Strong opinions of charter schools abound, but knowledge about how they actually work doesn’t always follow. A PDK/Gallup poll earlier this year showed some of the general confusion: Nearly half of the respondents said charter schools can charge tuition or teach religion (neither of which they can do).
The poll didn’t ask any questions about charter school authorizers, potentially because authorizing is a more complicated subject. In D.C., for example, the Public Charter School Board has a highly developed framework for authorizing, monitoring, and closing charter schools. But what does that mean?
To learn more, I spoke with Melodi Sampson, who has worked with charter schools on both the inside and the outside. She spent nearly four years working at Imagine Southeast PCS in Ward 8, before its charter was revoked by PCSB. (At one point during her tenure, she was named Non-Instructional Employee of the Year.) Now, she works for PCSB as a strategy and analysis associate.
We talked about her personal charter school evolution, her views of PCSB’s work, and her thoughts on Jesús Aguirre’s job (the state superintendent of education in D.C.). Read more below.
I knew very little about charter schools when I started working at Imagine Southeast PCS. I initially thought there was a conflict between my political ideology and the charter school movement. After working in the sector for about a year, I realized there wasn’t a conflict between the two. In fact, I found the charter movement was well-aligned with my political ideology because the movement embraces community-driven development, particularly when schools are founded by local teachers and parents. My perspective on charter schools also changed when I saw charter schools being held accountable to students. In the charter sector, poor academic performance tends to be the prime reason for school closures. Seeing PCSB push for accountability to students firsthand has helped dispel reservations I had about charter schools.
Have you ever faced any personal struggles with your work at PCSB?
As authorizers, we hold our schools to high standards. And we have the difficult job of recommending school closures to our board. All PCSB employees and board members recognize the weight associated with this process, but it has been particularly challenging to me as someone who has experienced the charter revocation process on the school’s side. I can’t help but be empathetic to school leaders, students, and families who undergo this stressful experience. Still, I want students to be well-served. Ensuring students get what they need out of school requires us to make tough decisions.
When we spoke earlier, you mentioned how proud you are of PCSB's authorizing work. And PCSB has gotten some attention recently as being a particularly good authorizer. What practices make PCSB stand out among other authorizers? What does PCSB still need to do to improve their authorizing practices?
PCSB is a solid authorizer because we have a strong charter application review process, which helps us identify schools that will meet students’ needs and be successful. We also developed a well-balanced quantitative and qualitative evaluation process through our performance management framework and quality site reviews. These tools improved our ability to monitor schools and hold them accountable to students and the city at-large.
Another quality that makes us a strong authorizer happens to be out of our control: Unlike charter authorizers in other parts of the country, we are the sole authorizer for the city. This makes it easier to evaluate equity across the sector. We also make a point to let everyone know what we’re doing — by posting lots of data on our website, communicating through Twitter, and meeting with the community.
We still have room to grow when it comes to collaborating with the state education office. Both organizations provide valuable oversight and technical assistance to schools, but we’re constantly working to balance those functions with not putting undue burden on schools or undermining their autonomy.
Last week a mother asked me where I would send a 3-year-old for pre-K in D.C. What would your answer have been?
I can’t give a specific recommendation because of my PCSB employment. Moreover, it’s hard to give an answer because choosing a school is such a personal choice and there are so many things to consider. In general, in addition to selecting a school based on its performance, I would encourage parents to seek a school that has a philosophy that complements their personal values and beliefs. I would also urge parents to consider the school’s proximity to home and work—I’ve seen too many children miss school because they live too far away.
If you could switch jobs with anyone in D.C., who would it be?
Jesús Aguirre, the state superintendent of education in D.C. His office is responsible for setting D.C.’s education policies. To me, creating well-informed education policies with stakeholder buy-in is an important part of improving the city’s educational offerings and outcomes.
An anonymous donor gives you $500,000 to invest in any education effort you want. What do you do with the money?
I’d give the money to a D.C.-based college access program that offers students supplemental college preparatory instruction and opportunities to visit institutions of higher ed. I worked intermittently with a college access program in Missouri between 2005 and 2009 and saw how valuable it was to students (particularly when we reached them before they got to high school). College enrollment and persistence rates among high school graduates in D.C. have increased over the past six years, but the rates are still low.
Two more questions just about you. What makes you happiest?
I’ll tell you what tends to be the happiest part of my week: ballet class on Saturdays. I danced quite a bit as a kid, but I never took ballet. It has been so fun learning the basics and kind of feeling like a kid again!
You got a great opportunity in another city and you're moving there tomorrow. All the logistics are handled and you don't have any last-minute packing to do. How do you spend your last night in D.C.?
I would probably go to Tenleytown for dinner at Guapo’s with friends—fellow American University alumni are sure to understand why!
The views represented here belong only to Melodi, not PCSB.
Ashley Mitchel is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Reach her via email or Twitter.