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SRC plans vote on seven new charter applications today

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

The School Reform Commission will consider applications for seven new charter schools on Thursday, Feb. 22. Two additional applications have been withdrawn since the process began in November.

Four established Philly charter operators are applying to open five new schools, along with two operators new to the city.

The District’s Charter Schools Office has released its evaluations critiquing each application. Unlike with renewals, the charter office does not make specific recommendations to the SRC about whether a new charter should be approved or denied, letting the detailed evaluations speak for themselves.

The public comment section of Thursday’s meeting will be limited to 21 speakers, who must sign up to speak at least one day in advance, and slots will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

ASPIRA is applying to open two new K-8 schools after the School Reform Commission voted in December to start the nonrenewal process for Olney High and Stetson Middle School, citing myriad financial and operational problems, as well as lagging on meeting academic goals. This vote came nearly two years after the Charter Schools Office first recommended that the charters not be renewed.

Both Olney and Stetson are Renaissance charters, or converted low-performing District schools. The existing Antonia Pantoja and Eugenio Maria de Hostos charters, both of which serve K-8, were started from scratch and post better academic numbers, although they too are caught up in ASPIRA’s financial troubles.

In the charter office’s evaluations of ASPIRA’s existing schools, it has repeatedly cited ASPIRA’s growing debt and the intermingling of funds among individual charters and the parent organization. Receiving public dollars attached to the nearly 1,200 students that it proposes to enroll in the first year between the two additional schools could help ASPIRA work its way out of debt.

ASPIRA wants to open a new Antonia Pantoja Preparatory Charter School at 4322 N. Fifth St. in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia, which would be based on the model of the existing Antonia Pantoja Charter School. The building now houses ASPIRA’s corporate headquarters and its cyber school. The new K-8 school would open with 425 students in the 2018-19 school year and would serve up to 925 students at full enrollment.

In its evaluation of the application, the charter office cites numerous inconsistencies and omissions regarding instructional mission, budget, and staffing, “raising concerns whether the policies could be effectively implemented and whether proper controls would be in place to ensure appropriate stewardship of the school’s funds.”

The organization also wants to open a new Eugenio Maria de 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. It would co-locate in the Cardinal Dougherty High School building, which now houses its Eugenio Maria de Hostos school, which is still $9 million in debt after purchasing the building.

In its evaluation of both ASPIRA applications, the Charter Schools Office noted that the proposed lease with ASPIRA was “unfavorable” to the charter school, “including but not limited to, language that would place the Charter School in default if a payment were late by five days and terms that indicate that the Charter School would be responsible for all repairs, including replacement of core systems, and capital improvements to a rented facility.”

As with the Pantoja application, the charter office in its evaluation cited numerous inconsistencies and lack of clarity in several areas, including admissions policies and procedures.

Franklin Towne Charter Middle School

Franklin Towne proposes opening a middle school serving grades 6-8 in Bridesburg. It already has schools that go through K-12.

The school would use the Understanding by Design approach to creating curriculum. The evaluation found that much of the curriculum did not “fully align to PA Academic Standards.” Unusually, lesson plans were not included for any subject.

Evaluators raised issues with the school’s proposed criteria for students to advance to the next grade. One standard is that students score above the “lower range” on standardized tests, although it does not define “lower range.” Evaluators noted that most District students score below basic on math in the PSSAs in 5th grade, so this promotion criterion could affect a massive number of students, depending on how it’s defined.

The school’s budgeted special education enrollment is “significantly below charter sector average,” according to the evaluation. The proposed budget and expected enrollment would leave just $600 for each special education student.

The evaluation found that the boards of the schools and the management company overlap, creating “a related party structure that results in potential conflicts of interest.”

“There are also references to foreign travel, as well as situations that warrant the use of first-class and business-class air travel,” the evaluation states. Evaluators were unclear about why these policies would even exist, let alone how the school could justify “permitting use of public funds for business or first-class accommodations.”

The school submitted a total of 84 interest forms for grade- or age-eligible students for the proposed grade span in the first year, which evaluators noted is only 19 percent of the seats that would be open for enrollment that year.

Franklin Towne has operated a high school since 2000 and an elementary school since 2009. As part of the renewal of Franklin Towne elementary last year, it sought to expand its enrollment. The school was renewed but the expansion was denied.

MaST Community Charter School III

MaST is proposing to open a K-12 school near the Northeast airport that would be the biggest charter school in the city, with 2,600 students at full enrollment. Between its two current schools, MaST now enrolls more than 1,800 students.

The charter office’s evaluation of MaST’s application found that it clearly stated its educational mission, but that the proposed curriculum did not seem to fulfill that mission.

