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The District’s charter board selects former St. Paul and D.C. school official as new leader

The D.C. Public Charter School Board on Wednesday named a former top St. Paul, Minn., public schools official to be its next executive director — one of the most powerful posts in D.C. education, overseeing a high-profile and expansive network of charter schools.

Michelle Walker-Davis, 47, is scheduled to begin the role in July, taking over for Scott Pearson, who has directed the growth of the District’s charter sector for much of the past decade and announced in November that he plans step down this year.

Walker-Davis has ties to the nation’s capital, serving as a top education aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) during his tenure and then as the chief of strategic planning and policy for D.C. Public Schools. She left for the Twin Cities in 2007, eventually rising to the No. 2 position in the St. Paul school system. She is currently the executive director of Generation Next, a nonprofit that uses data to develop plans to close academic and opportunity gaps in the Twin Cities.

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She will step into the new role in the midst of a pandemic and long-term campus closures during which students have fallen behind. And it is a time of conflicting currents for charters. When Pearson was selected in 2011, charter schools were widely popular, and his supporters hail the District’s charter sector as among the best in the nation.

But charter schools are facing increasing political resistance nationwide. In the District, the latest scores on standardized tests show the traditional D.C. public school system outperforming the city’s charter schools, although both sectors have shown slow improvements in recent years. The board approved five new charter schools to open this summer in Washington despite growing concerns about vacant seats on existing campuses in both sectors. And for the first time since D.C. charters were established in 1996, enrollment dropped in the sector this academic year after the closure of five low-performing or financially troubled campuses.

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The board uses a data-driven framework that it says assesses schools’ performance and holds campuses accountable. Critics have said the framework fails to account for the challenges that come with educating students who live in poverty.

In an interview, Walker-Davis, who once served as the chief accountability office for St. Paul Public Schools, said she would examine the framework more thoroughly when she arrives in the District and talk to the community about it.

“It is like no other time right now, and it is a little more difficult to enter, given social and physical distancing,” Walker-Davis said. “But it is an exciting time to be in the conversation around education, and it allows us an opportunity to expand our notions of what education is and isn’t.”

Rick Cruz, chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said board members have confidence that Walker-Davis’s experience in multiple facets of education have enabled her to navigate these rough currents and effectively communicate the benefits of charter schools to D.C. residents.

Walker-Davis, who is slated to earn $240,000 a year, will report to Cruz and the board’s six other mayoral-appointed members. The board has about 45 staff members who would report to Walker-Davis.

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While Davis has not worked directly in the charter sector, under Williams she pushed his school-choice agenda. She helped draft legislation to put the District’s school system under the control of the mayor instead of the school board. That legislation failed, but a similar measure passed under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) a few years later and laid the groundwork for the city’s current education landscape.

At D.C. community meetings in recent months, residents and charter school teachers said they wanted a board leader who understood the education challenges of the District and could help schools close the wide academic gap between students from low-incomes and their wealthier peers.

Like most school districts, St. Paul Public Schools — a diverse district with a large population of students from low-income families — has a significant achievement gap. The performance gap between students from low-income students and their wealthier peers hardly budged on the English and math portions of the Minnesota standardized exam between 2011 and 2017, according to school district data.

Walker-Davis said she questioned policies in St. Paul that resulted in minority students being overrepresented in the special-education population and underrepresented in gifted and Advanced Placement classes. She pushed the school board to approve a racial-equity policy, which provides training, hiring and other guidelines to address these disparities. She said she plans to ask these same questions of D.C. charter schools.

“When you talk about how do we close the achievement gap, it is about questioning the practices and policies that we have in place,” Walker Davis said.

Walker-Davis, a first-generation African American woman of Caribbean descent, has school-age children who will relocate with her to the District. She is still figuring out where her students will attend school and is in the process of participating in the D.C. school lottery placement system for families who missed the original deadline.

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