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Head of charter office says non-renewals of four Renaissance charters show oversight is working

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

The District’s controversial program to turn struggling schools over to charter operators is robust and being well-evaluated, according to the head of the charter office.

Recent recommendations against renewing four charter schools’ contracts prove that the Renaissance program does not need an overhaul, according to DawnLynne Kacer.

Kacer said in an interview that the non-renewal recommendations follow the requirements of the state charter school law. Her office also strictly evaluated the commitments made by the charter organizations on the goals they would meet for swift improvement in the historically underperforming District schools, she said.

“I don’t think this signals anything significant about the Renaissance program’s strength,” she said. “We defined the number of years that they must produce outcomes, and if they don’t, they are in violation of their charter, and we can move forward with other options for students so they can move into higher-quality seats as quickly as possible.”

Those other options include returning to District control, being turned over to other charter operators, or going under contract to a provider without becoming a charter, similar to most of the District’s alternative schools.

She said she thought the five-year period to show significant improvement – the term for charters before renewals – was realistic.

“I think that five years is reasonable,” said Kacer. “In three or four years, you expect to see a shift in academics. That is enough time to see improvement.”

The first two years are to establish culture change and hire and stabilize staff, she said, while the next years should show the fruits of those changes.

The four schools are run by two major local charter operators. Universal Vare Charter School and Universal Audenried Charter school are run by Universal Cos., which focuses on community and economic development, primarily with the Black community in South and Southwest Philadelphia. Its head is music entrepreneur Kenny Gamble.

One of Universal’s other charter conversion schools, Universal Bluford, is also in the non-renewal process.

Olney Charter High School and Stetson Charter, a middle school, are run by ASPIRA, which works in the Latino community, mostly in North Philadelphia. Both organizations operated stand-alone charters before getting involved in turning around low-performing schools – a daunting task that some long-established national charter organizations, including KIPP, have stayed away from.

According to Kacer and the charter office’s recommendations, the two ASPIRA schools were not recommended for renewal primarily due to concerns about finances and operations.

“Although they did have some academic concerns, the driving reason for non-renewal for both ASPIRA schools was failure to meet standards for financial health and stability and failure of organizational compliance,” she said.

Specifically, she said, the Olney board didn’t comply with its own bylaws in terms of board composition and elections, as well as procedures regarding budgets, staff hiring, dismissals and compensation. “There was no evidence in the board minutes that they had taken action” in those areas, she said. Management controls to assure that at least 75 percent of the staff is properly certified, required under state law, also was not in evidence, she said.

Plus, “There was a general lack of adherence to the accepted standards for financial management with regards to how they manage financial transactions, internal controls, and documentation within and across entities.”

She said both Stetson and Olney were asked to guarantee debt at other ASPIRA schools – their two stand-alone charters, de Hostos and Pantoja. Also, she said, there were transfers of money between Stetson and Olney.

“Stetson did have a relatively healthy financial position, but Olney did not,” she said. It had “a negative margin last year.”

The report also noted that fully half the teaching staff at Olney during 2014-15, the time of a bruising battle when teachers sought collective bargaining rights, did not return this year.

“Instructional staff instability causes concern for the authorizer,” she said.

Compliance with the Sunshine Act in announcing board meetings and structuring executive sessions was also lacking. Each charter school board, legally, functions as its own Local Education Agency (LEA) and is held to the same standards as any board of education.

To gauge academic performance, the District compares academic proficiency rates in math and language arts to a peer group of demographically similar District and charter schools, It compares academic growth rates to the statewide growth rate. And it looks at trends – whether the school is doing better than it did under District management. For high schools, it also looks at graduation rates.

Olney met most of the goals regarding proficiency and growth. Both there and at Stetson, however, most of the gains were in the first two years. In the most troubling academic finding, Olney saw a 24 percentage point plunge in the graduation rate from 2011 to 2014.

Academic concerns were more serious for the Universal schools.

“When we looked at Audenried, what we found there in a majority of the academic indicators … it did not meet the standard,” Kacer said. Math proficiency decreased by 12 percentage points to 10 percent, and reading proficiency decreased by 14 percentage points to 16 percent from when the District operated the school in 2010-11 to 2011-12. After the new Keystone exams were adopted by the state, proficiency rates in algebra, biology and language arts rose only by small amounts or declined. And overall they are very low. Graduation rates at the school initially declined, but then rose to 88 percent, above the average for peer schools.

At Vare, after three years of Universal operation, “students at Audenried were less proficient in math than they had been when the District operated the school,” said Kacer. There was a drop of 10 percentage points to 28 percent. Language arts increased by only 3 percentage points to 32 percent.

The school was also found to be in a “dire” financial position, Kacer said, with the management fee not paid in full during the term of the charter and some funds transferred to the management organization and other Universal charters. Audenried was in a somewhat better position, “still weak, but not as dire as Vare,” Kacer said.

The School Reform Commission will vote on the recommendations on April 28 and a hearing process will begin. The charters can then appeal to the state.

“No one is anticipating anything happening to these schools tomorrow,” she said. “It could be several years before something would become of these schools.”

Five other Renaissance schools were recommended for renewal, three with conditions.