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Courtney Kelly may not be Michelle Jackson’s biological mother, but as her foster parent, she hasn’t let any of her motherly duties fall through the cracks. She’s been helping to raise Michelle, a cousin’s daughter, since the 11-year-old was little more than a toddler. Last spring, she took Michelle in for good. She’s now in the process of adopting Michelle. Kelly, in other words, is not what you’d call an uninvolved parent.
So when she realized that Michelle wasn’t doing well at her neighborhood public school in Northeast D.C., Merritt Elementary, Kelly looked into sending her daughter to one of the city’s charter schools. It wasn’t a decision she took lightly. She carefully examined the pamphlets and materials she found on each of the schools, researching some on the Internet. When she heard about the World Public Charter School of Washington, she was immediately interested in its bilingual program, but she wanted to find out more.
Last summer, she made an appointment with then-Principal Olga Mancuso and spent two hours touring the school, at the time located in a Catholic church at 3rd and F Streets NW. Mancuso said that administrators planned to move the school to more suitable space at the Capital Children’s Museum by September. She also touted World’s curriculum, explaining that the school provided small classes and a language-immersion program that offered instruction in Italian and Chinese. Kelly liked what she heard.
“I was really excited. Michelle was really excited, as well,” says Kelly.
But the thrilling description of the school wasn’t borne out by what Kelly and Michelle found later that fall. “It has been nothing like that. I have been totally, totally disappointed,” says Kelly. “There’s a real, real problem with the administration.”
Reality set in early, on the first day of the school year, when a friend alerted Kelly that a recording on the school’s answering machine said that classes wouldn’t take place at the museum, as expected, and directed parents to a church at 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. Kelly and Michelle showed up that first morning hoping to find a stable learning environment, but instead they found chaos. World staff had set up shop in classrooms the church used for Sunday school, but they lacked working phones and basic materials for students, such as books or worksheets, says Kelly. Parents scrambled to find their kids’ classrooms. There weren’t enough teachers to go around, so the ones who were there had to cover multiple grades.
“It was a complete mess,” says Kelly.
Kelly hoped for the best, assuming that the problems were only temporary. In October, the school finally moved to its space at the museum, a building formerly occupied by the SEED Public Charter School, a boarding program for at-risk high-school-aged kids. But the new location didn’t represent much improvement, says Kelly. The classrooms, which had previously served as dormitories for SEED, were small and had awkward partitions down the center. Kelly says Michelle was shuffled from classroom to classroom, and teachers came and went. The school still lacked basic supplies and furniture. There was no gym and no real playground, so the students’ recess was confined to a grassless square out in front of the building, where Kelly often saw children kicking around a deflated basketball. Because the school didn’t supply any books, Kelly finally bought Michelle one at the Dupont Circle Super Crown: What Your 6th Grader Needs to Know, which is meant to be a supplementary guide for parents. And the language instruction Kelly had been promised rarely happened.
“There was nothing consistent there,” recalls Kelly. “I was trying to relay to them that this is the worst thing for my child. I can’t speak for anyone else’s. To me, I felt like the whole school year was being wasted.”
Michelle and Kelly are exactly the kind of people the charter school movement was supposed to accommodate—children whose needs weren’t being met at the traditional public schools and parents who were proactive enough to seek out an alternative. When the city and Congress passed the 1996 laws that allowed for the creation of charter schools, legislators promised that the schools, which receive public funds but operate independently of the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) bureaucracy, would provide sound educational alternatives and jump-start a listless public-school system.
Both promises turned out to be mythical projections that overlooked the practical difficulties of starting a school from scratch. Four years later, it’s too early to make definitive judgments about the charter-school movement. But early reviews of schools show that most aren’t offering anything remarkably better than what you’d find in your regular neighborhood school. Not that charter-school leaders are entirely to blame; they face pitfalls never seen in the traditional public school system: struggles to find buildings, hire staff, and maintain stability in what can be a tumultuous school environment.
Advocates say charter schools have made progress, that it takes time to get things right. But the charter-school idea was founded on the rationale that children couldn’t afford to wait while administrators in the public-school system fumbled their way to efficiency and sound teaching.
Yet that’s precisely what’s happened to Michelle Jackson at her charter school. “I feel like I was totally deceived,” says Kelly. “And the worst part of it is that Michelle is going to have to go to summer school somewhere. She is totally not getting anything she needs.”
Charter schools, now a subject of constant attention from most local education observers, didn’t even exist in the District 10 years ago. In fact, in 1991, the concept had just made its first blip on the radar of national educational policy. That year, the state legislature in Minnesota passed the first law allowing for charter schools. The City Academy, a school for teenage dropouts, opened in St. Paul in 1992.
The City Academy was the first experiment in what was supposed to be a breakthrough idea in public education. Funded on a per student basis with taxpayer dollars, charter schools were to be free of rules from a central authority and instead responsible for fulfilling the plans outlined in their charters, the agreements the school administrators signed with the bodies that oversaw them—usually a local school board or state education office.
The setup was designed to allow for experimentation and establish charter schools as the model for educational accountability, supporters argued. A team of parents, teachers, or other community members would serve as each school’s board of trustees, monitoring progress and making policy decisions. If a school wasn’t living up to its educational promises, its oversight bodies could revoke its charter and close it down. But, more important, advocates claimed, parents and students would be the ultimate arbiters of a school’s success, deciding to leave the school if they were unhappy with it.
