This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission voted 4-1 Thursday night to close Imani Education Circle Charter School in Germantown, leading the school’s board and CEO to promise a swift and strong appeal to the state.
"We will go through the appeal process and will be fine," said CEO Francine Fulton after the vote. "I have no fear the state will deny our charter."
Imani, which has been open for 15 years, is one of the oldest charters in the city. It offers its 450 K-8 students an Afrocentric curriculum. It will remain open during the appeals process, which can take more than a year.
The vote came at the end of a lengthy meeting at which several people spoke on Imani’s behalf, while many more urged the SRC to approve additional charters to give parents more choices.
Commissioner Sylvia Simms was the lone vote against the closure, but without comment. Other commissioners asked questions, but none explained the thinking behind their "yes" vote.
The SRC originally voted against renewing the school’s charter 18 months ago, citing academic deficiencies and some financial concerns. As required by law, hearings were held.
The SRC asked for a review of the hearing officer’s findings, including conclusions reached by comparing Imani’s academic record to other schools. It heard a presentation from an outside attorney it asked to review the hearing officer’s report before voting.
But Imani’s proponents said that its record is comparable to other charters that have not been closed, and better than some district schools. On the most recent state School Performance Profile, it scored 59.2, below the 70 score considered by state officials to be on the right track, but higher than most nearby District elementary schools.
The school’s board members and staff in attendance said that test scores don’t tell the whole story, but that in any case they have been improving.
"They [the SRC] seem to be aiming at all the independent [charter] schools they can pick on," said the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, a Germantown business owner and activist who is on Imani’s board. "We’re a small board trying to do our best with the children."
Before the vote, Simmons addressed the SRC: "We have a waiting list. … Imani has a long, strong history serving families."
The SRC has not targeted for closure any charters operated by large organizations like KIPP, Mastery and Universal, he said. He said Imani’s performance is better than some Universal charters.
Imani "is an institution that runs smoothly and is well-organized," said board member Gail Hawkins-Bush, an educational consultant with long involvement in charter schools.
Hawkins-Bush said that SRC members had never visited the school. "That’s like diagnosing cancer over the phone," she said. "This makes no sense."
She and Simmons questioned whether Imani students would have higher-quality options. Its students come from around the city. Eighty-eight percent of the school’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged.
Simmons also charged that the SRC is systematically stripping central Germantown of its schools. Last year it closed century-old Germantown High School and nearby Fulton Elementary.
"Where will these children go?" he asked.
Charter office staffers said they had determined that there were better quality schools available, but they did not specify which ones.
The financially strapped SRC, which hasn’t considered a new charter since 2007, now has 40 new applications, the result of a new state law authorizing a cigarette tax but also requiring that they consider new charters.
Of the 44 speakers scheduled at Thursday’s meeting, 18 urged them to approve charter expansions. Four speakers, including Simmons, spoke for Imani.