D.C. education officials are investigating a learning center operating out of a Southeast Washington house where charter schools temporarily send disruptive students and children awaiting transfer to other schools — even though the facility has no business license.
After receiving a complaint this month, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the D.C. Public Charter School Board visited the Minnesota Avenue SE brick house, according to a city employee and a child welfare advocate familiar with the investigation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The Future Family Enrichment Center is operated by Sharon Denise Holley, according to the complaint, and city records show Holley owns the Minnesota Avenue house. A spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said there is no record of a business license under that address or name.
It is unclear how many students attend the center, but the Office of the State Superintendent of Education — the agency that approves private facilities where students can be sent by schools — said its investigation has shown “a handful” of charter schools hold contracts with the center. Charters are publicly funded and privately operated schools.
Holley could not immediately be reached for comment. A woman who said she worked with Holley answered a phone listed in records for Holley and said she was not at the center Wednesday. The woman declined to say whether students attended the center this week.
The superintendent’s office said its review is in an early stage and, as part of the probe, investigators are seeking to determine whether the Future Family Enrichment Center needed city approval to be able to take students from charter schools.
The agency’s “top priority is the safety and well-being of all students attending public schools across the District,” Fred Lewis, a spokesman for the superintendent’s office, said in statement. “The agency is investigating the Future Family Enrichment Center and working with [schools] to ensure they are following the alternative placement process to best serve students.”
The D.C. Public Charter School Board said it is conducting a review, too. The board — which oversees dozens of charter schools in the city — grants schools autonomy to make financial decisions, meaning that contracts schools sign with outside vendors do not need to be approved by the board.
“After hearing about the Family Enrichment Center, we launched an investigation to learn more about it,” said Tomeika Bowden, a spokeswoman for the charter board. “We’ll have more to say after that is completed.”
On Wednesday morning, a gate in front of the Southeast home was locked and the downstairs windows were covered. No signs or adornments in the front or back announced it as an education facility.
Jenn Fox-Thomas — the education engagement specialist at the local advocacy organization So Others Might Eat — has a fifth-grade client who was sent to the Future Family Enrichment Center. The student attends Monument Academy, a boarding charter school serving middle school children with a focus on students who, according to its website, “have had or might have contact with the foster care system.”
Fox-Thomas, who was given permission to speak about the child’s case from his mother, said she checked on the boy at the facility in November and saw children playing video games on their laptop computers while sitting at a desk in a bedroom.
Emily Bloomfield, founder and chief executive of Monument Academy, said the charter school has placed three children at the enrichment center this academic year. The school determined it could not meet the students’ special-education needs and placed them at the center while they awaited transfer to another school. Because many of the students are homeless or do not have stable homes, sending tutors to the students’ residences is not always an option, she said.
Bloomfield said leaders of her school meet with parents — and receive approval — before sending students to the facility.
Monument Academy’s special-education attorney, who works with other charter schools in the District, informed the school about the Southeast center, Bloomfield said.
“Educators like us who are trying to meet the unique and challenging social, emotional and academic needs of an extremely vulnerable population of children are always looking for new options to best serve a small number of students when our residential setting is no longer the right fit for them at a specific time,” Bloomfield wrote in an email. “We wish there were more interim and also long-term options that are being offered for parents and caregivers — and advocates — to consider when children present a danger to themselves or others.”
A spokeswoman for Friendship Public Charter School said it has a student receiving services from the Southeast enrichment center.
When Fox-Thomas visited, she said she did not observe any specialized learning.
She inquired about students’ school work, she said, and was handed seven reading and math worksheets, some of which were below or above the grade level of her client. She said she visited the facility twice and found no evidence that the fifth-grader — who was diagnosed with an emotional disturbance disorder — was receiving services the law requires under his Individualized Education Program, which all students in special education are given.
The child’s plan calls for him to have 28 hours with a dedicated aide every week and 27 hours of individualized special education instruction, according to Fox-Thomas. She said Monument informed her the child was sent to the center because he had accrued suspensions totaling 10 days between the start of school in mid-August through Oct. 3.
Under the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school personnel can suspend children with disabilities for up to 10 days for violations of a student code of conduct and place them in interim alternative educational settings. Those settings are supposed to provide the students with an appropriate public education and make progress on goals set in their Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP.
“You can’t just change the IEP,” Fox-Thomas said. “And there was no evidence that he was being provided with any special education there.”