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Big promises, big questions in S. Philly

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

As part of its highly touted Promise Neighborhood planning initiative, Universal Companies has big plans for Audenried High School and Edwin Vare Middle School.

They’re just not saying very much about those plans yet.

Despite the lack of detail, the District has already tapped Universal to receive an estimated $9 million to convert the two schools into charters.

Officials have presented the decision as a done deal, bypassing what has been the recent process of giving parents a say about external managers for “Renaissance Schools.”

This is the picture that emerged over the last week as the District rolled out its new “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” model of school turnaround during two contentious community meetings and a series of interviews with the Notebook.

Tuesday morning, more than 40 Audenried students and a handful of community members protested the plans outside of District headquarters.

“Our goal is to get answers,” said 11th grader Ava Reeves.

“[Universal] can’t just come in and change what’s ours.”

Though officials from the South Philadelphia-based community development organization were present at the District-run informational meetings at Audenried and Vare, they declined to answer questions from parents, staff, and community members.

“We’re attempting now to share our vision with the District,” said Universal President and CEO Rahim Islam in an interview.

“The specifics [are] going to happen over the next couple of weeks.”

Unfazed, District officials emphasized that the prestigious $500,000 federal Promise Neighborhood planning grant recently awarded to Universal presented a “unique opportunity” to form the unprecedented new partnership.

“If the U.S. Department of Education thought this was something that was going to be beneficial to Philadelphia, then we are going to be supportive of the people in our community,” said District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser.

But the protesting Audenried students reject the diagnosis of their school as failing and in need of turnaround – as do some staff at the school.

And on the outside looking in are skeptical parents and community members, who have begun asking tough questions about the Renaissance process and Universal’s track record with schools in the area.

“I think someone in the District or Universal is trying to put the cart before the horse,” said Jim Helman of the Grays Ferry Partnership, a coalition of seven community groups.

“That’s not the way to do business in this community.”

Making of a Promise

Ultimately, Universal wants to manage all of the schools in Audenried’s feeder pattern.

“I’d like to take over the entire cluster of schools and run a small district,” said Islam in a recent interview.

“My goal would be to have all of [the schools in the area] turned to charters. Every last one of them.”

That desire goes back almost a decade.

In 2002, as the state’s takeover of Philadelphia schools unfolded, the group received $325,000 from Harrisburg to develop a proposal to turn 13 schools in the area into “independent” schools free of some District regulations.

Their plan, like those of the six other groups who received similar funds, went nowhere.

That same year, Universal also proposed to the District that it rebuild and manage Audenried, then a dismally failing school in a decrepit building known as “the prison on the hill.”

Eventually, they played a more limited role, helping with the design and planning of the new $55 million facility that opened in fall 2008.

Universal also received contracts from the District in 2002 and received a per-pupil fee to serve as an education management organization in charge of E.M. Stanton Elementary School and W.S. Peirce and Edwin Vare, both middle schools.

The group still manages E.M. Stanton, but the District quietly shuttered Peirce in 2007, and Universal’s contract at Vare was terminated last June after years of sustained poor performance.

Last month, District officials announced that Universal will get the chance to manage Audenried and Vare as charters, as well as partner with the District to run Alcorn and Smith as “Traditional Promise Academies” and provide supportive services to the other schools in the area.

Universal’s new roles are the result of a months-long effort to coordinate the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative and Universal’s plan to revitalize the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods of South Philadelphia as a Promise Neighborhood modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Universal’s highly rated federal grant application was praised by reviewers, including one who wrote, “there is strong reason to suggest the project would result in long-term systems change.”

Although just one part of the Promise Neighborhood planning initiative, Universal’s new partnership with the District is considered key to their efforts to transform the community.

So far, a few things are clear at Audenried and Vare, the new “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” schools. Though they will become charters, both are supposed to remain neighborhood schools, guaranteeing admission to students who live within their catchment areas.

As with the other Renaissance Schools being converted to charters, current teachers and administrators at the schools will be force-transferred, then given the opportunity to re-apply to the new management organizations for their jobs – minus the union protections and benefits they currently enjoy.

