This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Irene Bowie’s grandson attended New Media Technology Charter School, he did not come home with textbooks.
That’s not something she anticipated, having chosen charters for their academic excellence. So Bowie shelled out $200 a week for tutoring. Then in December, her grandson came home and said that his teacher had left. A security guard was now teaching the class.
“They never had homework in all that time,” Bowie said. “And I questioned them about that.”
Bowie said she called and visited the school to request an appointment with the principal and CEO, but was denied.
“They never returned my phone calls. I was stonewalled,” she claimed.
New Media, one of 18 charter schools reportedly under a federal investigation, did not respond to the Notebook’s request for comment.
Last year, the School Reform Commission (SRC), finding fault with New Media’s operation, required the school to replace its top administrators and board.
Bowie said she has testified repeatedly before the SRC about her concerns and described her experiences in dealing with the school as “like hell … because they have no tolerance for parents that ask questions.”
Bowie and her grandson, who now attends Young Scholars Charter School, are among the families who have encountered challenges with charters. But despite recent disclosure of impropriety by several operators, charters remain a very popular option for parents in search of a quality education for their children.
Some parents say they choose charters because they are safer, provide a more varied curriculum, or offer a diverse student body. But other parents charge that a Wild West atmosphere has taken root, allowing bad schools to sprout up with little oversight – and achieving meaningful accountability seems an elusive goal.
The Notebook convened a roundtable of parents to ask them about their experiences with charter schools, their reasons for choosing charters or staying at traditional public schools, and the possibilities and shortcomings of these publicly funded institutions managed by nonprofit boards.
Autumne Hall, treasurer of Parent Power and mother of three children at Ludlow Elementary and Central High School, said she tried to get her kids into a charter but was confused by the lottery system.
“How long do you have to wait for the lottery?” asked Hall, noting the difficulty of navigating a system where some schools automatically re-enter applicants into their lottery and others require parents to reapply each year.
Shelda Glover says that her 6th grade daughter Adorielle was mistreated at World Communications Charter School. Glover alleges that the principal tried to get Adorielle transferred out of the school after Glover complained that her daughter was threatened with a knife on campus. World Communications did not respond to the Notebook’s requests for comment.
“I think charter schools are great, but we have some that are criminals right now,” said Glover, whose daughter remains at World Communications Charter but will be enrolling in Mastery Charter School in the fall.
“We got to put up some brakes on the ones that aren’t doing so good.”
For Yohanes Sulistiyono, a parent of a 1st grader at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), safety was a primary reason he chose a charter.
Sulistiyono cited the violent attacks against Asians at South Philadelphia High School and said that while he appreciates the diversity at South Philly, it hasn’t worked well there.
He said FACTS fosters its own sort of diversity, though the school is two-thirds Asian.
“The school is truly community-based – a lot of new immigrants. It’s full of race diversity, so that all people can connect,” he said.
“The Mandarin teacher is White and the martial arts teacher [is] African American.”
Lisa Hogan, the mother of two Math Science and Technology (MaST) Community Charter School students, said, “One of the reasons why I chose a charter was because I went to Catholic school, where everyone was White. We were Irish and Catholic. … I wanted my children to have a larger view of what the world is, of what our city is.”
While more diverse than many Catholic schools, MaST is 74 percent White in a school district that is 61 percent Black.
When deciding where to place her children, Hogan said she toured Mayfair, her neighborhood elementary school. She was disappointed.
“I found an awesome principal, great teachers, [but] the building was falling apart. There was no art, no music. There were children learning out of what were large closets that they had turned into classrooms,” she said.
“The School District isn’t backing those schools up. The parents are fighting for everything. And I didn’t really want to go into a situation where I had to scream and yell and stomp my feet and fight and protest.”
Kristin Nocco, a board member and parent of a 4th grader at Independence Charter School, praised that school’s academics and Spanish immersion program. She said that it took a lot of work to find the right school and recommended that parents visit as many as possible and evaluate their boards before making a decision.
“Look at who they are because they’re the people running the school and making the decisions,” she said.
Some parents conflicted
Sahaba Thompson, father of 4th and 7th graders at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, is a parent who did not choose a charter. The District chose for him.
Douglass is one of seven of the District’s Renaissance Schools that will be turned over to charter management.
“I didn’t want the school to become a charter school, because I didn’t want to get rid of the staff that [the former principal] had put in place, because they were trying to do things with children,” said Thompson, president of the School Advisory Council (SAC), which reviewed applications from various providers and made recommendations to the District.
Thompson said he was nervous about more disruption for a school that has had seven principals in seven years, and worried over losing the use of District resources like the Parent University.
In May, the District announced that Young Scholars Charter School will manage Douglass, but Thompson said he is happy with the choice.
“We have to do what we have to do. I want what is best for our children,” Thompson said.
“If charter school is the best, make it all charter. If public school can be corrected, then let’s correct the public schools and have our children taught and keep the money in public school,” he said.
Sylvia Simms, president of Parent Power, said she is conflicted over charters because she likes the idea of what the schools offer but fears that leaving the system would be “selling out” traditional public schools.
“This is what I’m fighting with,” said Simms, whose granddaughter attends Thomas M. Peirce Elementary School.
“Should I have my granddaughter suffer because I’m trying to save as many public school children as I can?” she asked.
While being adamant that charters offer a high-quality alternative, many charter school parents argued charters are shortchanged financially, so they want more transparency about District funding for charters. And while they acknowledge the need for increased oversight, they are skeptical the District will do much good.
“These are taxpayer dollars, so there needs to be accountability in traditional public schools and charters,” said Karen Lash, in a phone interview with the Notebook. She is a mother of 3rd and 8th graders at MaST and founder of Parents Unified for Charter Schools.
“But what do we mean by oversight? More micromanagement?” she asked.
Nocco suggested including some sort of evaluation in between the current charter renewal decisions that take place every five years. But few trusted the District to be an effective watchdog.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman recently announced that the District would hire outside auditors to inspect 10 percent of charters a year, in addition to the five-year renewal evaluations. Still, only half of charters will get the extra audit during their renewal cycle every five years.
“It’s a concern that this school district, which can’t even run its own schools, is providing oversight and telling my school how to run itself,” Hogan said.