What Are We Doing For Our Children At Monument Academy?

Back on May 20th, at its regular monthly board meeting, the public charter school board (PCSB) held a discussion about serious problems at the Monument Academy charter school, only some of which were documented in recent news stories (see, for instance, here and here and here and here). Among the concerns discussed at the May 20 PCSB meeting were the school’s high disciplinary rates, violence, sexual assaults, and proposed reductions in staffing.

Yet, despite lengthy expositions on categorizing a weapon (I learned that window blinds and staplers may be considered weapons when deployed as such), the May 20 charter board conversation about Monument was weirdly disconnected from the serious issues purportedly under discussion, including possible violations of special education laws and an alleged 1,800 safety incidents, 40 sexual misconduct events, and 4 sexual assaults just this past school year among the school’s 120-some students.

For one, it was clear that charter board members were given written materials about Monument created by charter board staff. But those materials were not posted on the PCSB website with materials for that May 20 meeting–and their contents remain publicly unknown. (I asked both the charter board chair, Rick Cruz, and Tomeika Bowden, PCSB spokesperson, about them. Neither responded to my email, but when I called her, Bowden said that what was given to charter board members by charter staff were “deliberative materials” and thus not publicly available.)

For another, there were repeated allusions in the May PCSB meeting to conversations with charter board staff as well as Monument staff. But again, there was nothing publicly available to outline who met with whom nor what was discussed or decided.

Just a few weeks after that May charter board meeting, on June 4, the Monument board voted to close the school–in a meeting closed to parents and teachers. Then, just 2 weeks later, the Monument board rescinded that vote and decided instead to partner with Friendship Education Foundation, a nonprofit associated with Friendship charter schools that provides funding and other supports for Friendship’s schools. The proposal included putting in a new school leader and keeping the school’s founder and CEO, Emily Bloomfield, on the board.

It’s unclear how parents or staff would have known any of this in a timely manner but for news reports:  I could find no minutes of any Monument board meetings posted on the school’s website–and the posted calendar for the school that I saw had no board meetings listed.

That said, at its next board meeting, on June 25, the charter board again discussed Monument. As with its May 20 meeting, the charter board had no staff report on the school posted on its website with materials for the discussion.

But the PCSB website materials for that June 25 meeting do have minutes from the Monument board meeting on June 4 as well as an email from the Monument board with the resolution it had approved for Friendship’s partnership with Monument.

It also has a letter from Monument and Friendship to PCSB, dated June 24–though, until today, the website materials ommitted a June 10 letter from Emily Bloomfield to David Grosso, chair of the city council education committee, purportedly in response to letter from Grosso dated June 5, with questions for PCSB, the deputy mayor for education, and the chair of Monument’s board.

Here’s that June 10 letter from Bloomfield to Grosso.

Interestingly, in response to Grosso’s June 5 letter, the charter board provided a staff report for Monument prepared for the June 25 PCSB meeting. The staff report isn’t on the PCSB website with materials for the June 25 meeting–but I obtained it from the council when I asked whether there was any response to Grosso’s June 5 letter. (Presumably, this staff report is part of the “deliberative” materials that PCSB refused to give to me.)

Disregarding for the moment the patently un-transparent way in which information to and from city leaders about this school has been disseminated to the public, what we do know shows clearly how little accountability there has been and may ever be with regard to this school.

For instance, both the May and June charter board meetings billed the agenda item with Monument as “discussions.” That label obscures the role of the charter board regarding Monument’s next steps.

That is: would the school’s future be subject to a vote of the charter board? If so, what would the vote be on exactly–and when?

The June 25 staff report makes clear that if the charter board determined at its June 25 meeting that the school would have either unsafe conditions or be unviable economically, it could carry out “an immediate high-stakes” review this summer.

But at their June 25 board meeting, charter board members reached no apparent conclusion with respect to the school’s continued operation–and at the subsequent board meeting, on July 15, there was nothing on the agenda about Monument.

