DC PCSB’s School Closure Process: How Do We, As the Authorizer, Do More to Help Students & Families Grappling With a Difficult School Closure Decision

Lenora Robinson-Mills, DC PCSB’s Chief Operating Officer, describes her experience at a recent charter school authorizer conference. At a conference I attended recently with other charter school authorizers from across the country, I participated in a session about school closures. During this session, the presenters likened the closing of a school to the death of a family member. This resonated with me and I thought about how we (as the authorizer) have weeks, months, sometimes years, to come to terms with a pending decision to close a school. But, school leaders, staff, students, and families only start their grieving process at the final closure vote made by the DC PCSB Board. The presenter noted that often authorizers are pressuring families to make decisions and take action within a few days of the Board’s decision and it’s not realistic in the midst of grief: it’s like telling someone their parent died on Monday and asking them to pick a new parent on Friday. Where’s the empathy in this?

In the presenter’s scenario, where school closure is the death, the school community dies, and I am the undertaker. And the grief counselor. Part of my role at DC PCSB is to manage the wind-down of the school and support families in finding new schools once our Board makes that final decision. And, I was onboard with the presenter using the metaphors ‘death’ and ‘funeral’ to symbolize school closure (“yes, we should give families time to grieve!”) until I remembered how it usually plays out in our city. I remembered why we’re pushing students and families to pick a new “parent” so quickly: usually, the final closure decision by our Board happens very close to (and in some cases past) the My School DC common lottery application deadline. So to ensure the families of closed public charter schools have access to as many quality options as possible, we push... hard. We call, email, text, send snail mail, and host school fairs. We have the school make calls, send letters, emails, texts, send robocalls, and hold parent meetings. We listen to family concerns and considerations with empathy, and then we ask, beg, and plead with them to submit their lottery applications TODAY!

For background context, what often happens is that, after a public charter school does not meet its goals over a five year period (with lots of communication between DC PCSB and the school’s board and staff - but not the families - during this period), our Board starts the formal closure process with a “vote to initiate the revocation process.” This usually happens well into the fall, November or December, because of the time it takes to obtain, analyze, and validate final student achievement data with the school from the previous school year. Then the school has about a month to work with DC PCSB to hold a public hearing where both DC PCSB staff and the school present their “cases” for our Board to consider. Then our Board has about two weeks to have a final vote to close the school.

By this point, we’re well into January or February, and EdFest (the District’s annual public school fair) has passed and we are approaching, or past, the lottery deadlines: Feb 1 for high schools and March 1 for PK-8 schools. Often, this is when the grieving process begins. In many cases, the schools have not wanted to alarm families of the pending closure for fear of the trauma it would cause families and out of concern that this news will call into question the quality of the school. If parents start to question school leadership, they may decide to leave before a final closure decision or apply through My School DC and leave the upcoming school year. So, even if our Board votes to keep the school open, if a significant number of students leave, the school may not be financially viable the upcoming school year and it would be subject to closure again. As a former charter leader, these are reasonable concerns. But, I believe that more information is always better and as a parent, I would want to know what was going on as soon as the school leaders knew.

There were two concerns that I left that conference session grappling with. The first, that I’ve explained above, was wanting to balance empathy with the grieving process for students, families, and the school community with the urgency of supporting families in finding new schools. The second was the tension of the role of the authorizer in respecting and protecting a school’s flexibility with my personal instinct to help and improve schools. I call this my personal conundrum in school closures.

As the authorizer, we use our authority to close schools as a lever to improve student outcomes and provide better quality school choices to families instead of providing support to schools (so they remain open) to improve student outcomes. As someone who came into education to use my skills and experience to help and improve, I struggle with the role, our role, as the authorizer. In the presenter’s death metaphor, I believe we have primary care physicians at DC PCSB who can diagnose the patient and make referrals to specialists, but we don’t have any surgeons who are able to step in and operate when the time comes.

And I honestly think public charter school leaders and charter school advocates might blockade the operating room doors and protest the mere thought of a surgeon operating. But where do students fall out in this flexibility struggle? What about the ultimate question of what’s best for kids in these potential closures? I see merit in all sides of this issue, this conundrum.

We’re working internally now to figure out how to provide better support sooner to families affected by the closing of their school, but it’s difficult to navigate the school’s right to due process. Maybe the answer is a lottery preference or lottery bypass for students attending closing schools? Perhaps it’s more and better communication with families before the final decision gets made so that they can take action sooner? Maybe it’s having someone at DC PCSB who can be the life-saving surgeon in my presenter’s death analogy. But that’s outside the role of the authorizer...

Like I said: it’s a conundrum.

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