The concept appealed to educators at both ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives lauded the market-driven approach, arguing that charters would push the traditional school systems to compete by implementing their own innovative programs. Liberal supporters valued the choices the schools—open to any student who applied, space providing—would provide for parents, arguing that the schools would offer opportunities to families that couldn’t afford private schools.
The bipartisan rhetoric ignited the movement, which quickly fanned across the country. California passed its own charter-school law in 1992. By 1995, 18 states had charter laws on the books, and more than 150 charter schools had opened their doors, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. As of September 2000, about 500,000 students were attending 2,100 charters schools in 34 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico.
In the District, the movement swelled even faster. In 1995, a Republican-dominated Congress proposed legislation to allow for charter schools in D.C.; the bill also included controversial proposals for a public/private school scholarship program and a voucher system, which was to provide public money to parents who wanted to enroll their kids in private schools. The bill was blocked in the Senate, but the charter portion was folded into the next appropriations bill for the District, which was passed in the spring of 1996.
To show their support for the congressional work, and perhaps not to be left out of the decision-making, the D.C. Council passed its own charter-school legislation in 1996.
Nonetheless, the congressional legislation is the one that guides most of the local charter-school activity. The federal bill gave authority to the D.C. Board of Education, which oversees DCPS, to grant charters to 10 schools a year. It also established another body, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, whose six members are appointed by the mayor and approve up to 10 additional charter schools annually. The additional board was intended to expand opportunities for new charter schools and ensure that the chartering authority wasn’t invested entirely in the local elected board, which had lost the confidence of many congressional members.
It didn’t take long for the two boards to get to work. The first two D.C. charter schools opened in the fall of 1996. Nearly 10,000 students now attend 33 charter schools, located on 40 campuses, within the District—accounting for more than 12 percent of students who attend local public schools. Because of the rapid growth, D.C. has been called “arguably the single most ‘charter-ized’ jurisdiction in the entire country,” according to a 1999 study by the George Washington University (GWU) Center for Washington Area Studies.
That’s great news for charter-school supporters but not necessarily for those wondering whether the experiment is really worth it—and when we’ll be able to tell.
Dave Philhower doesn’t see anything particularly extraordinary about his third-grade class at the Capital City Public Charter School, an elementary school located on the second floor of a building that houses a CVS in Columbia Heights.
His room is a bright, sunlit area decorated with student projects and brand-new student-sized furniture. Desks and chairs are arranged into groups, each named for a stop on the Metro’s Green Line: Greenbelt, Georgia Avenue, Anacostia. Philhower has positioned a lone chair against a window on a far wall. It’s called the “chill chair.” Students can choose to go to the chair “if they’re laughing, mad, out of control,” says Philhower. “Instead of sending them to timeout, we make it their choice.”
A couple of rowdy students opt for the chair at different times during today’s lesson, then return quietly to the group. Philhower carries on with class. “Today, can we focus our comments on the actual writing?” Philhower asks as he starts the lesson, a writer’s workshop. Students take turns sitting in a rocking chair in the corner of the room, each reading aloud from a slip of notebook paper. Most reports center on weekend activities—a movie, a dinner out with the family, a rousing round of WWF on television.
An emphasis on creative writing is only one aspect of Philhower’s teaching plan. At Capital City, the classes adopt long-term projects, called “expeditions,” and center many activities around them. Philhower’s class has chosen a gardening theme, selecting two rectangles of land near the school, at 14th and Irving Streets NW, where the students will design and tend their own flower garden. With the permission of the city, the students plan to plant some snowdrops later today. The project allows them hands-on activity and a chance to guide an undertaking from beginning to end.
“I lose sight of how alternative [the program] is, because this is how I always wanted to teach,” says Philhower, a Mount Pleasant resident who last year taught third grade in an Arlington public school.
Started by a group of parents who had grown frustrated with DCPS entanglements while their children were enrolled at Hearst Elementary, Capital City, in its first year, appears to be a successful product of a grass-roots effort. The school’s students come from all over the city, providing the diverse student body school staffers were hoping for, says Principal Karen Dresden, a onetime teacher at Hearst. Two teachers lead each grade of about 20 students through the school’s curriculum, a program called Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound that encourages students and teachers to get outside of the classroom for lessons and community service, says Dresden.
Not that the school hasn’t had its obstacles. Like many charter schools, Capital City struggled to find space for its opening year, finally deciding to rent the empty floor above the CVS. The area is hardly an ideal space for its 132 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, but administrators have managed to make it work. They hired a Bethesda-based architecture firm to convert the open space into classrooms. They’ve also been able to draw on community resources to replace what’s lacking within the school. The school has no gymnasium, for instance, but school staff have reached agreements with city officials to use a plot of grass near the Metro station as a play area. They’ve also managed to raise an additional $250,000 in private grants and donations to supplement the public funds they receive.
And parents have taken notice of Capital City’s promise. By the time school started in September, it had reached its full enrollment, and more than 150 students were on the waiting list.
“I liked the idea that arts and field trips weren’t sort of add-ons. They were at the heart of the program,” says parent Susan Gushue, who enrolled her twin daughters in the third grade at Capital City. “It’s really great to have a sense of a community where teachers and administrators and parents all think of each other as being on the same team.”
