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Smart Cities: Strong Charters Will Soon Serve Half of DC Students

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"After a lifetime here, I find it hard to believe how much experiments, excitement, progress and change are taking place in Washington," said a veteran D.C. education reformer. "Just five years ago, the DC Public Schools were the worst performing public school system in the U.S. and...On the two NAPE tests since, we showed considerable improvement."

What happened? A combination of great charters, college scholarships, and tough reforms:

  • Charters. A handful of charters (SEED, Maya Angelou, Cesar Chavez, Friendship) launched in after the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) were formed in 1996. FocusDC summarizes the remarkable growth, "public charter schools now educate 43 percent of public school children in Washington, D.C.--a higher share than any other big city except New Orleans...over 35,000 students are enrolled at over 100 campuses." Because charters are growing at a 10 percent rate and DCPS enrollment is flat, they'll soon serve half of the student population.
  • Scholarships. Don Graham launched DC-CAP in 1998 and Bob Craves launched DC College Success Foundation in 2004 (with a lot of help from Jim Shelton and the Gates Foundation) capitalizing on the DC-TAG law, which allows them to go to state universities with a federal scholarship for some of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. Pre-DC TAG, about 700 students were headed to college. Last year almost 2,000 enrolled in a 2 or 4-year college.
  • Reform. Michelle Rhee ran the school system for three-plus years. She blew up many established patterns and focused attention on learning outcomes. When Michelle's sponsor, Adrian Fenty, lost an election she was succeeded by her deputy Kaya Henderson. Her team remained in place and her priorities too.


"The combination of high school college counselors and industrial grade financial aid seems to be changing D.C. into a real college preparatory school district," said Bob Craves, one of the Costco founders who has devoted himself to running scholarship programs in Washington D.C. and Washington State. "The six high schools and middle schools in the toughest part of town, Wards 7 and 8, have transformed in the past five years to a culture of college awareness, preparation and with the help of college counselors, execution of a plan to research, plan and apply for college."

Despite the progress, D.C. has the nation's highest proportion of 4th and 8th graders in the "below basic" category--and the lowest in proficient/advanced.

District Blends. DCPS is a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a network of two dozen forward leaning districts.

DCPS brought the team that developed School of One to Hart Middle School. Washington Post said, "It cost $1 million to bring Teach to One to a single classroom at Hart this year, including $600,000 from D.C. Public Schools' central office for renovations, and $400,000 in donations from the CityBridge Foundation and the D.C. Public Education Fund." Chancellor Kaya Henderson said "If it works like we think it will, it'll be a game-changer." Jason Tomassini, Digital Promise has a great trip report.

Kramer Middle School has a home-grown classroom rotation model in partnership with Florida Virtual School.

Elementary school students in many schools are using TeacherMate, a reading intervention program on iPod Touch devices. They can work with online volunteer tutors who work with them on reading fluency and comprehension. "DCPS schools have access to a suite of high-quality online math content aligned to the Common Core. Schools are at various points along a spectrum of blended learning, and are benefiting from the focus on student data; differentiated, small-group instruction; expansion of student learning beyond the classroom; and greater student engagement through use of technology," according to the district.

Scholar Academies , based in Philadelphia, has two D.C. campuses, a turnaround and a startup. Tomassini reports that Scholar "uses a variety of technology, including interactive whiteboards, laptops, iPads, and content from providers like DreamBox Learning and ST Math."

DCPS has by far the highest private placement of special ed students. To address this expensive solution, AdvancePath supported the development of a successful blended district special education program that saved the district a lot of money and graduated 35 students last year but it was closed in a vortex of convoluted district politics (I'm on the AdvancePath board).

More Great Charters. D.C. is home to some great charter schools. Friendship Public Charter Schools operates six charters and five turnaround schools in Baltimore and D.C. includingCollegiate Academy and Tech Prep which feature AP classes, Computer Science, and football.

D.C. has some extraordinary school leaders like Jennie Niles,a force of nature at the blended, competency-based E.L. Haynes Public Charter School where she has created an incredible culture of innovation resulting in development of learning content platform LearnZillion, information platform SchoolForce and Capital Teaching Residency, a yearlong training program formed with KIPP that recently won a $10 million RTTD grant.

KIPP DC has three K-8 campuses and a high school featuring KIPP Through College, which helps students not only get into a four-year college but graduate within 6 years. Their first class graduates this year.

DC Prep currently serves 1,100 students on three campuses and will open four more schools.

SEED Foundation runs a residential charter--something every urban area should have.

BASIS DC is a new secondary school import from the nationally ranked Arizona college prep network.

Local observers are "totally impressed byInspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School and Two Rivers Public Charter School, both of which just do their own thing--focusing on expeditionary learning and "whole child" education."

The most interesting school development news is the plan for DC International, a 6-12 IB school to be located on the Walter Reed campus and created by four language immersion elementary schools.

Paul Public Charter School, the only conversation charter, is expanding to a global high school.

Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School , a blended school set to open in Fall. It is one of four founding members of a national network of charter school organizations that will create an Opportunity Culture for teachers and extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students.

Green Dot is submitting an "experienced charter operator" application on March 1.

K12 Flex , Connections' Nexus Academy, and Rocketship have applications for blended learning charter schools (PCSB decision scheduled for 2/25). K12 supports an online K-8 school, Community Academy Public Charter School.

The high school graduation rate for D.C. public charter schools is 18 percentage points higher than DCPS despite higher levels of poverty. D.C. charter boards benefit from recruiting and training from Charter Board Partners (see more on why I support them).

Center for Education Reform ranks D.C. first in the nation for its charter law. D.C. gets a high B rating on the Brookings Education Choice and Competition Index because of all the great charters and the small but controversial voucher program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship.

Human Capital. There are 350 Teach For America corps members in D.C.--one in five low-income kids are taught by TFA members. There are more than 1,600 alumni in the area including 13 school system leaders, 33 school leaders and five elected officials.

Education Pioneers has 68 Fellows in the D.C. Metro Area working at more than 35 partner organizations. There are 200 alumni in the area and about 70% have finished graduate school and are working in education.

CityBridge Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund launched an Education Innovation Fellowship, a competitive one year fellowship that introduces a cohort of Washington, D.C.'s strongest teachers to the most promising innovations in blended learning. (See Don Soifer's summary.) Every metro area needs a teacher fellowship program like this!

Impact Orgs. Metro D.C. is home to dozens of national impact organizations including:


Catalog for Philanthropy features another dozen impact orgs serving students and families.

Katherine Bradley's CityBridge Foundation has been generous and innovative. Mario Morino chairs theVenture Philanthropy Partnership which supports charter schools, youth and family services. The DC Public Education Fund is also devoting a good bit of time and energy here. It's hard to raise local donations because there are not many foundations in town. Some national education philanthropies invest in D.C. because the projects gain national visibility.

The Philanthropy Roundtable is a D.C. based group that informs and convenes forward-leaning foundations. Council on Foundations is broad focused membership organization.

DC School Reform Now is a local advocacy group pushing talent, options, and equitable allocations.

Tomorrow we'll review all the national advocacy groups in D.C. and illustrate how the nation's capital is the center of the known universe for online learning.

Disclosures: MIND Research, FLVS, K12, Connections are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.
Tom is a board member at Charter Board Partners and AdvancePath. LearnZillion, AdvancePath are Learn Capital Portfolio Companies where Tom is partner.

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