This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission rejected a bid Thursday by Esperanza to open a K-5 elementary school, which would have given the faith-based organization a full K-12 feeder pattern in its North Philadelphia neighborhood.
Esperanza submitted a revised application after being denied in February, when the SRC approved just five of 38 applications for new charters.
The denial, which came on a 3-1 vote, was due to concerns about the performance of students in Esperanza’s middle school, which has been in full operation for just a year.
The Rev. Luis Cortes, who heads Esperanza, and David Rossi, CEO of Esperanza Charter Schools, said they would keep coming back to the SRC until the charter is approved. They do not plan to appeal to the state Charter Appeal Board, they said after the vote.
"We see this as their responsibility," said Rossi, indicating the SRC.
The two men pointed out that Esperanza’s high school, which has been open since 2000, has some of the highest 11th-grade math and reading proficiency scores among non-selective high schools, especially those nearby. They bristled at the characterization in the recommendation for denial from staff in the Charter School Office that Esperanza had not shown it is a "model" for other public schools.
"We have proven we’re a better option than the traditional system," Cortes said.
In presenting the recommendation, Megan Reamer of the charter office acknowledged that Esperanza’s high school is high-performing and that the "model" wording was due to the requirements in the charter law and was not meant as a putdown of Esperanza.
But Reamer emphasized that the middle school numbers were not as good. She described it as "in the middle of the pack" compared to other schools in the neighborhood.
Commissioner Bill Green said he was impressed with Esperanza’s argument and invited them to apply again. But he voted to deny the application now, as did Farah Jimenez and SRC chair Marjorie Neff. Commissioner Sylvia Simms cast the only vote to approve the application.
"We’ll be back," said Cortes, after the vote. "We’re going to come back every single time."
The SRC has limited charter expansion due to the District’s financial woes, but was required to reopen the pipeline by a change in state law. During the moratorium, Esperanza got approval to expand to the middle grades. "It took us six years to get that ," said Cortes.
The middle school opened with 125 students in 2013 and expanded to 600 last year.
In other action, the SRC approved a $22.5 million contract to replace its 28-year old student information system that now holds District student data and enrollment data for charter schools.
The new network will be implemented through a 12-year contract with Infinite Campus Inc. and will modernize a system that the resolution described as a “significant risk to the District’s operational stability and service delivery quality.”
“We owe this to our schools,” said Chief Information Officer Melanie Harris, who laid out the proposal before the SRC. “So much time and money will be saved. … Our current system has not kept up with the times.”
Most significantly, the system under Infinite Campus will provide extended real-time access to data for parents, students, teachers, and administrators. This means parents can update their contact information or address without coming into the school, for example.
Students will also be able to choose their classes online, and parents can initiate student registration into the District online to jumpstart the process.
"We want parents and students to have a transparent view into their information and for students to own their academic careers,” said Harris.
The current green-screen system is only available to certain personnel such as secretaries and administrators and has no web-based or mobile component. Harris said that this new technology is flexible and won’t let systems drive the programs that teachers and administrators have, but will instead give them more control.
The $22.5 million for the project would be used in phases beginning with a startup period in which the system is implemented and post-implementation that includes the maintenance costs of licensing and hosting.
Training for teachers would take place in the first few months of the 2016-17 school year, and the system would be launched in January 2017 to offset beginning-of-school-year challenges. It would be rolled out for parents in September 2017.
The District’s decision to choose Infinite Campus came after months of research and evaluation of proposals from other providers in the marketplace. The evaluation team consisted of more than 80 representatives, including teachers, administrators, and District staff members.
“The cost is competitive, and research shows that it’s far below what most places pay for their services,” said Harris.
The SRC also sold two school buildings. The old Willard Elementary School in Port Richmond was sold to Project HOME and Sheridan West on Frankford Avenue was sold to GM Holdings, a developer.
The meeting was not as well-attended as many meetings during the school year, but the parents, activists and others who did come were particularly harsh on the SRC and Superintendent William Hite.
Citing the District’s moves to cancel the teachers’ contract and privatize services, as well as the District’s continued financial and academic woes, several people called on the SRC to dissolve itself. Nurse Eileen Duffey told Hite, "your days are numbered."