The board of Monument Academy Public Charter School voted Tuesday to close the school at the end of the academic year — a stunning turn for a weekday boarding campus that has attracted big name-donors and received national attention for its approach to educating students who have extensive learning and emotional needs.
The vote comes just weeks before the end of the academic year and leaves dozens of middle-school students scrambling to find a school for next year. The deadline to enter the lottery that places students in schools has passed, although all District students have a guaranteed slot in their neighborhood school.
“Let me start by saying: I’m sorry,” Charles Moore, chair of Monument’s board, wrote in a letter to families and staff Wednesday. “We know this decision will have a profound impact on the students, families, and staff of the school.”
The decision to close comes after the public release of data last month showing hundreds of safety incidents at the Northeast Washington school, some of them violent.
Monument Academy opened in 2015 with the mission of serving students whose needs are not easily addressed in traditional schools: those who come from unstable homes and need round-the-clock structure and mental-health services. It is one of three public boarding schools in the District, with children living on campus five nights a week.
Problems at Monument, at 500 19th St. NE, were revealed last month after the District’s charter board, which oversees the city’s 123 charter campuses, called a meeting to address safety concerns at the school.
Monument had met few of its academic targets and was expected to face staffing cuts next year amid declining enrollment, according to the charter board. Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he feared the academy could not operate safely with fewer staff members.
“We have recently received information concerning Monument Academy Public Charter School’s planned staffing model for the 2019-20 school year that has gravely concerned us about the ability of the school to operate safely in school year 2019-2020,” Pearson wrote in a May 14 letter to Monument leaders requesting a meeting. The letter was obtained by The Washington Post.
After a tense public meeting with the D.C. charter board, Monument’s board voted May 22 to recommend that the school close. Since then, staff members have been working with students to arrange new schools for next year.
The Tuesday evening vote occurred in a private meeting.
Emily Bloomfield, founder of Monument, said this week she is unsure how Monument’s standing eroded so quickly. Bloomfield is a former member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
“I’m perplexed,” she said.
But Moore wrote in his letter that Monument’s board has been concerned about the school for at least a year. In November, the board called on staff to implement a plan to improve academics and safety.
“The board has been concerned about the school’s performance for some time,” Moore wrote.
Every five years, the charter board reviews the performance and finances of schools to determine whether they should be allowed to continue operations. Monument’s charter was up for review in the coming academic year. It has not met the bulk of its academic goals or its enrollment targets, which means the board could have closed it.
Moore wrote in his letter that the Monument board believed the charter was unlikely to be renewed. He said the school did not want to wait until next year to shut down because operating a campus that people know will close can be challenging.
“Closing schools experience high staff attrition — often filling gaps with long-term substitutes — and have greater issues with safety,” Moore wrote. “That is not a fair situation to students.”
Bloomfield wrote in a statement Wednesday that she recently installed a new leadership team and believed the school was improving. In the wake of the vote, she said the city needs to focus on mitigating “the damage of Monument’s sudden closure on the 105 students and families whose lives have been disrupted.”
“Over the course of the past year, Monument acknowledged the school’s challenges and put into place a new leadership team that had begun implementing more effective systems,” Bloomfield wrote. “The data was already showing the results: improved academics and behavior, and reduced suspensions.”
Others had also called on the school to remain open. Some teachers, students and parents held a rally Monday in front of the school. Bloomfield attended. One teacher said if Monument closed, many students would be sent to the same neighborhood schools that originally expelled them.
Students said they found a home at Monument and did not want to leave. A few parents also shared their testimonials and expressed worries about where their children would attend school.
“I’ve been at this school for two years, and I’ve seen the changes that it’s done for these kids — especially my kid,” said Moranda Austin, whose son attends Monument.
Steve Bumbaugh — one of six representatives on the D.C. Public Charter School Board appointed by the mayor — wrote an op-ed in The Post advocating for the school to remain open.
“Of course, Monument faces safety issues. But school closure should not be a reflex to challenges,” Bumbaugh wrote. “It should be carefully weighed against other options and determined to be the best available. That has not happened here.”
At a public meeting last month, the D.C. charter board highlighted statistics that portrayed a dysfunctional campus where staff has little control of students.
Since the start of this school year, more than 1,800 safety incidents have been reported at the campus, including bullying, property destruction, physical altercations and sexual assault, according to the charter school board. Forty alleged incidents of sexual misconduct and four of sexual assault have been reported. And the charter school board said that on 17 occasions, students have been found to possess a weapon, including using a stapler in a dangerous manner, and a knife.
There have been 88 incidents in which students have left the school without permission.
A number of charter schools are closing at the end of the academic year for performance and financial reasons, although most announced their closures before the deadline passed for the lottery that determines where students will be placed.
Moore wrote in his letter that the board takes responsibility for how the school’s closure played out and that it “failed miserably on engaging parents, staff and the wider community on these issues.”
He said the board wrongly believed that communicating earlier to families and staff that the school was considering closure would lead to students and staff leaving.
“The problem with that decision is that it provided no opportunity for the wider community to rally and identify solutions to the core issues we face — with enough time to implement them,” Moore said. “And most unfair it did not allow families to seek other options through the lottery. If we had to do it over, we would take a different path.”
Valerie Strauss is author of the Answer Sheet blog.