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Exclusive interview with John “Skip” McKoy, chairman Public Charter School Board

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It has been a little over a year since I sat down for a conversation with the chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board about the progress being made by his organization so I felt fortunate to once again have the opportunity. Mr. McKoy was eager to bring me up-to-date. “The first thing I would point to is the maturity of the Performance Management Framework. We have created the Alternative and Early Childhood PMF’s in which the staff did a great job with the development of these tools. We have also adjusted the accountability targets. All of this has been challenging work that has been completed utilizing a highly professional process engaging school leaders as much as possible.”

The PCSB chairman next talked about being able to bring experienced charter operators to the city. “This year we accepted applications from Harmony Public Charter Schools and Democracy Prep Public Charter Schools. In the past we approved Rocketship Education, Somerset Prep, and BASIS to open in Washington, D.C. I’m looking forward to them blending into our communities to offer families quality and diverse educational options.”

Mr. McKoy also highlighted his contention that the Board is getting better at identifying qualified candidates that will eventually become PMF Tier 1 institutions. The PCSB chairman listed the characteristics that increase the likelihood of a charter having a successful application.

First, he mentioned school leadership as being essential. “There has to be an active leader who is going to spearhead this effort. If this position is held by a part-time person or volunteer then the school decreases it chances of success. In addition, the person filling this role has to make a multiyear commitment.”

The second factor Mr. McKoy identified as leading to a successful application is having the founding members know as much as possible about the proposed curriculum. “The better they understand the instructional philosophy and key ingredients together with the major assessments the better they will do,” he explained.

The PCSB chairman also addressed the financial picture that is portrayed in the application. “The founding team should show an understanding that if they are presenting a charter that will truly be innovative compared to a traditional school, and this is what we want, then they must have an appreciation of the additional costs associated with a successful project.”

He added that it goes without saying that a charter must have detailed plans for how it will teach special education students and English language learners. “The applicant should also demonstrate a comprehension of the demographics of the nation’s capital, not just concerning race and income but in all areas,” Mr. McKoy related. Closely associated with this suggestion is the idea that the charter has knowledge of the education community. “The applicant has to show that it has contemplated on-going parent involvement,” the PCSB chairmen asserted.

Lastly, Mr. McKoy stated that new charters have to have completed research about where to locate. “New schools cannot wait until they are approved to begin operating to begin the search for a building.”

The PCSB chairman alluded to a couple of areas where applicants can run into trouble. “If they are going to talk about blended learning they should describe how this fits comprehensively into the rest of their program. Moreover, if schools are going to offer a multilingual curriculum then the justification for these courses should fall within their overall philosophy.”

Besides improvements in the way applicants are approved Mr. McKoy singled out as major accomplishments Board assistance in the creation of the D.C. International School, and within the scope of powers granted to his body through the School Reform Act, effectively dealing with charters that may have engaged in financial malfeasance. He is also proud of the unified lottery available to parents through My School DC.

I inquired of Mr. McKoy if in retrospect the issues regarding Options PCS and Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS could have been prevented. “Well, hindsight is of course twenty-twenty,” he replied. “And we’ve learned good lessons. We will be seeking greater authority to require additional financial information, especially from charter management organizations. But in the end, the D.C. Attorney General carried out his investigative prosecutorial role and the system worked the way it is supposed to operate. People will be held accountable for their actions.” Mr. McKoy also commented that better training of board members of Local Education Agencies may have permitted better oversight.

I then requested that Mr. McKoy talk about the current goals of his organization. Again, the PCSB chairman responded without a hint of hesitation. “We would like to provide on-going assistance to Tier 2 schools. It would be great to be able to help without taking anything away from their autonomy. For example, we should ask if schools have been in contact with the D.C. Special Education Co-operative, the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools or Charter Board Partners on appropriate issues. We can also suggest types of organizations that can assist in addressing Qualitative School Reviews (QSRs).

