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Charter schools put on probation

Monitors cite lack of academic focus, missing documents, poor attendance

(Published May 3, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Two D.C. public charter schools were put on probation April 22 following site visits by a monitoring team of the D.C. Board of Education. Monitors found poor attendance, poor record keeping, lack of compliance with financial and licensing requirements and at one school, serious lack of academic rigor and focus.

The Young Technocrats Math and Science Public Charter Lab School, 101 T St. NE, and the World Public Charter School of Washington, 595 3rd St. NW, must show improvement by the end of the year, said Tonya Vidal Kinlow, chairman of the board’s charter school committee.

"We’re very concerned about what we’re seeing at those schools," Kinlow said. "We have asked them to submit corrective action plans, and we will revisit the schools in May."

Charter schools, which operate with public money and are tuition-free to city residents, are monitored by the city’s elected school board or by the appointed D.C. Charter School Board but are largely free of the rules and regulations governing traditional public schools.

In February, teams of education professionals visited each of the 11 public charter schools under the purview of the board of education.

Monitors reported that Young Technocrats, which specializes in math and science instruction for grades pre-kindergarten through 12, suffered from multiple problems. They include poor attendance, lack of textbooks and materials, disorderly halls and classrooms, and "an insufficient focus on the core academic subjects."

"There is little evidence that the school is providing an educational program that will enable students to achieve the academic goals outlined in the (school’s) application," the report said.

Monitors observed third and fourth grade students adding single-digit numbers and drawing circles to represent number concepts. According to the report, "the activity was more appropriately suited for grade one."

"In a social studies class the teacher spent approximately nine minutes distributing final exam papers while seated at her desk with students huddled around. Approximately four minutes of the time was used vainly searching in a bottom drawer of the desk for several papers which she never located. Other students waited without any work assignments," the report said.

"Students were observed in a computer laboratory with 14 work stations. The students were attempting to practice keyboard skills; however, they had not learned the basic keyboarding skills, such as finger position, home row keys, etc., to type. Consequently, many of them were using one finger or other strategies to enter the designated keys..."

Overall, there was little evidence that students were using critical and analytical thinking skills, the report said. Although the school’s plan called for a heavy emphasis on technology, monitors noted many classroom computers were not functioning because necessary electrical wiring has not yet been completed.

Attendance also seemed to be problem. In a 12th grade class in which 28 students were officially registered, only five were present on the day of the visit, monitors said. Thirteen students in the class were absent and eight other names on the roster were unfamiliar to the students present. Overall, monitors found 224 students present of a total enrollment of 355. School officials had predicted an enrollment of 630. The school also is not licensed by the District as a child development center, as required by law, the report said.

Fifty percent of student health records sampled were incomplete, monitors said. Monitors found school officials awarded contracts for more than $10,000 without issuing a public request for proposals, in violation of D.C. law, in spite of a warning from the board of education in October not to do so.

Monitors for the Young Technocrats site visit were Vivian Archer, retired instructional supervisor; Robert Artisst, retired university professor; Shelia Handy, consultant to the board of education; Marie Marshall, university instructor and administrator; and Gloria White, retired science supervisor.

Principal Wali Williams did not return calls for comment, but Kinlow said the chair of the school’s board of trustees, George Carruthers, met with the board to discuss the report and the school’s response.

"He recognizes there are problems," she said.

A site visit Feb. 12 to World charter school, which specializes in Chinese and Italian language instruction for children aged 3-6, found poor attendance, lack of financial reports and general confusion over leadership, monitors said.

"We had some serious questions about who’s running the school and how the administrative staff is working," Kinlow said. "There is not a clear flow of responsibility. We expected some sense of stabilization and that is not happening."

Dorothy Goodman, chair of the school’s board of trustees, said she was "staggered" by the board’s report. She said the report is "filled with distortions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods." She claimed the school was the victim of a "witch hunt" and feared officials were trying to "audit the school to death."

The school plans to ask the board of education to withdraw the report, Goodman said.

Of 59 students enrolled at the school, only 26 were present on the day of the site visit, an absentee rate of more than 50 percent, according to the board’s report.

The school, housed at Casa Italiana Holy Roman Church, also suffered from high staff turnover, the monitors found. According to the report, four teachers, one clerk and two assistant teachers left the school in the first five months of operation.

The school also is not licensed as a child development center by the D.C. government, which was required for the school to open, and has not submitted an audited fiscal 1998 financial statement which was due last Nov. 15. School officials have not submitted academic plans and curricula for each grade level, which were due Aug. 31, 1998.

According to the report, the chairman of the board of trustees told the monitoring team that she "lets the teachers do their own thing. The teacher is the curriculum."

Monitors found no documentation of personnel procedures, job descriptions, or drug-free workplace policies. Records suggested that background checks were performed on employees only after they had been working at the school several months.

Monitors questioned phone bills for two fax and two phone lines at the school that totaled more than $2,800 for a six-month period.

Monitors were particularly concerned that the duties of the school’s top administrators were not clearly defined. Monitors reported they had trouble determining who was functioning as the school’s principal.

Goodman, who previously helped found the private Washington International School, disputed the number of students in attendance at World Charter on the day of the visit, saying it was 33, not 26, and she attributed many of the absences to "the height of the flu season." High staff turnover was also due to unforeseen illness, she said.

Goodman said the payments that monitors claimed were unauthorized contracts were not contracts at all but reimbursements made to her for expenses. She said she does not draw a salary.

Still, she said, "we take the report very seriously and we are bringing in a specialist to work on this for the next month."

She acknowledged that the school does lack the proper certification and said administrators are working on acquiring it as soon as possible. Goodman said other documents that monitors claimed were missing had in fact been filed.

Kinlow acknowledged that the school "got an unfair deal" on several bids for vacant school property and that lack of a building site hampered the school’s progress. She also commended the school because "children (at World charter school) are learning to speak in foreign languages they might not otherwise be exposed to."

"These schools can probably make it, but they’ve got to fix the problems that we’ve seen," Kinlow said. "If they take these reports to heart, they will see that we are trying to help them recognize where they have fallen short and get on the ball."

Monitors for the World school site visit were Robert Artisst, retired university professor; Sheila Handy, consultant to the board of education; Laurice Juggins, retired instructional supervisor; Marie Marshall, university administrator; and Omega Millen, retired teacher.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator