Wait, What Just Happened? Summer 2018 Edition

It’s (still!) summer in DC, even though DCPS is officially starting in a few hours–which naturally means a lot happened in DC public education while you were (hopefully) away.

Herein is an incomplete summary.

Excel/Birney Real Estate Dramedy

As you may recall, the newest DCPS school, Excel, had been a charter school for girls until it was shut down by the charter board earlier this year.

Now under the aegis of DCPS, Excel remains in the building it occupied while a charter school, the closed DCPS Birney Elementary.

Turns out, that building is still owned by our city. In 2011, a 20-year lease for the building was signed with the charter school incubator initiative and Building Hope, a private nonprofit charter advocacy organization.

As a result of that lease continuing until 2031, to operate Excel at Birney DCPS is renting back its own building from a private organization.

(Yes. Really.)

Back in July, I asked Ikenna Udejiofor, a real estate specialist at DGS (the city agency with oversight of all city-owned property) how common this situation is. He said that in his experience it’s happened only once or twice, calling the current Excel/Birney/DCPS situation a “strange anomaly.” He declined to tell me how much DCPS would be paying for Excel to be at Birney.

And of course, leases of DC’s publicly owned buildings are not publicly available except through FOIA.

(Yes. Really.)

So, here are all the Birney leases that I obtained this summer by FOIA request.

That said, the most recent lease–between DCPS and the leaseholder, which is now doing business as Building Pathways, a new spinoff of Building Hope (and without a web presence I could find)–is not currently available, as it has not yet been finalized. And it requires council approval in any case, which will happen presumably once the city council is back in session, starting in September.

(Interestingly, the Building Pathways employee who gave me this update is Anne Robinson. If that name is familiar, it’s because she was the director of the council’s education committee until recently.)

Adding to the intrigue, Birney is also supposed to be hosting a co-located charter school. Back in spring, DCPS told parents that Community College Prep would be co-locating with Excel at Birney.

Except that deal apparently fell through by early July–and a new charter school has not been selected yet by the deputy mayor for education’s office. Weirdly (well, at least to me), when I attempted to get from DGS a list of all co-located charter schools in buildings with DCPS schools, I was told no such list exists.

(Yes. Sigh.)

And More Edu-Real Estate Intrigue: Walker-Jones

Buried in the fine print of the triumphant new DC soccer stadium was a deal to enable Pepco to develop a tract of once publicly owned land near DCPS’s education campus in Ward 6, Walker-Jones.

The land, comprising two acres and sold to Pepco in 2015 in a deal for land near the stadium, is slated to house a large substation.

Neighbors and parents at the school (as well as environmental groups) are concerned (see the radio show from August 7 here), with some alleging that the substation (specifically, its electromagnetic fields) will pose a hazard to kids and end the productive community vegetable garden on the site.

While large substations in DC are often not (as a first choice, at least) slapped on top of a school, dense housing, and/or produce, what is interesting here is Pepco’s rationale for needing a new substation at that location: burgeoning development nearby, including many high-priced condos.

It’s reasonable to assume that not many current residents around (or parents at) Walker-Jones are living in those new condos.

Interestingly, the building that houses the Walker-Jones education campus was brand-new about 10 years ago, part of a long stretch of DCPS renovations of all its active buildings. (See the helpful school chart on page 2 of Sarah Livingston’s August Citizen Reader, showing exactly where DCPS school modernizations stand now.)

So: what does it mean when the mayor, who is in charge of DCPS, enables a corporation to create a development that could threaten the well-being of kids inside a DCPS school?

Stay tuned for more.

Closure of Democracy Prep

While thus far there is no announcement on the charter board website (at least that I could find), DC’s charter school Democracy Prep is closing next school year, which means that for the third time, another charter operator will take over the school and, one hopes, have a better track record in terms of test scores and discipline.

(For the latter, check out this exchange, between David Grosso and Scott Pearson, from April this year.)

Interestingly, what is not mentioned in the Post story linked above, on Democracy Prep’s closure, is the fact that the school’s financials seem rather, um, shaky. Check out Democracy Prep’s most recent financial audit review.

Sooo: Does fiscal ricketiness have anything to do with the decision by the school to close? No way for those of us paying for it to know.

