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SRC renews five charters; recommends non-renewal for Imani

Photo: Paul Socolar

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

[Updated 12:59 a.m.]

The School Reform Commission approved staff recommendations Wednesday night, voting to renew five charter schools and beginning the non-renewal process for one, Imani Education Circle in Germantown. Late in a six-hour meeting, the commission also approved providers for two new Renaissance charters.

Although 16 Philadelphia charter schools have applied for renewal this year, only six of those came up for a vote Wednesday.

The five renewed are: Antonia Pantoja, Christopher Columbus, Eugenio de Hostos, Maritime Academy, and Universal Institute charters. One thing these five schools have in common is that they have all agreed to abide by an enrollment cap throughout the duration of the five-year charter. District officials have explained that it is impossible to manage its budget crisis without predictable enrollment at charter schools.

With that concern in mind, this year was the first time that charters were asked to sign their renewal agreement before the SRC vote, and only these five had signed their agreements before the SRC meeting.

Four of the five schools recommended for renewal have relatively high scores of 3 or 4 on the District’s School Peformance Index (1 is highest, 10 is lowest).

Universal Institute was recommended for renewal despite an SPI score of 7. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn acknowledged "academic declines" at the school but said renewal was recommended "because it outperformed the District average." Commissioner Feather Houstoun cast the lone dissenting vote on a renewal, calling the performance trends at Universal Institute "a little worrisome."

The decision to launch a hearing process for non-renewal of Imani’s charter was also by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Sylvia Simms the lone opponent of the non-renewal recommendation that came from staff. The recommendation highlighted academic performance and financial concerns.

The vote came after impassioned testimony from the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, an Imani board member, who questioned why the District would "dismantle another school in central Germantown." The SRC recently voted to close two nearby schools, Fulton Elementary and Germantown High, and Simmons said programs were being scaled back at others in the area.

"What are our children supposed to do?" he asked.

Simmons urged the commissioners: "Show up at Imani School. … Tell me they’re not doing better than the schools in the area."

Questioned by the SRC on comparative performance, Kihn said that if students from Imani had to return to their neighborhood schools, roughly equal percentages would be at better-performing vs. worse-performing schools.

A resolution on a second charter that had been recommended by District staff for non-renewal, Discovery Charter in West Philadelphia, was pulled from the agenda. A District spokesperson said that resolution had been withdrawn because the school was negotiating an agreement in a dispute about the school’s expansion. More than 100 Discovery Charter students, staff and supporters rallied outside District headquarters before the meeting, celebrating their expectation that the charter will be renewed.

Admissions policies questioned

The renewals went through only after extensive debate about the issue of barriers to entry at the charters. All five of the charters recommended for renewal were cited in the staff renewal recommendations as having "major deficiencies" in their admissions process. The one exception was Imani, whose supporters made a point of highlighting that the school does not turn children away.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky expressed concern that the District should use its leverage during the renewal process to make sure the offending charters reform their admission processes.

At Maritime Academy, which was rated well on academic performance, the staff review found that the school’s "application requested previous academic achievement levels (test scores and past report cards)."

Dworetzky’s reaction: "If the results are a consequence of selecting students by academic background, it’s much less impressive."

Ultimately, at Dworetzky’s suggestion, the commission voted unanimously to add language to the renewal resolutions specifying that the superintendent must certify that the charter has revised its admissions process and eliminated all barriers to entry before the renewal charter is finally granted.

The amendment was attached to four of the five renewal resolutions, but in what appeared to be an oversight, the amendment was not applied to the Universal Institute resolution even though that school was found by District staff to have major deficiencies in its admissions process. In fact, District staff reported that they were unable to even obtain a copy of Universal Institute’s application despite repeated attempts.

Renaissance match

Late in the evening, an hour of sometimes acrimonious testimony and debate took place before the SRC approved proposals to move forward on school turnaround plans at two of three planned Renaissance Schools, assigning Pastorius Elementary in East Germantown to be managed by Mastery Charter Schools and matching Kenderton Elementary in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia with Scholar Academies.

Each school was matched with the provider that was recommended by the majority of its School Advisory Council members, officials said. The councils got to hear presentations by the providers and visit other turnaround schools.

Dworetzky opposed the Kenderton Renaissance plan, saying that with only 380 students, the school is too small to be cost-effective as a Renaissance School. The District has cited the affordability of the Renaissance model as one of its virtues, but Dworetzky said the District numbers showed that the Kenderton conversion to a charter would cost $8.8 million over five years. He said he had repeatedly questioned the decision to include Kenderton in the Renaissance process but got nowhere with District staff. He then raised similar concerns about the cost of the plan for Pastorius but said he did not vote against it because he thought the size of the school was more appropriate.

The added cost of operating three Renaissance Schools in 2013-14 alone will be $3.9 million, according to District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski.

However, no action was taken on a school manager for Alcorn Elementary in Grays Ferry, where the outcome of the School Advisory Council process is being reviewed by the District’s legal staff. The legitimacy of the vote, which apparently favored Universal Companies, is in dispute.

Named as a Renaissance School in February, Alcorn was also targeted for assignment to a turnaround provider and is adjacent to schools now managed by Universal Companies. In competing testimony about the process from parents and community members, there were accusations levied against Universal, against Mastery and Scholar Academies, and against Frontline Solutions, the District contractor that facilitated the Council process.

SRC Chair Pedro Ramos promised to seek a speedy resolution to the dispute.

Other business

In a parade of honors at the start of the meeting, seven high school seniors from Philadelphia public schools who have been named Gates Millennium Scholars were recognized, as well as dozens of science fair winners and the state champion basketball team from Roberts Vaux High School.

Before the charter discussion and vote, the commission also heard from a series of student, parent, and community speakers decrying the District’s planned budget cuts.

A common theme was that the District’s spending on charters is soaring while services in District schools are being slashed. “How can anyone support the expansion of charter schools at such a harsh time with no money?” asked Kaseem Davis, a student at Carroll High School and member of Youth United for Change.

Those comments echoed the remarks of speakers at an afternoon press conference organized by PCAPS (Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools) outside District headquarters, calling for a halt to charter expansion.

Superintendent Hite has said the District will not approve charter expansion requests this year, but charter enrollments are climbing nonetheless, due in part to previously approved expansions.

Explaining the moratorium on expansions, Kihn, the deputy superintendent, told the SRC, "We don’t expect to be in this situation forever."

The commission also received a petition from 90 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra opposing cuts to the instrumental music program.

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