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As SRC prepares to vote on Renaissance schools, questions raised about providers

Councilwoman Gym demands more information on vetting process for charter providers.

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

The School Reform Commission on Thursday night will take the first steps toward converting two additional schools into charters, and recently elected City Councilwoman Helen Gym is demanding more information about the process for vetting and approving providers.

Gym is especially concerned about why Great Oaks Foundation Inc. is being proposed to operate Jay Cooke Elementary School in Logan under the District’s Renaissance schools initiative. Gym contends that Great Oaks — which operates schools in Wilmington, New York City, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn. — “has shown limited success in serving vulnerable students and frequently employs a school climate approach that is in direct contrast with the District’s end to zero tolerance.”

Gym also noted that the organization’s board chair, Steven Klinsky, and president, Michael Duffy, have ties to Victory Education Partners. Victory is a for-profit company that was among those given contracts to manage District schools during an eight-year privatization experiment between 2002 and 2010 that is widely acknowledged now to have been a failure.

She has asked that the District release Great Oaks’ proposal and fully explain its process for vetting potential charter providers, neither of which it had done as of Wednesday night.

“Lacking an accessible public record of its application, it is impossible to know whether Great Oaks has been properly vetted — and whether or not its ties to Victory have been made clear,” she wrote in a letter to Superintendent William Hite and SRC members on Tuesday.

The District has offered few specifics about how it evaluated the two providers and deemed them qualified. Officials have said they looked for demonstrated capacity to lead a school turnaround.

Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the District, said RFQs, or “requests for qualifications,” are typically kept private as part of the District’s standard procurement process. He also noted that the vote Thursday will be to invite Great Oaks to file a charter application and is not a final approval. That vote will occur in April, he said, after a full public process.

Gallard provided data that he said was from Great Oaks to address Gym’s contention that the charter operator does not take its fair share of special education students and English language learners. Gym cited figures from Newark, but Gallard said that Newark has a citywide application that assigns students to schools, including charters, which do not hold individual lotteries. The Great Oaks schools in other cities had percentages of special education and ELL students comparable to their districts, he said.

He also said that as a Renaissance school operator, Great Oaks would be subject to the District’s student code of conduct, which de-emphasizes the zero-tolerance discipline approach.

“There will be no option for them,” Gallard said. In their proposal, he added, “they did refer to lessons learned from the zero-tolerance discipline model, and they did make changes to that based on lessons learned there.”

Gym said in an interview Wednesday night that she had not received a formal District response to her letter. She discounts the idea that Thursday’s action is merely a preliminary vote, saying that it, in effect, seals who will manage the school’s conversion to a charter.

“Maybe the services are still somewhat negotiable, but the provider is not. It’s all set in terms of who is managing the school based on information that isn’t available to the public,” she said. “My biggest interest is in ensuring that parents and the community have a voice in the process.”

Also Thursday, the SRC will vote to match Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia with Global Leadership Partners, which already operates a charter school in Philadelphia.

Gym said that she felt Global Leadership was more of a known quantity with a history in Philadelphia “and somewhat vetted by the District. Some of that information has been public. But Great Oaks Foundation is a new operator with no track record in Philadelphia and troubling ties with a for-profit operator with a terrible record. I have serious questions about how well-vetted it was.”

Others, including the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), have questioned Global Leadership Academy’s record.

Global Leadership Academy, a K-8 school in West Philadelphia, advertises itself as "one of the most academically successful charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia," but its performance on the District’s school rating system, the School Progress Report, is squarely in the middle of the pack. It ranked 67th out of 140 K-8 schools and 19th of 29 demographically similar schools.

Its standardized test scores also landed it in the middle with only 10 percent of the school’s students scoring proficient in math. Ironically, the school’s academic performance earned it the label "Intervene," the performance level where a majority of District schools landed. Areas where it excelled on the District rating system were student attendance and the stability of the student population. The school also met most of the District standards when its charter was up for renewal in 2014, though some concerns were raised about financial controls and barriers to admission for English language learners.

The school does now have its admission application on its website in English and Spanish. But it does not have recent minutes and agendas for its board of trustees meetings, one of which was held Wednesday night; the most recent ones are from last spring.

One area where the school stands out is in the salary of its CEO, lifelong educator Naomi Booker-Johnson. According to a database of public school payrolls, she was the 3rd highest-paid public school employee in Philadelphia in 2013-14, earning $226,548. Her salary that year ranked her 11th in the state among all public school employees.

In another resolution on Thursday’s agenda, the SRC will vote to settle allegations that Imhotep Charter fraudulently billed the District for special education students. The charter has agreed to repay the District more than $16,000 for two special education students who were no longer enrolled.

Investigators found that Imhotep submitted forged signatures of guardians for two of the students. One of the guardians had died, and the other student had withdrawn. The investigation was conducted by the city’s Office of Inspector General, which now has a special deputy for the District. Since the fraudulent billing took place, Imhotep has undergone a change in leadership at the District’s insistence.

Other items on the SRC agenda for Thursday include establishment of a Science Leadership Academy Middle School on the site of the former University City High. The school would open in September with a 5th grade and eventually expand to 360 students in grades 5 through 8. It will be non-selective and modeled after the SLA high school, with an inquiry-based, project-based course of study.

According to the SRC resolution, “The School’s mission and vision are based on three essential questions: (1) “How do we learn?”; (2) “What can we create?”; and (3) “What does it mean to lead?” Classes will be longer, and and there will be more science labs and performance-based work.

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