Partnership aims for hybrid traditional-charter school in Southeast

Chancellor Kaya Henderson is seeking to merge a long-struggling Southeast Washington elementary school with a high-performing charter school, creating what she describes as a first-of-its-kind partnership between the two types of schools.

Malcolm X Elementary was among five city schools that Henderson proposed to close last fall but later decided to keep open. Now, after a proposed renovation next year, the school will become part of Achievement Prep Public Charter School, which will run the school in a unique arrangement with D.C. Public Schools.

Henderson announced the partnership Wednesday, describing it as an effort to produce neither a traditional school nor a charter school but something in between. Neighborhood children will have a right to attend the new Malcolm X, she said, but the school’s leaders will have charter-like freedom in running it.

Charter operators have won contracts to run city schools in the past, but this — a charter school moving into a public school building and serving its neighborhood children — would be different, Henderson said. It also would fulfill competing desires, as charters wish to expand in the city and as residents clamor for neighborhood schools that can help define communities.

“It’s an animal that we’ve never seen before,” Henderson said. “If I can provide a set of high-performing seats, an opportunity where kids are going to get more than we were able to give them at Malcolm X, I’m good. I don’t care whose shingle they’re under.”

She called the “new school model” a blueprint for change in some of the city’s most challenging neighborhoods. But Henderson could not answer critical questions about who will oversee and finance the hybrid school, saying those are details still to be worked out.

Also yet to be settled is how to pay for the renovation of Malcolm X. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) set aside $21 million for that work in next year’s budget, but the D.C. Council’s education committee threw a wrench into that plan Thursday when it voted unanimously to redirect $15 million of those funds to other schools.

The change was suggested by Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who has said for months that he wants to close Malcolm X to make way for a mixed-use development. Barry did not answer requests for comment Thursday. David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, said details of the schools’ partnership were too sketchy to justify the investment.

“What we were confronted with was something that had no meat on the bone — an aspiration, not a concrete plan,” Catania said.

Henderson and Shantelle Wright, Achievement Prep’s head of school, said they were disappointed by the council’s actions but are committed to the venture.

Some community leaders said the announcement fuels concern that the city is losing its public school system. Parents and activists can influence the direction of the school system through the political process, said Ward 8 Education Council Chair Absalom Jordan, but have no such power over charter schools.

“There are certain rights that we have in public schools that are not afforded to us in charter schools,” Jordan said.

Trayon White, who represents Ward 8 on the State Board of Education, said he admires Achievement Prep’s success with neighborhood children. But he said there needs to be a plan for improving education for all of the city’s children.

“The overall agenda is still moving forward without a comprehensive plan explained to the public,” he said.

Henderson said this could be the first of many similar arrangements between D.C. public and charter schools. “We are in multiple conversations with a number of schools about very interesting partnerships,” she said.

But she pushed back against critics who say that she is hastening a transfer of power from the school system to fast-growing charters, which now enroll 43 percent of city students. Charter schools are not the sole answer to fixing education in the city, she said, but they can help.

“I’m interested in radically improving my neighborhood schools. Where I can’t do it fast enough or good enough but there are other people who can, I want to partner with them,” she said.

Achievement Prep’s mission is to serve children in low-income Southeast. It won permission this year from the charter board to absorb students from Septima Clark, a charter school slated to close in June.

“We are supportive of this kind of collaboration and we have full confidence in these two leaders,” said charter board spokeswoman Theola Labbé-DeBose.

Achievement Prep officials said they intend to retain their charter agreement with the D.C. Public Charter School Board. That agreement expires in 2023, suggesting that the charter board will continue to be responsible for overseeing the merged school’s academic performance, fiscal health and legal compliance.

The school system has not signed an agreement with Achievement Prep. The two sides have a thicket of issues to tackle, including how to deal with the rules and regulations that require charter schools to be open to children across the city.

“We’ve had real strong philosophical alignment, lots of talk about what we want to do for the District’s children,” Wright said. “We’ll just leave it up to lawyers to figure out how we get past the bureaucracy to make that happen.”

It is also not yet clear whether the school’s teachers will be subject to collective bargaining – a key difference between the unionized school system and non-unionized charters. “It’s up in the air,” said Washington Teachers Union President Nathan Saunders. “We’re pushing for it.”

Fewer than one in five Malcolm X students are proficient in reading and math, according to their scores on the city’s standardized tests. Meanwhile, at Achievement Prep — a middle school that serves children in the same part of town — 86 percent of children are proficient in math and 69 percent are proficient in reading.

Under the proposed partnership, the schools would share space at Green Elementary next year. Then they would merge into one K-8 school housed at the newly renovated Malcolm X and run by Achievement Prep.

Students and teachers at both schools were notified of the planned merger this week, and school leaders will ask for parent feedback at a community meeting scheduled for May 21.

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