Charter-school advocates point to waiting lists like Capital City’s as a sign of success for the fledgling movement. Parents flock to the innovative curricula at charter schools, such as technology-based lessons, language immersion, and programs for recent dropouts, says Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), a local nonprofit that has organized a coalition of D.C. charter schools. “Charter schools provide parents who aren’t well-to-do a choice of schools. They like having a choice,” says Cane.
But variety doesn’t necessarily ensure quality. And interest from prospective parents proves that charter-school leaders have been successful at advertising their programs—but not necessarily on delivering them. “They have successfully started schools,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, former executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group for local parents. “It will be a while before we know if the achievement at those schools is at a higher level than achievement in a regular school.”
So far, academically, local charter schools appear to be doing just as poorly as their DCPS counterparts, if not worse. Last November, DCPS administrators issued a report that found, for instance, that students in the District’s charter schools, on average, had lower standardized test scores than those in DCPS schools. About 37 percent of DCPS students scored in the Below Basic category on the math portion of the Stanford 9, whereas more than half (54 percent) of students in schools chartered by the D.C. Public Charter School Board failed to reach the basic level of performance. Scores were even worse for students in the charter schools under the oversight of the D.C. Board of Education. In those schools, 72 percent, or almost three-fourths, of students scored Below Basic in math.
The study incensed charter-school supporters, who argued that the scores were misleading and irrelevant. Charter-school students, advocates insisted, were often those who hadn’t performed well in regular DCPS schools and therefore might simply be lower performers on tests than the general student body. They also argued that the only way to responsibly use test scores is to evaluate progress at an individual school from one year to the next.
Fair enough. The Public Charter School Board compiled that information for those of its schools that had administered the test for two consecutive years. The results were unimpressive: Of the eight schools that had conducted Stanford 9 tests in the spring semesters of 1999 and 2000, only three showed evidence that students’ scores, on average, had increased. Two Edison Friendship Public Charter Schools, Chamberlain Elementary and Woodridge Elementary, reported results that showed improvements in the average scores of their elementary-age students: a 2-point increase in math scores at the Chamberlain campus and an approximately 7-point increase in both math and reading at the Woodridge campus. The SEED Public Charter School also reported a slight increase in average scores for students: one-fourth of a point in reading and 4.5 points in math.
Two schools had incomplete information for the comparison, or no decipherable changes from one year to the next. At another, Maya Angelou Public Charter School, reading scores for students increased, on average, by 1 point, but math scores dropped slightly. Results from two high schools showed that their students, on average, had lost ground from one year to the next: Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy and the Washington Math Science Technology (WMST) Public Charter High School. WMST saw its greatest drop-off in the portion of the test that deals with math, which also happens to be one of the core components of its curriculum. WMST student scores, on average, dropped about 4.7 points in the math portion. In the spring of 1999, 41.1 percent of WMST students scored Below Basic in math. By the next year, that number had climbed to 74.1 percent.
The D.C. Board of Education has not compiled year-to-year comparison data for the charter schools it oversees; test scores from two consecutive years were available for only six of the 17 schools under the school board’s oversight. Of those, only two—Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, an elementary school, and Integrated Design Electronics Academy Public Charter High School—had succeeded in decreasing the percentage of students scoring Below Basic in both reading and math. Worse, the percentage of students scoring Below Basic in both math and reading increased for one of the elementary schools, the Children’s Studio Public Charter School of the Arts and Architecture, which was one of the first charter schools to open in the District.
Charter supporters maintain that it’s still too early to draw real conclusions. “None of the schools made large gains, which is not surprising,” says Richard Wenning, president of Choice Strategies Group, a D.C.-based educational research and consulting firm that compiled the results for the Public Charter School Board. “It would be extraordinary to get large increases for new schools, with new students, new teachers, and new educational programs in just two years.”
How about five years? Both chartering boards require an extensive review of schools at the five-year mark to determine whether they’ve met their goals and can continue operating. The D.C. Board of Education also mandates that charter schools receive full accreditation from an outside educational board within five years; the Public Charter School Board has no timeline for accreditation. And it was five years ago that the Board of Education approved the first two charter schools to open in the District. One of those, Marcus Garvey Public Charter School, was closed in 1998 because of allegations of financial mismanagement—not long after school Principal Mary Anigbo was convicted of assaulting a reporter who had visited the school. The second, Options Public Charter School, for students in Grades 5 through 8, in December notified the board that it was having trouble completing the accreditation process in time because of consistently changing leadership. Not exactly rousing success stories.
“On the limited information we have, one has to raise questions,” says Larry Gray, legislative chair for the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers Association (DCPTA), who ran unsuccessfully for Board of Education president last fall. “They overpromise initially to gain the support or to implement the school, and then they can’t perform at those exalted levels, and they don’t want to be held to them at the first-year level, because they’re just getting off the ground.”
As an experiment, the charter-school movement is expensive. This year, city leaders banked $105 million in school funds and the education of several thousand children on what, right now, amounts to little more than one big policy question mark. “It’s too early to just make a blanket statement that charter schools aren’t living up to their standards,” says Michele Moser, an assistant professor with GWU’s Center for Washington Area Studies, which is completing its second study on D.C. charter schools. “Some charter schools I walk into and I think, Great. And then I think, Yeah, it’s great. But do we really know what’s happening?”
