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School facing possible closure receives $1.2 million in three-year grant

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

Truebright Science Academy in the Olney section is touting its new afterschool program funded with a sizable federal grant. The question is whether the school will be open long enough for the tutoring and enrichment initiative to have much of an impact.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education in late September awarded the charter school on Roosevelt Boulevard $400,000 in federal funds a year over three years — $1.2 million total — to run an afterschool and summer program to enhance college readiness.

But Truebright is in an ongoing struggle with the School District of Philadelphia, which wants the school closed.

The School Reform Commission voted in October 2013 not to renew the school’s charter. The school appealed, and the case was heard this past Oct. 28 by the state charter appeals board in Harrisburg. A decision is expected in early December.

The school was among 23 grantees in Philadelphia — a mix of community groups and charter schools — to win funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program of the U.S. Department of Education. Some of the programs are run in District schools by outside groups, but the District itself did not apply, opting instead to play the role of coordinator for other out-of-school time providers it has partnered with.

Elsewhere in the state, 41 school districts, charter schools and local groups won funding, while bids from about 50 others fell short.

The perilous state of its charter failed to deter Truebright staff from pursuing the out-of-school effort. Isik Durmus, Truebright’s dean of academics, said in a telephone interview that school leaders decided to move forward despite uncertainties related to the charter.

“That’s not going to be our decision, so we decided to keep moving on serving our students. That’s our goal,” Durmus said.

Tim Eller, press secretary for the state Department of Education, said in an email that “the charter school renewal process is separate and distinct from the 21st Century Learning Centers grant program.”

The charter renewal process is handled by the School District of Philadelphia, while the federal grant program, which is administered by PDE, “requires specific criteria for organizations to qualify, such as high-poverty, low-performing schools,” Eller said, offering no further elaboration.

Vicki Ellis, who oversees out-of-school programming for the District, said much the same: “PDE runs this [grant selection] process including the review process and decision making. SDP has nothing to do [with] the process or decision.”

The award has caused consternation among public school advocates.

“This is baffling — that a school in danger of losing its charter and closing would get such a massive amount of money,” said Lisa Haver, retired teacher and founder and leader of the advocacy group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Gov. Corbett, she said, “has made it clear he supports charters and you really have to consider that when you see this kind of outpouring to one school. … Is this an indication the state is going to grant their appeal? ‘We’re investing in a school and then say, oh, no, we’re rejecting your appeal.’ I’ll stay tuned for that.”

Lawrence Feinberg, founder and co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition, a non-partisan and grassroots public education advocacy group, said it is “a very concerning thing” to learn of such a large award to a charter school at the same time a public school principal in the city has only $160 in extra funds for the entire year, as reported in the Inquirer. There seems to be “a double standard” at play, he said, between sharp scrutiny of public school funding and limited oversight of tax dollars going to charter schools.

Haver also faulted charter school oversight at the District level, noting that deficiencies at Truebright were first noted three years ago.

“I don’t know why it took them so long,” she said. “The District, because of its lack of oversight, isn’t really able to monitor the charters, and by the time the District sees what’s going on, some of the charters have problems that are just about irreparable.”

The School District, in a brief filed with the charter appeals board, argued that Truebright should lose its charter because it had failed to meet the terms of its charter, including failure to meet "adequate yearly progress" goals, not having a defined curriculum, failure to attract students from its catchment area, not offering world languages or Advanced Placement courses as promised, and not providing students with laptop computers as promised.

The brief concluded that “the School District proved by a preponderance of evidence that the charter school failed to meet all its academic and non-academic goals, including making AYP each year.”

Truebright opened in 2007 with a five-year charter. The deficiencies were identified in the fall of 2011 as the District began the charter renewal process.

The school did make AYP in 2012, the most recent year available, according to PDE data. In addition, beginning last school year, students are issued Chromebooks, according to Durmus, and the school has acquired Study Island software, which offers students skill-building practice.

Truebright is part of a network of more than 100 schools across the country run by followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar who emigrated from Turkey in 1999 to self-imposed exile in the Poconos. Gulen remains an influential and controversial political figure in Turkey.

Gulen schools have come under scrutiny from the media and federal authorities amid reports that the schools favor hiring Turkish teachers and Turkish vendors. In Pennsylvania, school boards in Allentown and Lancaster have rejected charter applications, in both cases citing a lack of support for the charters from local communities.

There are two other Gulen-backed schools in the state, in Pittsburgh and State College. According to the Inquirer, which examined Truebright in 2011, there is “no indication” the Gulen charter network in the United States has a religious agenda in the classroom.

Durmus, the Truebright dean, said the program, which operates Monday through Thursday after school as well as Saturday mornings, enhances the school’s efforts to prepare its students for college. The plan is to run the program during spring break and also in the summer, he said.

“This grant will allow us to do a lot with our students,” he said. The program has four components — tutoring, sports activities at the nearby Salvation Army Kroc Center of Philadelphia, time for clubs and teams, and a social-emotional skills-building program called “Becoming a Better You” run by Mothers in Charge violence prevention, education and intervention initiative.

“We want to prepare our students for college, and the social-skills classes teach students about real-life skills they’ll need, like time management, organizational skills, and coping with peer conflict,” said Durmus.

Durmus said enrollment is running “175 to 200,” while the coed school has a total enrollment of 350 in grades 7 to 12. Parents were notified when the grant was awarded and were urged to enroll their children in the program, he said.

“We were so happy, because otherwise we would be unable to offer this program free to all of our students,” he said. The program goes beyond academics, he said, because “we start with the concept of teaching the whole child, so the program offers social, physical, mental support of all of our students.”

Previously, teachers would offer students extra help after school “but it wasn’t as structured or as comprehensive as this program,” Durmus said.

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