Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“Everybody’s afraid.”

That’s a D.C. charter school administrator’s assessment of TenSquare, one of the city’s most connected, lucrative, and controversial charter consulting companies. And true to his word, he was talking anonymously. Not many people feel comfortable discussing TenSquare publicly.

Even in education circles, most people have never heard of TenSquare, a national for-profit consulting firm that currently operates in seven states and the District. It markets itself as a universal fixer for troubled charters—a one-stop shop for facility financing, staff recruitment, back-end operations, teacher training, and academic turnarounds. The company has kept a remarkably low profile since its founding in 2011, in one case even contracting to work with a charter unbeknownst to the school’s own principal.

TenSquare has powerful allies in D.C., most notable among them the Public Charter School Board, or PCSB, which governs the city’s charters. “I would characterize their results as remarkably strong,” says Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB. “In every case where TenSquare has done a full turnaround with a D.C. charter school, their results have improved significantly.”

But a five-month City Paper investigation has raised a host of questions about TenSquare’s work. Available data do not show consistent improvements across the D.C. schools that hired TenSquare, and several schools got worse. Its business dealings reveal a criss-crossing web of repeat players, potential conflicts of interest, and in one instance the recurring appearance of an alleged far-right activist. Yet it’s not a coincidence that TenSquare has landed some of the most remunerative charter contracts in the city: While not every school leader disparages TenSquare, a number have said they felt real pressure from the PCSB to hire the company. 

D.C. has paid TenSquare millions of dollars in taxpayer funds since 2012, according to Freedom of Information Act requests. These disclosures revealed contracts between local charters and the consulting company. YouthBuild signed a one-year contract in 2015 for $735,000, followed by an additional five-year “school improvement” contract for $2.4 million. Perry Street Prep signed a one-year contract in 2014 for $585,000 and then a four-year, $2 million contract immediately after. Excel Academy signed two one-year contracts, in 2015 and 2016, for $300,000 each. 

The list the PCSB supplied, however, was incomplete. City Paper discovered that TenSquare had more contracts than what the PCSB disclosed through FOIA, including a five-year, $5.8 million contract with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter network dated 2017, and a $78,000 contract with Septima Clark Public Charter School, a now-closed all-boys school, dated 2012. 

When asked if he or the PCSB knew how much D.C. revenue has gone to TenSquare, Pearson said, “I’ve never added it up … it’s not something we’ve ever done an analysis of.”  

How TenSquare spends its money is an even greater mystery. The Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act of 2015, passed by the D.C. Council, includes a significant caveat: an exemption for “temporary management services recommended by the eligible chartering authority to improve the performance of a public charter school.”

Mikayla Lytton, who worked for five years at the Public Charter School Board as a senior manager of financial oversight, says it was no secret among her colleagues who would benefit from this “temporary management services” exemption. “We explicitly discussed that the Act, as written, exempted TenSquare from the transparency requirements,” she says. “I couldn’t, and still can’t, think of good reasons why TenSquare would be averse to additional transparency that other school management organizations—for- and non-profit—would be forced to accept.”

Lytton says she pushed back on adding language about TenSquare. “I was very clear at the time, to both the executive and deputy directors, that I refused to write the exemption on ethical grounds. Scott [Pearson] insisted on its inclusion.”

As a result, unlike virtually every other charter management organization operating in D.C., the PCSB still does not have the legal authority to go into TenSquare’s books to see how it’s spending public dollars.

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Credit: Darrow Montgomery

TenSquare is the brainchild of Josh Kern, who graduated from Georgetown Law School in 2001 and founded Thurgood Marshall Academy—a legal-themed charter high school—immediately afterward. Kern led the academically distinguished charter for a decade, leaving in 2011 to start his consulting firm. “I felt like I had done what I came to do at Thurgood Marshall, but based on what I had learned I wanted to have more of a role in the [charter] sector and help other schools,” he says. He recruited a number of his Thurgood Marshall Academy colleagues to join him. Today, a fourth of TenSquare’s 28-person staff previously worked at Kern’s charter.

From the outset, the company has had an invaluable local champion: Pearson, the head of the PCSB. He and Kern are associates in the tight-knit D.C. charter world. Kern, who served on the boards of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and Friends of Choice In Urban Schools, was actually the top contender for Pearson’s job in 2011, but he turned it down, explaining recently that he viewed starting TenSquare as “a better fit with my entrepreneurial nature.” 

