Gray Duncan

How DC Got To Be An Education Hot Spot

Washington Post Opinions

 July 11

The news this month that D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson dispatched her principals to recruit students in house-to-house canvassing sounds like a declaration of war with the charter schools. What if they bump up against charter principals doing the same thing — clipboard duels at 20 yards?

Given the district vs. charter fights we’ve seen in cities such as New YorkChicagoBoston and Los Angeles, it’s easy to assume that the District is headed in the same direction. Now that charter school enrollment is up to about half the city’s public school enrollment, this would seem like a logical time for war to break out.

Relax. It’s one more sign that the District has evolved into one of the most creative charter-district relationships in the country. And that’s a good thing.

The fight in New York City is partly rooted in ideology. The new mayor, Bill de Blasio (D), is an unabashed progressive who believes that all resources should be focused on “common” schools — despite the unimpressive track record they have in educating low-income minority kids. In other cities with bitter charter-district conflicts, it’s a matter of market share: Superintendents and teachers unions view every child in a charter as a revenue loss.

The D.C. model is different. Here, a liberal charter school law and generous per-student payments allowed for quick growth — too quick, actually. But Scott Pearson, who oversees D.C. charters, has done an impressive job of shutting down bad charters and building up high-performing charters.

While the District has an impressive number of schools belonging to the national charter organization KIPP, what’s notable is the number of homegrown programs that rank in the top tier of D.C. charter schools: D.C. Prep, Thurgood Marshall, Two Rivers, Washington Latin, Achievement Prep and others.

Achievement Prep, in Ward 8, warrants special mention. Founder Shantelle Wright has built a school that outperforms other schools in the ward by as much as 40 points on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams. Henderson expressed an interest in Wright absorbing a failing Ward 8 district school — yet another sign that Henderson sees the ­district-charter relationship as more than just competition.

Schooling in Ward 8 is about to get more interesting. In 2015, San Jose-based Rocketship Education will open a school there that will collaborate with the high-performing AppleTree Early Learning. AppleTree will handle preschool and Rocketship will handle kindergarten through fifth grade. That twinning, suggested by Pearson, is yet another reason D.C. schools are drawing national attention.

The buildup of good charters played out at the same time that the reforms in public school begun by former superintendent Michelle Rhee and continued by Henderson were kicking in. Those two forces playing off one another made D.C. Public Schools the fastest-improving urban district on recent federal tests.

The D.C. district-charter balance resembles the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, where Superintendent John Porter is building a thoughtful weave of charters and traditional schools.

When Porter allowed Rocketship charters to build a new school around the corner from the district’s Robert F. Kennedy Elementary, the initial reaction at Kennedy was one of dismay. Would parents abandon the school? Instead, Kennedy responded by building an impressive science-themed school in partnership with San Jose’s Tech Museum. As more charters have opened, district schools have responded by, you guessed it, going to the neighborhoods to recruit students charter-style. It’s working as planned.

Where will the District’s charter-district relationship end up? It could evolve into what we see in Houston’s Spring Branch schools, where top charters got invited into district schools as full partners, not just co-located schools. This is inspiration by cooperation rather than competition.

My suggestion: Henderson and Pearson should take a road trip to Spring Branch. Soon.

In San Antonio, local foundations intent on improving schools assembled a collection of charters — some aimed at low-income Latino parents, others to target middle-class parents. For those accustomed to charters serving only high-need neighborhoods, that sounds odd. But it makes sense. Winning the support of soccer moms means cementing political support for better schools.

Currently, D.C. Public Schools has a monopoly on public schools serving the affluent Ward 3, which explains the interest in securing a spot in the high-performing Woodrow Wilson High School zone. But what if charters that appeal to middle-class parents, such as Basis or Great Hearts, opened in Georgetown? That would shake things up in DCPS and the private-school world, where lofty tuitions get forked over for educations no better than what tuition-free charters offer.

We can’t pretend that everything is copacetic between D.C. district and charter schools. DCPS has more than 20 unused school buildings it has yet to release. And Wright, despite her sterling success, has yet to find a permanent home. How can that be allowed to stand? But if you think of that as strife, you need to check in on the intense combat in New York and Los Angeles. No comparison.

So, if you get stopped on the street by clipboard-bearing D.C. principals, offer encouragement and welcome them to one of the nation’s education hot spots. Sounds weird, right? But it’s true.

Richard Whitmire is author of “On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope,” which looks at Rocketship Education.

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