This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For the second time in as many days, Audenried High School students converged on District headquarters to voice their displeasure with the District’s plans to convert their school into a charter as part of its new "Promise Neighborhood Partnership" with Universal Companies.
This time, however, a parade of civic and community leaders from South Philadelphia were on hand to vouch for Universal and urge students to hear out the company’s plans.
"They’re not going to be left out of this process," he vowed during Wednesday’s marathon School Reform Commission meeting.
But Audenried junior Onika Richardson said they already have.
Backed by over 40 sign-waving supporters, Richardson outlined the complaints of some Audenried students and staff during testimony before the commission.
"First, we have justified concerns regarding our identification as a Renaissance School, as we do not believe we fit the criteria or the description of a chronically underperforming school," said Richardson.
"Secondly, we have justified concerns about the lack of choice we have been given in being turned over to Universal Companies, who has failed our community in the past."
In January, officials from Universal, the City of Philadelphia, the District, and other partners hosted a press conference at Audenried to announce the launch of Universal’s Promise Neighborhood planning initiative. With a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education and hundreds of thousands of dollars in matching grants from local donors, Universal aims to spend the next year conducting research and developing plans to turn the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods of South Philadelphia into a Promise Neighborhood modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Just a few days later, District officials announced their plans to turn Audenried and Edwin Vare Middle School over to Universal as part of a new school turnaround model developed as part of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative.
And last week, during two contentious community meetings, District officials presented the new arrangements as a "done deal," despite a noticeable lack of detail as to what the partnership will involve and a torrent of complaints about lack of community involvement in the District’s decision-making process.
Wednesday’s exchange of testimony left SRC member Johnny Irizarry frustrated.
"The scene that we saw today tends to repeat itself over and over again," said Irizarry.
"We consistently do not engage young people in the beginning [of such efforts]…and they feel excluded."
Wednesday’s speakers waited for over four hours to provide their testimony, which began after 9:00 p.m.
Universal founder and music legend Kenny Gamble was scheduled to speak but had to leave before public testimony finally began.
SRC Chair Robert Archie, a partner in the law firm of Duane Morris, LLP, publicly disclosed his longstanding connections to Gamble and Universal, saying the two had known each other for over 30 years, that Archie’s firm had represented Universal, and that Archie had previously served on the board of Universal Community Homes.
After the meeting, Archie confirmed that he will be required to recuse himself from the eventual SRC vote on the District’s Promise Neighborhood Partnership plan. With the commission already down one member following the resignation of David Girard-diCarlo last month, that means all of the three other commissioners will likely be needed to approve the plan.
Brown and other community representatives on hand were hopeful that the Promise Neighborhood Partnership moves forward.
"I think it will bring tremendous benefits to the school," said Brown. "I think the most important aspect of this is we take the strength of those young people you saw here today and add it to the resources the Promise Neighborhood will bring."