TenSquare claims that it has essentially cracked the code for school turnarounds. It comes into schools with problems—financial, academic, organizational—and, through some combination of direct management and consulting, attempts to reverse their bad fortunes. If schools are worried the PCSB will not renew their charter, TenSquare offers schools a way to reverse course—as well as a way to demonstrate to the PCSB that they are taking serious action.

When a school first hires the company, it performs a “comprehensive performance audit,” in which TenSquare consultants study the school’s strengths and weaknesses and recommend next steps. These steps come as a “customized improvement plan” spanning four to five years with the possibility of extensions. The idea is to have TenSquare intensively manage a school in the beginning, and then slowly transition out.

“We have a pretty good understanding of what the conditions are for our turnaround work to be successful,” Kern says. “It’s clear to us that three to five years is kind of the minimum for what it takes to show the kind of improvement that the school is looking to show, and that we want to show.” 

What TenSquare doesn’t say is that its much-ballyhooed multi-year turnaround model has never been fully implemented at any charter school. It’s in year one of five at Cesar Chavez, year three of four at Perry Street, year two of four at Meridian Public Charter School, and year three of six at YouthBuild. 

Earlier schools subjected to TenSquare takeovers for shorter stints saw many achieved gains drop precipitously after the consultants left. (Schools are evaluated using the Performance Management Framework, a tool developed by the PCSB to rank and evaluate charter school quality.) The short-term gains have fueled skepticism over the legitimate effectiveness of TenSquare’s work.

A number of charter leaders interviewed for this article cited the “Hawthorne Effect”—the psychology concept where people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched or evaluated. IDEA Public Charter School’s PMF score nearly doubled during its TenSquare intervention, for example, jumping from 28.4 in the 2011-2012 school year to 54.4 in the 2013-2014 school year. But when the contract between TenSquare and IDEA ended, scores dropped to 42.2 in the 2015-2016 school year. On the chart containing this data, TenSquare labeled IDEA as a school “that would not accept turnaround support.”

“Whenever you bring in a new organization to do a turnaround you’ll see a jump in that first year, it’s just what happens,” says one charter leader who agreed to speak anonymously for fear of retribution. “A new CEO of a company, a new school leader, everyone just kind of tightens up, acts on their best behavior. That has nothing to do with the expertise of TenSquare, it’s just what happens when there’s a new sheriff in town. And if you look at their record from over the years, you don’t see sustained growth and improvement.”

Another longtime charter leader who worked at Cesar Chavez described the pressure they faced from the PCSB to hire TenSquare as “insane” given the company’s thin track record. “They had never worked with a multi-campus organization, yet the public charter board wanted us to hire them for a five-year contract. They have limited experience, with limited outcomes.”

Kern upholds the company line. “To the extent that there’s a story here, for us the story is that we are working with schools and doing great work and the schools are achieving great results,” he says, adding later that “our results are impressive” and “we have yet to see another organization who can claim such significant growth in such a short time.”

One common criticism of TenSquare is that its business model is, in a sense, circular: It can effectively hire itself. When TenSquare is brought in to assess a charter’s alleged deficiencies, it is well positioned to recommend that the charter correct those deficiencies with TenSquare’s own turnaround services.

When City Paper asked Pearson to comment on this dynamic, he replied, “I don’t think there is any surprise as to what they would do. The audit is not, ‘Let’s do an independent assessment.’ I don’t think anyone is surprised if the solution is for TenSquare to turn [the school] around.”

But many charter leaders disagree.

“It’s a racket,” says Jenny DuFresne, a former charter principal whose school contracted with TenSquare. “It’s a bunch of good old boys who are talking to each other and scratching each other’s backs. Like honestly, that’s all it is. It’s not about children in my opinion.”

TenSquare first started working with Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in mid-October 2016. Their board co-chair, Sulee Clay, signed a $24,000 contract with the company for “interim/emergency leadership” services for most of October. Then between November and the end of March, Chavez paid TenSquare $75,000 per month for “continued interim leadership and a performance audit.” That fed into the five-year, $5.8 million turnaround contract, that began in April 2017.

Despite that contract, the PCSB voted eight months later to close one of the four schools in the Cesar Chavez network—Chavez Parkside Middle School—citing its low academic performance.

Parkside isn’t the only school to raise questions about TenSquare’s turnaround prowess. In 2013, Pearson and Kern negotiated a controversial deal with the board chair of Septima Clark Public Charter School. Under the terms of the deal, the city’s only all-boys charter would be taken over by Achievement Prep, a high-performing coed school in the city.

