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Curriculum and budget questions are raised at hearing about free-market charter application

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

The conference room at Philadelphia School District headquarters was practically empty Jan. 5 as a row of six people made their case to open a new free-market charter school in Cedarbrook.

The school, Metropolitan Philadelphia Classical Charter, would be the first in Pennsylvania designed by the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College, a private conservative Christian college known for its refusal to accept federal financial aid for students who qualify for it. The initiative, which has 16 charter schools in nine states, promotes a free-market economics curriculum, a course on “moral philosophy,” and an exclusively Western humanities curriculum.

The proposed curriculum excludes any course in African or African American history, even though the school would be located in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

The president of the Michigan college is Larry Arnn, one of the candidates that President-elect Donald Trump was considering for secretary of education before naming Betsy DeVos. Referred to by some as the “conservative Harvard,” Hillsdale has been accused of using hateful language against the LGBTQ community in a campus-wide email. Charles and David Koch are among its big donors.

The Metropolitan Philadelphia Classical Charter application drew skepticism from the School Reform Commission’s Charter Schools Office, which reviewed the application, and from hearing officer Allison Petersen.

This was the first, and most controversial, in a second round of hearings on four new charter applications.

The charter office found myriad problems with the school’s proposed budget, governance structure, and potential conflicts of interest, Megan Reamer, the office’s program manager for charter development, told Petersen. By the end of the hearing, one conflict of interest question was left unanswered by the applicants.

Reamer also criticized the proposed bylaws for allowing the compensation of board members and having a high ratio of administrators compared to teachers and support staff.

She called the plan for special education “quite limited,” because it relied entirely on “whole class instruction.”

The applicants said they planned to buy the building of New Media Technology Charter, a school that was 99 percent black and only 0.4 percent white when it closed last June.

Citing the absence of Philadelphia’s yearlong African American history course, Reamer said that ”the course plan for the high school appeared to lack any culturally relevant text or lesson plan for students who might not identify with a culture of white European descent.” There is also no Eastern history or literature in the curriculum.

Reamer noted that the applicants were initially planning to locate in South Philadelphia. The applicants said they changed neighborhoods shortly before applying when they realized that they could save millions on renovations by locating in New Media’s former home.

The school would eventually serve grades K-12 and would open next school year. The applicants estimated an enrollment of 674 by year five and clarified during the hearing that the total enrollment would go up to 704, although they did not specify when.

John McKelligott, president of the board of the school’s managing corporation and formerly a school board member in the William Penn School District, said the school would open with two classes of 27 students in each grade from kindergarten through 8th grade. Ninth and 10th grades each would have one class of 20 students, although after five years the high school would also have two classes of 27 in each grade.

McKelligott said he intended to seek the position of school leader, although that decision would ultimately be left up to the board.

Inside the application

After Reamer gave her opening summary, Petersen questioned the applicants.

One of her first queries was: “What is Golden View?”

McKelligott apologized and said that wasn’t supposed to be included.

“Golden View is another charter school affiliated with Hillsdale College,” he said.

“Were parts of the Golden View charter application used to create this one?” Petersen asked.

“We referred to that application,” McKelligott replied, “and incorporated a lot of the content.”

In other words: yes.

Petersen had a lot of questions about the curriculum, which she directed to Eric Coykendall, associate director of the Barney Charter School Initiative and one of the six people making their case for the charter.

Coykendall’s office designed the school’s curriculum and would provide “regular support to teachers,” he said.

Petersen pointed out that Hillsdale College not only refuses to accept federal financial aid because of its free-market ideology, but also advocates against the Common Core. She asked Coykendall how the school would reconcile this with the fact that public schools in Pennsylvania are required to use the state’s Common Core standards.

“The Barney Charter School Initiative takes no position for or against the Common Core,” Coykendall replied. However, earlier in the hearing, Petersen had asked to refer to both entities simply as “Hillsdale,” because she said they seem to be effectively the same entity, and Coykendall agreed.

But when Petersen asked for the names of all the charters associated with the initiative, McKelligott interjected that Hillsdale College doesn’t operate as the charter management organization.

Coykendall said that the Barney Charter School Initiative’s 16 schools are spread out across Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Michigan, Indiana, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. However, most schools are one or two years old and the oldest has only been operating for five years.

Petersen wrote down the names of the oldest schools.