So, here’s where we’re at in late July:

1. Even with possible criminal activity alleged, we have no idea if the charter board or ANY city entity is investigating Monument and/or has cleared it of all wrong-doing and

2. There are no clear outlines for next steps by anyone at the charter board in regard to the school except that it is more than likely going to be operating in the next school year, with the former head and founder on its board and

3. Any decision making and documentation concerning either of those two items above is likely to continue to be publicly unavailable, along with the most basic items of school operations, including publicly accessible school board meeting minutes and schedules all the while

4. This is transpiring at a school that has pledged to educate some of the most vulnerable and traumatized students in our city.

Indeed, the June 25 charter board staff report as well as the actual charter board meeting on that date make clear that both the public and charter board members have been in the dark about a variety of details going forward at Monument, including the relationship of the Friendship organization to the school itself. For example, while the school’s turnaround plan puts in place a new head of school, it was clear from questions from charter board members that the school’s new leader has had little, if any, experience with a boarding school for traumatized children.

Financial details were also lacking, inasmuch as it seems that the school will have some organizational help, but probably not much financial help, from Friendship. In fact, to make up for revenue shortfalls (presumably caused by declining enrollment), the school appears to be relying on donations, which have literally flooded it since the latest worrisome reports were made public (i.e., more than $1.4 million in 2019 alone). The donations have come from a variety of education reform interests.

Such flooding of private money into Monument is nothing new: For instance, in its most recent publicly available tax return (from 2016 and filed in 2017), Monument reported more than $650,000 in donations from 20 individuals—all of whom have neither a name nor contact information listed. (See the entire tax return here; the pages with the donations are here. This is all currently available on the PCSB website here.)

Yet, despite such largesse, the school has held a gofundme campaign with a far more modest goal of $10,000, to help Monument students visit colleges.

I asked both PCSB’s Tomeika Bowden and charter board chair Rick Cruz whether the Friendship takeover would reset the 5-year review clock for the school, slated for this fall. Bowden told me that the school is still up for its 5-year review, because the relationship of the charter board is not with the school’s administration or board, but with the school’s charter.

But when, and how, that review will take place is still unknown.

How Someone Who Apparently Never Ran A School (Or Taught Or Worked With Traumatized Children) Was Awarded A School And Facility To Do All That

Testifying at the June 25 charter board meeting, the school’s founder and former CEO Emily Bloomfield (a former charter board member who educated her own progeny at a DC private school) characterized Monument as an “early-stage start-up” while excoriating the lack of proper facilities in DC for charter schools.

Bloomfield’s statements are, well, amazing:

Next month, Monument will be entering its fifth school year. Moreover, the school got its lease in its building (a closed DCPS elementary school) through a process that was not only opaque, but ignored the sentiments of the community around it.

In 2015, Bloomfield’s connections were made evident in a CityPaper article on the education power of Katherine Bradley, a wealthy DC resident who sent her own children to private school but whose CityBridge Foundation funds a variety of charter schools in DC as well as education reform interests.

Here’s what the article documented of Bradley’s 2013 interest in Bloomfield’s Monument venture:

“[Katherine] Bradley also does not hesitate to play matchmaker for charter school operators and private consultants looking to gain traction with [Kaya] Henderson [then-DCPS chancellor]. “Abby, I believe Emily Bloomfield is coming in soon to talk with you about her evolving project, Monument Academy . . . an innovative new school, a charter school with a weekday housing component for foster care kids,” she [Bradley] wrote to [then-deputy mayor for education Abigail] Smith in July 2013. “What I wanted to share with you is that Emily is very open to doing this charter for Kaya. She does not think of it as a conflict of loyalty at all, even given her [Bloomfield’s] service on the [Public Charter School Board].”

Indeed, that 2013 introduction of Bloomfield to then-deputy mayor for education (DME) Abigail Smith marked the start of a relatively quick process for the school, given that until she began Monument, Bloomfield herself apparently had no experience working directly with foster, homeless, or otherwise at risk children–and apparently had no experience teaching anyone.

The process by which Monument got its facility also appeared to be on a fast track:

In 2014, the DME’s office made clear that it would be putting up several vacant DCPS schools for right of first offer (RFO) to charter schools. One of them was the former Gibbs elementary, in the Rosedale section of northeast Ward 6, on the edge of Capitol Hill.