The PCSB chairman then talked about one of his personal aims. Mr. McKoy feels passionately that along with maintaining autonomy of the charter school sector it is critically important that parents have real school choice, meaning that each and every child should be able to have a quality seat. “Choice means nothing if all the choices are bad,” Mr. McKoy stated emphatically. We then got into a conversation about the coordination issue with DCPS that was raised recently around the location of Harmony PCS right across the street from Langley Elementary. “In the abstract, we should be able to look at a particular sector of the city and then forecast the education needs based upon the number of kids living there. If DCPS is not supplying adequate seats then charters should be encouraged to locate there. We will not hurt the autonomy of charters, but on paper we can determine if the public purpose of additional quality seats would be better served by a school deciding to open in a particular location.”

It occurred to me that what Mr. McKoy was describing was almost exactly what occurred with Harmony. The traditional elementary school has an academic proficiency rate below that of the city average. The Harmony network consists of high performing schools. Therefore, I offered, isn’t the site of Harmony exactly what the DCPCSB chairman was suggesting? Mr. McKoy replied. “On the surface it does, but I would have to know much more about Langley. I would want to know what the parents thought, what DCPS Chancellor Henderson thought about quality upgrades for Langley. Please remember that in my movie, we are talking about strategic thinking for where charters can fill quality gaps.”

I then asked Mr. McKoy if he was in favor of charters having a neighborhood preference. He replied, “I like the recommendation of the task force that looked at this issue which said that if a charter is replacing a DCPS school immediately after it has been closed then it should have the option of establishing some proportion of seats for neighborhood kids. One side of me says that this could be a tremendous help for students so that they can take advantage of a high performing program. But another side of me says that we better first understand the impact of this policy on the lottery as well as whether this will change the access to good schools for low income children. So, I would have to consider all of these factors before giving you a recommendation. There is no easy answer here.”

I brought up the fact that there are now 23 closed DCPS schools that are sitting vacant. I wanted to know if the PCSB chairman thought they should be turned over to charters. “I think we should be able to have a conversation with Kaya Henderson and Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith about the traditional schools reshuffling their deck. The end product of this work would be to identify at least some facilities that could be turned over for use by charters.”

The DCPS chairman then became philosophical in his remarks. “I love this city. I had an excellent education in Philadelphia and it is ridiculous that every kid here cannot have the same experience. In addition to the great cultural resources here, there are such great things happening right now in this town, with young people moving in and the presence, for the first time in history, of a real tech sector. What we have to figure out is how to service parents who long for the urban, mixed ethnics, cultures and classes, experience for their children, but who want that same experience to guarantee acceptance in universities like Stanford. At the same time, how does the same school take children that are three to four years behind grade level and get them caught up and beyond? Neither DCPS nor charters have yet figured this out with our full portfolio of schools.”

“I also wonder about two schools that both serve low income children that are radically different in their risk profiles but whose performance is assessed on the same metrics. For instance, one institution hypothetically can be serving poor children, but these kids have a relatively low risk of dropping out of the system. Then you have another school where the impact of poverty generates high toxic stress, constant violence, major residential noise, inadequate diets, total absence of helpful role models, thus these kids have a great likelihood of ending up on the street. I don’t want to unfairly penalize the school that has an enrollment of high risk students. I know we have taken a step with this through the development of the Alternative School Performance Management Framework. But, I want to learn more about why high risk kids under-perform and why some schools appear to still be able to advance student growth for “high risk” students.

Mr. McKoy concluded, “This is an exciting time to be part of the charter school movement. Much progress is being made. An extremely small number of schools having problems will not discourage support for charters. Credit for what we have achieved has to be given to the early founders like Donald Hense and Linda Moore; the second wave like Susan Schaeffler, Emily Lawson, Jennie Niles; and later leaders like Shantelle Wright, Maquita Alexander, and Jack McCarthy. We are ending middle class flight at the same time that we are improving education for the underserved. The future looks exceedingly bright.”

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