But unlike those so-called “Renaissance match” schools, parents and community members at Audenried and Vare are being given no say in selecting an external manager for their school.

“It’s simply a different model,” explained Assistant Superintendent Diane Castelbuono.

In addition, Audenried and Vare will both have a longer school day and year, additional enrichment opportunities for students and parents, and new student uniforms.

And District officials confirmed for the Notebook that Universal is expected to receive the standard per-pupil charter allotment to manage each school.

This year, charter operators received $8,608 per regular education student and $18,512 per special education student.

Using those figures and the current enrollment numbers at the two schools as a guide, the payout to Universal can be expected to exceed $9 million.

That figure is not a net loss to the District, which will no longer bear the expense of operating the schools. During the first year of the Renaissance initiative, the District ended up facing a net cost increase of $10.2 million at its seven initial Renaissance charters, mostly due to growing enrollments at the schools and lower than expected recovery of fixed facility costs.

The estimated $9 million for Universal is almost 20 times what the organization will receive for its federal grant, and there are no guarantees that Universal will receive additional federal resources to implement the Promise Neighborhood plan it develops. Nevertheless, officials repeatedly described the group’s planning award as an opportunity for the District.

“We examined how we could best leverage the resources of the grant recipient, Universal Companies, and the grant to make the greatest impact on the community,” said District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs in a statement.

“The District has a need and recognizes that Universal has the resources available to address that need.”

Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer, said the mayor’s office supports the Promise Neighborhood Partnership model and always expected that any Philadelphia organization awarded a Promise Neighborhood planning grant would run charter schools in the community it was attempting to transform.

“The backbone of the Harlem Children’s Zone model is the charters,” said Shorr.

‘Now they’re back?’

But many in the schools and the surrounding communities say they were taken aback by the plan.

“We were never consulted by either the District or Universal on the conversion of Audenried to a charter operated by Universal,” said Helman of the Grays Ferry Partnership.

“It’s astounding that they would attempt to do such a thing without consulting the group that represents a majority of Grays Ferry residents.”

Some also questioned the District’s decision to award Vare to Universal just months after terminating the group’s previous management contract there.

“Universal had the opportunity with Vare Middle School. Now they’re back?” asked Deanna Lewis, a teacher at Vare since 1993 who experienced firsthand Universal’s previous effort to transform the school.

The school has never made adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, giving it a status of “Corrective Action II, eighth year.”

“What presentation did they make to [the District] to make them look better than what they did before?”

Officials from both Universal and the District emphasized that Vare’s persistent low-performance while under Universal’s management was the result of the flawed EMO model, not any shortcomings of Universal.

“The partnership was never clearly defined,” said John Frangipani, assistant superintendent for middle schools

Universal’s continuing presence at Vare this school year is also the subject of some confusion.

During a recent interview, Islam said that his organization continues to provide services including “curriculum development, staff development, and supportive services” at the school, despite no longer having a contract to do so.

“We continued to stay there on behalf of the kids,” said Islam.

District officials seconded that notion, describing Universal’s role at Vare this year as “giving back to the community.”

District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser compared Universal’s efforts to her own interest in volunteer service.

“Just like in my own personal life, I want to be part of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. It doesn’t mean I need a contract to do that. I did that because I wanted to help the community,” explained Fraser.

A done deal?

Despite a barrage of questions, District officials repeatedly told skeptical crowds at Audenried and Vare that “the decision has been made.”

That is not sitting well with many staff, students, and community members – including longtime neighborhood activist Charles Reeves, the grandfather of Ava Reeves and a supporter of Tuesday’s protest.

“[District officials] are trying to sell us on what they want to do,” said Reeves, who was one of a small contingent from Audenried invited to confer with officials inside District headquarters following the protest.

“But we want Audenried to stay the way it is, we want these teachers to stay here, and we don’t want no part of what they’re trying to do. We’ll fight this as long as we have to.”

The plan to convert the schools to charters under Universal will not become final until reviewed and approved by the School Reform Commission later this spring.