This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATE: WHYY/NewsWorks republished this piece and added an audio segment.
Pitched by the District as a “Promise,” new plans for Audenried High School were derided at the school Tuesday as a “disgrace.”
During a raucous evening informational meeting, a parade of outraged parents, students, community members, and school staff expressed overwhelming opposition to news that Audenried will be turned into a charter school run by Universal Companies – and to the new arrangement being presented to them as a done deal, decided without their input.
“If Universal wants to come help, let them come help. But why can’t [Audenried] remain a School District school, and why wasn’t the community involved in this decision?” asked parent Meela Outlaw.
After delivering a brief presentation explaining the District’s plans, Deputy for Secondary Instructional Programs Michael Silverman told the crowd of about 150 that “we want people to feel hopeful based on what we’ve seen at Promise Academies so far.”
But in the face of increasingly angry responses from the audience, Silverman and Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for process improvement and compliance, did not offer any hard numbers to justify their decisions and acknowledged they did not have answers to many of the questions being asked about Universal’s role.
“This is a disgrace,” said Anna Wiggins, 75, the mother of a popular teacher and coach at Audenried.
“You haven’t given us any data! I believe that if you’re going to present something to an audience of people, you should be better prepared than this.”
At one point, the meeting grew so intense that Philadelphia police officers were called to the school to ensure that things remained orderly.
Though the District has repeatedly described this new school turnaround model as a variation of the Promise Academy model, in which schools remain District-managed, Audenried and Vare are in fact both slated for conversion into charter schools.
And although it gave parents and community members significant input into the selection of new management teams at seven Renaissance charters last year and will do so again at six more so-called “Renaissance match” charters this year, the District is skipping its own process at Audenried and Vare.
Instead of seeking input from School Advisory Councils, the District has awarded management of the schools directly to Universal Companies.
“We’re trying two different models,” explained District Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono.
“In the [Renaissance] match schools, the SACs have a much more hands-on role in terms of selecting the turnaround team. Where the community has input [at Audenried and Vare] is as the model rolls out.”
Universal is the recent recipient of a prestigious $500,000 Promise Neighborhood Planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education – a distinction that prompted the unprecedented new partnership with the District.
With the grant, Universal will develop a plan to turn Point Breeze and Grays Ferry into a Promise Neighborhood modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, then compete with 20 other organizations around the country for a multi-million dollar implementation grant – if Congress appropriates funds to continue the program.
The South Philadelphia-based community development corporation currently operates three charter schools – its flagship charter, Universal Institute, in South Philadelphia, and the two Renaissance turnaround schools it took over last fall. Universal also has managed E.M. Stanton Elementary under a contract with the District since 2002 and served in the same formal capacity at Vare until its contract was terminated last June.
In addition to turning over Audenried and Vare to Universal as charters during the upcoming, second year of its Renaissance initiative, the District wants Universal to partner with it in converting two other schools in the neighborhood, Alcorn and Smith Elementary Schools, into "Traditional" Promise Academies. Universal will also provide support services at the seven other public schools in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry.
Despite the award, many of those in attendance Tuesday night said they were furious that Audenried – which is housed in a new building completed less than three years ago – has already been handed over to Universal.
“All this stuff about Kenny Gamble and Universal saving the community – they ain’t done [anything] for nobody but rich people,” said longtime community activist Charles Reeves, 67.
“We ain’t part of [anything],” an emotional Reeves added. “You already did it.”
In addition to the furor over the lack of public input into Audenried’s future, many expressed dismay at the lack of information provided by District officials during the meeting.
The initial presentation delivered by Silverman, intended as a 25-minute “Promise Academy Overview,” lasted less than 10 minutes.
When he concluded, one audience member asked aloud, “That was it?”
During the question-and-answer session that followed, attendees repeatedly asked Silverman and Darden to provide more information on how Audenried was selected to become a Promise Neighborhood Partnership school.
The District officials indicated that a combination of factors, including School Performance Index (SPI) scores, AYP status, school climate data, and neighborhood characteristics, were used to identify Renaissance Schools this year but did not have those numbers on hand.
Many in attendance expressed shock that Audenried was included in part based on performance data from students at the school’s previous facility, closed in 2005. Because it just has its first class of 11th graders this year, the new high school has not had any students take the PSSA exam since its reopening in 2009.
“You shouldn’t even use that [old] information,” said Outlaw. “You should base it on these kids, not somebody that should be about 32 years old now.”
District officials did not respond to a Notebook request for the historical data used in deciding Audenried’s fate.
Associate Superintendent David Weiner later provided further detail to The Notebook about the data used in designating Audenried as a Renaissance School.
"In general, we tried to look at schools in more of a historical context," explained Weiner, confirming that the District looked at academic performance and school climate data from the old Audenried.
Weiner also said that "leading indicators" from the new facility were cause for concern to the District.
Over the last three years, he said, Audenried has seen significant declines in the number of students who finish 9th grade on track to graduate and has had one of the lowest average daily attendance rates in the District.
During the meeting, District officials also sidestepped many requests for more information as to what the Promise Neighborhood Partnership model will entail, repeatedly telling attendees that “there will be [another] meeting within 30 days when representatives from Universal will come out and speak to you about the details.”
Universal President and CEO Rahim Islam was in attendance for part of the meeting, but did not address the audience.
In an earlier interview, Islam described Universal’s efforts to engage the community in its efforts to improve the schools in the Promise Neighborhood area.
Islam stressed that Universal has brought a wide range of community stakeholders to the table in its planning process. But he said “it’s always going to be a challenge to have real community participation” and was clear that any specific discussions of Audenried and Vare becoming charter schools were “incidental” to the planning process.
“I think fundamentally most of the leaders in the community agree with us,” he said then. “We need change, we need drastic change, and we need immediate change.”
Islam declined to comment on the concerns raised by parents and community members Tuesday evening.
Similar informational meetings are scheduled for Vare Middle School on Wednesday evening, Smith Elementary on Thursday, and Alcorn Elementary next Tuesday, February 15. All meetings are at 6:00 p.m.