The application stated that elementary and middle schoolers would be taught by one teacher who would be responsible for the core subjects, supplemented by several “enrichment” teachers for electives such as Greek and Latin roots in early middle school and Latin language instruction in 7th and 8th grade.

McKelligott said he hoped to hire a Spanish teacher in later years, but whether the school offered another foreign language would depend on whether they were able to enroll enough students. He implied that the school expects a shortage of teaching staff in the early years, but “once you get up in enrollment, you would be able to take care of that.”

Petersen was confused about the school’s middle school instruction. The application didn’t seem to list enough certified social studies teachers for the 7th and 8th graders to remain in their regular classroom. The school appeared to be proposing a model in which the 7th- and 8th-grade teachers were certified in enough major subjects so that students didn’t have to move from one classroom except for electives.

After breaking to consult with his fellow applicants, McKelligott replied: “It appears that there is a conflict in that language in the application. We would certainly consider that there would be a history teacher for students in 7th and 8th grades and we would look to have students moving in those two grades.”

“So you’re saying the application’s statement was incorrect?” Petersen asked.

“Yes,” McKelligott replied.

“And in 7th and 8th [grade], they would be circulating in core subject areas?” Petersen asked again.

“Yes,” McKelligott replied.

Petersen pointed out that the application required 48 credits for students to graduate, which is not consistent with Pennsylvania school districts, which require “typically somewhere in the low 20s.”

“How many credits will be earned for each class?” Petersen asked.

“I could provide you with a detailed description, but I can’t give you that at this moment,” McKelligott said.

Petersen asked whether they truly intended to use standardized test scores as a requirement for grade promotion.

McKelligott said, “There would have to be a phase-in” because the school “would be starting with children who have not had previous exposure to our curriculum.”

“Based on my experience at previous schools … in states that have similar kinds of exams,” Coykendall said, “what subjects students are passing and failing in means a lot. So if you’re failing in reading tests for grades 1 to 3, those are significant reasons for grade retention. In the upper grades, where you have students moving from teacher to teacher throughout the day, our requirement is to have students retake that course the following year but not repeat an entire grade.”

Coykendall conceded that he was not familiar with the subject areas tested in Pennsylvania.

Petersen wanted to know what involvement the staff of Barney Charter School Initiative would have with professional development for the school.

Coykendall explained that the initiative would organize a 10-day professional development boot camp in August, but only once. From then on, “Schools pay to have their teachers fly or drive to Hillsdale” for further professional development. But he insisted that “no money goes from the charter school to Hillsdale College.”

“So you’re providing the services free of charge?” Petersen asked.

“Yes,” Coykendall replied.

“And getting a tax credit for those services?” Petersen asked.

Coykendall said he didn’t know either way.

“I just assumed so, since you’re a private institution,” Petersen said.

And she wanted to know whether anyone on the founding team had a connection with the Flynn Co., the firm that owns the $4 million property now being bought by the applicant’s management organization.

“No,” McKelligott said.

Petersen was also concerned about members of the accounting firm employed to handle the school’s finances, Repice & Taylor — mistakenly labeled Resaca & Taylor in the application — a company that consults with charters around the state and was recently admonished for mistakenly missing a pension payment on behalf of a Bethlehem charter school they represented.

“So there’s no one at the firm with a [financial] stake?” Petersen asked. She turned to a representative of the firm present among the six, who said that he couldn’t be sure.

“The only person who could answer that is Mr. [Thomas] Taylor, and he’s out of the country,” McKelligott said. “But when the property came up, he asked, ‘Where is that property?’ So I don’t think so.”

The application also states that Taylor, the applicants’ accountant and a partner in the firm, would be retained as the school’s operations manager.

Petersen also wanted to know what number of students enrolled would be considered sufficient if their estimates turned out to be overly optimistic.

“I can’t give you a hard and fast number,” McKelligott said, “but I can say if we cannot enroll 350 students, then we would question whether or not we would be able to go forward.”

Petersen’s eyebrows shot upward. “Go forward at all?”

“Yeah,” McKelligott said. “We think that you have to have a certain level of financial enrollment to carry the school forward.”

The School Reform Commission will hold a public meeting to vote on the four new charter applications at 4 p.m. Feb. 8 in the auditorium of the School District’s headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.

Before the SRC votes, 24 speakers will be allowed to speak on a first come, first served basis. Those who want to speak should call the SRC’s office at 215-400-4010 before 4 p.m. on Feb. 7.

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