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Arise Academy charter will close in June

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

Arise Academy, a charter school founded to educate children in the foster care system, will close its doors in June after six years of struggling to serve its difficult population and meet the requirements set out as a condition of its continued operation.

The School Reform Commission — in its first meeting with Marjorie Neff as the new chair — voted Thursday night on a resolution to "surrender and forfeit" the charter and "close and dissolve" the school, which now has an enrollment of 94 students.

The charter agreed not to appeal to the state and to a series of additional conditions, including that it continue to provide its students with all required educational services.

Roberta Trombetta, who is in her second year as Arise’s acting CEO, did not speak but did attend the meeting. She said after the vote that the SRC had agreed to a "transition plan" for the students and now has a better understanding of their needs.

"We’re pretty confident that they’re going to be OK," she said. "That’s been our goal all along."

She will work to try to keep most of the students together in a new school, but no decisions have yet been made on that.

"We think it’s important that the kids have a community and a family-like structure that supports them," Trombetta said.

Arise has some private funding for supplemental programming during the transition to provide "stability, which is what our kids need most," she said.

Arise did not have a grade structure, but enrolled students who would normally have been in high school. Many were close to aging out of the foster care system and had records in the juvenile justice system.

The charter’s experience "was a struggle," said Trombetta. "But it also really alerted this community to the needs of kids in foster care and juvenile justice. … I think the District heard us, even though the charter wasn’t the right vehicle to do that."

Concerned about sending a message of low expectations, the SRC in granting the charter imposed traditional accountability measures, including meeting proficiency goals in standardized tests. Trombetta said that these standards were unrealistic.

"I think that the original charter agreeement had set standards for proficiency rates that when you have kids who are 17 and 18 come to you with a 3rd- and 4th- and 5th-grade reading level, unfortunately three years is a very short time to meet their needs and close that gap," she said.

"I think we need to look at what the students walk in the door with and what is a realistic success story … in terms of educational growth as well as social and emotional growth."

The SRC first voted not to renew Arise’s charter in 2012 due to financial and academic concerns, but then gave it a year and a half to meet standards. In January 2014, the SRC voted again to close the school, even though it had brought in new leadership and revamped its operations.

At that meeting, students pleaded to keep it open, but the SRC cited a daily attendance rate of 68 percent, declining enrollment, low test scores, and financial problems.

Trombetta said she is hopeful. "I know that the District is paying attention now and they will put in the supports necessary with our help hopefully to make sure the kids are OK."

Neff, in taking over as chair of the SRC, made a short statement urging unity in lobbying for additional funds for the District proposed in the budgets of Gov. Wolf and Mayor Nutter.

"The education budgets put forward by our governor and mayor will provide us with the opportunity we have been waiting for, the opportunity to restore services and invest in public education," Neff said. "But before we get that chance, we must come together as Philadelphians and citizens of this Commonwealth and fight on behalf of our students and schools."

Many of the speakers were critical of the SRC and potential waste, particularly around news stories this week about a stash of textbooks from closed schools that are stored in the shuttered Bok Technical High School building in South Philadelphia.

Superintendent William Hite said that it is "unconscionable" if there are "relevant, usable" materials not in the hands of teachers and students who need them, but that a plan is in place to inventory and distribute materials. He said that since dozens of schools closed, some $2 million in books were distributed to other schools.

Two students also spoke against the planned merger of Kensington Business and Kensington Urban Academy, two high schools that share the same building. The students, members of Youth United for Change, said that the community worked hard to create these small high schools and that combining them would be a step backward.

Former SRC Chair Bill Green, now a member, agreed that the District’s process for the merger has been rushed and said there should be more community input.

Green, who was ousted as chair by Gov. Wolf in favor of Neff, made a statement that he agrees the District needs more money, but that it isn’t enough. He repeated his assertion that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers must make changes around seniority and other workrules that he says hampers educational improvement.

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