The school would use a blended learning model based on the STREAM program — Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. But evaluators found that, of the core subjects found in the STREAM program, MaST provided curriculum only for a course in “technology,” though it also mentioned offering an art elective.

The evaluation raised several issues about special education, including that it would pay its special education teachers the same as regular education teachers, a rate that is “already significantly below the average rate for teachers in the School District,” raising questions about recruitment.

“The applicant provided limited information about how students with a primary disability in each of the 13 categories would be served and did not address some categories of disability at all,” the evaluation states. It also found that the total special education budget amounted to just $1,500 per student.

The school would serve between 50 and 100 English learners, but no money is budgeted for an EL teacher in the first year.

The application states that each school run by MaST would have independent boards, without overlap with MaST’s board, but the evaluation found that is not actually the case, giving way to “concerns about conflicts of interest.” Evaluators were also unable to determine the exact management fee collected annually by MaST.

The proposed location of the school is “not within District’s identified areas of need for quality,” the evaluation states, and some proposed zip codes where students would be given admissions preference are “more than one hour away by bus from the proposed facility.” Two of those six zip codes are as far away as Southwest Philadelphia.

MaST was recently granted a charter in the Neshaminy School District after a court order required the district’s authorizer to approve the request. This new school in Philadelphia would be just minutes from the Neshaminy location.

Mastery Charter Elementary School

Mastery proposes to open an elementary school to add to its portfolio, which includes more schools than any other charter operator in Philadelphia. This would be Mastery’s first school since it opened its flagship school that is not a turnaround — where a charter operator takes over another school. (In two cases, it took over from another charter operator — one a former District school and the other a standalone charter). This new elementary school would start from scratch, like Mastery’s original school.

Mastery is also slated to open a school at the former Gillespie Elementary this fall that was initially approved in 2015. Mastery delayed opening Gillespie after deciding to lobby for the takeover of Wister Elementary in Germantown, which was ultimately opposed by the superintendent but approved by the SRC.

Mastery’s new elementary school would open in the old Wakisha Charter School building at 900 W. Jefferson St. in North Philadelphia in the 2019-20 school year, serving 175 students in grades K-2. It would reach full enrollment in the 2024-25 school year with 756 students in grades K-8.

The charter office’s evaluation cast doubt that Mastery had the “capacity” to successfully open Gillespie in the fall, and then a new elementary school a year later, while also growing its enrollment across the river in Camden.

The evaluation took issue with the school’s vague mission: “to attempt to ensure our students’ academic growth is consistently higher than the national average during the charter term.” The evaluation described the mission as “aspirational,” because it was based on an attempt, or “hope,” and not measurable performance goals.

The evaluation also criticizes Mastery’s methodology for demonstrating its own success, saying it placed an “overemphasis on prior outcomes at a single Mastery Charter School,” namely its Thomas campus.

“The application repeatedly states an intent that [Mastery Elementary] be a ‘neighborhood school’ throughout the application,” the evaluation reads. “As such, evaluators felt that the academic results of all Mastery Charter Schools should be referenced, or more specifically the Renaissance charter schools.”

Evaluators noted that, with only one exception, the School Performance Profile score for each Mastery school was lower in 2016-17 than in the first year that same Mastery school received a school progress report.

The school would open with lottery preference for the surrounding zip codes of 19122, 19121 and 19123. But evaluators found the application compared Mastery scores only to four District schools in those zip codes, excluding the nine other District-run schools and six charter schools that serve similar grade spans in the zip codes.

The charter office applauded the intention to use restorative practices and trauma-informed practices; however, “due to the lack of professional development planned for classroom teachers in using these systems, implementing the combination of these systems to create a positive and unified school culture may be challenging.”

Evaluators were concerned with what they described as a “case-by-case basis” approach to grade promotion, which “fails to articulate clear standards for promotion or retention, especially in kindergarten through grade 6, which evaluators felt could create inconsistent retention decisions, leading to disproportionality with how students are treated, specifically a concern for historically underserved subgroups.”

Each of the remaining two proposed schools would be run by an operator that is applying to open its first school in the state.

APM Community Charter School

The Associacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM), or Puerto Rican Association on the March, a community organization that builds affordable housing and runs preschools, is applying to open its first charter school. It would serve 702 students in grades K-8 in North Philadelphia.

The charter office’s evaluation did not take issue with the school’s “standards-based curriculum,” but criticized the scarcity of supports and resources allocated to meet the needs of students with disabilities and English learners.

The school also did not provide intent-to-enroll forms, and the proposed application process was criticized for requiring parents to submit documents not permitted under state law, such as medical records. Some proposed curriculum does not align with state standards.

