The Education Mysteries, Tale #1: Friendship’s Lottery & Achievement Prep’s Middle School

[Ed. Note: This new blog series, consisting of tales of missing public education information and active disinformation, arises at a time when both storytelling and truth are at a premium.

Recall that on March 17, one of the first actions of our DC council in the current pandemic was to extend the deadline for responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests until the end of the pandemic. In the face of inadequate testing; poor understanding of transmission and contacts; lack of protective gear; lack of hospital beds; lack of ventilators; leaders scrambling to get supplies because the federal government refused to help; rapid jail transmission; insufficient aid for the unemployed; and disproportionate deaths among African Americans and Latinos, you’d think that suspending FOIA wouldn’t even crack the top 100 list of things to do.

Heh.

Most of the requests for missing information documented in these tales were made before the DC council passed that legislation. And the items requested were available well before our city’s shutdown. Indeed, all existed then (and now) within their respective agencies, in more or less obvious places (i.e., none of this is exactly off the radar).

The bottom line is not merely the DC public’s inability to access basic information about its public schools, but the fact that despite the wide variety of the requests documented herein, the official denials, obfuscations, and misrepresentations have been weirdly equal opportunity!

That is, every single DC education agency has responded to phone calls, emails, FOIA requests, and appeals in one and the same manner: stonewalling.]

Tale #1: The Mystery Of Friendship’s Lottery & Achievement Prep’s Middle School

One may as well begin with a timeline:

January 30: Achievement Prep sent a letter to its families, saying that its middle school would close but that Friendship would be taking it over, pending charter board approval.

Possibly late January or early February: Someone (Friendship and/or Achievement Prep) made noise with the charter board that Achievement Prep’s middle school would close and that Friendship would take it over through an “asset acquisition.”

February 3: Achievement Prep officially notified the charter board that Friendship would take over their middle school as an “asset acquisition.” I have been unable to find any actual application. February 3 is the date cited in the charter board staff reports for this action. (See the February charter board staff report here.)

On or about February 3: Achievement Prep’s plan with Friendship was posted for comment on the charter board website at this link: https://dcpcsb.org/notice-petition-asset-acquisition-and-charter-amendment-friendship-pcs-and-achievement-prep-pcs

That link no longer works–and it is unclear when it stopped working.

But for the short time it was working, the link made clear that the charter board was planning to accept comments only for 10 days, with a deadline of February 13. On that date, a hearing and vote were to take place on the plan for Friendship to assume control of Achievement Prep’s middle school through an “asset acquisition.”

The idea, I think, was to ensure that the plan was enacted before the end of the common lottery.

February 8: The Post ran a story on Friendship’s desire to take over Achievement Prep’s middle school.

February 13: Friendship officially applied with the charter board to assume control of Achievement Prep’s middle school for one year only–notably (per the charter board’s February staff report on the application) not through an “asset acquisition.” The idea was that current students would remain there at that (former) Achievement Prep middle school campus for another school year, after which they would be eligible to transfer to another Friendship campus.

Interestingly, the fine distinction between “asset acquisition” and simply taking over operations is not supported by Friendship’s own accounting of events in Friendship’s February 13 application:

“Friendship Trustees were informed of the proposed new campus on January 27, 2020 and expressed support for Friendship to proceed. The Executive Committee of the Friendship Board met February 3, 2020 and February 10, 2020 to discuss operating a campus at 908 Wahler Place [the address of Achievement Prep’s middle school] and the options for doing so. During the February 3, 2020 discussion, the Committee voted to approve the development of a Memorandum of Understanding with Achievement Prep for the campus location. On February 14, 2020, the Committee voted to approve the proposed amendment to open a new campus at 908 Wahler Place for grades 4 to 8 for school year 2020-21. If DC PCSB approves the request, the FPCS BOT will ratify the Committee’s vote. Friendship PCS is keeping the PMF as its goals for all campuses, including this new campus.”

Also interestingly, there is very little in that February 13 application about how students will get seats at the middle school:

“There will be newly-created slots at this new campus location. Recruitment efforts have included multiple meetings several times a week for the last month [i.e., since January 2020] with families of middle school students, sharing information on our programming and gathering information from families on their intent to apply should Friendship open a new campus in the proposed location. These efforts will continue going forward . . . . “

Friendship’s application was supposedly opened for public comment on February 14, for a vote date on February 24, at the next charter board monthly meeting.

