Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter’s pre-K program is housed in the Sixth Presbyterian Church building
Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter’s pre-K program is housed in the Sixth Presbyterian Church building Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Before Kate Judson pulled her 3-year-old twins out of Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter’s pre-K program, she says she noticed some troubling signs.

“We never had to sign our kids in or out, and the school was leaving their door propped open in the morning,” she says. “That seemed like a really scary safety concern.”

The last straw came in October, when Judson received a call from a teacher letting her know that her son Will had been crying all morning. Judson took her son to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with a dislocated elbow—a common injury for toddlers. The doctor quickly put it back into place.

After further investigation, Judson learned her son’s injury came from his teacher grabbing his arm. He had cried for more than two hours before another teacher noticed and called home. The teacher who grabbed him had been working alone that day, managing 17 2- and 3-year olds on her own because the classroom co-teacher was absent.

Will’s parents set up a meeting with the school’s early childhood coordinator, Claude McKay, to discuss what happened. McKay told them that though the school’s policy is to have a 9:1 student-teacher ratio, they had failed to adhere to their policy that day. He apologized, and later that day, according to emails obtained by City Paper, wrote to Judson that “disciplinary action” had been taken and promised the school would do better going forward.

Judson says another teacher she spoke with following the incident told her this wasn’t the first time a teacher had called out sick and the school did not bring in a substitute. “We’re now paying for a private school, which is amazing—it’s safe, it’s secure—but the unsettling thing is we’re lucky that we have the means to do that,” says Judson.

Kim DaCosta-Azar pulled her daughter Olivia out of Mary McLeod Bethune this fall, too. She says she had early concerns about her daughter’s teachers, who arrived late to their first meeting and seemed to respond dismissively to DaCosta-Azar’s questions. In late September, when her husband arrived to pick Olivia up from aftercare, he found her standing by herself, crying with wet pants. He says one teacher was sitting on a nearby picnic bench not paying attention, while another was inside, tending to a group of children. The next day, Olivia’s dad found her again crying alone with wet pants.

DaCosta-Azar sent her concerns about supervision and student-teacher ratios to McKay. By early October, she decided to remove her child altogether and Olivia now also attends a private school. In an email sent to the charter’s board of directors, as well as the DC Public Charter School Board, DaCosta-Azar wrote that “the level of neglect, lack of safety, and disregard by all others needs to be addressed at the highest level.”

McKay did not return City Paper’s multiple requests for comment. PCSB’s spokesperson, Tomeika Bowden, says that that while they do not generally comment on individual complaints, they handle concerns through their Community Complaint Policy, a set of procedures that govern how the PCSB addresses allegations.

 Over the course of dealing with their issues, Judson and DaCosta-Azar began to realize that different pre-K programs across the city are governed by different rules and standards, and in turn, regulated by different agencies. Who sets the standards? Who holds who accountable?

D.C. is widely considered a national leader when it comes to early childhood education. In 2016, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research, 81 percent of District 4-year-olds and 70 percent of District 3-year-olds were enrolled in publicly-funded programs. These rates exceeded those of all states.

Like most states offering pre-K, the District employs a “mixed-delivery” system for publicly-funded early childhood education; parents can choose DCPS programs, privately-run programs, or charter school programs.

But these three sectors are not all governed by the same regulations, and are subject to differing levels of oversight. All three must comply with the city’s sanitation, building, and fire codes, but in other management areas there are differences.

Privately-run programs, also referred to as community-based organizations, are regulated by D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education. These programs all must be licensed as “child development centers,” meaning they all must comply with OSSE’s rules on child supervision, student-teacher ratios, and other safety and management standards. A parent who has an issue with a privately-run program can make a complaint to OSSE, and an OSSE official will investigate.

DCPS programs are not regulated by OSSE, and are not required to be licensed as child development centers. The DCPS Office of Elementary Schools and the federal Office of Head Start are tasked with monitoring DCPS programs, and most are regulated by federal Head Start standards. If a program were found to be out of compliance with Head Start rules, federal officials would work with DCPS leadership to develop a resolution. If the problem persisted, the feds could cut off funding. 

Early childhood educators working in community-based organizations are required to be paid on parity with DCPS teachers. “That’s something we feel really strongly about,” says Elizabeth Groginsky, OSSE’s assistant superintendent for early learning.

By contrast, charter schools have more discretion not only over teacher salaries, but also over curriculum, health and safety standards, and teacher-student ratios. Charter leaders aim to regulate quality using the PCSB’s performance management framework, a guide for holding programs accountable for student outcomes.

For example, Mary McLeod Bethune can set its own class sizes and student-teacher ratios. Judson’s son was among 18 3-year-olds in a class with a 9:1 student-teacher ratio. For both OSSE-regulated and Head Start-regulated programs, however, 3-year-olds must be in classrooms with 8:1 student-teacher ratios and a maximum of 16 students.

City Paper described Judson and DaCosta-Azar’s experiences to BB Otero, a veteran expert on pre-K in the District. For 25 years Otero directed CentroNía, a D.C. early childhood organization, and she worked on preschool issues while serving as deputy mayor for health and human services under Mayor Vince Gray.

“In order to be a licensed community-based program, you have to have strict ratios, requirements around sign-in and sign-out, and so on,” says Otero. “Those parents likely came into that charter school with expectations from prior experiences. A parent without any formal experience may not have found all those things unusual.” Prior to coming to Mary McLeod Bethune, Judson and DaCosta-Azar’s children had attended OSSE-regulated private daycare.

When parents choose early childhood programs for their children, are they aware of the different standards and regulations? Is it clear to them how violations of school policy are handled differently in different programs? For Judson and DaCosta-Azar, the answer was no.

Otero says she’s never been shy about saying that D.C. “should have a more standardized way to regulate early childhood education, keeping child safety and quality at the forefront.”

Groginsky, of OSSE, points to the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an evaluative tool which applies to all D.C. pre-K classrooms, and resources like My School DC, My Child Care DC, and DC Child Care Connections. She says OSSE’s “goal is to get parents consumer information they can readily access.”

“I worry about the parent who is trying to manage multiple children, going to multiple schools, who may have multiple jobs, may be lower-income and not have transportation,” says Otero. “Is their ability to make these choices not hampered? Is it really equitable? Available to all?”

“There have been some really significant attempts at improvement but there’s still a lot more to go,” she adds. “We’ve got to continually think about the user-end of all of this.”