Options Charter School Copes with Questionable Future

Taylor (the female student) and Chef Tate at Options' Octoberfest event, which was created as a community engagement initiative.  

In early October, it was reported that three former administrators of Options Public Charter School, located at 1375 E St., NE, had allegedly participated in financial malfeasance and self-dealing—securing large bonuses for themselves, and placing over-priced contracts for school services through two for-profit companies which they owned. In response, the Public Charter School Board placed the school under the receivership of Josh Kern, a respected administrator in the charter school system.

At its Oct. 16 meeting, the Public Charter School Board acquiesced to the request of Kern, and delayed a vote on whether to close the school. At the same meeting, ANC6A Chairman David Holmes presented the Commission’s recommendation that Options be kept open, but be moved to a “larger and more easily controlled site.” The Board announced that a decision on Options’ future would be made at or before its December meeting, adding that the school will remain open until the end of the 2013-2014 school year. 

The School

Options serves approximately 400 of the District’s middle and high school youth. Many of its students have learning, emotional and behavioral disabilities. The school has a one-to-four adult-to-student ratio. Each classroom is staffed with two teachers, one of whom possesses special education credentials. The school’s clinical team offers therapeutic services to help students through issues that range from homelessness and living in foster homes to juvenile criminal histories and socialization problems.

This year, 15.8 percent of Options students tested proficient in reading, and 20 percent tested proficient in math. The District average was 49.5 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Due to its students’ unique challenges, Options is not subject to penalty under the traditional DC Comprehensive Assessment System Framework.

With not all students college-bound, Options offers an entrepreneurship program and vocational track. The school teams with local businesses to give students a breadth of exposure. Inspire BBQ’s Chef Tate hosts an internship program with Options’ culinary students at his H Street NE restaurant. Tate, who both owns a home in the Options neighborhood and attended school in the Options building when it was home to Kingsman Elementary, lauds the school as an important thread in the community fabric.

“A lot of kids have parents who aren’t happy about going to work every day, but Options gives kids the hope and skills they need to succeed in the future,” says Tate. “And that’s very important, because hope alone doesn’t lead to employment.”

Options senior culinary student Taylor Harrison, one of Chef Tate’s former interns who now works at Noodles & Co. in Georgetown, hopes the school does not close. Harrison has been at Options since seventh grade.

“People on the outside think Options is a ghetto school for slow people, but it’s really not,” Harrison said.

“They need to come in and see the students here; we are active and learning. We have so many programs: culinary arts, step, drum-line and sports. It’s a really good school,” she stated.

Options teachers and administration said they planned to forge ahead with business as usual during Kern’s receivership. ,

“We think that to an objective third party, our program will speak for itself,” said Director of Curriculum and Instruction Gail Jenkins.

“Right now we’re just focusing on supporting the kids, who are worried about losing their school,” she added.

Options Parent Concerns

Parents of children at Options are concerned about getting their kids' needs met elsewhere.

“My kids are more involved at Options than they have been at any other school, and they’re on the honor roll for the first time,” stated Gerald Hodge, father of three Options students.

 “If the school shuts down and they go somewhere else, I worry that they might lose interest and start getting into things they shouldn’t,” Hodge added.

Community Opposition

Not everyone, however, thinks Options’ should have a place in the Capitol Hill community. Trish Manzke, a Tennessee Ave. NE resident, is one of six community members who drafted a petition to PCSB Chairman John McCoy, questioning the school's continued existence. Offering a long litany of complaints, it charges that the Options administration approach to student behaviors “ranging from bullying to outright threats; public drug use to theft; race baiting and even attempted assault” has been inadequate. It calls the findings of the recent investigation of the schools former leaders disturbing, “but unfortunately not surprising in light of our past interactions with Options administrators.”

Manzke is the community liaison of the Options Community Task Force created last year to address community safety. Last March, Options students followed Manzke’s twelve-year old son home and threw rocks at him. Subsequently they chased him to Lincoln Park while he was riding his bike. While the petition does not call for it, Manzke stated that she would like to see the school's charter revoked.

Elizabeth Nelson, who has lived five blocks from Options since it opened in 1993, also faults the administration. Nelson said she does not necessarily think Options needs to be closed or moved, but that the administration members who have been with the school for many years need to be replaced.

“We have had consistent problems with the school managing its student population, which is not just upsetting to the neighbors, but also shows that the kids can’t be getting the services they need,” Nelson said.

“The school needs to be properly run, and in my heart of hearts, I don’t think the same reactive people who we’ve had problems with for many years will do better,” she continued.

But Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Assistant Chief Diane Groomes stated that this year, MPD has no evidence of the student behavior listed in the petition. To the contrary, Groomes said Options administration has remedied situations, honored many of the requests from the community, and is offering community engagement.

“The school has dramatically improved its security practices by implementing police-recommended measures such as extra patrolling, busing truant students to the Metro Stations and installing metal detectors,” Groomes said.

“Options may not have come in as a good neighbor, but the community can’t condemn the school forever,” Groomes added.

Manzke insists that the recent quiet is strictly because of the community’s constant and diligent pressure on the school. “They don’t act unless they are under pressure,” she said. 

ANC6A06 Commissioner Andrew Hysell, whose Single Member District includes Options,said he has received serious complaints about the school since he joined the ANC three years ago, and that he would like to see the school movedto a more suitable campus.  “The Options building was built for elementary school students, and I think the charter needsa facility that can better accommodatemiddle and high school youth with special needs,” he said.

Hysell added that he supports the petition, but thinks it should be rewritten so that the community’s request of PSCB is more straightforward. “It’s time for the community to decide what they want, and to make a clear request,he added.

Moving Forward

Ward Six Councilmember Tommy Wells also called for community engagement, arranging a community meeting at the school on Oct. 28.  “It will be critical to have input from the neighbors of the two school buildings going forward,” he stated. Wells does not support closing Options.

“While the corruption and self-dealing alleged at Options PCS is an outrage that has rightfully angered many of us, this is no time to turn our backs and close the school that for many of these students is an important source of stability,” Wells said.

“I am willing to give the Court-appointed receiver and the Public Charter School Board the opportunity to find a qualified responsible organization to run the school,” he added

Dana Wyckoff, a neighbor to Options and president of the Friends of the Rosedale Library organization, has noticed the school’s recent efforts toward engagement. She tries to take advantage of those opportunities, and encourages more hostile community members to do the same. She believes it is important to show support for Options during this time of turmoil.

“I went to the cooking demonstration open house at Options in the spring, and I really began to feel like there is a crowd mentality that assumes nothing is good coming out of Options, “ Wyckoff said.

“What happened recently is bad, and Options needs support; the problem should be corrected and oversight increased, but don’t use it as an excuse to advocate for shutting the school down,” she stated.


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