Concetta Thibideau marches the class of first-graders into her tiny square of a classroom at the World Public Charter School of Washington, counting off in Italian. She gathers them around a table and launches into the lesson—Italian words for the parts of the face. The 6-year-olds seated around the table try to follow along, but they quickly lose interest, so Thibideau turns to a more engaging lesson—encouraging the students to practice their Italian on two old phones in the classroom. Shaquana, a wiggly, pony-tailed girl wearing a red corduroy jumper, leaps up, climbing over a chair to be the first one there. “Ooh, let’s talk on the phone, y’all,” she squeals.
She picks up an old black cordless phone and holds it to her ear. “Pronto,” Thibideau prompts, reminding her of the Italian telephone greeting. “Pronto,” Shaquana repeats. The girl on the other phone stares back, forgetting her line. An impatient Shaquana nags her to say something, and the exercise breaks down into some playful teasing between the two, in English, much to the annoyance of Thibideau. “En Italiano,” she pleads.
A little goofing off is to be expected when you have a room full of 6-year-olds. Still, World teachers and administrators hoped to have a much more extensive language program for students by now—ensuring that the school’s 130 students were learning all subjects in two languages or spent at least half the school day in language class.
World founder Dorothy Goodman had even higher goals when she started the school. She hoped to model the World program after the Washington International School (WIS), a local private institution she started with three 4-year-olds in the basement of her Cleveland Park home in 1966. The wife of a World Bank official and mother of four, Goodman started WIS to provide children of bank employees and diplomats the international education to go along with their international upbringing. Now located on two local campuses, WIS offers its 800 students classes in English, French, and Spanish, as well as instruction for the International Baccalaureate, an internationally recognized high school diploma.
Goodman planned to continue the private school’s bilingual program at World, expanding it to multiple classes and languages. By now, according to the application she submitted to the Board of Education in 1998, World was supposed to include more than 1,000 students on multiple campuses District-wide, offering instruction in Arabic, Japanese, Russian, French, and Spanish—instead of just Italian and Chinese.
“I just had a passion,” says Goodman, a gray-haired woman with a doctorate in Russian and Balkan history. She has a tendency to shift quickly between talk of her work at World and complicated academic theory. Dressed in loose clothing and wearing large, round, plastic glasses, she’s a sort of intellectual grandma. “I think the one thing that adult human beings can really give young children is a language.”
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But the logistical elements of putting Goodman’s educational vision in place proved harder than she had imagined. Although she bid on several empty DCPS buildings, she could manage to secure a lease for only one, an old school on Military Road NW. The crumbling structure needs extensive renovations and will be able to accommodate only 100 students. In the meantime, Goodman has had to operate the program in various churches and, finally, the Children’s Museum. Because of the complicated negotiations over DCPS buildings and the limited space, she hasn’t been able to expand as expected.
The move-in date for relocation to the Children’s Museum was delayed last fall, explains Goodman, because school administrators had trouble securing the certificate of occupancy. Goodman says she assumed that there would be no trouble getting the proper approvals, because the SEED school had already occupied the building and had made some improvements. But because World’s staff planned to use the space as classrooms instead of dormitories, there was additional red tape. Goodman says she put off buying furniture and other school materials until administrators were certain that they could move in.
Hiring staff was complicated by the search for a facility, too. Principal Rosangela DiManto says that by September, the school didn’t have enough language teachers. The staff has been beefed up since, so that now most of the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes offer instruction in English and another language. Older students take language classes a couple of hours every other day, she says.
“We’re trying to work with what we have,” DiManto explains.
What World staff discovered is a lesson charter-school leaders are learning every day, usually the hard way: that translating their dreamy ideals into real-world schools is much more difficult than expected. School founders need more than good intentions and a strong educational vision. They also need to know how to negotiate a complex financial system; find and manage qualified teachers; locate, pay for, and sometimes renovate buildings probably not meant to be schools; satisfy parents; buy books; provide lunches; and—oh, yes—educate kids, all within their budget and all according to the rules of the chartering authority.
Goodman says she’s facing new challenges every day. But she chalks up much of World’s difficulty to hostility from DCPS or public suspicions of charter schools. When it comes to renting or buying space from DCPS, most charter-school leaders share Goodman’s frustrations. They have been vying for space in unused school facilities since the movement started, most of them unsuccessfully. After former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. sat on his responsibility to sell off unused school structures, in the mid-’90s, the task was transferred to the financial control board, which then delegated the oversight to DCPS. Although the control board established guidelines giving charter schools first priority for renting or buying the buildings, Cane says that few deals have actually gone through (“Unreal Estate,” 2/25/00). Last March, the control of surplus buildings again changed hands, this time to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, but Cane says that charter schools have still made little headway in securing space.
“We have a joke we always say [at charter-school coalition meetings]: You may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” says Goodman.
But outside forces can’t be blamed for all of World’s problems. And there are plenty. “I have seen this board close down schools for less than what’s going on at [World]. I think this a grand injustice to the students in the District of Columbia,” said Tom Kelly, then a member of the D.C. Board of Education, at the board’s meeting last December. Goodman was called to the meeting after board representatives realized that she had relocated World to the Children’s Museum without informing the body that oversees the school.
