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The charter board asks tough questions about Yu Ying expansion
It also rejects a Montessori application and scolds 2 charters for failing a "very easy" test
Washington Yu Ying, the Mandarin language immersion charter elementary school, would like to grow by 337 more students. Should it?
Yu Ying agreed to jointly purchase the former Kirov School of Ballet, just 0.2 miles from its Taylor Street NE campus, along with the Washington Latin charter. Latin will use the site for its second campus, called Cooper, that’s now in a temporary space. Yu Ying, if authorized, would move its PK3 through kindergarten grades into the Kirov building and use its current one for grades 1 through 5.
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Before Yu Ying can execute this plan, it needs approval from the DC Public Charter School Board, the mayorally-appointed body that regulates charter schools. That board held a hearing on May 15, and members asked some tough questions of the Yu Ying team.
Is Yu Ying not hitting its equity targets? The charter board requires, as one of its criteria, that schools demonstrate “performance of students designated as at-risk.” Board chair Lea Crusey said Yu Ying was meeting all of the performance targets in the board’s expansion policy1 except that one. Yu Ying Executive Director Carlie Fisherow said the school had interventions before or after school, and that during the pandemic these students missed out on those; they are closely tracking attendance, beefing up math intervention, and piloting some sports and “belonging” exercises.
Crusey also alleged that Yu Ying wasn’t filling all of its “equitable access” seats. Starting last school year, Yu Ying (and a number of other charter and DCPS schools) offered some seats set aside only for “at-risk” students (such as students receiving public benefits or in foster care). Yu Ying COO Melissa Volpe claimed they have exceeded their target, adding some families who qualify as at-risk were enrolling in the general lottery using sibling preference and not necessarily being designated at-risk there.2
Is 337 more students a lot? How did Yu Ying come up with the number specifically, asked Chantelle Wright, PCSB treasurer? Fisherow agreed that it was a “big jump” and talked about the desire to create a large base in PK3 that would then progress through the grades. She also told Wright and the board that Yu Ying projects fewer students in grade 5 because some go to other charter middle schools that start in 5th grade.3
Where will students go after elementary school? Board vice chair Jim Sandman said he sees a “risk” of this increase, since there isn’t capacity to continue Mandarin immersion for that many students. Yu Ying graduates can attend DC International PCS, but only 50-60 can attend per year, not enough for the larger future class sizes if Yu Ying can expand. “When parents learn that for a number of them, 5th grade is the end of the road, that might discourage interest,” Sandman said.
Fisherow said Yu Ying hasn’t used up all of their space at DCI so far, but once the future larger PK class reaches 5th grade, they likely will and “that is a concern.” Yu Ying is talking to DCI to see if they might themselves expand in the future to accommodate that. Also, she said, Washington Latin offers Mandarin, though not immersion.
What about traffic? Kirov is not near Metrorail or especially well served by Metrobus. Nor are the sidewalks in the area adequate. Board members asked about these issues, and school representatives expressed a commitment to work with neighbors on them, though they didn’t have specific answers yet.
What is DC’s big picture education vision?
I think world language instruction is very valuable and appreciate both DCPS and charter schools providing it. I’d like to see more in the city. We know children’s brains are uniquely suited to learn languages (including English, both speaking and reading/writing); if we miss that window, it’s much harder to teach. In most of the developed world, people learn multiple languages in childhood, and I don’t think there’s any excuse not to do the same in the US.
Yu Ying expansion could be an opportunity to grow language instruction in DC. On the other hand, all school expansions, even unique programs like this one, raise questions about how they will affect the larger school system.
337 students is essentially a whole mid-sized elementary school. Among nearby charters, Lee Montessori has 228 students; Mundo Verde’s Calle Ocho campus, 487; Creative Minds, 587. The area’s DCPS elementary school, Bunker Hill, enrolls 219 with capacity for twice that.
Right now, the numbers of school-age children in DC are not growing as they once were. Therefore, do we know where these students will come from? Is there new housing in the area that’s going to grow elementary school demand? Or, should DC PCSB close down a whole nearby charter school, or should DCPS close an elementary school? If not, what will be the impact on other schools?
It may be that one program provides something worthwhile that warrants increasing its capacity, or maybe not — people disagree vehemently on this question, but I think having an understanding of what we want for a future education system is necessary. Otherwise, many DCPS and charter schools alike gradually shrink and become less financially sustainable.
The most libertarian vision for schools is that this is the point — that schools should compete and those that can’t compete should close. But, most people in DC education (including city leaders) don’t share that view and also value a strong neighborhood school system which, among other things, educates everyone without a lottery. How the two coexist successfully is a complex question.
I’d like to see the Boundary and Student Assignment Study think through these issues. I’m the Ward 2 representative on the advisory committee for the study; there are also representatives from individual charters and PCSB. Perhaps the charter board, if it’s otherwise inclined to allow Yu Ying to expand, should wait for some bigger picture citywide vision that an expansion can either fit into, or not.
