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SRC approves new KIPP charter school and transfer of Douglass to Mastery

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

On Thursday, the School Reform Commission approved a new K-4 KIPP charter school for West Philadelphia to open in 2016 and voted to transfer management of Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School from Scholar Academies to Mastery.

The three-year KIPP charter was approved by a 3-1 vote, with SRC Chair Marjorie Neff dissenting. Commissioner Farah Jimenez recused herself due to a potential conflict of interest.

When the SRC approved five new charters out of 39 applications in February, it voted down a proposal from KIPP. Rather than appeal the denial to the state Charter Appeal Board, KIPP revised its proposal, changing the school’s location and provisions around governance and educator certification. It also pushed back the opening date from this September to next fall.

The charter operator had previously sought a K-12 school with 1,380 students and had planned to open a middle and high school in the second year of the charter. But the SRC granted a charter only for grades kindergarten through 4th grade and set a limit of 375 students.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun said that she didn’t feel the KIPP application "rose to the level" of five other new charter schools that the SRC approved in February. But she voted yes, because she understood that a split 2-2 vote would have put the SRC on shaky legal ground with the state. The District is required to consider revised charter applications within a given time frame.

"We are very pleased with the outcome and we are looking forward to serving more children in Philadelphia in 2016," KIPP Philadelphia’s CEO Marc Mannella said afterward.

Neff, who had voted no on all prior charter applications, participated in this meeting via phone. She did not comment on her vote, but said in February that she opposed all charter expansion, seeing it as a financial drain on District schools.

The KIPP vote brings to six the number of new charters approved by the SRC since it was required to resume considering applications by the state legislature as a condition of approving the city-only cigarette tax.

The vote on Douglass marks the first time the District has had to go back to the drawing board for a District school that had been outsourced for turnaround under the Renaissance initiative.

Douglass was in the first Renaissance cohort in 2010. The school has struggled academically for the last several years, so when Scholar Academies heard that the charter office was recommending non-renewal, it approached Mastery about taking it over.

The proposal got the approval of Douglass’ School Advisory Council, especially as Mastery promised to retain teachers and other staff members that had been offered contracts for next year by Scholar Academies. Several Douglass parents and grandparents spoke at the meeting and said that they appreciated the stability.

"While we were happy with Young Scholars, we learned recently that our kids are not reaching academic standards," said SAC member Gale Fisher-Glenn. "Mastery has the track record to do it." She said that 80 parents had come to a meeting to support the partnership. "We can’t afford for our school to go backwards."

Several teachers also spoke in favor of the transfer.

Mastery CEO Scott Gordon attended the meeting and hugged several of the parents afterward. He said in an earlier interview that about 80 percent of the staff would remain, although the school leadership would change and Mastery would introduce its academic model.

"We [Mastery] have changed pretty significantly. We have a keen focus on critical thinking," he said. The school culture, he said, is no longer built around a "no excuses" model that focuses on strict discipline and raising test scores. Instead, the school tries "to develop independence in decision-making."

Mastery also gives intense supports to teachers.

"I think we, as an organization, we pride ourselves on our ability to invest in teachers and teaching," Gordon said. "We have a tremendous amount of training up front and coaching."

In other action, the SRC postponed the meeting to adopt the District’s budget for next year from May 28 to June 30. Commissioners said there was no point in voting until they knew how much money they would be getting from the city and state, both of which have budget deadlines at the end of June.

It also approved $10 million through June 2018 for contracts with various companies for online curricula to allow for blended learning.

District Chief Operating Officer Fran Burns said that some of the materials would allow teachers to break classes into groups, with some working online while others did classroom-based activities. It would also permit more variety in the delivery of AP courses, she said, as well as additional options for students needing "credit recovery," who often do this through online coursework.

Activist and former teacher Lisa Haver questioned the contracts, saying "it puts students in front of computers instead of teachers for a significant portion of instructional time."