Panel to shut down D.C.’s only pub­lic all-girls school

Ex­cel Academy has un­der­per­formed for years, char­ter board says

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY PERRY STEIN

More than 700 stu­dents could be scram­bling to find a new school for the next aca­demic year af­ter a D.C. board voted unan­i­mously to re­voke the char­ter of the city’s only all-girls pub­lic school.

The six-mem­ber D.C. Pub­lic Char­ter School Board said Thurs­day that stu­dents at Ex­cel Academy Pub­lic Char­ter School in South­east Wash­ing­ton are lag­ging be­hind their peers, and the school — with stu­dents in preschool through eighth grade — shows scant ev­i­dence of im­prove­ment.

“The longer girls are at Ex­cel, the fur­ther they fall be­hind their peers in the city,” said Saba Bireda, a mem­ber of the char­ter school board.

While a dras­tic move, the re­vo­ca­tion of a char­ter is far from un­prece­dented. The District has shut­tered nearly two dozen small and large char­ter schools since 2012, al­though some have been able to re­main open with new lead­er­ship.

The de­ci­sion comes as en­roll­ment in char­ter schools is bur­geon­ing in the District, ac­count­ing for more than four of ev­ery 10 pub­lic school stu­dents. Other char­ter schools with large en­roll­ments have faced a fate sim­i­lar to Ex­cel’s; in 2014, at least three big char­ter schools were closed or taken over be­cause of poor per­for­mance.

Each year, about 400 char­ter schools open in the coun­try, while 200 to 300 close be­cause of low en­roll­ment, poor per­for­mance and fi­nan­cial woes, ac­cord­ing to Todd Ziebarth, se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the Na­tional Al­liance for Pub­lic Char­ter Schools, an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“The bar­gain is that we are go­ing to give th­ese schools more room to in­no­vate, but in ex­change we are go­ing to hold them to higher ac­count­abil­ity,” Ziebarth said. “When we see the D.C. Pub­lic Char­ter School Board do­ing this, it is up­hold­ing that bar­gain.”

Ex­cel lead­ers said they op­pose the de­ci­sion and are ex­plor­ing op­tions to chal­lenge it, in­clud­ing a takeover.

“The nar­ra­tive that we haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion, or that we haven’t at­tempted to make a change, is just wrong,” said Beth Hei­der, chair­woman of the school’s Board of Trus­tees. “We’ll see what hap­pens. We’re not dead yet.”

The D.C. Char­ter School Board said en­roll­ment spe­cial­ists would meet with each fam­ily at Ex­cel to en­sure they find a new school.

Un­der District law, the school

must re­view a school’s char­ter to op­er­ate ev­ery five years to en­sure it meets goals agreed to when re­ceiv­ing its char­ter.

Ex­cel Academy was founded 10 years ago, and its stu­dents, who largely come from low-in­come fam­i­lies, have strug­gled to match city­wide av­er­ages on math and English stan­dard­ized tests. In the 2016-2017 school year, 9 per­cent of Ex­cel stu­dents met or ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions in math, com­pared with 27 per­cent city­wide. In English, 19 per­cent met or ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, com­pared with 31 per­cent city­wide.

Ex­cel’s op­er­at­ing char­ter stipuboard lates it must score 45 per­cent on the D.C. Char­ter School Board’s an­nual assess­ment of school per­for­mance, which takes into ac­count at­ten­dance, test scores, reen­roll­ment rates and more. But over the past five years, the school has av­er­aged just 41 per­cent.

The school board said its staff mem­bers had met with Ex­cel lead­ers dur­ing the past two years to pre­pare for the five-year re­view, but the school has not reached all of its tar­gets.

“This is not a de­ci­sion that any­one on this board takes lightly,” board mem­ber Rick Cruz said. “Our goal is to en­sure that peo­ple who at­tend pub­lic char­ter schools have a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.”

Ex­cel ad­min­is­tra­tors and par­ents who at­tended Thurs­day’s vote said the board had mis­judged the school.

“I’m a lit­tle baf­fled,” said Ana­cos­tia res­i­dent Sharese Clay­ton, who sends her two daugh­ters to Ex­cel and doesn’t know where they will at­tend next year. “This school is work­ing for my fam­ily. If it wasn’t work­ing, trust me, I would have left. Ed­u­ca­tion is very im­por­tant to me.”

School lead­ers ar­gued the frame­work used by the char­ter school board to as­sess schools is bi­ased against those with a large per­cent­ages of at-risk stu­dents. Two-thirds of Ex­cel stu­dents are con­sid­ered at-risk, mean­ing they re­ceive wel­fare or food stamps, or are home­less or in the fos­ter-care sys­tem.

But Naomi Ru­bin DeVeaux, deputy di­rec­tor of the D.C. Pub­lic Char­ter School Board, said at Thurs­day’s vote that 22 of the city’s 120 char­ter schools have greater at-risk pop­u­la­tions than Ex­cel, and most of those schools per­form bet­ter on their an­nual as­sess­ments.

School lead­ers pushed back against crit­i­cism that not enough of Ex­cel’s stu­dents re-en­roll. Lead­ers said a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of their en­roll­ment once came from the di­lap­i­dated Barry Farm pub­lic hous­ing com­plex. The city started re­de­vel­op­ing the com­plex sev­eral months ago, forc­ing fam­i­lies to re­lo­cate and po­ten­tially en­roll their chil­dren in dif­fer­ent schools.

Lead­ers ac­knowl­edged that Ex­cel’s mid­dle school hasn’t per­formed as well as the el­e­men­tary school, but a new mid­dle school prin­ci­pal was re­cently ap­pointed to help turn around those grades.

“That they can sim­ply do it and ig­nore that they have a flawed tool mea­sur­ing us — that’s wrong not only for us, but for other char­ter schools that have a large por­tion of at-risk stu­dents,” said Deb­o­rah Lock­hart, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at Ex­cel.

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