February 18: Achievement Prep submitted an updated charter amendment application with the charter board, to remove the “asset acquisition” piece, but otherwise remain identical to what had been submitted before. Like its February 3 application, this too appears to be missing from the charter board website explicitly.

However, that Achievement Prep February 18 application is buried in this link, which is to attachment A of this link, which is to the charter board staff report for March 23.

(So easy peasy accessible–especially if one is clairvoyant!)

February 20: The charter board created its February staff report for Friendship’s application. The official date of the staff report is the date of the meeting for which it was created: February 24.

But the document itself was created on February 20–and, unlike Friendship’s February 13 application, the February 24, 2020 charter board staff report makes clear exactly how students would get seats at the former Achievement Prep middle school:

“Because the proposed Friendship PCS – Wahler Place Middle campus is being approved too late to participate in the My School DC Lottery, students would enroll through the “post-lottery” application process through My School DC under written authorization from DC PCSB, as provided for in the My School DC Policy Guide.

“If My School DC is unable to accommodate this new campus in its systems, the school [Friendship] is authorized to conduct its own application and lottery. This is consistent with Exhibit II of the school’s charter agreement, which has been in place since July 1, 2013.

“The Friendship PCS – Wahler Place Middle campus plans to operate for one year, after which students at Friendship PCS – Wahler Place Middle may transfer to any other Friendship PCS campus. Most students are expected to transfer to Friendship PCS – Southeast Academy Middle, located 1.2 miles away. That campus is currently being enlarged with construction projected to be complete in time to accommodate the incoming students from the Wahler Place campus in school year (SY) 2021-22.”

Interestingly, the Friendship charter agreement available on the charter board website excludes Exhibit II, which outlines Friendship’s apparent greenlighting to conduct its own lotteries outside My School DC.

February 21 (Friday): The common lottery board–which oversees My School DC, the city’s public school lottery–consulted with an attorney in a (publicly noticed, but publicly closed) meeting for which there are no minutes.

Events in the following weeks bolster the possibility that this closed meeting of the lottery board (which is comprised of many DC education leaders) concerned Friendship’s plan for Achievement Prep.

February 24 (Monday): At its official February meeting, the DC charter board approved Friendship’s plan as outlined in its February 13 application.

On or around March 2: The deputy mayor for education (DME) sent a letter dated March 2 to Friendship, saying their plan was not in compliance with the law regarding the School Reform Act and the lottery because it would not allow access on an equal basis to the new middle school. The DME is part of the common lottery board.

Some time between February 20 and March 6: The DME and select charter board members met together with Friendship and possibly My School DC to discuss the lottery issue.

This meeting was referenced repeatedly in the charter board’s March 23 board meeting. The most explicit public acknowledgement of it, starting at 1:22 on the March 23 hearing video, was by board member Lea Crusey. Later, board member Steve Bumbaugh chimed in to note that he was present at the meeting, too.

Could this have been the February 21 closed meeting of the lottery board? Possibly.

Could it have been a different meeting yet? Possibly.

What we DO know is that not all the charter board members were at that meeting.

For instance, charter board member Naomi Shelton asked a question of her fellow board members at their March 23 meeting that implied that she wasn’t there nor privy to the conversation. Shelton also asked explicitly why this issue of Friendship’s ability to conduct its own lottery was not raised before the charter board voted on Friendship’s plan the previous month. (She didn’t get a good answer.)

FWIW, there seemed to be a reference to such a meeting at the charter board’s February 24 board meeting, where there was some question as to whether the Friendship plan would pass muster with My School DC.

Whether that was referencing an event that had already occurred, or an aspiration for such a meeting, remains unknown publicly.

March 6: Achievement Prep’s board sent a letter to the charter board and executive director Scott Pearson, withdrawing their desire to have Friendship take over their middle school, noting that they had to follow the law. Achievement Prep’s letter contained an attachment, which was the March 2 letter from the DME.

March 23: At the charter board’s monthly meeting, board members discussed for almost an hour the proposed plan of Achievement Prep, with the idea that it would be voted on at the board’s April 20 meeting.

