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SRC approves nonrenewal of Lab Charter, tables decision on Memphis Street

Members urge parents to see to it that operational problems are fixed. Eight other charters are renewed.

Memphis supporters
Dale Mezzacappa

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

After hearing fervent, often tearful pleas from parents, the School Reform Commission on Monday voted unanimously not to renew Laboratory Charter School of Communications and Languages, while leaving the door open to reverse the decision if longstanding and serious operational problems are fixed.

It tabled a nonrenewal vote for Memphis Street Academy at J.P. Jones, a low performing former District school converted to a charter for turnaround. The Office of Charter Schools said the school had not made fast enough progress academically since being taken over by American Paradigm five years ago.

But Memphis Street questioned the charter office’s analysis of its academics, and SRC members said they wanted more information about its performance compared to peer schools.

Eight other charter schools were renewed, all but one with conditions, and some with expansions that will add a total of 800 seats.

The vote came hours after state House Speaker Mike Turzai sent a letter to the SRC complaining of "overreach" by charter office in imposing renewal conditions on most charters. He accused the District of either wanting to close charter schools "or at the very least purposely make it difficult for them to operate."

He added: "Stop the games."

In all, 26 charters are coming up for renewal this year. The eight whose renewals were approved last night had signed their charter agreements, but 11 others are balking due to complaints about some of the conditions, such as specifying how often its board should meet or asking the charter to accept enrollment caps for the foreseeable future. Renewal recommendations haven’t been completed for three others. Representatives from two Mastery schools said that academic achievement goals set in the agreements were unfair and unrealistic.

DawnLynne Kacer, head of the charter office, presented reports on 23 schools up for renewal.

Commissioner Christopher McGinley asked Charter office head DawnLynne Kacer whether most of the conditions — also involving such things as proper identification and servicing of English Language Learners, submitting proper financial disclosure forms for board members, and following Sunshine Laws in holding board meetings — went beyond legal requirements. Kacer said no.

But Turzai hinted that if the District continued what he called its "constant attack on these public charter schools," that might affect increases in Philadelphia’s state aid.

"As the state budget talks begin in earnest, it is tough to justify increases in expenditures to the School District of Philadelphia if the additional money is going to pay for lawyers to draft contracts which go beyond the scope of the law," Turzai said in the letter. Asked whether he meant the state would withhold some of the District’s state aid unless conditions that charters objected to were removed, Turzai said, "The letter speaks for itself."

After the meeting, SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson said, "We’re not asking for anything other than compliance with state law in most instances. At the last SRC meeting we had to respond to the [state] Auditor General’s finding that we hadn’t done an adequate job and pressed us to be more aggressive in monitoring. So we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t."

She added, "I would hate to see the Speaker pull funding for public education in Philadelphia."

Turzai said in an interview that he was most concerned about conditions that set caps on charter enrollment growth and a provision that would prevent a charter from using its per pupil revenue as collateral for building loans and capital projects.

District officials said that the restriction was meant to prevent charter operators from using their expected revenue based on the enrollment of one charter school to to obtain loans for expansions and building projects at another one, or for a project unrelated to education. Some charter operators, including Universal Companies and ASPIRA of PA, are community organizations that do more than run schools.

"We’re trying to assure the schools have the financial capacity to move forward, that they don’t get so encumbered that they can’t continue to function as charter schools," said Wilkerson. "There are a lot of schools that fund capital improvements in the schools, new properties, we’re concerned about their extending their credit to support things not even related to the school."

Turzai’s policy aide Neal Lesher said that the provision that upset charter operators did not make that distinction.

Lab Charter, founded nearly 20 years ago by veteran District educator Dorothy June Brown and operating now in three locations for 637 K-8 students, was one only a few charters to meet academic standards and has a history of garnering awards for its performance. But it had not fixed such serious operational flaws that the charter office recommended non-renewal.

For instance, the school didn’t have valid certification for special education and English as a Second Language instructors, it didn’t keep track of student vaccinations, it didn’t have policies in place to identify special education students, and most worrying to SRC members, it could not produce FBI, child abuse and other clearances for 25 percent of its employees.

It also had insufficent internal controls, including untimely bank reconciliations, not maintaining records, and failure to make $220,000 in payments to the state retirement system.

Its July, 2012 renewal attached 24 conditions, and the school failed to comply with many of them, Kacer told the SRC.

"I’m here to acknowledge that further sweeping and deep changes need to be made in every department in the school and at the board level for our school to have a chance," said School CEO Stacey Cruise, who has been at the school for less than a year. "But I’m here to speak on behalf of the learners, teachers, and grateful families who despite our checkered past continue to support, stand by, believe in, and send students to Laboratory Charter."

The school, she said, despite its problems, "has been able to do what many schools in Philadelphia have been unable to do," and that is educate to high standards a student population that is 88 percent of color and 60 percent low income.

Many of those parents were there. "Our board needs to be dissolved, and revamped, but our students should not be penalized for this," said parent Charita Hall. "Parents are prepared to resolve these issues." Fighting back tears, she said, "please take our students’ passion and love for the school into consideration."

"Are you really going to take one of the brightest stars in your academic constellation and throw it in the trash?" asked John Kirby.

When voting unanimously to accept the charter office’s recommendation, SRC members urged parents to take matters into their own hands and make sure that the compliance issues that have not been fixed are addressed. The next step is a hearing to let the charter school make its case, after which the SRC will take a second vote.

"The vote to nonrenew is a high stakes decision," said Commissioner Farah Jimenez. But this vote represents the urgency of the situation "and gives them the chance to get their house in order and have approval come further down the lane."

Laboratory Board chair Princess Williams said later that "has been trying" to make the requested changes. "We haven’t progressed enough, but we are moving in that direction," she said.

Brown, the Laboratory’s founder, was charged with defrauding three schools she established of $7.6 million, but charges were dropped in 2015 after she was deemed unfit to stand trial.

Representatives of some of the schools that have so far declined to sign their renewal agreements were also there, including a contingent from two Mastery schools, Pickett and Cleveland. Mastery Pickett parent Andrea Kitchens said that the academic standards demanded were unrealistic because "the charter office wants our student to consistently perform as well as students in nearby magnet schools…putting terms in the agreement that set our children up for failure will not only hurt the most needy students, but will hurt the students who are doing very well."

The principal of Mastery Cleveland, Letisha Laws-Waters, took issue with a provision that said the District could change the boundaries of its catchment area at any time — as a converted District school, it has fixed attendance boundaries — which she said "creates uncertainty" for families. Before Mastery took over, it was one of the lowest performing schools in the District and was avoided by many parents in the area, but now its enrollment has grown. She also complained that the academic standards the school is expected to meet were set "with no input from my leadership team or parents regarding what we think is possible…we beg you…to come to the table to negotiate a charter agreement with integrity."

Memphis Street, in protesting the nonrenewal recommendation, also said that while the school still had low rates of proficiency in reading and math, the school has "witnessed tremendous growth in students who enter the school significantly below grade level." Memphis Street is a middle school serving grades 5 through 8 in Kensington.

The charter office report said that the school had "declining proficiency trends" from before it was a charter, but exceeded state growth targets in most grades and subjects measured.

Alliance for Progress charter school was the only one renewed without conditions, and it was granted an expansion of 225 seats. Others approved: Multicultural Academy, Preparatory Charter School of Mathematics, Science, Technology and Careers, Southwest Leadership Academy (with 560 new seats), Universal Creighton, West Oak Lane, and Wissahickon (with 12 additional seats). All the renewals are for five years.

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