Steve Bumbaugh is a member of the Public Charter School Board and a former teacher.
I started my career teaching at Kramer Junior High School, the lowest-ranked school in the District, when our city had the dubious honor of having the worst public school system in the country. Twenty years later, we’d birthed a charter sector widely regarded as the best in the United States. When Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked me to serve on the city’s Public Charter School Board (PCSB), I was honored. I wanted to participate in a system that provided genuine academic and social opportunities for our city’s most vulnerable children.
Early in my tenure, I discovered charter schools largely mimicked the racial and socio-economic segregation that prevailed in D.C.’s public schools before the advent of charters. The few white students in the system congregated in the same few schools: Washington Latin, BASIS, Two Rivers, Yu Ying and Mundo Verde. Other highly regarded schools — KIPP, D.C. Prep, Rocketship, Ingenuity Prep — served low-income black students who seemed on track for college. But the schools that organized to serve the very neediest students — children in the criminal justice system, facing homelessness, in foster care or suffering from severe trauma — were the lowest-ranked. Just by looking at a school’s demographic profile, particularly the percentage of students deemed “at risk,” I could fairly guess a school’s rating.
Four years into my PCSB term, after a recent PCSB hearing at which it was insinuated a school designed for our most at-risk students should close, I am struggling with my role, worried that I am failing to use my perch to protect the most vulnerable students. Students like me.
As a young child, I was in foster care until I was lucky enough to be adopted by caring parents. I struggled to overcome those traumatic early years: I was first arrested at age 8 and routinely got into fights. But my previously precarious life morphed into a firmly structured routine that included family meals, chores, bath and story time and therapy. As the years passed, the fights waned, suspensions became awards and predictions of prison turned into acceptance letters from top universities. Thanks to the steady devotion of my parents, and a cadre of adults who enforced a code of love and high expectations, I graduated from Yale in 1988 and moved to the District to teach in Southeast.
In my role on the PCSB, I am not averse to closing an underperforming school if students have better options. That’s why I joined my colleagues in voting to close Excel, Potomac Prep, National Collegiate Prep and Democracy Prep — all schools that exclusively served low-income black students.
But closing Monument Academy would leave its students with few good options. Monument is a residential school serving 120 fifth- through eighth-graders who are not only low-income but who also have experienced levels of trauma well beyond students in other D.C. schools.
At the PCSB’s most recent public meeting, the board’s executive director presented alarming assertions about the high number of safety incidents, including sexual assaults and the presence of weapons. He suggested we consider closing the school in an unprecedented process.
I don’t dismiss safety concerns, and 1,800 self-reported student behavior incidents surely is a large number. But few details of these incidents were provided, and Monument’s record was not compared to other schools. In contrast, another charter school with some of the most egregious safety incidents in the history of the sector remains open and highly ranked, never having been subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
Monument opened just four years ago, and more than 80 percent of its students have been under the supervision of the District’s Department of Children and Family Services. More than one-third are homeless. Four years after my parents adopted me, I was fighting regularly, throwing rocks at cars for fun and stealing anything that wasn’t bolted down. Of course, Monument faces safety issues. But school closure should not be a reflex to challenges. It should be carefully weighed against other options and determined to be the best available. That has not happened here.
Such considerations are critical for Monument students, many of whom have been expelled by other schools and will not be welcomed by top-ranked charters, some of which referred students to Monument in the first place. By closing Monument, students’ educational opportunities will evaporate and the damage to them compounded.
Monument’s students, like me decades ago, need routine, high expectations and love. Clearly, change is required. But there is a vast spectrum between the status quo and closing the school. As adults tasked with governing a school system, it is the PCSB’s responsibility to create the conditions for social and academic success for children. We bear an added responsibility when overseeing the lives of children who have lost the birth lottery.