And, the study needs to sort through how immersion elementary schools feed into language programs in middle and high school. This is an issue for DCPS as well. MacFarland Middle School in Petworth is the designated feeder for DCPS dual language programs, as DC International is for charter programs. But DCI already can’t accommodate everyone from expanded Spanish programs at LAMB, Mundo Verde, and Stokes, and if MacFarland is able to continue growing and drawing enrollment from its feeders (including English-only elementary schools in the area), it may run out of space too. Plus, MacFarland is quite far from dual language programs at Tyler (in southeast Capitol Hill) and Houston (in Deanwood).
DC needs a citywide plan for school growth, neighborhood schools and charters, and dual language programs, which Yu Ying and others can slot in to fulfill.
The charter board rejects another application
In years past, the PCSB was a big cheerleader for charter expansion, strongly favoring allowing new schools. That’s changed.
The board unanimously denied another charter application at its meeting, for ISM Creative Academy. A group wanted to open a new “Montessori and Reggio Emilia” school in or around the Trinidad area. The staff recommended against the proposal, saying the school “has not demonstrated there will be sufficient demand for both initial and sustained enrollment,” noting that there are 5 Montessori charter schools in the area, including two newer ones in Ward 7 which have not achieved the enrollment they expected. Plus, there are 46 schools offering PK-K (or more) in wards 5 and 6, the area of the proposed school.
The staff report also said the proposal is unrealistic in the speed of its growth, and the founding team “lacks the experience and deep knowledge of Montessori and early childhood programs necessary for the school’s success.” It said they hadn’t sufficiently developed the curriculum and “there is little description of how Montessori-inspired stations, ELCs, and other instructional methods will effectively teach Common Core standards and meet student needs.”
I read the application previously and also noticed how it referenced Montessori and Reggio Emilia (a different teaching method than Montessori) without being very specific about how the school would use these, so the staff report isn’t surprising. One education professional told me this application seemed particularly likely not to get approved, but the board of decades past might have approved something with this level of rigor anyway.
Two schools fail the “mystery caller” test
The PCSB regularly calls all charter schools to ask questions like those an incoming English Language Learner or special education family might ask, such as about whether the school can serve their child or what documentation is required. There are civil rights laws requiring schools to meet these students’ needs and not try to dissuade them from attending.
In the last round of calls, two schools gave illegal answers, not once but twice. (We don’t know how many failed just once; the PCSB tries a second time and passes schools that give correct answers on the retry.) The two are Community College Preparatory Academy, an adult charter school in Ward 8, and Two Rivers’ Young campus on Benning Road just west of the Anacostia River.
Both schools’ representatives were very apologetic and promised to re-train staff. They both got a “Notice of Concern,” and if they pass in the future, that notice goes away. But chair Lea Crusey and vice-chair Jim Sandman argued that the “mystery caller” test is too lenient. Crusey pointed out that the PCSB staff first sends emails to all schools telling them the calls will happen soon… and then gives schools two tries. She advocated for a tougher standard. Sandman agreed. He said, “Real parents don’t get do-overs. They make one call, and if the information they get is discouraging to them, they are highly unlikely to call again.”
Sandman added, “I think this is really serious. There is a narrative out there that charter schools find ways to discourage applications from students who are english language learners or who have disabilities. Results like this feed that narrative.”
The Yu Ying application will be voted on next month, on June 26. You can comment on this application until then at the PCSB public comment portal. Comments are also open on three other items: a change to graduation requirements for BASIS, a policy on how schools submit data and documents, and a policy about how charter schools measure progress against their goals.
And, let me know in the comments what you think, and if this kind of summary of charter board meetings (and other meetings) is useful.
I can’t specifically find the at-risk target, other than a mention of suspension rates for at-risk students, in that policy. Perhaps that is an old verion. The PCSB site is unfortunate not easy to navigate, in part because most documents are PDFs and while they have blue underlined links, often those links aren’t clickable.
The Yu Ying representatives said last year they had 26 or 27 at-risk students with 25 seats set aside for at-risk. The My School DC lottery data lists 14 designated seats, all in PK3, made available in the lottery from the start, with 4 offers made in PK4 later on and 1 in first grade; 5 of the 14 were siblings of existing students. By comparison, Yu Ying offered 59 PK3 and 19 PK4 seats in the general lottery, according to the MySchoolDC data, and by October made 44 offers in higher grades (though 44 offers doesn’t mean 44 students enrolling, since if one student declines and they offer to the next student on the list, that counts as another offer.)
This 5th grade entry year affects many DCPS schools as well as other charter elementary schools, who go through 5th grade but see families leave early because of entry years at schools with middle and high schools.