Harmony, Democracy Prep schools approved by D.C. charter school board

November 19, 2013

Two charter school operators, including a Texas-based organization whose business practices have drawn scrutiny, have won permission to open schools in the District next fall.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted at its meeting Monday night to give conditional approval to Harmony Public Schools, which operates the largest charter chain in Texas, and Democracy Prep, known for its no-excuses approach to educating inner-city children in New York.

Harmony plans to establish an elementary school focused on science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — that will grow one grade each year until it serves children in kindergarten through grade 12. Eventually, the organization hopes to operate several elementary and middle schools feeding into one stand-alone high school, Harmony Superintendent Soner Tarim said.

Members of the District’s charter school board said they were impressed by the hands-on and project-based learning they observed when they visited Harmony schools in Texas.

“I saw a lot of active learning, not just sitting and listening to the teacher,” Darren Woodruff, a charter board member, said. “That was impressive and something that is really needed in the District of Columbia.”

Harmony’s strong academic record helped it win a $30 million Race to the Top grant from the Obama administration last year. But its business practices have raised concerns. In 2011, the New York Times examined Harmony’s contracting practices and raised questions about whether the charter network used taxpayer dollars to benefit a social and religious movement led by Fethullah Gulen, an influential Muslim preacher from Turkey. Harmony officials deny any connection with Gulen.

Naomi DeVeaux, deputy executive director of the District’s charter school board, said the board’s staff examined the allegations against Harmony and found no cause for concern.

She said a wide range of people spoke highly of Harmony, including officials at the U.S. Education Department and the Texas Education Agency and members of Texas’s State Board of Education.

Six of the charter board’s seven members voted in favor of Harmony’s application. The seventh, Sara Mead, abstained because Harmony has been a client of her employer, the nonprofit consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to educate children in the nation’s capital,” Harmony spokeswoman Julie Norton wrote in an e-mail. “Nationwide, there’s a need for STEM education and we’re excited and committed to providing a model in STEM education excellence for students in Washington, D.C.”

Harmony has not said where the D.C. school will be located.

Democracy Prep plans to open an elementary school in Ward 7 or 8, starting in fall 2014 with preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and kindergarten.

The organization built a reputation for lifting test scores among poor children in Harlem and now operates nine campuses in New York and New Jersey. D.C. charter board members said they valued Democracy Prep’s experience in bringing struggling students up to and beyond grade level in math and reading.

Democracy Prep also has experience in king over and turning around low-performing schools. That is a rare and valuable skill, said board member Emily Bloomfield, suggesting that at some point Democracy Prep may be a candidate to take over a struggling D.C. charter.

“It’s something we’re always looking for when other schools are not successful,” she said.

Five members of the board voted in favor of Democracy Prep. Mead abstained because of her employer’s relationship with the organization. Barbara Nophlin voted against approval, saying that she was unimpressed with the Democracy Prep schools she visited. She described the classrooms as “very regimented, very rigid, lots of dittos.”

Alice Maggin, a spokeswoman for Democracy Prep, said the organization is “thrilled” to be coming to Washington.

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