DCPS maintains a system of neighborhood schools with seats guaranteed to anyone within prescribed boundaries. The PCSB oversees schools open to all comers citywide. Decisions about openings, closings, program offerings and facilities have, more often than not, been made in isolation.
Last month’s IFF report on school capacity is the latest sign that the silos are about to come down. Among its recommendations for improving education in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods is “a sustained and coordinated effort” between the 123-school public system and the community of 53 publicly funded, independently operated schools. The report, which divides all public and public charter schools into quartiles based on test score trends, urges the city to invest in middle-of-the-pack, “Tier 2” schools to make them more effective. But it also sees charters playing a key role in some of the 10 “neighborhood clusters” — most of them south and east of the Anacostia River — identified as most in need of better education options. The report recommended that the city take steps to improve or close 41 schools in what it called Tier 4, the lowest quartile. Most of those are in DCPS. The report also recommended that any school seats lost in that process should be replaced by seats in high-performing charter or regular public schools.
While city officials stress that no final decisions will be made without careful discussion at the community level, IFF recommends that the city “coordinate the closure of DCPS schools with PCSB. As necessary, authorize a charter school within the same building or in the immediate vicinity before school closure. With cooperation and coordination between DCPS and PCSB, PCSB can use the buildings as incentives to recruit the highest-performing charter school operators into the Top Ten priority neighborhood clusters.”
Scott Pearson, the charter board’s new executive director, said he welcomes the prospect of collaboration.
“I came into this job excited about the idea of working in a more coordinated way with my partners in the public schools,” said Pearson, a former U.S. Department of Education official and co-founder of a San Francisco charter management organization. He was appointed by the board in December to manage PCSB staff, consult with board members on charter issues and represent them in dealings with schools and city officials.
It will mean a change in the way the seven-member board, appointed by the mayor, does business. When it votes to authorize the opening of a school — as it has done more than 50 times in its 15-year history — it has been with little consideration to location. IFF recommended that the board issue “geographic and grade specific requests for charter school proposals” aimed at the 10 neighborhood clusters. Pearson said the board will work with Deputy Mayor De’Shawn Wright and Chancellor Kaya Henderson on a more concerted approach.
“If we see that there are neighborhoods where there is a dearth of quality schools, we should try to focus quality charter operators to open there,” Pearson said, especially if surplus DCPS buildings are available. But, he added, “I don’t think we would get to the point where we would be so prescriptive we would tell schools that they can’t open anywhere but these neighborhoods.”
A number of cities have been fostering more collaboration between traditional school districts and charters. A new report by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education noted “a paradigm shift” taking hold in cities such as New York, Baltimore, Denver and Boston, “from two decades of animosity and winner-take-all competition toward strategic collaboration and partnership.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting formal district-charter agreements with funding in 14 cities.
Pearson said he plans to look locally and nationally for top charter organizations interested in locating in the neighborhoods targeted by IFF.
“I think one of the strengths of the charter sector in D.C. is that so many of the charter schools and so many high-performing schools are home grown,” he said, referring to E.L. Haynes, Washington Latin, D.C. Prep, Two Rivers and other charter schools.
One thing Pearson said he does not see: charters somehow replacing traditional public schools in the neighborhoods highlighted by IFF. The city would risk eligibility for federal funding if charter schools operated with some kind of neighborhood admissions preference, he said.
“It’s a very dangerous, slippery slope,” Pearson said. “For every neighborhood preference that says ‘This makes a lot of sense,’ there are lot of examples where it would be a bad idea. Once you open the door to that it becomes very difficult to decide which neighborhood preferences would be helpful.”