The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s absolutely terrible’: When a charter school closes, what happens to the kids?

Claude Presley, left, Samuel Korpoi and Robert Johnson, faculty members at National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter School, rally last week outside the D.C. Public Charter School Board offices before a vote to revoke their school’s charter. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

When Kamilah Wheeler moved back to Southeast Washington two years ago, she didn’t want to enroll her children in the neighborhood public school.

So she turned to a charter school, landing on Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High for her daughter, an aspiring film director and math teacher.

But in March 2018, the District’s charter regulator — a board charged with overseeing the city’s publicly funded but privately operated charter schools — voted to shutter the campus because of mismanaged finances.

Wheeler had to find another school for her daughter’s senior year.

She selected National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High. Her younger son and a niece also started at the Southeast Washington school in August.

Then, it happened again: The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted last week to shut down National Collegiate at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year because of low performance.

That means Wheeler’s family is once again in education limbo.

“For my kids, it’s terrible,” Wheeler said. “It’s really frustrating because I do not believe in the system anymore.”

National Collegiate is one of three public charter schools the board in recent weeks voted to close because of poor performance. Democracy Prep Congress Heights and City Arts and Prep are expected to close at the end of this academic year, followed a year later by National Collegiate.

One of the District’s oldest and most prominent charter networks — Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy — announced last week that it would close its middle school campus in Columbia Heights for financial reasons. Its two high schools will merge on a single campus.

Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools announces it will close two campuses.

The closures — which leave more than 1,500 students scrambling for seats in other schools — highlight the turmoil that befalls children when the lights are permanently turned off in their classrooms. Students are often forced to leave behind friends and teachers they have grown up with. Parents are often stuck navigating the lottery that is used to place students — and they must do it when their children are in the middle of their academic career, when fewer slots are available.

At a tense public hearing in mid-January at National Collegiate, students, staff and parents pleaded with the charter board to keep their school open. They argued that the school had fostered a safe and nurturing community, which pushed students academically.

Families, including Wheeler’s, had opted out of their neighborhood high schools in Southeast Washington because they regard them as low-performing. Instead, they decided to enroll in National Collegiate and now fear they will be forced to attend those neighborhood schools if they are unlucky in the citywide school lottery.

“Instead of trying to shut it down, how about finding a way to keep it open?” D’Andre Mitchell, an athletic coach at the school and 2015 graduate, said at the meeting. “Where are they going to go? What are they going to do if you shut it down?”

The D.C. Charter School Board said it was closing National Collegiate because the school posted one of the District’s lowest graduation rates in 2018 and has test scores below city averages and a large percentage of students who do not re-enroll.

“Students are our top priority which is why the Board closes schools which fail to meet the quality educational goals they agreed to as part of their charter,” Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter school board, wrote in a statement.

The board usually tries to find other charter school operators to take over struggling schools. If they can’t, 10 enrollment specialists hired by the board help families find the right schools for their children.

Somerset Prep DC and Ideal Academy public charter schools faced potential closure for low performance this year but struck deals with big charter networks to operate them. KIPP DC will run Somerset, and Friendship Public Charter School will operate Ideal. Last year, D.C. Public Schools took over Excel Academy, an all-girls school in Southeast Washington that the charter board shut down.

A school called Excel failed. Now, D.C. Public Schools is reviving the all-girls campus.

“Having a high-profile operator coming in with resources and support is a win for us,” said Lauren Catalano, principal of Somerset in Southeast Washington. “Even though it feels like the end of something we have put our hearts and souls into, it’s the beginning of something new.”

Nastassia Johnson, a mother of four children at Chavez Prep Middle School in Columbia Heights, said she was stunned when she learned the school would close and is trying to figure out alternative education plans.

She said she chose Chavez, with an enrollment constituted almost entirely of black and Hispanic students, so her children would get to know people from different backgrounds. Now, she wants to secure seats for them at the competitive DC International School — a charter serving ­middle- and high-schoolers.

“Hopefully, they will have a good shot at the school I choose,” Johnson said. “I’m just sad they upped and closed their school at the last minute.”

Lanette Dailey-Reese, executive director of City Arts and Prep, lamented that the city will lose an arts school for elementary and middle school students if her campus closes. Upon graduation, she said many of the students attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts — the traditional public school system’s renowned application arts school.

She contends her school is not failing and unsuccessfully appealed to the city’s deputy mayor for education for a reprieve. With more time, she says it could become a top-performing school.

“Are we a Tier 1 school? No. Could we be a Tier 1 school? Sure,” Dailey-Reese said. “We’re a critical piece of the arts community.”

Students at National Collegiate, which has an International Baccalaureate program, said academic data measurements do not tell the whole story of their school. Many students face challenges outside of school that teachers help them surmount.

“Without the [International Baccalaureate] program, I wouldn’t be thinking about college,” said Victoria Bell, a senior. “Without National Collegiate Preparatory, I wouldn’t be doing anything with my life.”