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Washington DC: Takeovers of struggling charter schools offer families stability, and a culture clash
By Michael Alison Chandler
The line of parents waiting to attend back-to-school night stretched down the sidewalk, and many of them had no idea what to expect as they approached the historic school on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington.
Last year, the building housed Imagine Southeast Public Charter School, a school whose charter was revoked. But instead of closing its doors, the school’s former leaders brought in another operator — New York-based Democracy Prep — to turn the school around. Though students were allowed to stay in the same building, everything else about their school appeared to have changed, including a longer school day and a heavy load of daily homework.
It’s a novel solution to an increasingly common challenge as charter authorizers push to close low-performing schools: What do you do with families that would be shut out?
In the District, more than a third of all schools ever chartered have closed. Most shut down because of financial problems or low enrollment, but in recent years, the D.C. Public Charter School Board also has taken a more aggressive approach to holding charter schools to their stated goals.
The board is enforcing the bargain they make at the inception of every charter for the independently run, publicly funded schools — that if they do not meet students’ needs, they will close. But shutting down can be a painful process for families who grow attached to their school communities and who do not always have better choices as fallbacks: Their neighborhood schools or taking their chances with a citywide enrollment lottery.
Charter takeovers have been rare. Democracy Prep has successfully turned around schools in Harlem and Camden, N.J., and it is preparing to take over another school in the Bronx this year.
But Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter advocacy group FOCUS, said it’s likely that the turnaround approach will gain traction nationally.
“There’s a great reluctance to turn these kids out on the streets,” he said.
Choosing a new steward
Arts and Technology Academy, a large elementary school in Northeast, also opted to bring in a new operator this year instead of closing its doors when the charter school board voted to close the school last year. And a court-appointed receiver for Options Public Charter school, where the former leaders are entangled in an alleged financial scandal, has requested proposals for a new operator to take over the school for at-risk teens next year.
Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, said it’s good to give families a way to stay put. But she said a takeover approach will not work in every case.
Replacing a school’s operator makes charter schools seem interchangeable, like “any school will do,” she said. But charters, by their nature, have very different missions and instructional approaches that families buy into when they make their choice.
“The whole point of charter schools is to match children with their passions and talents so they can be successful,” Edelin said.
Arts and Technology Academy was founded with a focus on motivating children through the arts. When it lost its charter after 15 years for failing to meet academic achievement goals, the school’s leaders were concerned about what would happen to the charter’s 560 students. While proficiency rates on grade-level math and reading tests hovered in the 30s, performance at surrounding traditional schools was worse.
Allison Artis, a principal at the school last year, said many of the families affected were longtime area residents.“Their number-one question was, ‘Will we have a school in the community?’ ”
The school’s board of trustees selected KIPP DC, a high-performing charter network, to take over the school. The new operator committed to providing daily arts programming while shoring up its academics. About 70 percent of the students reenrolled.
For KIPP — and Democracy Prep — the takeover offered a rare opportunity to walk into a ready-made school, complete with students and a fully furnished, light-filled building in a city where schools compete for students and high-quality facilities for charter schools are scarce.
“All we needed was a coat of paint,” said Artis, who stayed on at the school as a KIPP principal.
Imagine Southeast opened in 2008, a school run by an Arlington-based for-profit company that manages charters in a dozen states. It offered single-sex classes and, by many accounts, a family-friendly, supportive environment to more than 600 students in preschool through middle school. In its final years, the school had a lot of turnover and flux in staffing and administration as well as curriculum and behavior plans, said Carla Toliver, a former teacher at the school.
“With people constantly cycling in and out, I was feeling like I did not know what I was going to walk into the next day,” Toliver said.
She was relieved when a new operator restarted the school. “I thought, finally our scholars are going to get what they need,” she said. Democracy Prep markets itself as a rigorous, “no-excuses,” college preparatory school with an emphasis on civic education.
Under the new operator, Imagine staff members had to reapply for their jobs. Eight were rehired, including Toliver and three other teachers. The rest of the teaching positions were filled through a national search.
The school was repainted in Democracy Prep blue and gold, and lines of tape were affixed to the hallway floors to guide the students. Students are taught to walk along the lines with their arms against their sides and hands flat against their thighs.
Students came back to a longer school day, classrooms named for universities, and new teachers who call them “scholars.” The new school kept some single-sex classrooms.
“I don’t think using the term culture shock would be wrong,” said Democracy Prep spokeswoman Alice Maggin.
On back-to-school night, kindergarten teacher Yolanda Johnson spoke of her classroom’s jam-packed daily schedule. Between 7:30 a.m., when students arrive for breakfast, and their 4 p.m. closing circle, they fit in about five hours of math and literacy, 45 minutes for science and social studies, and an hour for specials, such as technology and art. Instead of recess, they have quick “brain breaks” or “wiggle breaks.”
“It’s a very, very long day, and the students are expected to work very, very hard,” Johnson said. “To be successful in college, you have to have discipline, so we are preparing them now.”
When Democracy Prep leaders first came to talk to the new parents about the school’s approach, Yolanda Smith, a mother of two students at the school and the vice president of the former Parent Teacher Organization, was dismayed. Smith had fought for Imagine to stay open. She liked its single-gender classes and well-rounded curriculum, with arts and music programs and sports.
“They had a lot of different things,” she said. “It was not just read, read, read, math, math, math.” So she decided to leave.
In all, 80 percent of Imagine’s students reenrolled. Machelle Gantt’s two children were among them.
“By the time I found out, it was difficult to move,” she said. “I said I would give it a chance.”
Since the school year started, Gantt has had concerns about the strict discipline and the lack of recess. “I feel like all children need some kind of outlet to burn off the energy,” she said.
But after the back-to-school presentation, she said she was pleased with the academics and the school’s high level of organization.
“I’m a little more optimistic that things will work out,” she said.