“I plead stupidity,” said a sheepish William LeStrange Jr., who serves as an accountant for World, standing next to Goodman at the hearing. LeStrange explained that he had informed the control board, which approved the lease agreement with the museum, but had forgotten to tell members of the Board of Education. “We did what we thought we had to do. Looking back, I agree, you need to know where the school is.”
Sometimes they’re not out to get you. Sometimes you get yourself.
LeStrange’s comment drew a couple of groans from audience members. But the undisclosed move was just the beginning of World’s offenses. Shelvie McCoy, the Board of Education’s interim director of charter schools, informed the board that the move to the museum had created additional problems: The building was not large enough to hold the preschool program for 3-year-olds, so they’d been temporarily housed in church basements—or asked to stay at home. Monitoring reports of the school also showed that it offered only 178-and-a-half days of instruction, instead of the required 180. “Those are concerns that need to be addressed,” said McCoy. “Calls come every day about this school.”
Her comments eventually prompted the board to order a detailed review of World, to be delivered to the incoming board. This wasn’t the first time Goodman had drawn stern looks from school board members. In April 1999,the board had placed World on probation because of high staff turnover, poor record-keeping, and low attendance. The probation was lifted last year, but a look at the latest monitoring report on the school, completed in the summer of 2000, shows that many problems persist. According to the report, World’s administrators have yet to supply the board with an accountability plan, they don’t provide the required services to the students so far identified as needing special education or additional help with English-speaking skills, and they have bungled the process of identifying and supplying lunches to low-income students. In December, LeStrange requested additional time to complete the school’s financial audit, which had been due in November.
Goodman says that World staffers have been unable to access special ed students’ DCPS records—which has delayed services to the students. She also says that most 3-year-olds have been accommodated: Some have been squeezed into classes at the Children’s Museum building; some have withdrawn from the program and gone somewhere else. Goodman doesn’t have a precise answer on how the school will repay the city for the funds she’s already received for the 3-year-olds who have dropped out.
“It’s hard,” Goodman pleaded at the December board meeting, explaining that her repeated efforts to find permanent space had all failed. “You should be on the other side of the desk.”
World students could say the same to Goodman.
Although the delays and complications are no doubt frustrating for charter-school leaders such as Goodman, it’s the students who suffer the most. Like Michelle Jackson. Kelly says that because Michelle seemed to do little work at school, she encouraged the 11-year-old to read books at home and then write reports on her own. “I just feel like this is a guinea pig class,” says Kelly, who has recently transferred Michelle back to her neighborhood DCPS school. “I just hope they are able to pull it together. If not, they need to close down.”
A half-eaten German chocolate cake is the only visible sign of how close the Techworld Public Charter School came to its demise. The cake sits on a long table in the conference room on the second floor of the Waterside Mall, at 4th and M Streets SW, where the school rents space in what used to be offices for the Environmental Protection Agency. A parent delivered the cake as a thank-you to the administrators and staff who, only the evening before, managed to persuade members of the Board of Education to put off plans to close the school, despite more than two years of financial problems and leadership changes.
A few staff members cycle through the space for a bite or two of cake, but there is little time for celebrating. Principal Simon King is closed off in an office, answering questions from an FBI agent considering an investigation of the school’s previous executive director, Daanen Strachan, says teacher Willie Ingram, who is also chair of the school’s board of trustees. Accountant Calvin Brown sits in another office, rifling through long-overdue bills.
But the school is in much better shape than it was yesterday, when the Board of Education was still debating whether to extend the school’s probation or close it down for good. The board opted for the extension, urging Techworld’s leaders to finally fix the problems or face the ax again. And these leaders have their work cut out for them.
Techworld’s been in turmoil ever since August 1998, just weeks before the school opened. The school was founded by Strachan, a former Howard University administrator who served as a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner in the ’90s and ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the Board of Education in 1994. Strachan’s idea was to create a high school that combined academics with a technology-focused curriculum, providing each student with his or her own laptop computer.
“My vision was to create a technology-advanced community of learners where, in a sense, students can graduate and have majors in [technology-related subjects],” says Strachan. “It was the first school in the city to do this.”
Strachan received approval to open the school for the fall of 1998. In August of that year, he alleged that the then-chair of the school’s board of trustees, Reginald Green Sr., and two other board members had attempted to purchase a building for the school without the permission of the rest of the board. He called an emergency meeting and persuaded the remaining members to oust Green and his cohorts, according to a lawsuit Green filed in D.C. Superior Court.
Green argued that Strachan had fabricated the story, illegally removed the three board members, and taken control of Techworld’s accounts—in essence, “hijacked the school”—according to the deposition Green gave as part of the suit. Strachan responded with a countersuit, filed in June 1999, denying the claims. Green and Strachan attempted mediations but could never find common ground, says John Mercer, the attorney who represented Green.
Strachan shrugs off the conflicts as differences of ideology. “People have to understand that I came up with the vision for the school. My thought process was about five years in the future, and sometimes people can’t see that far,” he says. “It was a struggle trying to get people to see what I saw.”
