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Walter Palmer tells parents he has plan to save embattled charter

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

With legal and financial options dwindling for Walter Palmer’s charter school, Palmer says he’s prepared to give up the school to save it.

“If I have been an impediment, I will step down. If I have been the problem, I will resign,” said the founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School yesterday, during a community meeting at the school. “I will not get in the way of us educating our children.”

But Palmer, a pioneer of the local charter school movement, is hoping it won’t come to that. Instead, in the wake of a court decision that could force his school to cut its enrollment almost in half, Palmer is now proposing a two-pronged plan to keep the embattled school afloat.

To solve the short-term crisis, Palmer says he can secure enough private donations to pay for most of this year’s over-enrollment. To provide long-term stability, he’s proposing a new partnership with a Washington, D.C.-based charter provider, Friendship Public Charter Schools.

How exactly that partnership would work is yet to be determined, Palmer said. He didn’t rule out the possibility that Friendship could reshape the school’s board and administration, effectively taking it over. Palmer hopes to work out the details with the District and the School Reform Commission, which would have to approve any plan.

“We’re going to try hard to get Dr. Hite to sign on by the end of this week,” said Palmer, who said he’s bringing all of his political and academic connections to bear in the matter. “I had Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell call Dr. Hite … to encourage him not to stand in the way,” he said. “Our goal is to have upward of 1,000 children.”

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that, having few details, the District is continuing to move forward with the process of revoking the school’s charter. It will also continue working with parents "and providing them the option to transfer to other schools based on the indication that the charter operator could possibly close the school at any time."

As for a potential management change, he said: "We don’t know what the specifics of the relationship [with Friendship] would be or will be, so I can’t comment on whether it would be workable or not workable," he said.

Palmer unveiled his newest proposals on Monday night during a meeting at the school’s Northern Liberties campus, where a few hundred parents gathered to find out the latest in the school’s complex saga.

They got few definite answers about when the final word will come on enrollment, which students or teachers will lose their spots, and other practical matters.

Instead, they heard Palmer describe his latest push to find a solution to the 1,200-student school’s unique tangle of legal, academic, and financial difficulties.

At the school’s Northern Liberties campus, parents awaited the arrival of school founder Walter Palmer. (Photo: Bill Hangley, Jr.)

For years, the school has battled the District over enrollment caps; Palmer’s position has been that the law prohibits districts from limiting a given charter’s enrollment. For three years the school has overenrolled — this year, for example, while officially authorized to enroll only 675 students, Palmer’s school enrolled more than 1,200.

All along, Palmer has been counting on the courts to eventually uphold his position, order the District to pay for the extra students, and put the school back on sound financial ground.

But after a string of rulings, a Common Pleas Court judge finally ruled last week that the District does not have to pay for any students over the school’s cap. Instead, Palmer was not only denied a large payment he sought, but ordered to repay more than $1 million in past District payments made for such students.

As of Friday, Palmer said, the court rejected his proposed repayment plan.

That left the school virtually out of options, Palmer said. As of Friday, he was faced with cutting enrollment down to the approved number. District officials, meanwhile, have began reaching out to Palmer parents to tell them how to find new schools.

But after what Palmer described as a weekend full of phone calls and meetings with supporters and Philadelphia school officials, he said he eventually secured promises from anonymous donors who said they would pay tuition for several hundred students to finish the school year. Palmer declined to name those supporters now, but said their identities would be made public before Hite or the School Reform Commission is asked to formally approve any arrangements.

Palmer also connected with Donald Hense of D.C.’s Friendship Public Charter Schools, which has agreed to team up with the school in an as-yet-undetermined partnership.

Friendship’s main contribution would be to improve the school’s academics, Palmer and Hense said. “I’m working to protect his legacy. That is my only interest,” said Hence, whose organization runs six charters in Washington, four in Baltimore, and another in Baton Rouge. “What we hope to do is install a new reading and math curriculum that is strong. I don’t anticipate making a lot of changes. I just want to make sure the academics get on a strong footing.”

Palmer’s school was already working with an outside consultant, Stacey Cruise of Legacy Educational Management Co., who was brought in to address academic issues raised when the SRC voted to close the school last spring (that decision launched a process of hearings and appeals that is still ongoing). She says she’ll continue working with Palmer and Friendship.

“I’m still excited about the children and all the work that happens here every day,” she said.

Monday’s meeting was marked by plenty of support for Palmer.

“I took my kids out of public school for a reason,” said Karen Anderson, parent of two Palmer students. “The public schools are a mess. … Look at the budget cuts and how they’re suffering already.”

If the school closes it will be “a heartbreaker,” she said.

David Hardy, founder and CEO of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, said, “Everybody in the charter school community should rally around Dr. Palmer. He’s an icon in the fight for school choice.”

But parents who asked for clarity on practical matters got little of it. Palmer currently has no plan for how to trim enrollment, beyond not replacing those students who choose to leave. Teachers will be paid through October, but after that it’s unclear. Some grades will be “reconfigured,” Palmer said, but “we don’t know when, where, and how.”

When one parent asked why Palmer went over the enrollment caps in the first place, Palmer replied that he was simply responding to demand. “Parents hounded us,” he said. “It’s parents that made that choice for us.”

Palmer hopes to get assurances of support for his new plan from Hite within the next few days. Within 10 days he hopes to have the details of the Friendship partnership worked out. In the meantime, he urged his school’s parents to press the District to support his latest effort.

“Call Dr. Hite’s office. Call the SRC and ask them to work with us,” Palmer said to the gathered parents. “I will be in this fight until we get resolution. But we can’t do it without you.”

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