This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Eight management companies seeking to open nine new charter schools in Philadelphia made their initial pitches on Monday to a hearing officer for the School Reform Commission.
Among the companies was ASPIRA. Just last week, the SRC voted to close two of ASPIRA’s charter schools — Olney High and Stetson Middle.
ASPIRA wants to open two new charter schools, despite evidence that it has been unable to operate its existing charter schools without running deficits. The Charter Schools Office has found, among other irregularities, that ASPIRA uses money meant for the education of students at Stetson Middle and Olney High —both of which are former District-run schools— to guarantee loans that the organization took out to purchase other buildings offering different services. The SRC voted 4-1 on Thursday not to renew those charters, and it is making plans to return the schools to District control.
The company’s finances were further hurt by payouts from sexual harassment lawsuits against CEO Alfredo Calderon.
"The SRC continued to fund these Aspira schools despite serious allegations of fraud, ghost contractors for painting Olney high school, admitted misuse of taxpayer dollars, failure to make PSERS payments, and other serious financial transgressions," Lisa Haver said during her public comment at the hearing. Haver is the co-founder of the Alliance for Public Schools (APPS), an activist group that considers itself a watchdog of the SRC and charter expansion. "After following the Aspira financial and academic scandals for over two years, it’s hard to believe that they believe they are in line to open more schools."
ASPIRA wants to open a new Antonio Pantoja Preparatory Charter School at 4322 N. Fifth St. in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia, which will be based on the model of the existing Antonio Pantoja Charter School. The building now houses ASPIRA’s corporate headquarters. The new K-8 school would serve up to 925 students at full enrollment, and would open with 425 students in the 2018-19 school year.
Most of the charter school presentations compared academic metrics between the charter company’s existing schools and the public schools in the neighborhood where they would open.
But ASPIRA did things a bit differently. It compared the existing Antonio Pantoja to the 9th-grade and 5th-grade classes at Olney and Stetson respectively — their own schools now slated for closure. And it showed that its students who spent four years at Antonio Pantoja for middle school were outperforming 9th-graders at Olney.
The assumption was that all students entering the 9th grade at Olney came from one of the neighborhood public schools, and so their poor performance was implied to be a reflection of those schools. But North Philadelphia has a high concentration of charter schools, and Olney also accepts students through a lottery — factors that were not cited by ASPIRA.
ASPIRA did not offer direct comparisons with neighborhood public schools. State data show that Antonio Pantoja is struggling with standardized test scores and is in the second-lowest of five tiers, although it is making growth expectations in math and English language arts.
The school’s last evaluation from the District Charter Schools Office showed that it is the guarantor of a $5.4 million mortgage on its current building, though that loan is in forbearance. The evaluation found that the school’s short-term and long-term financial health was “significantly below standard,” and the school is more than $14 million in debt.
Last year, the school had $9.8 million in revenue and just over $11 million in expenses.
ASPIRA also wants to open a new Hostos Preparatory Charter School, based on the model for the existing Eugenio Maria de Hostos charter. The school would serve 850 K-8 students, starting with 750 in the 2018-19 school year.
The exsisting school ranks in the lowest tier of the state’s school performance profiles and is meeting testing growth goals only in math. The District, which has its own school performance measure, has evaluated the school more favorably than the state, putting its academics in the second-lowest category and giving the school an overall rating of “reinforce,” the second-highest tier.
The charter office’s annual evaluation found that the school’s short- and long-term financial health is significantly below standard and that the school is more than $9 million in debt.
Last year, the school had $9.1 million in revenue and $8.8 million in expenses. At that rate, without expanding, it would take the school roughly 30 years to pay off its $9 million in debt.
De Hostos is located in the massive old Cardinal Dougherty High School building, which is the source of most of ASPIRA’s debt. The organization has used state funds meant for operating Olney and Stetson to guarantee the mortgage on the Dougherty building. Those loans are also now in forbearance, and the organization plans to secure new short-term bridge loans to begin paying again — a financial practice that is frowned upon.
Expanding enrollment at its existing charter schools would help it make those payments because it would receive per-pupil amounts from the state and District for the additional students.
Another well-known operator that is applying for more seats is Mastery Charter, which proposed to open a new K-8 school at 900 W. Jefferson St. in North Philadelphia. The school would open in the 2019-20 school year, serving grades K-2, and would then expand, serving all grades with 672 students by the 2022-23 school year.
“Assessment and data are really the backbone of our program,” Mastery CEO Scott Gordon told hearing officer Allison Peterson. “We look not only where the student is, but at where they were previously. … That information is translated into a visual dashboard for teachers and administrators.”
Gordon added that Mastery plans to incorporate “social and emotional programming” into its elementary school curriculum and that it now trains all its staff in “trauma-informed care.”
The school would have a catchment area of one mile around, making a perfect circle on the map. It would be located in the building that formerly housed Wakisha Charter School, which closed in the middle of the school year after it failed to get enough students and teachers to sustain itself.
Gordon said Mastery has already raised $1.3 million in start-up costs. The company has a long history of successful private fundraising, including millions from the Philadelphia School Partnership.
Franklin Towne, which currently runs a national blue-ribbon charter high school, is proposing to open its own middle school at 5301 Tacony St. in Frankford — in the same building as its high school. It would link Franklin Towne’s elementary school to its high school, acting as a feeder. The school would serve grades 6-8 and open in the 2019-20 school year at its maximum enrollment of 450 students.
“If granted, we would be able, capable, willing and anxious to open a middle school to better serve the students in the 19137 area,” said Patrick Field, chief academic officer of Franklin Towne.
However, the company is also known for running schools where the vast majority of the student body is white — 71 percent at its high school and 86 percent at its elementary school.
The Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), which runs four Head Start programs in the city, is applying to open a K-8 charter school at 405 E. Roosevelt Blvd. in the Olney neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The school would enroll 312 K-4 students when it opened in the 2018-19 school year and 624 K-8 students in the 2021-22 school year at full enrollment.
APM would also use the building as a hub for other community services that it already offers: financial counseling and behavioral health. It also constructd affordable housing in the same neighborhood.
“Our satisfied preschool parents have constantly asked us — particularly when it comes time to transitioning into kindergarten — for a charter school,” said Don Price, APM’s vice president for education and training. He called his vision for the school a “true community charter school.”
There will also be an emphasis on Spanish, with students beginning to learn the language in kindergarten.
MaST has proposed opening a K-12 school that, if approved, would be the biggest charter school in the city. It would open with 1,000 K-4 students in the 2018-19 school year and would reach a full enrollment of 2,600 students in all grades. The school would be located at 1 Crown Way, near the Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
The original MaST won national blue-ribbon designation. The second school was founded in 2016, so no academic data are available from the state or city.
The new school would receive support from several school-choice advocacy groups: the Charter School Growth Fund, the Philadelphia School Partnership, Coalition of Charter Schools and the Keystone Alliance.
John Swoyer III, CEO of MaST’s first school, said the new school “won’t give preference to any zip codes” unless the District otherwise specifies, in which case he would be willing to give up to 50 percent of the seats to zip codes specified by the District.
Like Franklin Towne, MaST is one of just a handful of schools in the city that are majority white.
Swoyer said he thinks the school’s proximity to union headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia would make it easy to create partnerships with trade unions. The school plans to offer courses in the trades as well as 3D design and manufacturing.
Swoyer also plans to build a Drone Zone, a space used for students to fly and design their own drones — like those that may be used as delivery vehicles in the future.
A national charter operator called Hebrew Public proposed opening a school at 3300 Henry Ave, in the East Falls neighborhood. The school would open in the 2019-20 school year with 156 students in grade K-1. By the 2026-27 school year, it would reach full capacity of 702 students in grades K-8.
Students would get daily instruction in the Hebrew language and extended daily instruction in math and English.
Students would learn the language “accompanying the study of the history and present reality of the state of Israel,” according to Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Hebrew Public. The non-profit also organizes and fundraises for a 10-day trip to Israel for interested students.
The organization already runs several charter schools in New York state.
Qor Charter School proposed to open an elementary school at 4290 Penn St. in Frankford. It would open in the 2019-20 school year, serving 72 students in grades K-1. It would reach full enrollment of 312 students in the 2024-25 school year.
The school would use a project-based learning curriculum, although it would still include traditional assessments. Teachers would also use kinesthetic learning, the use of physical activities during academic coursework. Special education students would be included in every classroom, as opposed to learning in a separate special education classroom.
Teachers would help design personalized student learning plans, then periodically re-evaluate them as students are given new personal goals.
Roundball Education Inc., located in Texas, wants to open the Pennsylvania Institute Academy Charter School, a high school, in the 2019-20 school year with 320 seats.
The CEO of Roundball, Ronald Ravenell, said the school would “serve students who have been sent to alternative education programs or are at risk of academic failure.”
The school’s curriculum would be part of the Jesuit College Preparatory Model.
“The national dropout rate is high, and our prisons are full to capacity,” Ravenell said. “The outcome after experiencing academic failure tends to be a life of crime.”
Roundball’s 990 form, last filed in 2011, shows that Ravenell is the only person associated with the company, which raised a little over $16,000 between 2007 and 2011.
"Aspira had to settle several suits brought against the company because of the sexual harassment perpetrated by Aspira Philadelphia CEO Alfredo Calderone. Unbelievably, he is still CEO… [Dawn Lynn Kacer, head of the CSO] testified that the financial improprieties had not only not been resolved, as promised by Kenneth Trujillo in May 2016, they had actually gotten worse," Haver said in her public comment. "For the SRC to agree to put the education of more young people into the hands of Aspira would be a clear dereliction of duty."
She ceded the floor to several other activists from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), familiar faces to anyone who regularly attends the SRC.
"Corporate charter schools continue to fight the SRC even today challenging the District’s right to oversee our public school students’ academic progress in their schools," Lynda Rubin said during her public comment. "The SRC was put in place to purportedly shore up the financial supports for real public education in Phialdelphia. Not to hold a fire sale, selling or giving away its parts to private companies masquerading as public education stakeholders."
Karel Kilimnik took issue with the argument made by SRC commissioners like Bill Green, that the SRC is not legally allowed to consider the financial impact that authoizing new charter schools would have on the District, since students take state dollars with them when they leave to attend a charter.
Kilimnik read from the 2015 SRC testimony of David Lapp, who was then an attorney with the Education Law Center:
"I testified to the District that, when reviewing new charter school applications, the factors the District should consider cut against approval of new charters in the current fiscal and educational climate. This is especially true given the dearth of evidence that the charter sector has achieved superior results.
"There have been recent public comments that suggest a mistaken belief that the charter law requires the SRC to approve new applications without considering the impact on District students. To the contrary, since the District has been declared to be in fiscal distress and the state constitution still requries that there be a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education,’ the impact of charter expansion on all students should be the most important consideration of all. But since questions have been raised, I wish to briefly clarify why such considerations are also legally valid.
"The bottom line is that there has never been a [Charter Appeals Board] or court holding that a fiscally distressed school district is prevented from considering the educational impact on all students, including students in District schools and existing charter schools, when deciding whether to approve a new charter school application. In addition, no cases have addressed these issus since the charter reimbursement was eliminated. As you identify problems with the merits of a partricular charter application, you should be sure to also include, in the alternative, evidence and findings that approving the charter would negatively impact the educational experience of all students, including District students."