D.C. approves three new charter schools

The D.C. Public Charter School Board has approved three new charter schools: a residential school meant for children in foster care, a K-8 school targeted at students with special needs, and a middle school that emphasizes international education and foreign language.

All are slated to open in 2015, the same year two existing schools — Two Rivers and Thurgood Marshall Academy — hope to add new campuses, a request the charter board is likely to approve next month.

The changes would add hundreds of charter-school seats across the city, many of them meant for at-risk youths who have few good educational options.

But the expansion also sparks questions about whether it makes sense for the board to continue approving new charters — which now enroll nearly half the city’s students — without regard for their location or their impact on the traditional public school system.

The wisdom of continuing without such cooperative planning is attracting new scrutiny now, when there is broader interest than usual in the city’s education landscape because of a politically charged debate over traditional school boundaries and the future of neighborhood schools.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, whose office is leading the school system’s boundary overhaul, said the desire for closer coordination with charters has been a common request among residents.

And although joint planning would be a “major policy shift for the District,” she said, “this is a conversation whose time has come.”

“I firmly believe that if we take the issue head on, through candid dialogue and a close look at the data, we can come to agreement on how to better achieve the goal of joint planning . . . for the purpose of better serving kids across the city,” Smith said in an e-mail.

Charter board members — who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council — say they realize that they can, and should, do a better job of compiling, sharing and using data about where schools are most needed.

But they also say that the scarcity of facilities makes it impossible to dictate where schools can and can’t be, and they roundly reject the notion that they should refrain from authorizing promising charters in order to protect the viability of traditional schools and their feeder patterns.

“It’s my hope that this boundary process . . . will not be used as a stalking-horse to impose some sort of central planning on charter schools,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the board. Pearson said he and his colleagues see a “tremendous need” for good schools across the city and that charters can help meet that need because they operate outside of the city’s bureaucracy.

The charter board sets a high bar for new schools, Pearson said, who added that only about one-third of applicants win approval.

This year, the board rejected five of eight proposals for reasons including weak plans for serving students with disabilities and vague explanations for integrating arts and technology into the curriculum.

The two schools seeking to open new campuses in 2015 are rated as high-performing. “It’s not just willy-nilly replication,” Pearson said.

Perhaps the most innovative new school, approved in a charter board vote Monday, is Monument Academy, a residential school for children in foster care — students who traditionally struggle to graduate and face intense social and emotional needs.

Monument, whose founder is former charter board member Emily Bloomfield, plans to open in 2015 with 40 fifth-graders in a location yet to be determined. The charter board approved it for middle grades, with the opportunity to apply later to expand into high school.

Children’s Guild, a Maryland nonprofit with decades of experience educating children with disabilities, plans to enroll about 450 students in grades K through 8, half of whom they hope would be those with special needs. It is slated to open at 5600 East Capitol St., in the same building as the Maya Angelou alternative charter high school.

The third charter to gain approval, Washington Global, is a middle school that plans to emphasize service learning, Spanish and Chinese language courses, and “international mindedness.” Opening with 100 students, it would grow to 240.

“I think that we all know that there is definitely a need for this kind of school,” said Herb Tillery, a member of the charter board.

Proponents of stronger planning say it’s not clear that there is a need for that school, or any other, until the school system and charter officials look more closely at supply and demand.

“Each time a new charter school is opened, students leave existing schools, both charter and DCPS, to attend the new charters, and our taxpayer dollars are spread thinner across a growing number of schools,” Suzanne Wells and Valerie Jablow, two D.C. Public Schools parents, wrote in an open letter to city education leaders urging more cooperative planning. “This is not the way for our nation’s capital to run a high-quality public school system.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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