While school organizers haggled over the dueling lawsuits, Strachan was busy flying back and forth to Miami, where he was opening a second Techworld—his trips paid for by funds meant for the D.C. school, according to the Washington Post. From January 1998 through September 1999, Strachan used nearly $20,000 from the school’s operating budget, made up of public funds and private donations, to reimburse himself for traveling expenses and to purchase books and furniture for the school, he told the Post.
The Board of Education didn’t learn of the situation until March 2000, when it summoned Techworld’s board of trustees chair at the time, Dean Matthews, to appear in a closed meeting. Matthews told board members that Strachan had repaid the money, at the trustees’ request. But the school board members weren’t satisfied and ordered an audit of the school.
In May 2000, after finding evidence of “weaknesses in its financial controls and record keeping,” the school board put Techworld on probation for six months and ordered administrators to get the records straight, according to a letter from then-president of the Board of Education, Robert Childs, to then-chair of the school’s board of trustees, Leon Mercer. School leaders bailed out soon after. Mercer moved to Maryland, giving up his post, says Strachan. Former Principal Christine Handy resigned in the summer. And Strachan submitted his resignation in October.
“It was time for me to move on. It’s time for another phase,” says Strachan, now a consultant for nonprofits and software-development companies. “My whole intention was not to be there for 20 years managing the school.”
Strachan agrees that the financial system at the school needs some improvements but asserts that the problems weren’t solely his fault. A cousin, Kenneth Strachan, at one time served as a financial consultant to the school—until his name showed up in newspaper accounts reporting that he’d pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion while he was an accountant for a mental-health day-treatment program in the mid-’90s. In December, Kenneth Strachan, who also served as a financial consultant to other District charter schools, was sentenced to a year in prison. Daanen Strachan says that the school’s board never hired a qualified full-time person to oversee accounts before or after his cousin’s departure.
“I wish I would have had stronger managers and better legal advice,” says Daanen Strachan now, who adds that he hasn’t heard from the FBI about any possible investigation. “We made mistakes, business mistakes, like not setting up proper controls from the beginning….The audit never showed anything I did. It showed that the school didn’t have proper procedures in place.”
After Strachan left, staff members were left to pick up the pieces of the school. They found the financial records in a state of disarray: unpaid bills, duplicate payments, and multiple accounts, some of which Strachan still had access to, King told the Board of Education at a hearing in December. King also explained that they were still receiving bills for equipment and materials not located at the D.C. site—such as service contracts for two photocopiers located at addresses in Miami and Las Vegas, where Strachan had opened a third school.
“We’re actually calling and asking where equipment is located before we send a check,” King explained at the hearing.
The damage wasn’t restricted to the school’s checkbook. Although a June 2000 monitoring report by the Board of Education generally praised the school’s academics, the educational program still took hits. King says that he had to end the practice of supplying laptop computers to each student because the school was short on cash. Ingram says that he’s had to have other teachers cover his classes while tending to his duties as the school’s new board chair.
Nonetheless, King’s repeated pleas and “good-faith” efforts, as one Techworld board member described, finally persuaded the Board of Education to give the school one more chance in December, extending the probation through June 2001.
Staff at the D.C. school were luckier than those at the other institutions Strachan founded. In December, administrators at two Techworld campuses in Las Vegas, where just two other charter schools are up and running in the surrounding county, closed their doors after only nine weeks of operation, sending 80 students back to their neighborhood schools, apparently because they could find no permanent space, according to an account in the Las Vegas Sun. And after months of conflicts with the Miami-Dade County school board, which oversees 13 charter schools, Strachan sent a letter to that board saying that he was closing the Miami Techworld campus, opened in August 1999, due to “financial hardship,” according to a school-system official there.
The D.C. site is spared for now. But did it have to get this bad?
“We’ve heard a lot of different things, but it’s hard to tell, because we’re not there and because they’re independent,” says Childs. “Charter schools don’t have to tell until situations like this come up.”
Techworld’s mangled state looks much like the mess that hobbled another technology-based charter school, Young Technocrats Math and Science Public Charter Laboratory School, shortly before it closed, in the summer of 1999. The school’s board of trustees had just fired the Young Technocrats co-principals, who had so badly mismanaged the school’s finances that the board members were unable to pay all their bills and had a hard time even estimating the school’s debt, according to a Post account.
“We’re not even sure” how much the school owes, George R. Carruthers, the chair of the school’s board of trustees, told the Post at the time.
Although the D.C. Board of Education had threatened to revoke Young Technocrats’ charter, Carruthers and other board members ultimately decided to close on their own, sending their 400 students scrambling for another school. (The board revoked the charter soon after.)
Failures such as this are a necessary weeding-out of underperformers, advocates argue, adding that so far, such collapses are rare. Aside from Young Technocrats and Marcus Garvey, only one other charter school has shuttered its doors in the District: Kwame Nkrumah International Public Charter School, an institution for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, which opened in September 1999. The Board of Education, which had authority over the school, said that Kwame Nkrumah lacked an official charter and had opened illegally; the board closed the school only weeks into its first year. Nationwide, only 4 percent of the country’s 2,100 charter schools have been closed.
Some advocates use these figures as proof that most charter schools are delivering on their promises. Those that aren’t, they contend, are quickly closed down. But the closure process is a messy one, dislocating hundreds of students at a time. And it’s difficult to assess how many schools are struggling and may deserve to be shut down but aren’t. Techworld has had a crippled financial system, yet it’s been allowed to limp along for months. And despite World administrators’ lofty educational goals, the school hasn’t fulfilled most of the goals outlined in its initial charter.
