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Pitches for new charter schools in North Philadelphia

A recap of proposals from Day 2 of the District's hearings for new charter applicants.

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

On Day 2 of the School District’s hearings for new charter school applications, representatives from 12 proposed charters made their pitches for new schools in North Philadelphia.

A small crowd of community members, charter school supporters and other education stakeholders gathered at School District’s headquarters Wednesday to hear the 15-minute presentations from a diverse group of applicants, including well-known charter operators Mastery, KIPP, and ASPIRA.

Two new Mastery schools?

Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, the largest charter operator in Philadelphia, proposed two new K-8 schools. Mastery Gillespie would occupy the closed Gillespie Middle School facility, he said. A second school, Mastery North Philadelphia, doesn’t yet have a set location, but one option is the former M.H. Stanton School, which closed in 2013. Both charters, he said, would enroll about 750 students and serve the Nicetown/Tioga neighborhoods.

Mastery’s communications manager Winslow Mason said parents in North Philadelphia are pushing for a school there. According to Mason, 848 parents have signed a petition requesting a Mastery elementary school in North Philadelphia, and 184 parents have filled out pre-enrollment forms for the new schools.

Mastery runs 12 charter schools in Philadelphia and two in Camden, N.J. serving more than 10,000 students.

“I think about the 500 parents of students who are on waiting lists to get into Mastery elementary schools, who want the same chance my son had,” said Maritza Guridy, parent of a senior at Mastery Simon Gratz. “Mastery has proven to be a great partner with the School District. It has a track record of proven success.”

A computer science focus

Freire charter school leaders and students presented a plan for a new technology- and entrepreneurship-focused school called TECH Freire Charter High School, which would open in the fall of 2016 in the 19132 zip code in North Philadelphia west of Broad Street. Building on the core liberal arts model of Freire Charter School in Center City, TECH would teach computer science in the effort to prepare minority students for STEM-related college programs and careers.

Freire’s head of school, Kelly Davenport, said that 60 percent of the school’s slots would be reserved for students living in areas the District has identified as targets for new charter schools.

“[Freire Charter School] has given my child the ability to obtain a quality education in the times of failing schools, school closing, and budget cuts,” said Anthony Harris, parent of a 10th-grader. “Freire Charter has a safe environment, without detectors, and that’s very big.”

He added that “there’s no excuses to delay TECH Freire Charter of opening it’s doors. … there’s no excuses, and that’s one of their mottos at Freire Charter.”

Schools for bilingual Spanish speakers

Three new charter schools applicants seek to provide education for the Latino community in North Philadelphia.

The proposed ASPIRA Ramon E. Betances school would be a K-8 school serving families in the Port Richmond and Hunting Park neighborhoods.

Thomas Darden, the chief operating officer of ASPIRA in Pennsylvania, said Betances would be a technology-driven, “cradle-to-college” program. Using a dual-language model, he said the data-driven charter would assess student performance weekly to develop plans to better serve its students, which include high numbers of English language learners and special education students.

ASPIRA has come under fire recently due to accusations that it paid a painting contractor for work that school maintenance employees said they did themselves.

Esperanza Elementary and Congreso Academy are two other proposed charter schools looking to serve bilingual speakers in North Philadelphia.

Esperanza, would be a K-5 school, located in the Salvation Army building on N. Mascher Street. David Rossi, CEO of Esperanza Academy Charter School, which serves grades 6-12, said he hoped the new elementary school would be a feeder school for Esperanza Academy.

Rossi also said that in 2016, he hopes to expand the new school to 800 students and relocate to 300 W. Bristol St., currently an open field owned by Esperanza.

With plans to use the former Fairhill Elementary School, which closed in 2013, Congreso Academy would open as a new high school, adopting a “community school” approach to education. The curriculum would be focused on aiding students with skills needed for college and the workforce, and place emphasis on community efforts, including creating a culture of civic engagement.

Wanda Novales, founding principal and current CEO of the bilingual K-8 Pan American Academy Charter School, said her targets for the new school would be a minimum graduation rate of 75 percent, attendance rate of 90 percent or more, and an 80 percent family engagement rate with the community school model.

Alternative and special education

Perhaps the day’s most novel proposal came from PHASE 4 American Charter, a K-8 school that would stretch the required 180 days of school to a year-round schedule operating on a quarterly system and eliminating the traditional summer break. Classrooms would be single sex, a practice that PHASE 4 regional director Benjamin Wright said has been effective in other schools, particularly with students of color and low income.

Single-sex education can “provide a more equitable learning environment and produce higher aspiration towards learning,” said Wright, who recently left the District as head of alternative education. Before that, he was local director of the for-profit charter chain Victory Schools.

Wright made reference to the Thurgood Washington school in Seattle, which he said tested the model from 1999 to 2002 with Black, Latino, and Asian students, seeing an increase of test scores and decrease in truancy and disruptions.

PHASE 4 currently operates two alternative schools in Philadelphia and hopes to open two more by 2016, Wright said.

The Pavilion School is a proposed pre-K-5 charter that would provide a nurturing and intense program for high-incidence special education students citywide, said Pavilion co-founder Cokettia Rawlerson. With small class sizes and individual assessment, Rawlerson said Pavilion would provide a private school-like environment for free that would meet the unique needs of special education students, students with low test scores or low income, and English language learners.

Co-founder Sonya Peck said that the school is for exceptional students; gifted is a special education category.

“We aim to inform, re-educate, and illuminate stigmas of special education and redefine what it looks like,” said Peck.

Two more days of hearings

The third day of hearings continues on Thursday and the last day will be on Friday. Members of the public who wish to comment must sign up in advance. Speakers are asked to register by calling (215) 400-4010. The presentation schedule for new charter applicants can be found here.

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