Democracy Prep is part of a network of charters founded by Seth Andrew, who also helped created another charter school here in DC, Washington Leadership Academy. That school appears to be in better financial health than Democracy Prep–no doubt aided by the $10 million in private funds it was awarded before it had educated anyone for more than a few weeks.

State Board Campaign $$

One could say that the closure of WMST as well as Democracy Prep comes at a fiscally opportune moment for Ward 6 state board candidate Jessica Sutter.

Back in June, I requested by FOIA any contracts then state board of education candidates had with either our office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) or the charter board.

I got one positive response: a current contract between the charter board and Jessica Sutter, to assist on school closures.

Sutter is running against state board incumbent Joe Weedon in Ward 6; wards 1, 3, and 5 also have state board seats up for a vote in November.

(Ward 4’s state board seat is open as well. But that election will be held in December, as the incumbent departed after general election candidates were announced.)

To be sure, Sutter’s candidacy–and contract–illustrate a deep divide in DC public education oversight.

As a moral voice, if not exactly a political power under mayoral control, our state board of education is the only directly elected body in DC with direct school oversight.

Indeed, the board’s July vote against the proposed emergency credit recovery policy promulgated by OSSE represents a refreshing counterbalance to mayoral control. The head of OSSE, after all, was appointed by the mayor and reports to the deputy mayor for education, also appointed by the mayor. The board then wrote about the vote, noting that it could not support a policy that did not fulsomely address the entire spectrum of our city’s approach to education governance.

Given that less than a year ago, the head of OSSE testified that she was unaware of any regulations whatsoever regarding credit recovery until that moment (yeah–see the transcript of Hanseul Kang’s exchange with council member Elissa Silverman here), having an explicitly stated credit recovery policy citywide is huge. It’s even better for a directly elected body to demand of all DC’s public education leaders that such a policy be well thought through, equitable, and at the service of students first.

And yet, even as our state board lacks political power, at least two state board candidates with deep ties to charter schools and education reform efforts are being given tens of thousands in campaign donations by people outside DC.

For instance, Ward 1 candidate Jason Andrean–board chair of Achievement Prep charter school and supporter of Democrats for Education Reform–has a total of 470 donations thus far. Only 171 of these (36%) are from DC. Moreover, of those 470 donations, more than 300 were for amounts equal to or greater than $100, totaling more than $50,000.

Sutter appears to be on a similar track as Andrean, if not exactly on the same order of magnitude. About 40% of Sutter’s 256 donors are outside DC, and she has more than 90 donations equal to or greater than $100. Those donations alone total more than $13,000.

Maybe those of us here in DC whose votes are being courted by education reform candidates with a treasure trove of outside cash need to ask what it’s buying.

Unfilled Positions & Incomplete Processes

With our former education ombudsman, Joyanna Smith, now working for Rocketship, that means that three major public education positions in DC–the deputy mayor for education, the DCPS chancellor, and the education ombudsman–are unfilled.

The main issue, however, is not so much missing personnel as missing public processes for replacing two of the three.

And speaking of missing:

–There is (yet, still) no official word on the master facilities plan, which is late. Meetings were held earlier this year.

–There have been two meetings of the chancellor selection panel (July 9 and July 30)—but neither was on the public calendar for the city. According to what was announced at the recent public feedback session, the next two meetings of the panel will occur on October 8 and 22–but no word on when or where.

Oh, Test Scores

Just a few hours before the latest PARCC scores were officially unveiled, the charter board tweeted out that charter schools serve a higher percentage of at risk students than DCPS.

One could only assume this was an attempt to massage the reveal that charter school scores overall didn’t increase as much as DCPS scores.

To be sure, there is a lot that remains unsaid about demographics and test scores. In fact, entirely missing from the official news everywhere was the correlation, if any, of how the reported (slight) improvement citywide in test scores came about.

So, education researcher Betsy Wolf did what our education officials have not done: assembled last year’s test scores and compared them to these year’s, alongside the change in student demographics for each school in the same time period.

To be sure, this story remains to be told.

But just those two graphs illustrate a cautionary tale in advance of a five-star rating system based largely on these test scores.

In the meantime, perhaps we should beware of education officials bearing stats.

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