The first community meeting on Gibbs, at the beginning of September 2014, featured community members asking about the possibility of adult education and the impact of a charter school at Gibbs on the neighborhood.

None of the questions was answered.

Then-DME Smith also had no answer when asked how any charter school at Gibbs would be filled when her own data (presented at the meeting) showed that existing schools in the area were already underenrolled.

Later that month, the RFO for Gibbs was issued.

By October, two possible leaseholders were selected by the DME: local charter incubator Building Hope and Friendship. The former proposed putting three charter organizations into Gibbs: an adult charter school, Community College Prep, to help adults get their GEDs; Monument, a weekday boarding school focused on foster kids between 5th and 8th grade; and Washington Global, an international-focused middle school program. Friendship proposed an early childhood program (infants through primary and/or early elementary years) alongside a co-located GED program for adults ages 16 and up.

Shortly thereafter, at the second (and last) public meeting before an operator was selected, both possible leaseholders presented their plans. But audience members noted that the ANC did not get the proposals in a timely manner and were concerned when none of the proposals seemed to address what the community had wanted. It also became clear that Global had held a pizza party at the nearby Rosedale recreation center and obtained signatures on a petition in support of its school locating at Gibbs.

Moreover, despite questions from the public, no one presented any other proposals for the space, including plans for vocational schools that the community clearly preferred in the space. And the interaction of each proposed operator with the community was worrisomely unknown.

By mid-December 2014, the Gibbs school had been awarded to Building Hope in a 20-year lease (see the lease here). Despite promises to the community otherwise, city leaders approved a 20-year lease instead of a standard 25-year lease, thereby avoiding council review and approval.

(If Building Hope seems familiar, recall that it’s a politically well-connected private group holding the leases of many DC buildings housing charter schools, including a lease on the closed Birney school. Recall that with Birney, Building Hope made a profit of about $200,000 this past school year by subleasing back to DC its own building with Excel in it. With that 20-year Birney lease (no council review!) still in effect, Building Hope is poised to make yet more (public) money off subleasing that city-owned property, because the charter board just approved Lee Montessori co-locating at Birney with Excel for SY19-20. (Sorry, no public access to Lee’s sublease because it’s between two private–albeit publicly financed–entities.) Recall also that in 2018, DC approved more than $100 million in revenue bonds for affiliates of Building Hope–and that Ward 2 council member Jack Evans tried twice since summer 2018 to get property tax relief for one Building Hope property supposedly operating at a loss even after the revenue bonds were issued. Nice work if you can get it.)

By the time the Gibbs award was announced in December 2014, there were only two charter schools involved at the site: Monument Academy and Community College Prep. A press release (now electronically unavailable, but quoted here) noted that Monument would be operating a weekday boarding school for foster kids, “the first program of its kind in the District geared towards this population of students, which typically has poor outcomes in traditional school environments. Monument Academy staff will be specifically trained to provide students with intensive social supports, alongside a strong academic program.”

Community College Prep was to provide adult education to about 50 adults–but about a year later, only Monument was left at Gibbs. I was unable to find anything about why either Washington Global or Community College pulled out–but was told that Global’s bid for the Gibbs space had been in trouble in the wake of their pizza party to garner signatures, so they never located there.

[Confidential to Washington Global: With luck, pizza CAN work as a real estate gambit. Just ask Rocketship.]

Exactly when Community College Prep pulled out of its co-location with Monument is also a mystery. In PCSB’s last review of Community College Prep, dated March 19, 2018, the second paragraph notes that the school is “a single-campus local education agency spread across two facilities and currently serving adults ages 18 and older.” Two pages later, the review notes that Community College “operates one campus spread across three facilities in Wards 6 and 8” (bold and italics mine). But the website of the school shows two addresses, both in Ward 8.

Not surprisingly, the publicly exclusive process by which Monument ended up at Gibbs rankled the community.

In March 2015, the ANC around Gibbs sent a letter to the new DME, Jennifer Niles, noting the poor public process for determining that Gibbs was excess and that the ANC was left out of seemingly every decision regarding the school’s re-use. The ANC asked for an evaluation of all impacts of charter schools; adequate time to weigh in on uses of closed schools before a charter operator is selected; and review of the determination of the excessing of a closed DCPS school as well as its lease before it is signed.

