Last week I wrote about the proposed merger between Septima Clark PCS and Achievement Preparatory Academy PCS, and I brought up some issues regarding the plan. Since that time more questions have arisen.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board's supporting documentation for the planned merger states that “in an effort to avoid the likelihood of closure, the Septima Clark Board of Trustees set out to find an option for better serving its current students.” However, there has never been a suggestion that Septima Clark PCS be closed. The school received an unconditional five year continuance from the PCSB in December 2011. As I mentioned in my last article, Septima Clark students experienced tremendous academic gains on the 2012 DC CAS examination. Reading and math scores increased by 17 percent, making this the highest ranking charter for improvement in results for last year, and the third highest school for academic growth of all public schools in the District. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) designated Septima Clark a Reward School because of these distinctions.
In 2011 Septima Clark was graded as a PCSB Performance Management Framework Tier 3 school and this year was rated as a low Tier 2. While the PMF provides the public with a convenient way for judging the quality of a charter, we have to remember it plays a much larger role. The central notion behind the PMF was to identify areas where schools need to improve, and then use the public classifications as a powerful incentive for them to change. It appears that the administrators and staff of Septima Clark reacted perfectly appropriately to this challenge. Instead of being closed, this success story involving a high proportion of special education and low income students should be celebrated.
Septima Clark has not secured a permanent facility, which is a chronic problem among charters. The school’s PCSB 2011 to 2012 annual report reveals that the Tier 3 designation has “had a chilling effect” on the ability to receive financing and locate a home. However, this charter has a number of things going for it that others do not. It has an overwhelmingly attractive mission as the only all boys school in the nation’s capital. This mission has allowed almost $2 million to be raised from individuals, corporations, and foundations. The school has also secured a $1 million OSSE City Build loan. It has been able to put aside an additional $400,000 toward the future site.
I have studied the charter school facility hunt for over a decade and I know how hard it is. But I find it hard to imagine that with this financial foundation and the assistance of an organization like Building Hope this conundrum could not be solved.
Unfortunately other concerns surrounding the merger of these two charters eventually led to the resignation of the Septima Clark’s Head of School and founder. Here is part of a letter Jenny DuFresne wrote to PCSB Chairman Brian Jones wrote on January 31, 2013, the day she stepped down from her position as Head of School:
“Conflict of Interest Agreements are standard protocol for all Boards of Trustees. It is prudent for Boards of Trustees involved in a merger/turnaround process to provide the PCSB updated Conflict of Interest Agreements, specific to financial interests or other possible material gains for sitting board members of either school. Certification that no conflicts of interest relative to individual board member(s) financial gain in facilitating or profiting from a merger is imperative to assure internal and external stakeholders that Board deliberations are fair and impartial. In the case of SCPCS, individual board members and/or their companies received financial compensation exceeding $50,000. Perception of a fair, transparent, and impartial process for mergers/turnaround is critical for the charter movement and the possible increased tempo of charter mergers supported by the PCSB, charter management organizations, or private, for-profit firms.”
She, together with some of the school’s parents, was troubled because in April, 2012, as the supporting documentation to the merger explains, Ten Square was engaged to conduct a Septima board retreat. Ten Square is led by Thurgood Marshal Academy PCS co-founder Josh Kern. According to Ms. DuFresne, the meeting was originally planned to discuss the facility issue. Instead, she recalled, the agenda was revised to entail a discussion on the steps to take in order to move the school’s PMF score from Tier 3 to Tier 2. Options included merging the school with Achievement Prep, conduct a complete turnaround, or continue as is without outside interference.
As it turned out, the Septima Clark Head of School informed me that the session focused almost singularly on the first alternative. Mr. Kern facilitated the retreat during the time that he served on the Achievement Prep Board, which according to the Ten Square official was from January to June, 2012.
Ms. DuFresne said she became frustrated with the lack of transparency regarding the merger decision. So on January 2, 2013, when she remembers her board of directors presenting her with a severance agreement she said essentially dictated that she could champion the joining of Septima Clark with Achievement Prep to stakeholders or leave, she eventually elected to remove herself from her position.
Ms. DuFresne wrote again to Mr. Jones just last Friday. She had been asked to sign a letter asking OSSE to transfer Septima Clark’s City Build grant over to Achievement Prep. Remember that the official merger has not yet occurred. She thought the request was odd. “It is unclear why Shantell Wright, Head of School, Achievement Preparatory Academy, has signed a letter that primarily related to the management of Septima Clark’s federal entitlement funds and federally-funded competitive grants.”
The PCSB hearing on the merger is scheduled for tonight.