No Harmony in Our Corporate Neighborhood Takeover

Published

In addition to being a DC parent, I also sometimes speak and write about education policy issues. I have some grave concerns about what I learned at a meeting this Tuesday 6/3/2014  at St. Martin’s Catholic church to “welcome” Harmony Public Charter schools (the largest charter operator in Texas) to our neighborhood.

A couple years ago, I published an essay in the New York Times that pointed to a confluence of bad education policy and planning that left my middle school-aged son with no legal access to a public middle school in D.C. (Sure, he can roll the dice for a charter or public school lottery, but no middle school was legally bound to accept him or any other children in D.C.’s mostly black Ward 5.) It was too late for him and our other disenfranchised neighbors, but I was thrilled when for the first time since Michelle Rhee left, her replacement Kaya Henderson decided to open a neighborhood middle school (McKinley) after a massive renovation. Again, too late for my kids, but I know plenty of neighborhood kids who go there. I am so happy they have a beautiful facility they deserve, and families in our neighborhood have access, accountability and legal protections that other families enjoy in whiter, wealthier DC neighborhoods on Capitol Hill and across Rock Creek Park.

Now, months after McKinley opened, this well-funded and politically connected Texas based business has decided to open up directly across the street. I was shocked to learn this corporate charter chain was coming, and even more surprised to hear of their plans to “become our neighborhood school.” I thought that private management was supposed to reduce these kinds of inefficiencies. Private managers do market research to determine  market needs, and avoid the kind of duplication and waste the public sector is known for. The enormous public investment in DCPS facilities directly across the street is at best being duplicated by the charter and will likely cannibalize what the public has already invested. It is curious to me that when government is writing the check, there is no concern about any of that. All of this is supposedly being done on behalf of the children. I would have a lot more respect if we wrote the kids a check directly.

But I’m most concerned about the legal implications. If this well-funded and politically connected Texas chain takes over our neighborhood, as they promised, there is no turning back. If they succeed and our neighborhood District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) close AGAIN, we will have forfeited our legal right to community access, accountability or oversight. So I think it is important to take a critical look at their plans and how they will impact our kids’ educational options.

My family has lived in Bloomingdale nearly 14 years. Our assigned DCPS school was shut down twice before our son’s 11th birthday. We’ve sent our kids to DCPS, catholic, charter and Independent schools. I have many pedagogical and other concerns with what I heard Tuesday and more generally about how corporate charter chains cement racial and class divisions. We now face the spectacle of two STEM focused campuses–the new charter, and the other one at Langley Elementary and McKinley Middle School that everyone in our community has access to– directly across the street from each other. (So this is choice? Forced to choose between math and science? Can urban kids decide what they want to be when they grow up like everyone else? ) But just from a legal standpoint, charters don’t give you the same rights as residents, families or students. I have too many stories to count from personal experience and those of friends that show how much that really, really matters.

In fact, the only other non-St. Martin’s parent that I saw at Tuesday’s meeting was the mother of my daughter’s former classmate at another well-meaning charter.  After the meeting wrapped she quickly shared a horror story about her incredibly bright son’s experiences that led them to flee the well-regarded charter in the middle of this past year. When they left, the charter school refused to hand over her son’s transcripts. When the school blew her off, she had to file an official petition to the citywide charter school board to get them. This is 4th grade. He finished the year at their neighborhood DCPS school.

The fight to get decent school facilities for DC kids has been decades in the making and filled with legal battles led by committed, forceful and passionate DC parents. Our current neighborhood schools Langley/McKinley Middle’s recent facility upgrades happened too late for my kids, but I feel more optimistic than ever about how far we have come. Langley has two gyms, sprawling open fields to play, smart boards, science labs, a theater that seats hundreds. I am proud because they belong to us—everyone who lives in our community. I also feel good walking around Bloomingdale each day to see the diverse pool of parents in our community who can support quality neighborhood schools of right on par with what children are entitled to on Capitol Hill and West of the Park.  I am deeply concerned that that investment is being directly cannibalized, and that our community will end up being completely divested of that opportunity forever without having a say. I have a lot of other things to say, but for now, I will just share my other notes from the meeting:

–The new charter will open this August 2014 and be located at 62 T Street NE directly across the street from Langley Elementary, the new McKinley Middle School and McKinley High School which are of course part of DCPS also have a STEM focus and have gotten some major $ facility upgrades in recent years.

–They are planning to open with 200+ seats in K-5. They will keep expanding each year until it goes from k-12. I can’t remember how big the ultimate capacity will be, but at least double what it begins this year with.

–Harmony signed a 3-year lease with St. Martin’s to take over 62 T Street NE. So 3 years, with an option to renew an additional 3 years. This building once housed St. Martin’s Catholic school which closed in ’89. It was later leased to a charter school called City Lights, which mysterious closed in the middle of the school year in 2009 after it went bankrupt.

–There is no plan for transportation for the kids, because the Harmony founder/operator said he expects to become our neighborhood school. “We always end up becoming the neighborhood school.”

–Harmony was founded in 2000, and quickly has grown to become the largest charter operator in Texas. They recently got a $30 million grant from U.S. Department of Education to recognize its work teaching STEM to “at risk” children.

–Harmony decided to come to DC because they were approached (possibly by the DC charter board but it wasn’t clear) to submit an application to expand in DC. Their charter proposal was approved by the DC public charter
board last November amid some controversy.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-charter-school-board-harmony-democracy-prep-schools/2013/11/19/7cb59ef8-5123-11e3-9e2c-e1d01116fd98_story.html

–They have a STEM focus, heavy on data. They track all the kids’ movements during the day, including how often they go to the bathroom, which they say also affects their learning outcomes.

–They have already received 450 applications for teaching positions. For now they are using St. Martin’s church on the NW side to meet families and interview teaching candidates.

That is all for now. Time-permitting, I may write more somewhere else. Please email me at NHopkinson AT   hotmail if you have anything else to add.