But despite the lengthy discussion, there is no application of Achievement Prep posted on the charter board website materials for that board meeting. Although theoretically the change in plans by Achievement Prep was posted for public comment by the charter board on its website, it’s not listed in the items under the public comment tab on the charter board website. Indeed, the only way I could access the public comment solicitation above was by searching the charter board website for “achievement prep.”

Also missing is the March 2 letter from the deputy mayor for education, which set the ball rolling for Achievement Prep’s actions (not to mention nearly an hour of discussion at the March 23 board meeting).

In fact, the only thing available clearly outlining Achievement Prep’s change of heart is the March 23 charter board staff memo.

Inside of that memo is a link to materials related to Achievement Prep’s decisionmaking, including its March 6 letter, which formally retracts the school’s plan for its middle school to be taken over.

Another link embedded in that charter board staff report, in attachment A, gives some more materials, including Achievement Prep’s February 18 application.

None of the materials are available except as they are in those links, buried in that March 23 staff report.

Interestingly, the discussion at the March 23 board meeting made clear that Achievement Prep did not get the DME’s March 2 letter directly. Yet charter board executive director Scott Pearson made clear (at the 1 hour, 26 minute mark on the March 23 video) that the charter board explained Friendship’s ability to have its own lottery to both the DME and lottery board.

Last week of March: I called charter board spokesperson Tomeika Bowden and left a message, asking for March 2 DME letter. I also emailed the head of Achievement Prep, Shantelle Wright, asking the same. I got no response. (Also, no bounced email.)

April 8: I sent an email to the DME and staffer Jenn Comey, asking for a copy of the DME’s March 2 letter. No reply–and no bounce.

April 13: I left a voicemail for the DME, asking for the DME’s March 2 letter. No response.

April 14: I left a voicemail for DME staffer Jenn Comey for the DME’s March 2 letter. She responded by email, noting that I should file a FOIA request with the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE). I responded by asking why I should email OSSE for a letter her own boss wrote. Comey responded by noting that I should file a FOIA request of both the DME and OSSE and that she will flag for the FOIA officers.

April 15: I received this email from the charter board, notifying me of their April 20 board meeting, with the vote for Achievement Prep listed on the agenda.

Some time during the weekend of April 18: The agenda for the April 20 charter board meeting was posted on the charter board website—and Achievement Prep was dropped from it. (See here if that link immediately above doesn’t work–it was saved as a PDF on Weds. April 22.)

April 20: The charter board endeavors to hold its April monthly meeting—which it does for about an hour, until a zoom bomb with child pornography ends the meeting abruptly. However, before that horrible conclusion, the meeting contains public comment—with no note from the charter board itself about the circumstances of Achievement Prep’s plan for its middle school having been dropped from the agenda.

It is thus unclear what status the Achievement Prep middle school occupies, since the school itself had noted at the March 23 board meeting that its middle school closure was a “technical” amendment to its charter—implying that it didn’t require a charter board vote to happen.

So, dear readers, here’s where our mystery stands (cue the cheesily scary organ music!):

Will the public ever see the March 2 letter from the DME?

Will the public ever see what Exhibit II of Friendship’s charter agreement actually says about conducting its own lotteries (which the March 2 DME letter suggests is, uh, illegal)?

Will the public ever know what was discussed at that secret February 21 lottery board meeting?

Will the public ever know what was discussed by select charter board members regarding Friendship’s designs?

AND

Will the public ever know the terms of possibly the largest dispute EVER over DC charter school governance, with the executive branch taking issue with a vote by the charter board AND the charter board’s approval of a charter school having its own lottery?

Stay tuned for the (sadly predictable) denouement, wherein I file a FOIA request that doesn’t get answered until, say, next year or so, while a huge dispute on DC charter school governance continues–secretly.

[Update May 14, 2020: The common lottery board met on May 7 and released this report on the lottery, containing on p. 9 an outline of the Achievement Prep lottery issue with Friendship. Hewing to the timeline above, it also fills in a few dates. (The report along with a recording of the May 7 meeting are available here.) Several FOIA requests I have made for the March 2 letter along with other discussions are in process–with a potential due date of May 22. Achievement Prep’s middle school was not accepting students on My School DC.]

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