Photo of Stanton Elementary from DCPS.

This morning’s announcement of a slight rise in standardized test scores wasn’t exactly earthshaking. More intriguing was the backdrop: Stanton Elementary in Ward 8, a DCPS-charter collaboration that DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson said today she’d like to replicate. It’s about time.

Henderson’s statement comes in the wake of signs that the cordial relationship between DCPS and DC’s charter sector is beginning to break down. Henderson recently called for joint planning that would control the growth of charters, raising the ire of the charter community.

And just yesterday, a charter advocacy organization sued the District for failing to comply with a legal requirement to fund charters at the same level as DCPS.

Both sides have justifiable grievances. But collaboration between the two sectors is the best hope of advancing their shared goal of improving education for all kids in DC as quickly as possible. For a while it looked like DC was on that path, and then things stalled. Do Henderson’s remarks at Stanton today signal that she’s ready to return to the idea?

For the past 3 years, a charter management organization, Scholar Academies, has been managing Stanton as a regular DCPS neighborhood school, serving an in-boundary student population. During that time enrollment and test scores have risen dramatically.

The big news today was that the school had moved out of “Priority” status, meaning that it’s shown significant growth over 3 consecutive years. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of a charter school that is also managed by Scholar Academies, DC Scholars.)

Even before today, Stanton had become something of a showpiece for DCPS.  During a visit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan in February, Mayor Vincent Gray said of the school’s success, “We simply need to bottle this and figure out how to proliferate it all around the city.”

Today, according to a tweet from the Post’s Michael Alison Chandler, Henderson called Stanton “an amazing example of what happens when we work together,” referring to charters and traditional schools. And according to WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle, she said the Stanton-Scholar Academies model “could be taken to other struggling DCPS schools.”

Why hasn’t Stanton been replicated already?

The question is why that hasn’t happened already. Last year, instead of trying to replicate the Stanton-Scholar Academies arrangement, Henderson made an unsuccessful bid for the power to authorize charter schools herself. In May 2013, she announced that a high-performing DC charter school in Ward 8, Achievement Prep, would absorb a nearby DCPS elementary school, Malcolm X.

The details were vague at the time, but according to Scheherazade Salimi, chief of staff to the Deputy Mayor for Education, the plan was for Achievement Prep to become the first DCPS charter school. A bill that would have given Henderson chartering authority was introduced in the DC Council a year ago, but it went nowhere.

A spokesperson for David Catania, chair of the Council’s education committee, said he saw no need for a second charter authorizer in addition to the Public Charter School Board (PCSB). Besides, the spokesperson said, a charter authorizer is supposed to provide oversight of charter operators, as the PCSB does. If one entity is both the authorizer and the operator, how would that work?

It’s clear why Henderson would have liked chartering authority. It would have allowed her to give Achievement Prep more freedom from DCPS regulations than Scholar Academies has had at Stanton. And there’s no doubt that charter operators undertaking the difficult task of turning around a low-performing neighborhood school would find greater autonomy more attractive.

But it’s also possible for Henderson to relax some of the rules that have been in place at Stanton. While some are required by DCPS’s contract with the teachers’ union, others are within her control.

Today’s announcement seems to indicate that she’s figured out a way to do that, and that she may have found a willing charter school partner. (For the past 6 weeks I’ve been asking a DCPS spokesperson what tools are available to Henderson to collaborate with charters in improving DCPS schools, but I haven’t been able to get an answer.)

Cross-sector collaboration

It’s too bad that Malcolm X, which narrowly avoided closure on the expectation that it would be taken over by Achievement Prep, will continue for at least one more year as a struggling DCPS school rather than as part of a high-performing charter. But it’s heartening to hear that DCPS and Henderson are at last beginning to focus again on cross-sector collaboration.

Some may view this kind of collaboration as an admission of defeat on the part of DCPS. I disagree. As Henderson has said, if some charter schools have figured out how to raise the achievement of low-performing students faster than DCPS has, why not take advantage of their expertise?

Certainly one advantage that charters have had is freedom from bureaucratic constraints that can stifle innovation. But as Scholar Academies has proved at Stanton, it’s possible to succeed even despite those constraints, if you have the right charter operator. (One previous partnership with a charter operator, at Dunbar High School, ended in spectacular failure.)

It’s clear what’s in this kind of arrangement for DCPS and Henderson: they get to claim the success of a district-charter partnership, and the rising test scores that result, as their own.

But what’s in it for charters? Why shouldn’t they just adopt the easier path of opening new start-ups, a less difficult road to success than turning around a neighborhood school that’s failing?

There are at least two important things that could attract charters to a partnership. One is buildings. New charters and successful charters that would like to expand are often stymied by a shortage of suitable space, partly because DCPS has been reluctant to give up its vacant buildings to charters.

The other is a chance to serve more of the District’s neediest students. Taking over the management of a struggling DCPS school, along with its students, is an immediate way to reach kids who need help the most, without requiring their parents to apply or enter a lottery.

Benefits of communication

Beyond those advantages, there’s the more nebulous benefit of communication between the frequently hostile charter and district sectors. That’s beginning to happen elsewhere across the country, both at high administrative levels and at the level of the individual school.

In some places, districts have invited charters to “take up residency” in traditional public schools, in a space-sharing arrangement that includes opportunities for collaboration and shared professional development. In others districts, teachers from charter and traditional schools that are nearby have met to exchange ideas.

While the expectation has been that the traditional schools will learn something from charters, sometimes it’s the other way around. In one instance, young Teach for America recruits at a charter wanted to know how the district teachers had managed to stay in the profession for so long and keep themselves motivated.

In DC, charters generally outperform DCPS schools on standardized tests, but they don’t have a monopoly on innovation. Charter leaders might be interested to learn about a new writing initiative DCPS is piloting that promises to go way beyond teaching to the test.

While DC’s charter and traditional education sectors do have conflicting interests and long-standing grievances, they also have a lot of shared beliefs and interpersonal relationships. If cross-sector communication and collaboration is possible anywhere, it should be here. For the sake of DC’s kids, let’s hope that Henderson’s statements today mark the beginning of a new and more harmonious tone in DCPS-charter relations.