A charter’s Performance Management Framework score determines whether it will be ranked as a Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 school. Tier 3 schools are considered the lowest-quality and face high risk of closure. Septima Clark, a Tier 2 school, had been dealing with academic challenges, but its students had also been showing significant improvement. 

The year before the takeover, students at Septima Clark increased their combined pass-rate in reading and math by 17 percentage points, becoming the highest-ranking charter in terms of growth in the city, and the third-highest for growth among all D.C. public schools. Nonetheless, TenSquare recommended the school be folded into Achievement Prep, the first such “merger and acquisition” for charters in the District. Public tax filings revealed that TenSquare CEO Josh Kern sat on the board of Achievement Prep in 2012, prompting concerns about entangled interests.

DuFresne, Septima Clark’s founder and longtime principal, says that her board chair approached her in January 2013, shortly after the merger decision was made, and asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for severance. She vocally opposed the merger and says she refused “the incredibly insulting request” and resigned later that month. She adds that even when she was principal she wasn’t told about her school’s TenSquare contract until four months after it had been signed.

The Public Charter School Board, which was also closely involved in the merger, released a video in 2016 touting Achievement Prep’s takeover of Septima Clark as extremely successful. But in November 2017, the PCSB revealed that academic results at Achievement Prep had declined dramatically over the past two years. Once a Tier 1 school and star performer among D.C. charters, Achievement Prep now also faces a real risk of closure. As of November, its elementary school is ranked as Tier 3 and its middle school as Tier 2.

Excel Academy, another TenSquare client, will also be losing its charter at the end of this school year. (It will reopen as a DCPS school.) Despite paying TenSquare at least $1.2 million for “school improvement services” between 2015 and 2017, the PCSB voted unanimously in January to shutter the school.

And then there’s William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School, or WEDJ. This past fall, Barbara Smith, a Toronto-based educator who served as principal of WEDJ from July 2012 to May 2014, published a tell-all memoir about her time working at the school. Smith’s tenure at WEDJ overlapped with TenSquare’s involvement with the charter, and in her 206-page book, A Charter School Principal’s Story, she details her frustrations with what she saw as the company’s high costs and harmful pedagogical recommendations. Smith wrote that TenSquare’s coaches “enforced the teaching of fact memorization” for standardized tests, and employed a “condescending approach to teacher development.” 

Smith also challenged some of the Performance Management Framework gains that TenSquare takes credit for at WEDJ. While TenSquare claims that after one year of working with the school its PMF score jumped from 36.5 to 47.6, Smith says most of those gains should not be seen as the result of TenSquare’s efforts.

“One of the PMF metrics relates to how many students re-enroll,” Smith explained to City Paper. “When I started at WEDJ in 2012, we had a 57 percent re-enrollment rate at the beginning of the year, which was horrible. By the end of that year our re-enrollment rate was 87 percent, but because it takes so long to get precise data back, the D.C. Charter School Board doesn’t apply those re-enrollment points to a school’s PMF until the following school year.” In other words, Smith concluded that WEDJ gained in re-enrollment before TenSquare got to her school. WEDJ’s score jumped further to 64.4 in the second and final year of working with TenSquare, but then dropped 15 points to 49.4 immediately after the company left in 2015.

“The TenSquare consultants positioned themselves as experts in how to increase school ratings,” Smith wrote in her book. “Upon close review, I felt their analysis of the trends in achievement and growth scores was underwhelming.”

Smith says she was ultimately fired by her board after refusing to voluntarily resign. She wrote that her board chair offered her severance in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement, as DuFresne says happened to her a year earlier. Smith refused, was soon fired, and wrote her book.

The board chair who offered Smith her buyout, John Goldman, had a preexisting relationship with TenSquare. In 2012, TenSquare recruited Goldman to serve as executive director of IDEA Public Charter School. He had also been working in leadership positions at WEDJ starting in 2009. Form 990 tax documents show that between 2011 and 2016, WEDJ and IDEA collectively paid Goldman more than $1.1 million for jobs ranging from “chief financial officer” to “school improvement leader” to board chair. During this same time span, the two charters paid TenSquare more than $2.4 million for consulting services.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board hired Goldman as a senior manager of finance last fall. But in early January, a left-wing activist launched a shocking allegation against him: that he had been pseudonymously operating an alt-right blog with white nationalist associations. 

