On the first morning of Black History Month, students and teachers at Democracy Prep Congress Heights Charter School in Southeast displayed their Afrocentricity during a daylong event that included drumming, dancing and exposure to continental African fashion.
The second annual gathering on Feb. 1, which teachers said they organized when school officials didn’t acknowledge the annual cultural and historical celebration, occurred amid questions about what would become of the 600 young people who wouldn’t be able to return to their school next year.
At the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, students, teachers and parents learned that the Democracy Prep’s school board, part of a national network of charter schools, decided to close its only District-based school.
The shocking news followed years of teacher and personnel turnover and battles with the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to preserve Democracy Prep’s charter. Those efforts culminated in a December charter board hearing at Trinity Washington University, where teachers rallied to stop the charter revocation process, to no avail.
“There was no emphasis on putting things in place to get students on grade level,” said Brandi Jackson, a veteran instructor in her fourth year at Democracy Preparatory, one of the few instructors to enjoy such a designation.
Jackson, a teacher of 20 years, expressed her qualms about Democracy Prep’s alleged financial mismanagement and the trustee board’s lack of knowledge about the mostly Black student body.
She recounted her frustration upon seeing each administration prioritize what she described as trivial matters — parking spaces and student hall passes — rather than addressing teachers’ need for printing paper and other supplies, trauma-informed instruction, building maintenance, and curricula that reflected gaps in student learning.
Jackson’s biggest problem, however, centered around the collection of academic data, via what’s called the Performance Management Framework, that didn’t consider the socioeconomic conditions that complicate student learning — and how she and her colleagues went above and beyond to tackle those issues.
“That’s been the problem working with people who don’t know we’ve taken students home to buy coats,” Jackson said. “I’ve given a family all of my furniture to outfit their living room. Democracy Prep brought on a lot of the wrong people who are scared of the children. They refused the modify the curriculum until this year. Our board was hands-off.”
Approaching the nadir
Democracy Prep, a K-8 institution now in its fifth year of existence, will shutter at the end of the academic year along with City Arts + Prep Public Charter School in Northeast and, albeit for financial reasons, Chavez Prep Middle School in Northwest.
Those closures, according to documentation provided by PCSB, follow the revocation of Excel Academy Public Charter School’s charter and that of Sustainable Future’s last year. At the end of this academic year, Ideal Academy Public Charter School and Somerset Academy Public Charter School will relinquish their charters.
Excel Academy, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, has since converted to a DCPS school. Kipp DC will operate Somerset Prep and Friendship Schools will start a similar relationship with Ideal.
These schools had been relegated to Tier 2 or 3 status on the Performance Management Framework, a measure of academic progress for the charter school system since 2013. That means that out of 100 points, they scored anywhere between 0 and 64.9.
The Performance Management Framework assesses academic progress via school environment, student improvement and preparedness for college, and other goals specific to a school’s mission. Oftentimes, low scores on the Performance Management Framework, anywhere between 0 and 34.9 points, could be attributed to growth and achievement on the PARCC exam, low re-enrollment rate, and low attendance.
A decline in the annual School Quality Report often leads to more PCSB evaluation, school visits and conversations with school board trustees and leadership about how to improve in specific areas.
Moving the goalposts
Last month, PCSB voted to revoke the charter of National Collegiate Public Charter School, a Southeast school fitting that profile, capping enrollment in preparation for its 2020 closure. Charter board members reached that decision despite National Collegiate officials’ presentation of a school improvement plan and changes to the trustee board and math department.
A point of contention brought up by National Collegiate leaders during PCSB hearings was the compilation of goals they said charter board members agreed would be among metrics determining National Collegiate’s status. A document provided by school officials showed that National Collegiate met eight out of nine goals compiled during its five-year review.
That outcome, however, didn’t prevent the charter board from prioritizing its Performance Management Framework score of less than 27 percent as a key factor the charter revocation process.
Leaders at National Collegiate Preparatory have criticized the Performance Management Framework, saying it didn’t consider the significant growth in among at-risk students who entered its program below grade level in core subjects.
