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Harmony, Democracy Prep schools approved by D.C. charter school board

charter-school-approvalTwo charter-school operators, including a Texas-based organization whose business practices have drawn scrutiny, have won permission to open new schools in the District next fall.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted at its meeting Monday night to give conditional approval to Harmony Public Schools, which operates the largest charter chain in Texas, and Democracy Prep, known for its no-excuses approach to educating New York’s inner-city children.

Harmony plans to establish an elementary school focused on science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — that will grow one grade each year until it serves children in kindergarten through grade 12. Eventually, the organization hopes to operate several elementary and middle schools feeding into one stand-alone high school, Harmony Superintendent Soner Tarim said in an interview.

Members of the District’s charter school board said they were impressed by the hands-on and project-based learning they observed when they visited Harmony schools in Texas.

“I saw a lot of active learning, not just sitting and listening to the teacher,” said Darren Woodruff. “That was impressive and something that is really needed in the District of Columbia.”

Harmony’s strong academic record helped it win a $30 million Race to the Top grant from the Obama administration last year. But its business practices have raised questions. The New York Times published a 2011 investigation that examined Harmony’s contracting and immigration practices.

Naomi DeVeaux, deputy executive director of the District’s charter school board, said the board’s staff had examined the allegations against Harmony but found no cause for concern or evidence that laws had been broken.

She said a wide range of officials spoke highly of Harmony, including officials at the U.S. Education Department, the Texas Education Agency, members of the Texas state board of education and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Six of the charter board’s seven members voted in favor of Harmony’s application. The seventh, Sara Mead, abstained because Harmony has been a client of her employer, the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to educate children in the nation’s capital,” Harmony spokeswoman Julie Norton wrote in an e-mail. “Nationwide, there’s a need for STEM education and we’re excited and committed to providing a model in STEM education excellence for students in Washington, D.C.”

Harmony has not said where the D.C. school will be located.

Democracy Prep plans to open an elementary school in ward 7 or 8, starting in fall 2014 with preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and kindergarten.

The organization built a reputation for lifting test scores among poor children in Harlem and now operates nine campuses in New York and New Jersey. D.C. charter board members said they valued Democracy Prep’s experience bringing struggling students up to and beyond grade level in math and reading.

Democracy Prep also has experience taking over and turning around low-performing schools. That is a rare and valuable skill, said board member Emily Bloomfield, suggesting that at some point Democracy Prep may be a candidate to take over a struggling D.C. charter.

“It’s something we’re always looking for when other schools are not successful,” she said.

Five members of the board voted in favor of Democracy Prep. Mead abstained because of her employer’s relationship with the organization. Barbara Nophlin voted against approval, saying after the meeting that she was unimpressed with the Democracy Prep schools she visited.

She described the classrooms as “very regimented, very rigid, lots of dittos.”

Alice Maggin, a spokeswoman for Democracy Prep, said the organization is “thrilled” to be coming to Washington.

Source: Washington Post – Emma Brown

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This entry was posted on November 19, 2013 by in Charter Schools, Texas, Washington DC and tagged , .

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