This Ward 8 High School Had Its Charter Revoked. Now It’s Fighting Back

Originally published in DCist on March 14, 2019.
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When the D.C. Public Charter School Board voted in December to initiate revocation proceedings for National Collegiate Prep, a Ward 8 charter high school founded 10 years ago that educates about 250 students, few could say they were really surprised.

The PCSB has closed 26 charter organizations or campuses/programs across the city between 2012 and 2018—primarily for academic reasons. Given that National Collegiate Prep has one of the lowest graduation rates in D.C., and ranked as a Tier 3 school for the last three years on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, the decision to shutter the school was heartbreaking for its families and staff, but not exactly unexpected. In January, the PCSB board members voted officially to revoke the school’s charter, with NCP set to close for good at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The PCSB promised to have its staff assist students and families in finding new schools to attend.

But now, in an unexpected turn of events, National Collegiate Prep has launched a new campaign to fight its closure, and to fight the PCSB, which organizers say is unfairly targeting black-led charter schools in the District. Under the banner of “Save Our Students, Save Our School, Save Ourselves” and backed by local clergy, community organizations, and Ward 8 City Councilmember Trayon White, National Collegiate Prep staff and students have taken the unusual step of refusing to accept the PCSB’s decision.

The school is making several arguments to bolster its case against closure: its 100 percent graduation rate in 2018, that there’s no history of fiscal mismanagement, that it’s the only charter school east of the river to offer the International Baccalaureate program, and that it’s a safer, more academically distinguished school than the traditional public schools in the area where NCP students will likely go. And while NCP staff acknowledge they have some work to do, they argue the school hit eight of its nine performance goals, put forth a reasonable turnaround plan to address its weaknesses, and deserve the chance to see it through.

The campaign kicked off at a press conference organized at National Collegiate Prep on Wednesday. “Community-based schools, schools started by people located within our community for the benefit of those who have been the most underserved and the most underrepresented, are the very same schools that are being target by the Public Charter School Board for closure,” said Yohance Maqubela, the former executive director of Howard University Middle School and a current charter consultant. “Now is a chance for the community to say we will not be looked over anymore, our voices do count, and from this day forward we’re going to take a stand.”

Rev. Graylan Hagar, the senior pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, and Pastor O. Jermaine Bego of Centerpoint Baptist Church pledged to rally their faith-based leaders and constituents in support. And Councilmember Trayon White, who noted he has several family members who attend NCP, said he also stands in full solidarity with the school.

“Is the school perfect? No, but to my judgment about where we are, we’re in a good place,” White told the audience. “I’m concerned about other schools like this, especially schools of color [that] are facing closure, or reprimand without just cause.”

Jennifer Ross, the founder and CEO of National Collegiate Prep, said her school has been wrongfully accused, and that they have appealed to the city council and the mayor. She says she knows they could face repercussions for the campaign, but characterizes the effort as standing up to intimidation.

“Back in 2015, we had a meeting as black school leaders to say we were very concerned with the direction of the black-led schools,” Ross told DCist. “That was held at Kent Amos’s house, and right after that, Amos’s school was closed.” Amos’s charter network, the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools, was closed amid allegations that Amos illegally diverted funds to a private company.

“You know, I’m sure there are things most charter leaders will only tell you off the record, but everyone is very afraid and bullied, and I just realized it was up to me to say something,” Ross continued. “The charter school board is led by a lot of ego and personality and things are very personal.”

The D.C. Public Charter School Board did not respond to allegations that it has unfairly targeted small, minority-led charters, but in a statement provided to DCist, PCSB Chairman Rick Cruz said, “We closed this school because it was the lowest performing public charter high school and declined year after year. No one ever wants to close a school, but we’re focused on the quality of education for all students.” The PCSB board is comprised primarily of people of color, and its staff executive director is white.

As part of its campaign, National Collegiate Prep is working to highlight what makes the school unique, including its international trips, focus on STEM, and a formal cotillion offered during students’ senior year. The school also invests in restorative discipline and trauma-informed teaching.

In a report released in December, PCSB staff charged National Collegiate Prep with low performance in math, a low re-enrollment rate of 71 percent—re-enrollment is a measure the PCSB uses to gauge family satisfaction—and noted that no student who took the school’s IB courses actually earned an IB diploma. The school dropped to Tier 3 status during the 2015-16 school year, and the PCSB says it gave National Collegiate Prep ample warning over the last few years that its declining status could be grounds for closure.

National Collegiate Prep disputes many of the PCSB’s conclusions, and defended the benefit of giving students exposure to advanced curriculum offerings, insisting it can help instill confidence and success in college regardless of if they earned the IB diploma. NCP said its already hired a new math department to drive improvements in that area, and is working with Blueprint, a charter consulting firm based in Boston, to help craft a school turnaround plan. PCSB board members said NCP’s proposed interventions seemed like too little, too late.

Supporters of National Collegiate Prep acknowledge the fight ahead won’t be easy. According to the PCSB, the charter board does not even have the authority to reverse its January decision, and NCP would have to apply for a new charter, or appeal the decision in court.

At the press conference, Kamilah Wheeler, a parent, urged the NCP students to make their voices heard. “You need to get your friends together and stop this madness,” she said. “You may not understand it now but I promise you it’s going to make a difference.”

On Friday afternoon, National Collegiate Prep students plan to protest the decision at the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

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