strong word-of-mouth.

“We are using this as our kickoff event for teacher and student recruitment,” said Jason Lody, executive director of Sela, the city’s first Hebrew-immersion charter, which is scheduled to open next fall. “For us, it’s all about exposure at this point.”

Recruitment is just a first step in a long process. The most sought-after charters receive thousands more applications than they accommodate, leading to long waitlists that can take months to finally shake out.

Parents across the city say there aren’t enough good schools to go around. They trade stories about lotteries, waitlists and rejection. Redmond, the Logan Circle mother, said she often feels like the work she’s putting into researching schools won’t matter much if her child doesn’t luck into any of the schools she’s chosen.

“There are just not enough options for downtown D.C. parents,” said Redmond. “Everybody’s going to apply to the same schools and I’m not going to get in.”

D.C. school closings push parents to charter schools
The Washington Examiner
By Rachel Baye
January 5, 2013

The announcement that Francis-Stevens Education Campus in D.C.'s West End neighborhood could close caused Sarah Reece to start looking at the city's public charter schools for her two sons.

If her sons remain in a traditional public school next year, they will go to Marie Reed Elementary School, which is not close enough to where the family lives to be feasible, Reece said at the D.C. Public Charter School Expo on Saturday.

Reece is one of many parents looking for alternatives to D.C. Public Schools after Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson proposed closing 20 schools at the end of the academic year. At no cost to District residents, charter schools are many parents' first choice.

D.C. at-large Councilmember David Catania had barely arrived at Saturday's expo when he saw parents of a student whose school is slated to close.

"They're here hoping their school doesn't close, but in the event that it does, they're looking for an alternative," he said.

Henderson said she plans to release the final list of school closings next week. The application deadline for more than 85 charter schools is March 15.

Meanwhile, some charter schools are preparing for an increase in applications.

With five schools slated to close in its ward, Friendship Public Charter School's Woodridge Elementary and Middle Campus is trying to communicate with parents looking for options, said Principal Rictor Craig. Though the school does not have plans to increase enrollment, they are considering shifting students around to accommodate more students within their existing space.

D.C.'s charter schools are expecting a roughly 10 percent increase in enrollment next year, but that jump is a fairly standard increase for a year when the District is not closing schools, said D.C. Public Charter School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson. Much of that increase comes from four new charter schools opening their doors in the fall and numerous schools adding new grade levels.

Still, he said, the application process probably will be more competitive than usual. After then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced plans to close 23 D.C. public schools in 2008, charter school enrollment rose by 16.6 percent, compared with 10.6 percent the previous year and 8.5 percent the year after.

While not all parents of soon-to-be-displaced D.C. public school students are excited about charter schools, some say they don't have many options.

"Honestly, I don't really know what I'm going to do if Garrison [Elementary School] closes," said Ann McLeod, PTA president at the Logan Circle school. Getting a spot in a charter school will be tough, she said, but she doesn't want to send her son to Seaton Elementary School -- the D.C. Public Schools alternative -- "on principle."

D.C. charter schools expel students at far higher rates than traditional schools [YouthBuild, Friendship Collegiate Academy, KIPP, Thurgood Marshall mentioned]
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
January 5, 2013

The District’s public charter schools have expelled students at a far higher rate than the city’s traditional public schools in recent years, according to school data, highlighting a key difference between two sectors that compete for the District’s students and taxpayer dollars.

D.C. charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24, according to a Washington Post review of school data. During the 2011-12 school year, when charters enrolled 41 percent of the city’s students, they removed 227 children for discipline violations and had an expulsion rate of 72 per 10,000 students; the District school system removed three and had an expulsion rate of less than 1 per 10,000 students.

The discrepancy underscores the freedom that charters — publicly funded schools that operate independently of the traditional school system — have from school system policies. That autonomy defines the charter movement and gives its schools considerable latitude to decide what student behavior they will — and won’t — tolerate.

Parents and activists say some charters expel excessively and with little oversight, shedding disruptive students who then end up enrolling mid-year in the traditional school system, which is legally bound to take them.

The D.C. school system can compel students to transfer from one school to another. But unlike charters, the school system cannot truly expel anyone because of its mandate to serve all students. “Expelled” students are sent to an alternative middle school or high school for one year. The school system does not expel elementary students, officials said.

Many charter schools — 60 out of 97 campuses — did not expel students in 2011-12. That same school year, seven expelled at least 10 students.

YouthBuild, a school that targets high school dropouts and students older than 16, expelled 30 that year, nearly one-third of its enrollment. Friendship’s Collegiate Academy expelled 56 students, or 5 percent of its student body.

Charter advocates deny that the schools are trying to push out challenging students. They point out that D.C. charters enroll a higher proportion of poor children than the traditional public schools and that poor children often come to class with greater needs than their middle-class peers. Charters are open to all students across the city, with admission by lottery if there is more demand than space available.

“My goal is zero” expulsions, said Shawn Hardnett, an administrator for Friendship Public Charter School, which last year expelled 70 students across its six campuses, which are located in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“At the same time, I have to be reasonable and wise about the fact that there are kids who are coming to our schools with behaviors that are very simply unacceptable and unsafe,” Hardnett said.

The District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education in August proposed rules that would govern discipline policies at all public schools, including charters. They called for minimizing suspension and expulsion of children 13 and younger and outlined due process rights for students. Charter leaders mounted a vigorous opposition, saying the federal law that established D.C. charters frees them from such local mandates.

Full article can be found at the link above.

Exclusive Interview with Rick Cruz, CEO of DC Prep Public Charter School [DC Prep mentioned]
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
January 7, 2013

It was his smile that I noticed immediately when Rick Cruz, newly named CEO of DC Prep, and I sat down recently to talk. His kind expression is disarming, as if to say that if you had an intention of starting an argument you can forget that idea immediately.

I came to learn more about the man who has the extremely challenging assignment of following in the foot steps of Emily Lawson, the founder of DC Prep, who over ten years has put this network of charter schools on the national radar for successfully raising through the roof the academic achievement of inner city students from traditionally underserved communities.

In a sense, Mr. Cruz’s upbringing does not differ that much from the students under his care. Mr. Cruz grew up in the Bronx and was the first member of his family to go to college. He didn’t just go to any four year school: Mr. Cruz graduated with a BA in philosophy from Yale. His background also shares an eerie similarity to that of Ms. Lawson, in that both came to the CEO position with strong entrepreneurial skills.

Mr. Cruz came to Washington, D.C. to join the Corporate Executive Board, the best practices research firm founded by David Bradley, the husband of CityBridge President Katherine Bradley. He worked there 12 years in the finance and strategy division overseeing research and client services in the risk management, audit practice, and corporate compliance sectors. He described it as an “unbelievable working experience which was mission-driven, focused on growing the company’s bottom line, while at the same time concentrating on solving problems for clients.”

Mr. Cruz was intrigued by the education reform movement and transitioned to the non-profit sector, serving as Vice President of Regional Operations for Teach For America. In this role he supported seven regional offices where he says he “leveraged what I had learned and done at the Corporate Executive Board.” Mr. Cruz focused on the professional growth of executive directors, teaching them how to develop people to their fullest potential. His tenure coincided with a tremendous expansion in the number of new teachers brought into the field by the organization.

Mr. Cruz then went on to work for Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization that exposes students in low-income communities to business, finance, and entrepreneurial thinking. As the firm’s first Chief Field Officer he managed 11 field offices across the country as well as strategy and volunteer services, traveling frequently in support of the $18 million organization. As with the other groups for whom he has worked, he expanded the company’s impact at the same time that he focused on increasing the capacity of its workforce.

I wanted to know from Mr. Cruz why he thought he has been successful in his previous positions. “I enjoy building teams,” Mr. Cruz stated. “I like to work on developing leaders and coaching talent. I am definitely not a micromanager; that would not work for me. What excites me is attracting and training really competent individuals. This is the recipe for scaling up. I believe these goals are consistent with DC Prep’s aim of ultimately reaching 10 percent of all public school students in DC Wards 5, 7 and 8.”