Goldman confirmed that he had been operating the website under the pen name Jack Murphy, but denied any support for white nationalism, racism, or fascism. A Twitter account operated under the Jack Murphy pseudonym regularly lobbed attacks on diversity, feminism, and “illegals.” One tweet laid out why a movement of pro-Trump “deplorables” would continue to grow: “Cultural Marxism, intersectionality, feminist over reach, mass immigration, globalist policies – these will continue to push people to us.” A number of tweets and blog posts produced during Goldman’s tenure as “school improvement leader” of WEDJ focused on the idea that feminists unconsciously long for violent sexual submission: “I can smell a feminist yearning for thrashing from a mile away,” the Jack Murphy account tweeted.

Goldman was placed on administrative leave in January pending an investigation, and a PCSB spokesperson confirmed in late April that he was no longer employed with the organization. Goldman declined to comment on his employment status.

TenSquare routinely touts its headhunter services—its website states that the company “draw[s] on our extensive network of local and national education relationships to recruit top quality candidates; and our screening process is extensive.” When City Paper asked for comment on John Goldman’s hiring, Kern said his company “commonly refer[s] names of possible candidates” but that “ultimately the school board of trustees hires the leader.”

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Charter teachers and staff members have started speaking up about TenSquare’s practices.

City Paper conducted six on-the-record interviews with former WEDJ teachers, all of whom recounted broadly similar negative experiences of working with TenSquare.

Tanisha Nugent, who taught math at WEDJ from 2008 until 2014, says TenSquare quickly changed the culture in her school for the worse. “They did not build a relationship with the staff. Their vision for the school was not at all connected to what the staff knew or believed and it felt very much like a top-down dictatorship,” she tells City Paper. “Teachers were not able to voice their thoughts, it created a lot of isolation and a lot of teachers left as a result, including me.” Nugent says “everything became about test scores” as the consultants “analyzed everything from a business perspective.”

Stevonna Cordova, the special education coordinator at WEDJ, also left one year after TenSquare started working at her school. “All of us were really on eggshells, worried about who was going to get fired. You had colleagues suddenly turning on each other because they were fighting to keep their jobs,” she says. “And when Dr. Smith was let go it just really devastated the building.” Cordova says she’s been in education for 17 years and that Barbara Smith remains “the most dedicated principal” she’s ever worked for.

Kamilah Wheeler, who not only worked as a teacher at WEDJ but also sent her children there, echoed her colleagues’ feelings about a worsening morale. “TenSquare said they were there to fix things but it seemed like they were just trying to change everything,” she says. “Like Big Brother, they were always lurking, looking for a reason to fire you or find problems in what you were doing.”

After leaving WEDJ, Cordova went to work at Cesar Chavez as their special education coordinator. But when she heard Chavez then planned on hiring TenSquare too, she immediately started looking for a new job. “I told all my colleagues, ‘Leave now, leave now!’” Cordova now works at Friendship Public Charter.

Late this April, the unionized teachers at Chavez Prep Middle School staged two outdoor demonstrations in protest of their charter’s TenSquare contract. The teachers specifically objected to Chavez paying TenSquare $138,000 every month while also claiming to be unable to afford filling vacant teacher positions.

Christian Herr, a Chavez Prep science teacher who sits on his union’s bargaining team, says that a major change in his school since TenSquare’s takeover is a greatly increased emphasis on standardized test prep.

“It’s not like we needed to spend $140,000 a month to have someone tell us to do more test prep,” he says. “It was really hard for us when our school board decided some things needed to be restructured, but didn’t even come to us, didn’t even ask what we the teachers thought. They have these buildings full of people who live in these neighborhoods and have worked in these schools for a long time, all this expertise, yet you make the choice to bring in someone who knows nothing about it and pay them massive amounts of money.”

TenSquare, in turn, has mounted a vigorous self-defense.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Kern called his company’s work at Chavez “essential” and “absolutely necessary to improving the school.” 

Following the protests, Emily Silberstein, a TenSquare employee placed as “resident CEO” of the Chavez network, emailed a letter to the schools’ staff. “Hiring TenSquare was the right decision for the Chavez network,” she wrote, with Chavez board chair Richard Torres. They added that “to continue … in this high stakes environment, we must show immediate and dramatic improvement,” which can be accomplished with “TenSquare’s proven plan of support.”

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Unlike traditional public schools in the city, individual D.C. charters are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But D.C.’s charter law does require schools to submit third party contracts for more than $25,000 to the PCSB, where they can be subject to public disclosure requests.

In theory, at least. When City Paper requested all TenSquare contracts from the PCSB, the resulting disclosure was messy, inconsistently redacted, and obviously incomplete.

At least one school with a known TenSquare contract was missing. After a request for complete information, the PCSB produced TenSquare contracts for four additional schools, plus an Excel spreadsheet with what they said was their full list of submitted contracts.

