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SRC to vote on closing Arise Charter, renewing three others with many conditions

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

The School Reform Commission will vote Thursday on a resolution to close Arise Academy Charter High School, which was set up to educate foster children but had been plagued by difficulties since its establishment almost five years ago.

It will also vote on resolutions to renew two charters founded by Dorothy June Brown, Laboratory and Planet Abacus, as well as the Philadelphia Electrical & Technology (PE&T) Charter High School.

Brown is awaiting retrial on federal fraud charges after a jury acquitted her on some but deadlocked on most of the counts against her. She was accused of bilking the schools of $6.7 million. At PE&T, which is affiliated with the electrical workers union led by John Dougherty, an assistant principal was dismissed and his credentials temporarily suspended as a result of a cheating scandal.

District staff first recommended not renewing Arise’s charter in the spring of 2012, at which time school officials asked for another chance and vowed to improve. The charter subsequently shook up its top staff.

The non-renewal resolution says that Arise did not improve its academic indicators, failed to meet goals, enrolled non-foster children, failed to hire all highly qualified teachers — or even 75 percent who were certified — and had poor fiscal management. It also did not keep up with its contributions to the state pension fund.

The renewal resolutions for Laboratory, Planet Abacus, and PE&T all include enrollment caps, a subject of controversy between the District and charter schools. All three charter agreements include a condition where "under no circumstances" can the charters seek payment for more students from the Distict or the state Depatment of Education. PDE has consistently paid the charters for disputed students under protest from the District, which says that it is losing millions and that PDE is not scheduling hearings to verify the charters’ enrollment claims.

In addition, the renewal resolutions for Laborary and Planet Abacus require severing all ties to Brown, except for honoring prior agreements to pay her medical benefits and to provide indemnification until the criminal case is concluded. It lays down strict ethics guidelines for board members, rules for dealing with future employee malfeasance, and requirements for beefing up internal fiscal controls. It also requires proof that teachers are certified and that the charter is paying into the pension system.

The renewal of PE&T’s charter would entail some of the same provisions for tight fiscal controls and employee and board ethics. The proposed charter agreement also requires it to "engage an independent testing monitor to monitor all standardized tests taken by students" and submit to the District and implement a test-monitoring plan.

Under the proposed charter agreements, all three schools must agree to simpler and more transparent admissions policies.

As recently as last fall, more than 30 of the city’s 87 charter schools were operating without signed agreements, due to disagreements over enrollment caps and other issues. In an effort to whittle down that number, Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn sent letters saying these charters had until Dec. 15 to reach agreement or face possible sanctions.

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