The management agreement between APM and the school raised red flags as well. The CEO would appoint all initial charter school board members, “indicating a related party concern and suggesting a lack of independence of the Charter School’s Board from the [Charter Management Organization],” the evaluation states.

“Simultaneously, APM will serve as the [Charter Management Organization], provide both support and oversight for the Charter School, act as the landlord, be the guarantor on the Charter School’s proposed $1 million loan, and also could serve as a service provider for many of the community school model supports,” the evaluation states. This “suggests an imbalance of independence.”

Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School

A nonprofit organization called Hebrew Public is seeking to open a dual-language charter school that would teach Hebrew to students four days a week, beginning in kindergarten. The school would open at 3300 Henry Ave. in East Falls, ultimately serving 702 students in grade K-8.

Hebrew Public, the charter school operator, is also referred to as the Hebrew Charter School Center, and currently manages 10 dual-language Hebrew charter schools serving 2,667 students. It directly manages four schools in New York City and six contract-based “affiliate schools” across New Jersey, California, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C.

The Philadelphia school would be directly managed by Hebrew Charter, according to the charter office.

The nonprofit’s biggest funder is the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, whose founder is billionaire Michael Steinhardt — a hedge fund manager and philanthropist whose daughter chairs the board of Hebrew Public (officially known as the National Center for Hebrew Language Charter School Excellence).

The center was established in 2009. Steinhardt gave more than $14 million to the center in its first four years of existence alone, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. Steinhardt is also the founder of Birthright Israel, the program that pays for young people of Jewish heritage to take a 10-day trip to Israel.

Although the schools do not give students a religious education — teaching nothing about Judaism — they do teach students about Israel. In other schools the center runs, the classrooms are named after Israeli cities, and Israeli flags hang from the walls. At each school, the year ends with an 8th-grade trip to Israel, although not all students attend.

The Philadelphia school would wait seven years to begin holding these trips to “allow the school to evaluate the effectiveness of preparation for and impact of the trip,” the application states.

Like its other schools, Hebrew Public’s Philadelphia application describes the school’s “Israel Studies” curriculum, taught to students in all grades.

The charter office’s evaluation notes that partis of the proposed management agreement appears to have been copied and pasted from an older application based on references within the application to open a charter school in New York state in September 2017. It also raised concerns that $600,000 of the school’s philanthropic seed money was awarded by “the city of New York government.” The charter office was unaware of any equivalent funds available within Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.

The application states that school plans on the “integration of the Culture and History of Israel and its Immigrant Communities curriculum into the overall curriculum.”

The proposed Philadelphia school’s website states that its model focuses on giving students “long-term connections to postsecondary and career opportunities in Israel and with Israeli organizations.”

Evaluators noted that much of the mission can’t be measured.

“It is not clear how the applicant will determine whether students have become ‘ethical’ and/or have developed ‘a strong sense of social and civic responsibility’ as is stated in the application,” the evaluation stated.

A big component of the schools’ mission is to create a diverse student body. The evaluation applauded the support included for special education students, although it noted insufficient teachers for English learners once the school was fully enrolled.

Evaluators complimented the description of the school’s mission, but “indicated feasibility concerns regarding the creation of a deliberately diverse student body” and cast doubt that the applicant would be able to attract the demographics of students they intend to enroll, although they did applaud the mission’s “aspirational nature and relevance in a 21st century society.”

They wrote that it is “not clear” that teaching the Hebrew language “aligns with or is likely to be sought out by the target student population and community as presented in the application. Concerns were raised with realizing the stated goal to recruit a truly diverse student body with this core content focus.”

The schools have had problems with a lack of diversity in the past. One school in Los Angeles was recommended for non-renewal last fall in part because it did not reflect the demographics of the community it served.

And the schools’ relation to the community was raised by Philadelphia’s charter office as well.

“The projected poverty and racial demographics of the Charter School are significantly different from citywide charter averages in Philadelphia, which suggests that a unique, intentional and targeted student recruitment and engagement strategy is necessary,” the evaluation reads. “There is no clear evidence of the strategic outreach necessary to achieve the diversity by design levels desired and projected.”

“Further, the 2.5-mile radius identified in the application excluded adjacent sections of 19140 that are predominately Hispanic, especially when compared to the demographics within the radius,” the evaluation stated. “Evaluators noted that a slight shift in targeted zip codes and area of focus for the Charter School may facilitate diversity and questioned why this was not acknowledged in the application.”

And the application did not contain “a clear and compelling rationale for which zip codes and neighborhoods the applicant team was targeting for engagement,” according to the evaluation.

The school only submitted 54 unique letters of intent to enroll from prospective students who would be grade-eligible in the school’s first year, representing just a third of the seats available that year. Little more than half of those came from the intended zip codes identified as areas of outreach.

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