This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mastery Charter’s three new Renaissance charter schools seem to have been successful at bringing families back to their neighborhood schools – perhaps too successful.
At Mastery’s Harrity, Mann, and Smedley Elementary Schools, all of which opened on September 1, there are currently waiting lists for neighborhood children.
The situation highlights concerns about the extent to which Renaissance Schools will be bound by the same constraints traditional neighborhood schools face when dealing with over-enrollment and the chaos that often results.
“We’ve been surprised by how many parents have come forward from the catchment area,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, who declined to give specifics on the number of students currently on wait lists.
“It is our job to fill the schools with neighborhood kids at least to the building caps,” he added. “There will not be one child at any of those schools who [is] not from the catchment area.”
Mastery’s strategy for dealing with the excess demand is to hold seats for students who were at the schools last year and expected to return this year, but who have not responded to outreach efforts over the summer and who did not show up for the first day of school.
“The kids who were at the school last year, we wanted to make sure could come back,” explained Gordon. “Every school is taking an educated guess that a certain percentage [of those who did not respond to Mastery’s outreach efforts over the summer] will show up on September 7 [the first day for District schools].”
After September 7, Mastery will stop holding seats for students who attended the schools last year and begin enrolling students currently on wait lists.
District officials say that Mastery is “absolutely doing the right thing” by prioritizing access for students who attended the schools last year and using wait lists.
“This was about turning around low-performing schools for the kids who were in those schools. The first goal is to make sure that the kids who were in [Renaissance schools last year] get a different school [this year],” said Diane Castelbuono, the District’s Associate Superintendent for Strategic Programs.
She added that Mastery’s strategy is both in compliance with their charter agreement, which includes an enrollment cap, and consistent with District protocol at traditional public neighborhood schools.
“This is a process we go through every year with all of our schools. If there is a neighborhood school where the building is at capacity, [excess] students are assigned by the Office of Student Placement to a nearby school that has space,” explained Castelbuono.
These alternative placement schools are designated on the basis of geographic proximity, available space, and the District’s busing patterns, District officials said.
But how consistently the District follows this reassignment policy in cases of over-enrollment would require further investigation. A 2008 study of facilities usage in the District found whole sections of the city, mostly in the lower Northeast – near Smedley – where the number of students exceeded schools’ capacity.
With the District and the Renaissance providers alike having made repeated promises that the Renaissance schools will continue to function as neighborhood schools, the issue of strictly enforced enrollment caps raises questions about whether Renaissance providers are being afforded an advantage of not having to accommodate all of the neighborhood students who may typically trickle into most neighborhood schools over the course of the fall.
Charter schools in Philadelphia do operate with enrollment caps, and the charter agreements extended to Mastery specify a maximum enrollment of 850 students at Harrity, 525 student at Mann, and 625 students at Smedley. The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that Mastery has already enrolled 420 students more than last year across the three schools.
Castelbuono emphasized that the availability of seats is determined for each grade, in each school. As an example, she said that a school may be at capacity for 2nd grade but still have room for 3rd grade students.
In July, the District designated an alternative school for each of the Renaissance schools in the event that demand exceeded building capacity:
- Universal Bluford – Cassidy
- Universal Daroff – Rhoads
- Young Scholars Douglass – Dick
- Mastery Harrity – Anderson
- Mastery Mann – Gompers
- Mastery Smedley – Stearne
- ASPIRA Stetson – Muñoz-Marin, Cramp, or Potter-Thomas
Gordon said that Mastery is already working to expand capacity at Harrity, adding a class of 2nd graders in space carved out of the school’s library.
Castelbuono said the District would evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis before deciding whether to push the Renaissance providers to create more space.
“It’s a tradeoff,” she explained. “We will take a look as the enrollment numbers shift and weigh the need to do renovations and find a trained teacher. They don’t want kids sitting around the hallways, and we don’t want to ask them to convert the art room.”