“Any of [World’s missteps] can be interpreted as violations of their charter,” says the Board of Education’s McCoy. “If there are extenuating circumstances, they’re taken under consideration. But technically, they’re supposed to live up to their charter.”
Both local chartering boards have several measures in place to keep a watch on schools. Schools are required to submit regular financial reports, including an audit by an independent group every year, as well as an annual report that shows student test scores, graduation rates, student performance, and parent involvement. The boards also send monitoring teams to the schools a couple of times a year.
None of those measures are foolproof, however, and many chiefly rely on information the school submits on its own. “If you say you’re coming, [charter-school leaders] can have everything fresh and all the kids smiling and standing in a row,” says the DCPTA’s Gray. “There needs to be a drop-in system, qualification levels for instructors, and a check to see whether they’re adhering to the qualities they’re promising to parents.”
Former Board of Education member Tonya Vidal Kinlow, who once chaired the board committee that monitored charter schools, says that oversight under the last board was strained because of a shortage of staff: only two full-time employees, a part-time administrative assistant, and several consultants were on hand to oversee the 15 charter schools under the school board’s charge. Kinlow says that board members made repeated requests to the control board for more funds to provide additional staffing, but they never got the approval.
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who took over as president of a newly reconfigured Board of Education in January, says that new members need to look at charter operations before they can determine which changes, if any, need to be made. “Some say the Board of Education is too easy, because it gives too many charters. On the other hand, you hear that they’re hostile. Which is it?” says Cafritz. “We have to look at everything and examine everything carefully. I don’t think we can automatically assume [the board’s oversight] was bad. We have to make rational decisions.”
And the other local chartering authority has its own flaws. The GWU report found, for instance, that the Public Charter School Board generally has an amicable relationship with the schools it oversees, but that that rapport also poses challenges to the sort of critical monitoring that’s needed.
“While generally far better received by the charters and the major Washington media, it is important to bear in mind that, from the standpoint of public accountability, the PCSB’s approach poses some risks as well,” reads the study. “Elected officials, and frequently the public, have a tendency to become suspicious when a regulating agency such as a chartering board becomes [too] ‘cozy’ with those it is supposed to regulate.”
Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who chairs the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, says he’s questioned the ability of the two boards to provide critical oversight of charter schools. In October, the city established a State Education Office, which will take on some of the responsibilities of DCPS administrators, such as monitoring finances and acting as a liaison to the federal Department of Education. Chavous hopes the office will assume some of the oversight of charter schools as well, such as ensuring accurate enrollment numbers and monitoring performance. “I’ve always felt there was some inherent conflict [between the chartering and oversight roles of the boards],” says Chavous. “[The chartering boards] may feel possessive about protecting their schools, so they don’t look wrong [about granting the charter].”
When it comes to accountability, reports from other parts of the country don’t offer much hope. In a 1998 study of 17 California charter schools, Amy Stuart Wells, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that generally, the schools weren’t held accountable for meeting the educational goals they outlined in their own charters. Wells’ conclusions resemble other studies’ findings, says Jonathan Schorr, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, a New York-based grant-making foundation, who’s writing a book on inner-city charter schools. He adds that nationwide, and especially in urban areas, chartering authorities are often reluctant to shut down underperforming schools, especially if the regular public schools in the district are doing just as poorly. “Either they’re not aware what’s going on in the schools, or they are aware, but [they reason,] ‘Things are tough all over,’” Schorr says.
Accountability issues are critical in D.C., where the pace of chartering has been one of the fastest in the country. Although the original legislation called for the establishment of new charters to cease after five years—which would mean this year—the provision was later lifted, giving the charter movement indefinite growth potential in the District.
Gray’s DCPTA is one group that would prefer more limitations. Last year, he requested that school and city officials put a moratorium on new charter schools. “We need to take a somewhat slower approach, get an assessment of the implementation and how it’s proceeding,” says Gray. “That wouldn’t prohibit charter schools; it would just allow us to see what we’re up against.”
Take a look at the crowd gathered in a cavernous room at the Washington Convention Center and you don’t get a sense that this is a school system in crisis. Teachers and students from the District’s 146 traditional public schools have set up tables brightly decorated with banners in school colors, student artwork, and pamphlets promoting their student programs. TV sets are scattered about the space, broadcasting flickering images of students in class, on playgrounds, at basketball games.
It’s 10:05 on a Saturday morning in January, five minutes into the second annual DCPS enrollment fair. Already the place is packed with the teachers, parents, and students who have stuck it out in the public-school system, who have resisted any urges to move out of the city or seek out other schools, who have heard the promises of zealous charter-school founders and decided they’re happy where they are, thank you very much.
Their decision to stay doesn’t, given the hoopla at the moment, seem a bad choice. The place is shimmying with excitement. Cheerleaders from one school rush past. A choir from another takes its place on the makeshift stage at the end of the room, belting out a number with relentless, off-key enthusiasm. At the other end, a marching band blares out its song. It’s as if a city full of pep rallies had exploded all in one room.
“I do not think I have ever visited a college or university fair that has matched this one,” says a beaming DCPS Superintendent Paul Vance before leaving the stage to make way for a performing group from Benning Elementary. “We have a lot to offer. It’s not to say we don’t have things to do.”
