This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Three charter schools whose status has been in limbo since 2012 won belated renewals from the School Reform Commission on Thursday evening.
But a fourth, Arise Academy Charter High School, is a step nearer to closure.
Two of the charters whose renewals were approved after an 18-month delay — Laboratory and Planet Abacus — were founded by Dorothy June Brown, whose trial on federal fraud charges just concluded with a deadlocked jury. The SRC heard that management changes and new financial protocols and admissions practices were put in place at those schools to address past irregularities.
Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter High School (PE&T), whose charter status was in limbo pending an investigation of widespread cheating on standardized tests in 2009-2011, saw its renewal squeak through the SRC on a 3-1 vote.
Arise, which was billed as the first high school in the country dedicated to serving students in the foster care system, has fewer than 100 students.
In 2012, the SRC voted not to renew its charter due to academic, financial, and management concerns. The commission later postponed the public hearing process provided to charters threatened with closure, giving the school a year and a half to turn things around.
But despite wholesale changes at the school, the SRC Thursday reiterated its earlier nonrenewal vote. The vote triggers a mandated hearing process, which, with some charters threatened with closure, has taken a year or more.
Students and staff from Arise pleaded their case to the SRC. "Every step of the way, my teachers are there," said student Donna Varner, 19, who is also a young mother. At the school, she said, "I have the family that I never really had." She and others praised the one-on-one support offered to students.
Officials from Arise offered an alternative proposal — to shut the school down in 2015 and come together with the School District to develop a new plan for serving this population. But none of the commissioners went for it. District staff cited poor daily attendance (68 percent) and dismal test results, declining enrollment, and a dangerously low fund balance as reasons to act on nonrenewal.
Commissioners took the position that the school is "not working as a charter." Commissioner Sylvia Simms abstained on the vote, which was 3-0 for nonrenewal.
If Arise continues to operate through the hearing process, however, it is unlikely that the SRC would be able to make a final decision on closure in time to shutter the school this summer.
Commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and Feather Houstoun engaged in a back-and-forth with PE&T charter officials and District staff over that school’s renewal, raising questions about whether a charter should be granted to a school with flat academic performance that was no better than District averages.
"I’m very skeptical that this is a high-performance enterprise," Houstoun said.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn, recommending renewal, said that the District average for academic performance was the historical standard used for charter renewal decisions.
Dworetzky, citing concerns about the school’s past history of restrictive admissions policies and a still-paltry population of English language learners, voted not to renew PE&T. But Houstoun ultimately joined Simms and Wendell Pritchett in a 3-1 majority voting for renewal.