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Hearings start Dec. 8 for 40 new charter school applicants

One new applicant, Liguori Academy, has done a makeover of its website, eliminating some obvious religious references. In this round of hearings, schools will have 20 minutes to make their case.

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

For the first time in years, the Philadelphia School District is accepting applications to open new charter schools.

Many of the applicants, which are listed below, are already familiar names. KIPP proposes three new schools, String Theory seeks four, and Mastery wants two, as do American Paradigm and MaST.

There are also some interesting newcomers making pitches.

The Public Health Management Corp., whose experience thus far has been in public health, not public schools, would like to open a charter.

There’s also a request to open Liguori Academy, a school that says it would be "grounded in the philosophy Alphonsus Liguori," an 18th-century Catholic bishop from Italy.

"We’re not Catholic. We have no religious affiliation," said the school director, the Rev. Mike Marrone, a priest who has taken a voluntary leave of absence from the vocation.

Theology classes wouldn’t be on the agenda, he says.

"We’re not looking to give spiritual messages, not pushing any specific denomination, Christian, Muslim or otherwise," he said.

The proposed school’s website appears to have undergone a recent makeover to remove religious language. (Here’s what the website looked like a week ago.)

References on its website to promoting "God’s boundless love" have been edited to simply "boundless love," but the old language still shows up on a Google search for the proposed school. The school’s logo still includes a cross.

One page of the Liguori site that is still live but no longer accessible from the home page describes Liguori as a "Catholic high school" and says its mission is to "provide a Catholic education to students who otherwise might not be able to experience the benefits of such an education."

Pennsylvania’s charter law says schools cannot provide religious instruction or display religious objects and symbols.

But Marrone, who has taught at North and West Catholic, said the school would serve the city’s most vulnerable students, kids who lag behind grade level and who’ve been suspended at least once.

"Alphonsus Liguori wasn’t just a man for Catholics," said Marrone, "but a man for the most abandoned and unloved."

Marrone’s hoping to open the school in 2016 for 300 students — growing to 1,000 by 2019. A location has yet to be secured, but negotiations are in place to house the school at what’s now an abandoned factory in Kensington.

Liguori’s board includes District Attorney Seth Williams, former Philadelphia Flyer goaltender Bernie Parent, and Local 98 union boss John Dougherty, among others. The proposed school received a grant for a feasibility study from the Philadelphia School Partnership earlier this year, and at that time described itself as "a ‘second-chance’ Catholic high school for at-risk students.

For all 40 applications, the looming question has been: In the midst of ongoing District budget woes, do any of these schools actually have a shot of being approved by the School Reform Commission?

"If you open a new District school or open a new charter school, there’s costs that are obviously associated with either one," said Matt Stanski, the School District’s chief financial officer.

"As a district we have to look our entire portfolio of schools holistically," he said, "and just really determine the best way to educate over 200,000 students in the most cost-effective manner."

Charter proponents argue that parent demand should compel the District to open some new, high-performing charters. They say the district can do so prudently by closing ineffective schools and staggering the opening dates over five years for the new ones.

The state now requires the Philly district to hear, but not approve new applications. The demand falls under a provision tacked on to the same state law that authorized Philadelphia to create a cigarette-tax to fund schools. The same amendment allows rejected applicants to ask the state Charter Appeals Board to overrule the local decision.

Charter applicants received notice this week from the District’s charter office that the first set of public hearings would take place between Dec. 8 and 12. During the first set of hearings, applicants will make a 15-minute presentation, followed by public comment.

These hearings will be grouped by region, meaning that all operators hoping to open a school, for example, in North Philadelphia, would be scheduled for the same block of time.

The second set of hearings, according to the note, will begin in January. At these, "applicants will be questioned about their applications by a hearing officer, the [Charter School Office] will present comments from application evaluators, and applicants will have the chance to make a final statement."

The Philadelphia School District would not confirm these details.

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