But those disclosures were still incomplete. City Paper learned of TenSquare’s $5.8 million, five-year contract with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter network while investigating an unrelated story about the unionization of that network. During an interview with the union’s attorney, City Paper found out that the Cesar Chavez schools signed a major contract for school turnaround services with TenSquare in 2017. The lawyer shared a copy of this signed agreement, obtained through collective bargaining. The PCSB had not shared this contract in response to public disclosure requests.

Several weeks later, DuFresne of Septima Clark Public Charter School shared another undisclosed TenSquare contract, this one for $78,000. Dated September 2012, this signed agreement had not been included in public disclosure requests or requests made to TenSquare itself.

Though TenSquare currently does business in seven states and the District, Kern notes the company is “based in D.C. [and] we grew up in D.C.” When asked what percentage of his company’s revenue comes from the District, Kern said, “We don’t categorize our revenue by state.” Kern did not respond to repeated emails seeking clarification of that statement. Alexandra Pardo, a TenSquare partner, also declined to name the schools her company works with, citing respect for their clients’ “privacy.”

Despite the extreme difficulty of tracking financial links between D.C. schools and TenSquare, the PCSB is taking steps to make oversight even harder. This spring, the body announced its desire to revise its contract policy, raising the cutoff for publicly submitted contracts from $25,000 to $150,000. Asked about this proposed change in March, Pearson said the PCSB was trying to set the right balance between “collecting information and burdening schools.” 

During the course of reporting, this reporter submitted a public comment opposing the proposed policy change on transparency grounds. The PCSB board, which consists of seven members, appointed by the mayor and approved by the D.C. Council, nevertheless voted to raise the contract disclosure threshold to $100,000 in April. It will go into effect July 1. The PCSB maintains it did not require Council approval because it’s an “internal policy.”

Local officials have also acted to shield TenSquare from financial disclosure in more direct ways. Three years ago, in the wake of several charter fraud lawsuits led by D.C.’s then-attorney general Irvin Nathan, public pressure mounted to tighten up financial oversight of charters. Both schools that were sued for fraud had passed the PCSB’s financial inspection, with the board concluding the schools had demonstrated “no patterns of fiscal mismanagement.”

The D.C. Council responded to these scandals by passing the Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act of 2015, a law that did little to expand charter oversight to individuals and government agencies outside the charter school sector.

“The original charter access law here is extraordinarily limited with far less transparency of meetings and records than we see in most states,” says Fritz Mulhauser, an attorney and leader with the D.C. Open Government Coalition. He adds that his coalition pushed in 2015 for more protections but that “the Council had no appetite for more openness than in the narrow bill the charters had drafted as the most they could live with.”

While the D.C. Council refused to expand FOIA access or subject charters to the Open Meetings law, it did grant the PCSB increased authority to look into the books and records of private companies making substantial revenue from D.C charters. TenSquare managed to escape this oversight through the exemption that Lytton refused to write, but she says Pearson insisted on.

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Going forward, TenSquare’s business prospects look bright. In D.C., the company has framed its services as a necessity for charters, given the increased regulatory requirements and high standards charters are expected to meet. “In this environment of ever-arising accountability, it is especially important that schools enlist help before issues worsen,” Kern explained in April. “Also, schools are not immutably high or low performing. In any school, there’s always need for improvement and the possibility for success.”

And not everyone in the charter ecosystem is critical of TenSquare. Mark Jordan, the board chair of YouthBuild Charter School, says that he felt no pressure to hire the company, and credits them with many things: helping his board think through what their school should look like, pushing them to be more data-driven and technologically-minded, and building their staff’s instructional capacity. YouthBuild’s score on the Performance Management Framework has increased since contracting with TenSquare in 2015, reaching Tier 1 status after the 2016-2017 school year. That contract continues until June 30, 2021.

Sarah Medway, who managed charter renewals for the PCSB from 2012 to 2015, worked closely with TenSquare, which represented schools that were up for these high-stakes reviews. “I always found TenSquare to be professional and knowledgeable about D.C. charter policies and processes,” she says. “I think the larger concern is that the PCSB has opened so many charter schools that struggle and then turn to TenSquare or other outside consultants for help.”

Yet inside schools that have undergone TenSquare takeovers, frustration and suspicion appear much more common. “If you talk to charter people off the record around the city, you’ll find most are afraid to speak honestly about TenSquare,” says Donald Hense, the now-retired founder and CEO of Friendship Public Charter School. “But they’re also afraid if they don’t hire the company then their charters will be revoked.”