I asked Mr. Cruz what Ms. Lawson has meant to DC Prep. “She has been the heart and soul of this organization,” Mr. Cruz answered with obvious respect. “Everyone looks to her, she is the fabric of our school,” Mr. Cruz continued. “Emily has always felt so fortunate in what she was born into in life, that she really wants to help others who are not as lucky. She could have done a great number of things, but chose this hard work. Her level of commitment is just unbelievable.”

I then inquired of Mr. Cruz why he thought she was so successful with the founding of DC Prep. He immediately answered my question. “From day one her decisions were right on in two areas: governance and finance. She is naturally a great manager; she set up an excellent financial model, and developed a fantastic Board. She is also a fantastic hirer of talent, in and out of the classroom.”

The discussion then moved to the area with which I was most interested. I wanted to know from Mr. Cruz the secret behind the school’s ability to successfully close the academic achievement gap. “As a Charter Management Organization,” Mr. Cruz began, “there is no secret sauce. You start with great people, an ultimate simplicity in the mission, no themes, and no gimmicks. Just extremely strong rigor combined with extremely high quality instruction and focus. Our students are taught to do the right thing and our faculty is trained on how to sweat the small stuff. This is all easy to say but extremely difficult to do in practice.”

I then asked the DC Prep CEO about the school’s replication plans and whether there were any concerns that quality could be negatively impacted by taking on additional campuses. Again, Mr. Cruz responded without hesitation. “There is not a Board meeting or executive team meeting we hold where this issue does not come up. We will celebrate ten years of operation with the opening of our fourth school—Benning Middle Campus—in September. We spend considerable time talking about talent development including additional teachers, coaches, and leadership positions. All this is in service to growing our impact while maintaining the quality of instruction.”

Mr. Cruz added, “Our goal has always been to open ten schools, but we chose to proceed slowly and have learned a lot about how to replicate. We spend considerable time looking at student results, both academic and non-cognitive outcomes. At DC Prep we recognize that expansion is not just about opening schools but is instead about giving underserved families access to a top-notch education for their children.”

I concluded our time together by asking Mr. Cruz, besides the area of replication, what other challenges he sees down the road. “Well, it’s a little early in my tenure to recognize them all now,” he answered. “However I can list a few things. We are in the process of implementing Common Core standards, which will come with new standardized exams. There are advances in technology which will alter how we teach. We are now working to adapt The DC Prep Way to incorporate these changes.”

“One big question, “Mr. Cruz added, “is the question of how to best continue to serve our students when they leave us after 8th grade. At the moment we are in the process of creating our second middle school, but we’ll soon turn to this and other strategic questions. Overall our major emphasis is building something sustainable in aiming to have ten schools serving roughly 3,300 students in DC. Much of what has been done in urban education has not worked in the past, but I am completely convinced that there is a charter school model for high quality instruction that is scalable. That’s what gets me up in the morning – the entrepreneurship, the creativity, and transferring all of this to a new generation of leaders.”

'Frontline' raises questions about test-score tampering under Rhee
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
January 4, 2013

Student standardized-test scores at an award-winning D.C. school dropped dramatically in 2011 after the principal tightened security out of concern about possible cheating, according to a new “Frontline” television documentary to be broadcast Tuesday.

The hour-long program raises questions about whether District officials have adequately investigated persistent suspicions that public school employees may have tampered with tests during the tenure of former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Adell Cothorne was principal of the District’s Noyes Education Campus for one year, in 2010-11. She told “Frontline” that just after students took a midyear practice version of the city’s annual standardized test, she stumbled upon three staff members sitting late at night in a room strewn with more than 200 test booklets.

One of the adults was at a desk, holding an eraser. The other two sat at a table, booklets open before them.

“One staff member said to me, in a lighthearted sort of way, ‘Oh, principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it,’ ” Cothorne told filmmakers, offering the first such direct testimony about potential tampering with answer sheets in D.C. schools.

Cothorne told “Frontline” that she reported the incident to the central office, but to her knowledge nothing was done. School system officials said Friday that without having seen the documentary, they could not comment on Cothorne’s allegations.

“Broadly speaking, reports about testing impropriety are taken very seriously,” D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz wrote in an e-mail. “We have investigated and taken appropriate action for every instance reported to us.”

