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Charter school applicant faces tough questioning at hearing

qor charter hearing
Greg Windle

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

It’s the SRC’s final year of authorizing new charter schools, and the eight organizations that have applied range from big names in the industry, such as Mastery, to unknowns such as Qor Charter School – which seem to be longshots rolling the dice in fear that, with the return of local control in July, this is their last chance to get established in Philadelphia.

At the Jan. 10 hearing, Qor’s application was picked apart by both the District’s Charter Schools Office and hearing officer Allison Petersen and shown to contain errors and inconsistencies.

Qor’s mission focuses on social and emotional learning, and the curriculum combines project-based learning with data-driven assessment — an odd pairing because project-based learning is typically seen as an alternative to frequent assessment or testing. The elementary school would locate in the old Sankofa charter school building at 4290 Penn St. in Frankford, enrolling 72 students in kindergarten and 1st grade next school year and expanding to 312 students in grades K-4 by its fifth year in operation.

Charter Schools Office head DawnLynne Kacer said there was a “lack of cohesion between the educational plan and the curriculum.” The concern was that the school’s mission emphasized social and emotional learning but did not include sufficient emphasis on this work within the curriculum.

Both Kacer’s office and Petersen were concerned about the financial viability of the school based on the proposed budget, which contained a major error.

After reading aloud the details of its employee health-care estimate included in the application, based on a Keystone HMO plan, Petersen asked Qor’s leadership team whether the total of $26,502 for all health benefits in year one was accurate.

“Yes,” replied Jessica Hasben, the school’s founder.

She said there would be 10 employees that first year. Using the monthly rate included in Qor’s application, Petersen quickly did the math for an individual employee and came up with $6,300 a year for a 30-year-old employee.

For 10 employees at that rate, the total would be $63,000 annually, nearly three times the number in the application.

Kacer interjected that 10 employees was incorrect, according to the application.

Members of Qor’s leadership team consulted each other and then conceded that the correct number of employees in year one was 15. So the school would actually pay almost $100,000 for health-care benefits in the first year —nearly four times the estimate in their application.

“Ma’am,” Hasben began, “our budget is not sustainable right now.”

The school would use the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) curriculum, a series of teaching practices designed to help students learn academic content while helping them develop socially and emotionally.

“One of the statements in the application reflected an expectation that the charter school would instill strong self-efficacy abilities in each student,” Petersen said. “How do you intend to do that?”

“Through school-based connectedness and academic tenacity,” Hasben said. “Meaning, we will help students to build the skills needed to withstand the — one moment.” Hasben consulted her notes. “Self-regulatory skills, and we plan to measure that through the Devereux assessment.”

The assessment, created by the Devereux Center for Resilient Children, aims to measure resilience in children ages 4 weeks to 6 years old in three categories: developing healthy relationships, learning to regulate emotions, and showing initiative. Even though the center designed the program for use up to age 6, Qor plans to use the assessment through the 4th grade.

Qor’s application also states that a student’s promotion to the next grade will depend on “proficiency of grade-level academics knowledge and skills.”

Petersen asked how Qor intended to measure proficiency, and Hasben told her they would use the Istation assessment — software that gives students a series of 30-minute computer-based tests each month in math, reading, and Spanish, often disguised as video games.

Petersen appeared skeptical that these assessments were aligned with Pennsylvania Common Core standards. Hasben insisted that the publisher’s website stated that they were aligned, although this reporter could not locate that information on the site in question. Istation has not yet responded to a request for clarification.

Hasben, in response to questions, said she did not anticipate taking a paid position at the school but acknowledged that could change. She said she would likely be on the school’s board.

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