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Darryl C. Murphy

Darryl C. Murphy / The Notebook

SRC gives reprieves to Universal Vare, Memphis Street charters

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

Memphis Street Academy Charter School at J.P. Jones and Universal Vare Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School both will live another day after the School Reform Commission voted that the Charter Schools Office should negotiate with both schools over conditions for renewal.

Both are Renaissance schools, former low-performing District schools that were ceded to charter organizations on the promise of a rapid turnaround. If the schools lose their charters, the District would have to take them back, because they still serve neighborhood catchments. There were no dissenters on either vote, although Commissioner Farah Jimenez recused herself from the Vare vote, citing a potential conflict of interest. Commissioner Bill Green was absent.

Both schools were recommended for nonrenewal by the charter office, but they mounted strong campaigns to stay open.

Commissioner Christopher McGinley made it clear that the votes were not renewals.

“While there was great enthusiasm from the Memphis school community, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. This resolution directs the work of the charter school office.”

Still, dozens of supporters of the school who came to the meeting wearing orange T-shirts were ecstatic.

“We will all sleep peacefully knowing everything we have worked hard for, and will continue to work hard for, was, and will continue to be, in the best interest of our students,” said Steven Bilski, a teacher at Memphis Street.

Memphis Street, which serves grades 5-8, was recommended for non-renewal after the Charter Schools Office found that it failed to meet standards for academic achievement, while approaching standards in organizational viability and compliance, and financial health and sustainability. The school’s charter expired June 30, 2017.

The Charter Schools Office report found that Memphis fell far below averages among its peer group of District public schools and other charters. The differences between schools was in the double digits in math, science, and English language arts PSSA test scores between 2015 and 2017.

The school did show a significant increase in the average growth index metric in both ELA and math, and moderate growth in science.

Attendance was also significantly low, as only 24 percent of students attended 95 percent or more days of school, a 13 percent decline from the previous year. The overall school performance did increase between 2015-16 and 2016-17, from a state rating of 39.1 to 53.2. That barely exceeds the District public school average of 52.83, but lags behind the charter average of 57.98.

The report also noted that in 2015-16, the school failed five out of six city health inspections. In October 2017, an inspection cited additional areas of non-compliance, which included failure to provide hot water in student bathrooms, and mouse droppings and flies in the food storage area.

When the announcement of the vote was made for Memphis, dozens in the audience who were wearing the school’s orange T-shirt erupted in applause.

Universal Vare, which also serves grades 5-8 and is run by Universal Cos., was first recommended for non-renewal by the Charter Schools Office in April 2016. The office’s report found that the school failed to meet performance standards in academic progress and financial health and sustainability, while approaching standards in organizational viability and compliance. Its charter expired in June 2016.

Vare also remained below test-score averages between 2014 and 2017 and experienced a significant drop in attendance — from 50 percent attending 95 percent or more of school days in 2014-15 to 27 percent in 2015-16, then 32 percent in 2016-2017.

A financial audit found that the school “suffered a substantial operating loss, has a deficiency in net assets, and is operating under an expired charter,” creating a growing concern about the school’s “fiscal ability to continue operation.” Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the school has been operating in the negative. The finances for FY17 have yet to be reported.

The charter office also found that the school’s conduct code didn’t meet the requirements of its charter agreement. Suspensions at the school exceed District averages. In 2015-16, it was found that a third of Vare students received at least one out-of-school suspension.

Vare also fell short of the state’s requirements that 75 percent of instructional staff be certified; only 41 percent of the school’s instructional staff have certification.

And similar to Memphis, Vare had issues with food safety since two investigations in June 2015 and February 2016 by the city found that the school was operating without a valid food license and remained ineligible due to continued health code violations in subsequent inspections.

The last inspection was in November 2017.

But at the meeting, supporters of both schools pleaded to keep them open.

Antoinette Powell, the Memphis Street principal and CEO, said the school is showing academic gains even if most students not proficient. "To become proficient, you must first grow," she said.

Students from Vare described the school as nurturing and helpful. Ramir Jones says Vare helped him overcome a reading disability.

"All Universal scholars are destined for greatness," he said, as supporters applauded.

In other action, the SRC also approved the “as-is” sale of the Ada Lewis Middle School building in Germantown to Green Star LLC for $2.4 million. Lewis was closed in 2007 due to low enrollment and a repair bill estimated at $38 million — which was disputed by community members who opposed the closure at the time.

The District also updated its policy on English language learning. It passed Policy 138, which aims to “provide a culturally and linguistically appropriate planned instructional program for English Learners (ELs), which builds on students’ home language and culture.”

A 2017 study by Philadelphia Education Research Consortium found that of the five largest home languages among the District’s young English learner students, those from Spanish-speaking households had the lowest four-year proficiency rate while having the largest share of the EL population.

Out of a cohort of kindergarten students who were tracked into 3rd grade, only 43 percent of students from Spanish-speaking homes were proficient in English. Chinese-speaking students scored the highest, at 79 percent.

The revised policy says that through the program, EL students at all stages of proficiency can access grade-level academic content while developing advanced levels of English, with additional support for their integration into the community.