Five new charter schools are expected to open in the District for the 2020-2021 academic year despite concerns that they could strain city resources and result in even more empty seats at existing middle and high schools that struggle to attract students.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which sets policy for the city’s expansive charter sector, approved the campuses last week as it reviewed 11 applications for new schools. Four of the schools are middle or high schools.
The debate over how many schools should be allowed to open represented an unusual standoff between the charter board and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration, which is generally considered to be friendly to charter schools. The publicly funded but privately operated schools educate nearly half of the District’s public school children.
Unlike other cities and states, the District, which has 123 charter campuses this academic year, has no overall cap on how many charter schools can open, although it cannot approve more than 10 a year.
Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, wrote a memo to the charter board ahead of its vote expressing concerns about adding charter campuses, saying they “are competing for a relatively limited number of high school aged students.”
Kihn said the city has ample empty seats in the charter and traditional public school sectors. Smaller schools are more expensive to run, and some city leaders and education advocates fear that adding schools could further tax resources.
Some neighborhood schools face budget cuts for the coming academic year because their enrollment is projected to take a steep dive. The city has 37 high schools for 19,000 children in that age group, according to Kihn. He said the city has more than 5,000 empty high school seats and more than 3,600 available middle school slots.
Children enrolled at the new charter schools would receive the same per-pupil funding as every other public school student in the District. Charter school students also receive an extra allocation for facility costs. But because new schools often start with a single grade and small enrollment, founders frequently work to secure grants and loans for start-up costs.
Rick Cruz, chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, offered a stern riposte to Kihn’s letter at the board’s public meeting last week, arguing that demand exists for high-performing schools. While some city schools sit half-empty, others have lengthy waiting lists of students clamoring to get in.
“It means little to us and even less to many D.C. families to hear that there are thousands of seats in many schools that boast poor academic results,” Cruz said. “Our objective is to ensure that every family has quality school choices, and when you look at this landscape through this particular lens, we still have far to go.”
The charter board then approved the following schools:
●Capital Village, a middle school that would start in fifth grade and provide each student with a personalized learning plan.
●Girls Global Academy, an all-girls high school with an International Baccalaureate program.
●Social Justice School, a middle school that would start in fifth grade.
●Sojourner Truth School, a Montessori-style middle and high school.
●I Dream Academy, an elementary school that would give students time each week to develop their “passion projects.”
I Dream Academy is the only one of the newly approved schools planned for east of the Anacostia River, the swath of the city with the highest concentration of poverty. The other schools say they plan to locate in more central parts of the city, hoping to attract students from across the District.
The schools still need to secure facilities.
“The beauty of charter schools is the idea that we can accomplish the same great education outcomes and do it in a lot of different ways,” said Beth Blaufuss, the board chair at Girls Global Academy, which hopes to locate downtown and eventually enroll 450 students. “Why all girls? For some girls, a single-sex environment is a pathway to feeling the sense of security they need to face big academic challenges.”
All five of the approved charters emerged from CityBridge Education, an incubator that works with charter school founders to develop business and academic plans before they submit applications to the charter board.
The incubator, which provides the founders with salaries so they can develop their schools full time, works with them the year after approval to help launch their campuses.
Katherine Bradley, a D.C. philanthropist who has been instrumental in shaping some of the city’s education efforts, founded CityBridge.
Executive Director Rachel Gleischman said the incubator looks for veteran educators with innovative ideas.
“If we want educators leading the way on the school innovation front, we have to give them the time and space to do all the work that goes into it,” Gleischman said. “We knew this cohort was incredibly strong, but [last week’s] results far exceeded our expectations.”
The founders of the five schools are longtime educators in the District and Prince George’s County in suburban Maryland.
Justin Lessek, founder of the Sojourner Truth School, is a former assistant principal at Columbia Heights Educational Campus.
Myron Long, founder of the Social Justice School, was a middle school principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District. And Monica Green, founder of Capital Village, taught English and theater in the District, Maryland and Virginia for 15 years.
Board members for the newly approved schools include prominent lawyers, bankers, community leaders and employees of the District’s traditional public school system.
Sarah Navarro, deputy chief of graduation excellence at D.C. Public Schools, is board chair at Sojourner Truth School.
“The board chair position is a volunteer role that I engage in outside of my work with DC Public Schools,” Navarro wrote in an email. “Both positions are focused on providing opportunities so all students in our city can thrive.”
Markus Batchelor, Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, said the city should focus on improving existing schools instead of building new ones. The neighborhood middle and high schools in Batchelor’s ward have available seats, and he said he worries about the effect additional campuses could have on enrollment in those schools.
The traditional public school system is also expanding. It plans to open a specialized high school next school year in Southeast and an early college program at Coolidge High in Northwest.
“The District really needs to focus on developing a coherent vision for public education more broadly,” Batchelor said. “We have a lot of work to do. We need to more intentionally plan where schools are going and what they are offering.”
In explaining their votes, charter board members talked about each new school’s leadership, education models and how they would recruit students representative of the city’s demographics.
And Cruz made clear that he did not believe the new schools would imperil existing campuses.
“The argument that public charter schools hurt existing schools and hurt their ability to improve,” Cruz said, “is just not one that I can accept.”