Heads of other local charter schools have reached similar conclusions, not exclusively about the Performance Management Framework, but the means by which the charter board determines a school’s success.
In the case of City Arts + Prep Public Charter School, a Northeast-based, arts-integration K-8 institution, PCSB didn’t defer to what Lanette Dailey-Reese, executive director, described as the school’s unique, arts-driven mission.
Instead, officials focused more on the statistics involving students’ math and reading performance, which showed percentage rates of college and career readiness in both subject areas hovering around the mid-20s.
“Our unique mission as a predominate arts program for elementary students wasn’t attached to our charter goals,” Dailey-Reese said as she explained the circumstances of City Arts + Prep’s closure, which the charter board approved in January.
Since its 2004 inception, City Arts + Prep, formerly the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Arts, has provided opportunities for young people to learn, at no costs, theater, arts, music, and visual arts, in conjunction with core instruction. More than 450 students, many of whom travel to school from various parts of the District, garner a bevy of opportunities to perform locally, on television, and on the national stage.
Dailey-Reese made it clear that, as a Tier 2 school, City Arts + Prep had what it took to remain open.
However, because school leaders didn’t put in writing, during its 10-year charter review, that PCSB examine the rate at which students matriculate to the Duke Ellington School of Arts in Northwest and how arts instruction permeated the five core disciplines, City Arts + Prep’s success in those areas remained irrelevant.
Another point that Dailey-Reese emphasized centered on City Arts + Prep’s at-risk students, who experienced significant growth in their PARCC exam scores between 2014 and 2018, outscoring their counterparts by at least seven percentage points.
She said the Performance Management Framework doesn’t reflect this reality.
“Our at-risk students outscore the state in English and Language Arts and Math categories, and have done so over the last few years, you see we do that with our arts integration mission,” Dailey-Reese said.
“We had two dissenting votes for renewal. If you don’t reach academic measures, you get your charter revoked. Many of the charter board members are super supportive of our work and the population we serve. The results were just based on the way the rules were written.”
More questions than answers
In the past year, parents and guardians of roughly 1,500 students have scrambled to enroll in a new school for the next school year, uprooting those students from familiar spaces and relationships with teachers and school personnel.
This shift has been particularly impactful for the sixth- through ninth-graders who attend Chavez Prep Middle School in Northwest, scheduled to close at the end of the year. Its partner school, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy – Capitol Hill, will consolidate into the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School – Parkside Campus in Northeast, as part board members’ efforts to save funds.
Chavez employees learned about these plans late last month not from school leadership, but from reporters. The American Federation of Teachers, which represents employees in Cesar Chavez Public Charter School network, released a statement in which the entity promised to launch an investigation into the administration’s actions, and possibly take legal action.
Jennie Tomlinson, a library specialist of five years at Chavez Prep Middle School, said she doesn’t believe financial hardship to be a viable reason for the school consolidation, based on the hundreds of thousands of dollars she alleges school officials paid a consulting company over the past several years.
Instead, she described the present situation as one that started when the PCSB introduced the PARCC exam as a criterion on Performance Management Framework during the 2014-2015 academic year. As a result, Chavez Prep, once a Tier 1 school, dropped to Tier 2 status, compelling the charter board to guide school leaders along a path to improvement.
Chavez Prep Middle School reached its agreed-upon goals two years ago and has since maintained a score on the Performance Management Framework of 47 percent. But even those gains didn’t save it from closure, which, for Tomlinson, spoke to the socioeconomic inequities affecting Black and Latino youth in D.C.
“The Performance Management Framework doesn’t tell the whole picture of what goes on inside of a school, like the day-to-day,” Tomlinson said, referencing a statistical analysis her husband, also a Chavez employee, conducted on Performance Management Framework data for all D.C. charter schools.
“The strongest predictor of success is the number of at-risk students, students who receive government assistance and are homeless, and the number of White students,” she said. “There’s a lack of transparency in the charter sector and they let us know what scores we need to stay open. In every case, that doesn’t help you. Our school more than met the goals and the board decided to close us anyway.”