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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

PCSB Praised by Dell Foundation

PCSB is an exceptional model of using ongoing assessments to foster positive growth in schools, a key pillar of portfolio school district strategy, according to the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The Foundation praised PCSB’s use of the Performance Management Framework (PMF) and other school performance evaluations to determine success and direct school growth. Citing PCSB’s recent decision to raise the enrollment ceilings of nine charter schools for the upcoming school year, the Foundation recommended that other school districts look to PCSB as an example of a successful charter school authorizer.

Read more at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation website.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Secretary Duncan to Honor Environmentally Friendly Schools

This Monday, April 22, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in Columbia Heights will be welcoming US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to announce this year’s Green Ribbon Schools. Secretary Duncan will be joined by Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Bob Perciasepe, Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and will give remarks prior to the honorees being officially announced.

Prospective Green Ribbon Schools undergo a thorough nomination and application process. Each school must demonstrate that they are minimizing environmental impact; creating a healthy learning environment; and providing exemplary curriculum focusing on environmental literacy. Schools should also emphasize the importance of STEM and civics education. This is the second year of the Green Ribbon Schools program and three schools in DC were nominated, including Mundo Verde. Development and communications specialist Maureen Dizon said they are "very excited" about the event, and it is an honor for them to be recognized only three years after opening their doors.

Mundo Verde is a public charter school with a bilingual curriculum in English and Spanish, and a special emphasis on sustainability and environmental stewardship. Their facility currently includes an organic garden which is incorporated into classroom learning on sustainability and environmental health, along with trips to local farms to learn about food production. They currently cover PreK3 through 1st grade, and plan to add more classes as their students grow.

Senator Duncan’s remarks will be livestreamed at 10:30 Monday morning, live from an early childhood education classroom at Mundo Verde, where he will also visit the school’s garden and learn more about how they are incorporating environmental education into their curriculum. 

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Alternative" Education: What's the Definition?

NACSA Senior Policy Advisor Nelson Smith (center, right) leads a
 March 2013 working group on alternative education at PCSB

More than a dozen charter policymakers, authorizers and school leaders from around the country recently met at PCSB to discuss how to best measure the performance of schools that enroll primarily students who face unusually high risks for academic failure.

Maybe they got pregnant and dropped out. Perhaps they fell behind in school and are now several grades below level. Maybe they went to jail, or missed many days of school because they bounced from one foster home to another, or faced some other issue that has made their education anything but a straight path.

The two-day event was sponsored by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), the membership organization for groups around the country that have the power to open, close and oversee charter schools. PCSB hosted the event at its offices and PCSB Deputy Director Naomi DeVeaux participated to give the perspective on the issue for DC.

Nelson Smith, NACSA Senior Advisor, said charter authorizers from around the country have reached out trying to find guidance on the issue of measuring these schools not just with proficiency rates on test scores. The challenge was to find a different way, one that accurately identifies quality “alternative” schools that does not create low expectations for what the schools’ students could accomplish.

“We heard from so many members who were looking for models,” Smith said. “So we thought why not bring people together?”

Tony Simmons, of the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, said his state had no official designation for “alternative” but that one was needed. The school targets older students who have struggled to learn. He said it could be in trouble of being shut down, as the state follows federal guidelines that call for at least 60 percent of ninth grade students who started high school together to graduation in four years. The school -- and many like it that choose to engage dropouts and/or students who are severely academically behind -- will not be able to meet a graduation rate of 60 percent in four years.

Simmons said just knowing he wasn’t the only charter operator grappling with the issue was helpful.  “You learn from what other states are doing, you hear some of the struggles and you can take it back,” Simmons said.

So what to do?  Among the approaches the working group discussed:  Using five-, six-, or even seven-year graduation rates; using re-enrollment and attendance rates to show re-engagement or using a norm-referenced test to measure student’s progress mastering content far below the current grade level standards. Smith said the working group plans to hold two more sessions on the topic.

PCSB has been wrestling with this issue and is already considering adding different graduation rates into our Performance Management Framework (PMF). (The PMF already includes re-enrollment and attendance rates.)

Like the St. Paul, Minnesota school, our schools in DC would be at risk of closure because they are rated as a “focus” or “priority” school under federal guidelines. PCSB passed an interim policy last April to address the issue, but we’ll be looking for a permanent solution in the months ahead.

For more on “alternative” schools, check out the following links:

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

High Schools as “Dropout Factories”: Fact or Fiction?

There’s been some increased focus as of late on “dropout factories,” a term that refers to high schools that do not graduate a significant portion of their students. U.S. Secretary for Education Arne S. Duncan appeared last month with Alma Powell and America’s Promise, which is working on the issue of high school completion.

Then comes a recent Washington Examiner article on “Dropout Factories” that cites a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education saying, “The number of ‘dropout factory’ high schools in the District has shot up in the past decade, defying state trends nationwide.”

The piece went on to state that DC had 13 “dropout factories” in 2011 and in 2010, of which five were DC charter schools.  

Here’s the problem: Dropout factory is defined as a school with a graduating class less than 60% the size of the freshman class. So if students transfer from the school, and graduate from somewhere else, they are still counted as a “dropout” under this crude measure -- unless the school fills that transferring student’s seat with another student.