That’s an understatement. It’s only been five years since the D.C. financial control board released its 56-page study, Children in Crisis: A Report on the Failure of the D.C. Public Schools, which prompted Congress to transfer most of the responsibility for running the school system—such as improving aging buildings and making most policy decisions—to the appointed control board. Today, trouble persists. DCPS students still churn out dismal scores on the Stanford 9. More than a quarter are still scoring Below Basic in reading, and 37 percent of students haven’t managed to climb out of the lowest category for math scores, according to spring 2000 test results.
It’s a dreary picture, and yet there has been progress. Test scores have improved consistently over the past four years. City and school officials are putting the final touches on a massive campaign to renovate or rebuild most of the city’s schools over the next 10 to 15 years. Although Arlene Ackerman was the third superintendent to leave the school system in the past five years, her replacement, Vance, has been well-received by most parents and teachers, and is viewed as offering a modicum of stability.
The restructured Board of Education, including five elected members and four appointed by the mayor, took office in January. And last summer, Mayor Williams unveiled plans for a state-of-the-art public technology high school to be located at the old McKinley High School building.
Those are the sort of things charter-school leaders would like to chalk up to their influence, but most can be credited to Williams, a mayor who has made schools one of his top priorities. Some advocates point to the enrollment fair as one example of the public-school system’s trying to compete. But Vance discounts such claims and says that although he hopes the charter schools might eventually serve as “laboratories” of innovation, he hasn’t seen much influence yet.
And even when DCPS has responded directly to charter schools, it hasn’t been seen as healthy competition. Last year, after the D.C. Public Charter School Board approved Principal Cecile Middleton’s request to convert Paul Junior High School to a charter, DCPS officials responded with an innovative proposal of their own: a math and science magnet program to be housed in the Paul building. The dueling proposals—each slated for the Paul building, in the Brightwood area of Northwest—incited an angry feud between activists on both sides of the debate before the control board finally decided that the charter school would retain control of the building (“Throwing Bricks,” 12/10/99).
Even some charter advocates agree that the start-up schools haven’t had the sort of positive influence they were hoping for. “We don’t think there was very much impact on DCPS while Ms. Ackerman was superintendent,” says Cane. “We anticipate there will be now, because Vance seems to be very open.”
Not likely, says Schorr. Although Schorr says that charter schools may serve as an important opportunity for educational experimentation, he says the potential impact on the larger system has been overstated. Nationwide research shows that only one-fourth of school districts have made even moderate changes in response to charter schools in their area, such as implementing new curricula or encouraging teacher innovation, says Schorr. “The rhetoric of competition has been so grossly exaggerated,” says Schorr. “And both sides seem uninterested in sharing.”
In the District, some worry that the anticipated give-and-take between charter schools and the traditional public school system has been a little one-sided. DCPS parent Philip J. Blair Jr. frets about the loss of the sort of activist parents who are involved enough to seek out a charter school, and who, therefore, won’t be spending their energy improving the traditional public schools.
Gushue is living proof. Although the longtime school activist still has one son in a DCPS school—Duke Ellington School of the Arts—when she transferred her daughters to Capital City, much of her activist energy went with them. “One thing charters have done is they’ve taken out the layer of people who would fight and would insist,” agrees Gushue. “They’ve just gone and said, ‘I can’t fight a $700 million behemoth.’”
Charter schools have nearly 10,000 students, most of them pulled away from the public school system. With those students went the funding to educate them. Although overall funding for schools has increased in the past five years, it’s a difficult loss to take. City officials have changed the funding process to minimize the impact: Now, DCPS schools receive money based on the enrollment of the previous year. If they lose students to charter schools, they’ll have a one-year grace period to plan for the drop in funds.
But individual schools can have trouble adjusting to a loss of students—or a sudden influx, if students drop out of a nearby charter school or it’s forced to close. Vance says that he’s received complaints from the principal of one D.C. high school, which this past November enrolled an additional 40 students who had left charter schools. The principal complained that the students came after the school had received its funding for the year, so the school would be short of cash.
And shifting the expenditures in a system as large as DCPS can be difficult, despite the advance warning. “Anytime you’re downsizing and you have a substantial number of overhead expenses, that creates some problems,” says Mary Levy, counsel to Parents United. “The one thing that’s hard is the lack of predictability. You don’t know in time to plan for it or even how to plan for it. [DCPS] is like a huge tanker. It doesn’t maneuver very easily.”
Even the loss of a single school in upper Northwest, Paul, has thrown DCPS planning completely out of whack, says Kinlow. School officials have had to restructure the school boundaries to find alternative junior highs for the students graduating from elementary schools in that area, says Kinlow. “A lot of those kids will end up going to the charter, but we couldn’t plan that way, because we never really know.”
But the greatest casualty of the charter-school movement, says Rice-Thurston, is its tendency to aggravate the popular pessimism about the traditional public school system. “It’s gotten us away from thinking, How can we make public schools work? Instead, it’s gotten to, Oh, public schools can’t possibly work. Let’s look to charter schools.
“I am personally not a person who wants to see a lot of charter schools, because then there’s a feeling that the traditional schools can’t meet your child’s needs, and I want them to meet [those] needs.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.