The “Frontline” film, by education reporter John Merrow, examines Rhee’s record in the District, where her aggressive reforms between 2007 and 2010 turned her from a relative unknown into a polarizing edu-celebrity, both applauded and criticized for her unapologetic approach to fixing the District’s long-troubled schools.

Much of the film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” draws on footage previously broadcast in a dozen of Merrow’s “PBS NewsHour” reports. It chronicles the failings of the school system and the chancellor’s efforts to turn it around by closing schools with low enrollment and firing ineffective teachers, principals and central office workers.

In one well-known scene, Rhee fires a principal on tape, telling him in front of the film crew that his leadership had been “completely unimpressive.”

“This is not about giving people jobs, or ensuring that people can maintain their jobs. This is about educating children,” Rhee told Merrow, voicing the no-excuses approach to school reform — and the impatience with the city’s dismal academic results — that won her admiration around the country.

One of Rhee’s signature moves was turning the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, the city’s annual standardized test, into a high-stakes event for teachers and principals. For the first time, their jobs and their pay depended upon raising student scores.

The District’s test scores did rise during Rhee’s tenure, including a particularly dramatic jump after her first year in office.

Rhee left office in 2010 after then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had hired her, lost his bid for reelection. She then launched Students First, a national lobbying organization to spread the reforms she championed in Washington.

But in 2011, USA Today published an investigation that raised questions about the validity of the District’s test scores — and, by proxy, about the effectiveness of Rhee’s reforms.

The newspaper’s report revealed an unusually high number of wrong-to-right erasures on students’ answer sheets at more than 100 D.C. schools between 2008 and 2010. Such erasure rates aren’t proof of cheating, but they are signals of potential tampering.

Current Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby to investigate further. Willoughby reported in August that he’d found no evidence of answer-sheet tampering, a conclusion that Henderson said should finally put cheating allegations to rest.

The “Frontline” documentary, however, suggests the inspector general’s investigation may have been incomplete.

The 17-month probe focused on just one school: Noyes, which was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2009 after students made impressive gains on reading and math tests. It also twice won an award from Rhee that brought cash bonuses for staff, and it had some of the highest erasure rates in the city.

Investigators found some test-security problems at Noyes but no evidence of answer-sheeting tampering. Based on those findings, they decided not to examine other schools.

But Cothorne, the former principal who alleges that she saw staff members after hours with erasers and test booklets, said investigators never interviewed her.

“My speculation: They didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” she told “Frontline.”

The inspector general’s office declined “Frontline’s” request for an interview about its investigation, saying the report speaks for itself. The office also declined The Post’s request for comment Friday.

DCPS spokeswoman Salmanowitz said school officials remain confident in the inspector general’s work.

Salmanowitz also said records show that Cothorne did not mention the incident when she was interviewed in March 2011 by Caveon, a company retained by the school system to examine potential cheating over several years.

Cothorne denied that she was interviewed by Caveon, but said as a new principal in D.C. schools, she was scared about speaking up.

Cothorne told the “Frontline” filmmakers that when she arrived at Noyes in 2010, she noticed that students’ academic abilities didn’t match their test scores.

Then she said she found the three staff members with test booklets from the midyear D.C. Benchmark Assessment System, a standardized exam that tracks students’ progress toward the end-of-year test — the one that matters for teachers’ and principals’ jobs.

Why would a teacher be motivated to inflate practice-test scores? Perhaps to make high end-of-year scores more believable, Cothorne said in an interview Friday.

Cothorne told “Frontline” that she tightened test security. On the end-of-the-year test, math and reading scores dropped more than 25 percentage points from the year before. The principal left Noyes at the end of that school year and opened a cupcake shop in Ellicott City.

Several other D.C. schools that made impressive test-score gains under Rhee saw double-digit declines after test security was tightened.

Asked for her reaction, Rhee told Merrow that such large swings should be investigated. There may have been some problems, she allowed — but they were isolated.

“I can point to . . . dozens and dozens of schools where, you know, they saw very steady gains,” Rhee said, “or even saw some dramatic gains that were maintained.”

She told Merrow that she was sorry to leave the District.

“I lost the job that I loved,” she said. “The work that we’re doing right now with Students First is important. Would I rather be in D.C. as the chancellor? Absolutely.”

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