This measure has long been supplanted by a more sophisticated way of measuring dropouts, known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.  Under ACGR, which is now the national standard for measuring graduation rates, a student who transfers out is not counted as a dropout if there is documentation that the student enrolled in another high school

According to the outdated way of measuring high school graduation rates, which five charter schools in 2010 qualified as “dropout factories?” Kamit PCS; William E Doar, Jr. PCS;  IDEA PCS; Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill PCS and Thurgood Marshall PCS.

Let’s take a moment to review the record on each of those:

  • Kamit was closed by PCSB for poor academic performance.
  • William E. Doar, Jr. voluntarily closed their high school for poor academic performance.
  • IDEA PCS is executing a turnaround plan after a threatened closure by PCSB.  The school’s graduation rate in 2012 was 78 percent  using ACGR  - 17 percentage points higher than the DC average.
  • Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill had a 2012 graduation rate of 64 percent - far too low, but higher than the DC average.
  • Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS has a 2012 graduation rate of 78 percent - again, 17 percentage points higher than the DC average.

In sum, the article uses outdated data and methodology to claim that there are five charter school “dropout factories” in DC.    Indeed a review of 2012 graduation rates for all DC high schools shows that there are just two charter schools with graduation rates below the state average of 61 percent. Meanwhile, charter school graduation rates in DC are 77 percent.  Far from being “dropout factories”, DC charter high schools are raising graduation rates across the city.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Don't Protect, Let's Plan for More High-Quality DC Schools

In an earlier blog post, I addressed what I thought was missing from this Washington Post piece on charter school enrollment and market share issues – a focus on high-quality schools and the growing enrollment in public schools across our city. Let me add another element to the conversation, on the topic of joint planning.

Everyone in the city, from residents to public officials, supports the idea of more joint education planning.  Mayor Gray called for such an effort in his recent State of the District address.  And DC Council Education Committee Chair David Catania has publicly stated his support for this.

What do we mean by planning? It’s a word used more frequently in the transportation field to talk about where to build new roads or create new traffic patterns. It’s a similar conversation for schools – what kind of schools are needed? Where? How can we create more high-performing schools that serve all students?

PCSB supports education planning.  We have long worked closely with the Office of the State Superintendent and DC Public Schools on issues related to a charter school closure, such as making sure students are placed. Also, the published analysis of school location and performance in DC, known as the IFF study, took collaboration across the entire education sector. Since the election of Mayor Gray our collaboration across the city on such issues as school closure, transportation and health has increased substantially.   

As this joint work has evolved, our conversations with DCPS, OSSE and the Deputy Mayor for Education have been around scoping a more comprehensive effort at joint planning  -- with a goal of producing the joint blueprint the mayor described in his address.  Central to our discussions have been how we can best involve parents, school leaders, and community members in this process.

With nearly as many DC students attending charter schools (43%) as traditional district schools, there is an increasing need to think more systematically about the overall DC educational system.   For example, here is some of the feedback I have heard from parents, the community and city officials alike that planning could start to address:

-       Too many DC neighborhoods still lack a high-performing school with available for nearby children;

-       Supply for high-performing schools still exceeds demand as evident in long charter waiting lists and high DCPS out-of-boundary requests;

-       The current system of choice – whereby families apply for dozens of independent lotteries – may not optimize outcomes for their students.  A family who most wants to attend a school in the neighborhood may end up getting into, and commuting to, a school across town;

-       Given the number of students who travel out of their neighborhoods to attend both DCPS and charter schools, there may be a need to look into policies and operations around transportation for school-aged youth;

-       We can identify ways to share resources around charter and DCPS schools, facilitating joint enrollment, hybrid schools, and shared programs;

-       When the city will soon have 26 former school buildings sitting empty; there is no rationality in having so many schools paying rent to private landlords;

-       The way the city funds schools – based on a single count in October and unequal between charters and DCPS – does not take into account student mobility and the lack of equity between the two systems.  It needs reexamination;

-       We have no common view about projections of future growth around the city.

PCSB is eager to find sustainable solutions to these concerns. Where our views may differ from others is around the nature of competition.  

Charter were created more than 15 years ago in DC as a way to spur choice, innovation an quality, with the goal of charter competition inspiring improvement in traditional schools.  I’ve heard more than once a concern about the locations of charters being an issue, and how existing schools – charter and traditional - need to be “protected” from a charter school opening nearby.

“Protecting” an existing school from competition by keeping out new entrants from locating nearby makes little sense.  Competition builds quality and strengthens neighborhoods. 

Rather than focus our energies walling off places schools can’t go, we should be working to get more great schools to locate in those neighborhoods most in need of more quality seats.   Let’s identify places we need great schools, and then offer facilities to our highest performing schools to open there.   

And, as I said in this post, rather than capping charter growth, we should consider how charters and DCPS together can continue attracting more families to public schools in the District.

Moreover, joint planning is different from central planning.   Joint planning takes a system built around competition and choice and seeks to optimize it.  Central planning allocates resources based on a single perspective of what is best for the city.

There is a lot of good joint planning can do for our city.  It can improve choices and efficiency, while preserving the autonomies and competition that have done so much to improve public schooling in the District.  We are eager to engage in this process with our partners in the city, and to hear more from community members about how best this process can serve them.

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