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The ultimate challenge: serving every student

As neighborhood schools, Renaissance charters face a test: Can they serve every student?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Jessica Boyle waited patiently to ask her question. For over an hour, representatives from Mastery Charter Schools and Johns Hopkins University had been explaining how they would turn around West Philadelphia High as a Renaissance School. From the front of West’s cavernous auditorium, they shared plans, answered questions, and promised improvements.

Then the third-year history teacher at West stepped to the microphone. “I’ve met a lot of students who’ve been expelled from Mastery and other charter schools,” Boyle said. “A lot of times it’s very good kids who’ve been expelled for things that would not lead to expulsion by the District code of conduct. So my question is, how many students do you expel each year?”

“I’m not sure that I share your premise that students are being expelled from Mastery, and that’s the reason for our success,” replied Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.

According to its annual reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, last year, out of about 1,700 students at four Philadelphia schools, Mastery expelled thirteen.

But then, Gordon acknowledged another side to the story. “Do some students decide that they’re tired of coming? Yes,” he said. “A very small number of students.”

It’s the fate of that “small number” that worries Boyle. Every year, every charter school in the city loses some students. In many cases, the schools report that students leave because they or their families cannot or will not adhere to the charter’s rules in areas like attendance, discipline, and parental involvement.

At a typical charter, such students always have the option of transferring to a neighborhood school like West. So what happens when a neighborhood school and a charter school are one and the same?

“You’ll have the right to come to [your neighborhood] school, regardless of who’s running it,” said Benjamin Rayer, head of the District’s charter office.

He added that Renaissance contracts will require the charter operators who take over the District schools to show they are serving the neighborhood by increasing the enrollment from their catchment areas.

These schools will have some latitude to use detentions and suspensions to enforce in-house rules like hallway etiquette, he said. But any expulsions would be governed by the District’s student code of conduct, which limits expulsion to serious violations like bringing a weapon to school.

Attorney David Lapp of the Education Law Center said that Boyle’s concerns are not unfounded, because the line between where a charter school’s authority ends and a school district’s begins is not always clear. Right now he’s appealing a case in state court contending that a 2nd grader was inappropriately expelled for not meeting a charter’s attendance requirements – not an expellable offense.

The District’s pronouncements so far have left him “hopeful” about the rights of Renaissance charter students, Lapp said.

Gordon agreed that these obligations mean Renaissance schools represent the “ultimate challenge” for charters. “We’re going to keep all the kids,” he said, “and the goal is for everyone to be successful.”

But while some worry that Renaissance charters will move problematic students elsewhere, others worry about the opposite problem: that the Renaissance charters won’t have leverage to maintain discipline.

Walter Palmer, founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in Northern Liberties, said it’s unrealistic to expect every child in a given neighborhood to thrive in a demanding charter school. “When there are children you cannot help, you have to be honest,” he said. “[Some] are so disruptive you almost have a responsibility to move them on. You cannot allow them to disrupt.”

But instead of following a formal expulsion process, Palmer said charters often encourage parents to “voluntarily” withdraw their child. That happened about a half dozen times at his 180-student school last year, Palmer said. “How many people did we encourage to take their child out so they wouldn’t have a bad [disciplinary] record? And how many parents decided to take their child out on their own, so they wouldn’t have a bad record?” Palmer asked. “We’ve done all of the above.”

Candy Lerner, now on staff with the American Federation of Teachers in Harrisburg, spent three years as an administrator at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, where the same thing would happen a few times a year. “Some students couldn’t honor the behavior contracts,” she said. “So you say, ‘You have a choice – we can either go through the process and send back a disciplinary record, or you can go back to your neighborhood school.’”

Lawrence Jones, head of the Richard Allen Preparatory Academy in Southwest Philadelphia, said he’s asked two students to leave so far this year. It’s bad for them, said Jones, but good for the climate of the school. “Unfortunately, sometimes it does have to happen,” Jones said.

How much it happens citywide has not been measured.

District officials acknowledge they do not consistently analyze enrollment data to see if individual charters misuse the process. Rayer said that he has asked his staff to track the numbers of withdrawals from charter schools to see if there are “big spikes” that might indicate a charter was aggressively culling students. “I want to do that more routinely,” he said.

The limited data in charters’ annual reports show that typical turnover rates are five or ten percent but can run higher, and that noncompliance with school rules is a driving force.

At the Young Scholars Charter School in Northern Liberties, which will run a Renaissance school, 11 of 158 students “voluntarily withdrew” last year. The school’s development director, Jana Wilcox, said that in about half the cases, “parents don’t want to put in what we expect of them.”

The annual report for Boys’ Latin, located in Southwest Philadelphia, shows that 51 students of the original 271 enrolled were “dropped.” It explains: “Some students left Boys’ Latin because their families decided that the school was not a good fit for their child, others left because of the travel time to school.” Two moved out of state, it said.

At Mastery’s 440-student Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood school that was converted to a charter, turnover last year was about 10 percent. Some moved and some switched to other Mastery schools, but 14 students “left voluntarily rather than continue the disciplinary process,” the report said. Some departing students “felt the mandatory after-school tutoring, detentions, suspensions, and other penalties were too stringent.”

At Pickett Middle School in Germantown, also a Mastery conversion, the lesson has been that intense social supports are necessary to keep the most challenging students enrolled.

Under District control, Pickett lost about 21 percent of its students each year, according to Mastery, but turnover is now down to 15 percent. To drive it down further, the annual report concluded that the school needed to provide more counseling, extracurricular activities, and parent outreach.

Gordon said that at its three new Renaissance Schools, Mastery’s plan is prevention. Its staff will review the needs of every student. “By the time September comes, we will have programs in place for those children,” Gordon said.

Wilcox, of Young Scholars, suggested that if all else fails, a Renaissance charter’s best option might be to help disengaged students find another school. “We want to make sure that kid stays in school somewhere,” she said.

Asked later about Wilcox’s suggestion, Rayer said: “They shouldn’t be encouraging any of that. They should be serving the children that come in the building.”

And if a student or family wants a transfer out of their Renaissance charter, Rayer said there had better be a specific, valid reason. “It can’t be, ‘I don’t like Saturday school,’” he said. “We’ll listen. But what we are asking everybody to do is to give it a chance.”

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