(Still waiting for any of that anywhere in DC.)

Later in 2015, a report talked with Emily Bloomfield about how challenging the work at Monument was.

Four years later, in a 2019 Post story about the many reported problems at the school, Bloomfield was quoted as saying, “I don’t think I fully appreciated the extent to which the behavioral challenges and needs of kids could be so significant.”

Despite a school leader with apparently no direct experience with traumatized students having been relatively quickly awarded both a school and its facility (then expressing surprise at how difficult the work was in the wake of reports of terrible events there), Monument has never lacked for laudatory press outside DC (see here and here for two hagiographical pieces just this year).

All of which leads me to ask:

Who’s Really In Charge Of This Barreling Train?

The June 25 charter board meeting was instructive inasmuch as it showed the first attempts by any DC officials at true accountability for this school.

[Confidential to every city leader: True school accountability is not about test scores. Never has been. Never will be. Sorry to ruin the party.]

For instance, board member Lea Crusey sussed out that only 4 of Monument’s currently enrolled 96 students are, in fact, foster children.

It also became clear that despite hints that students attending the school were not actually boarding there, no one knows how many are and/or will be boarded there. (I asked PCSB spokesperson Bowden, and she said she didn’t know.) The school gets extra public funding for its boarding component, and significant costs can be avoided by having students not board. It’s hard to believe that of a student population of 96 students, no one in DC knows how many of them are boarding at Monument.

Perhaps the clearest picture of years of ugliness came with the testimony of the area’s ANC commissioner, Sondra Phillips-Gilbert.

At the beginning of the June 25 PCSB meeting, Phillips-Gilbert made clear the concerns of her community and ANC and how both had been excluded from the process in 2014–despite the community voicing how the school would compound problems for both the community as well as the students.

Before her testimony, Phillips-Gilbert handed out pictures to charter board members, showing trash around the school in 2016, 2017, and 2018, mainly around the side where kids’ bedrooms are located. She noted that she tried to work with the school for a variety of such issues–and failed to get anywhere.

Later in the same meeting, after representatives from Monument and Friendship spoke, board chair Rick Cruz asked the school’s proposed new leader to reach out to Phillips-Gilbert.

Phillips-Gilbert’s response to Cruz was one for the ages:

“I appreciate you [Cruz] sitting there. This time I don’t have trust, after what these kids have gone through, what the community has gone through, and what I presented to you. I don’t trust nobody. That’s how I feel right now. It’s a lot of talk–sound’s good. But what I want the board to do: please take time and thoroughly go through everything they’re sending because if they mess up, it’s coming back on you. I’m telling you: this is too quick. Please review whatever they’re putting before you because it’s those children. I heard the staff too: I talked to several staff, and they were extremely depressed. They told me stuff I didn’t say to you. I didn’t say to none of you, I didn’t bring it up. But I’m going to say this: they are very concerned. When you got people that’s working with the children, and the parents, and they see what’s going on, you’d better pay attention. This fast talking and this good talking: review what they’re going to present to you. It is our children. Please make sure you review that and don’t forget the zoning part, too, because I’m going to bring that back up. But please for our children’s sake. I talked to the parents, I talked to the neighbors who see kids coming out the door and walking up the street at 11 o’clock at night. I appreciate you doing that for me.”

The sad reality is not merely that our city has seemingly failed on a variety of levels for a long time with this school, but that we have no way to talk about any of this, much less to actually be in control. In fact, barring action by the charter board to revoke the school’s charter in the next few weeks, Monument will soon be in business for another school year at the least.

Indeed, for all their earnest questions, and concerns about closing the school, charter board members never once asked how we got to this place, where the welfare and education of some of the most vulnerable kids in our city were entrusted on the basis of promises repeatedly not delivered.

Here, for instance, is an account of someone who worked in the school as a house parent.

Here’s what was posted on twitter, supposedly from a Monument teacher responding to that house parent account.

And here is context, from an expert in special education issues, for why all of this is so disturbing.

Accountability isn’t test scores: it’s asking how we got here. Immediately.

Because these are indeed our children.

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