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‘Significant barriers to entry’ at many Philadelphia charters, District report says

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

by Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Updated 10:00 p.m.

A School District review found “significant barriers to entry” at numerous city charter schools, according to a draft report obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks.

In at least one case, an unidentified charter made its enrollment application publicly available on only one day during the year. Another unnamed charter required applicants to complete an 11-page application, write an essay, respond to 20 short-answer questions, provide three recommendations, be interviewed, and provide records related to their disciplinary history, citizenship and disability status.

“The District does not believe this is a fair system, nor does it help build a robust system of school-choice,” wrote District spokesperson Fernando Gallard in response to questions submitted by the Notebook/NewsWorks.

All told, less than one-third of the 63 charters covered in the District’s review made their applications available in languages other than English. Six city charters refused outright to provide District staff with a copy of their application form.

Although Pennsylvania charter schools are independently managed, they are publicly funded and therefore legally forbidden from using discriminatory enrollment policies and practices.

"Assuming the facts of this report are true, this is a black eye for the charter movement as a whole, and brings down the credibility of all of us," wrote Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, which operates four city charters.

Neither of the two KIPP schools up for renewal this year were deemed to have any barriers to entry. But the District’s review showed that overall, roughly 80 percent of the 25 charters that the School Reform Commission considered for renewal this spring had obstacles to enrollment that the District considered “significant.”

Titled “Universal Enrollment: Charter School Applications,” the 19-page slideshow obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks contains “preliminary findings” on those Philadelphia charters for which the District’s Office of Charter Schools was able to obtain “complete and confirmed information.” No charters are mentioned by name.

More than 40,000 children now attend Philadelphia charters, not counting those in District schools that have been converted to charters under the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative. But the city’s expansive charter sector has been plagued by allegations of corruption and allegations of fraud in recent years, and skeptics have long contended that some charters find informal ways to bar entry to hard-to-serve students.

Told of the District report’s findings, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan expressed outrage.

“Excluding children is just wrong,“ he said.

The District has apparently heard similar concerns for some time.

Its Office of Charter Schools initiated the study a year ago, wrote Gallard, “because it had anecdotal evidence that charter schools were implementing different application/enrollment processes.”

Information on two charters is still being confirmed and an additional analysis is still being completed, wrote Gallard, but “the District stands by all of the information in the preliminary report.”

The commission has voted in recent months to approve 16 city charters for new five-year terms. The SRC declined to renew three charters, and votes are still pending on six others.

On June 22, six charters came before the SRC for renewal votes. Four, including Boys’ Latin in West Philadelphia, were flagged for their application or enrollment practices.

During a public presentation, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Thomas Darden showed a slide indicating that Boys’ Latin has “significant barriers to entry.” But Darden, who resigned last week after a number of public missteps, did not mention them.

Later, Commissioner Feather Houstoun asked Boys’ Latin CEO David Hardy why his school was identified by the District as having a problematic application process.

“I’m stumped,” responded Hardy, who then told the commissioners about requiring face-to-face meetings with parents and signed “notifications of interest” before applicants are offered enrollment.

“Our school, you go ‘til 5 o’clock. We have Saturday school. There’s two to three hours of homework every night. Some people just don’t want to do that,” Hardy said.

“We want to make sure that the student wants to go to our school. That’s all we ask.”

The SRC voted unanimously to renew Boys’ Latin’s charter and approve its planned expansion – with the condition that the school agree to a new admissions process to be approved by the Office of Charter Schools.

“Non-renewal is a very serious decision, and [Pennsylvania] law does not provide for a basis for non-renewal on these grounds alone,” wrote Gallard.

But charters with identified barriers will be required to remove them, he added.

On Tuesday, KIPP’s Mannella wrote that charters need to be held to a high standard of accountability when it comes to being truly open-enrollment.

"When the system is working, students and families are choosing the charter school they wish to attend, as opposed to charter schools serving the students and families they wish to serve," he wrote.

A final report detailing the enrollment practices of Philadelphia’s charters is expected to be released this fall.

The District is also in the process of scheduling one of the SRC’s “strategy, policy and priorities” meetings for a community roundtable discussion of the issue, wrote Gallard.

“The Office of Charter Schools still plans to share the findings with, and get feedback from, the public,” he wrote.

“We are particularly interested in feedback from families and students.”

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