This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Franklin Towne, which runs two charters that have shown high student achievement but have raised significant financial and operational concerns, is pursuing efforts to open a third school after the School Reform Commission rejected its initial application in February.
The organization filed a revised application for a new middle school (grades 6-8) that would open in September 2019 with 450 students. The SRC is scheduled to consider the plan at its meeting Thursday.
In denying the first application, the SRC cited several issues raised by the Charter Schools Office. These included problems with the proposed budget, inadequate services for special education students, and a predominantly white and relatively affluent student body that is demographically at odds with the rest of the city.
The charter office evaluation also found conflicts of interest among board members — one of whom also chairs the board of the flagship high school, which would act as both management company and landlord to the middle school. It raised questions about the propriety of these relationships, especially regarding lease arrangements for the building.
Franklin Towne already serves the entire K-12 grade span through its current schools, a K-8 and a high school that together enroll 2,100 students. According to independent audits, the elementary school is facing serious financial problems and the schools together have $30 million in debt, which has not been reduced over the last four years.
Opening a new school could ease the organization’s financial posture. (See “In the sometimes convoluted world of charter school real estate, Franklin Towne is both landlord and tenant.”)
The revised application that will be considered Thursday made some changes to address the charter office’s concerns, augmenting its mission statement to declare that the school would be a place “where all students, regardless of ability or background, will experience the opportunity to learn and thrive.”
Despite this addition, the charter office found that the rest of the new application did not “align” with the school’s “newly stated mission.”
“The revised application continues to lack sufficient evidence that the applicant has researched the projected student population, its needs, and what the school may need to provide beyond regular classroom instruction to effectively support all students,” the evaluation said.
The new application adds more staff for English learners and more funding for special education, which addresses the budgetary issues raised by the charter office.
Otherwise, the new application is largely the same as the old one, except that it no longer contains a paragraph that described money budgeted for “first class and business class air travel” for Franklin Towne staff. For the most part, the other changes are minor and rarely satisfied the charter office’s concerns.
Franklin Towne’s existing schools have similar diversity problems to MaST, another organization running high-performing charters that enroll relatively few low-income students and students of color. In February, the SRC approved a new MaST charter while setting strict conditions for demographically broadening its enrollment base.
Last year, Franklin Towne’s elementary school had a student body that was 70 percent white, and the high school was 83 percent white, according to the most recent (2017) evaluations by the District. The overall enrollment in District schools is 14 percent white. It also had just 1 percent English language learners, although located in Northeast Philadelphia, a part of the city where lots of immigrant families live.
The charter office cited the high school’s intense criteria for holding students back in the same grade and noted that the only summer school or credit recovery program offered is outsourced to Educere, a digital-curriculum vendor. Any student wanting to use this program over the summer would have to pay $450. The school did not budget for any subsidies for students who cannot afford the fee, which the charter office said created a barrier in “opportunity” for low-income students – in contradiction with the school’s new mission statement.
The evaluation also found that Franklin Towne did not, as requested, estimate “demographics of the targeted student population and evidence of engagement with a citywide school community.” The newly submitted application did not include these items.
The office was also concerned about lack of detail in Franklin Towne’s behavioral management system and student code of conduct, which leaves disciplinary decisions and rewards almost entirely up to the discretion of staff.
The charter office cautioned that such vagueness often results in discrimination against certain groups of students, which U.S. Department of Education research detailed during the Obama administration.
The revised application did not address these concerns.
The charter office applauded the school’s plans for supporting gifted students. Students at Franklin Towne perform well above average compared to District schools on standardized tests. The flagship high school won a prestigious Blue Ribbon, handed out by the U.S. Department of Education, for quality academics.
But the charter office found that the application fell short in serving English learners and students with special needs who are not gifted. The proposed budget included few resources for those students and did not target resources or specific interventions to assist those who struggle academically.
Although the new application added funding for special education students, it also increased the projected enrollment well above the District average and rates at other Franklin Towne schools, making the school financially reliant on enrolling an unusually high number of special education students – 18 percent, higher than the District rate and a big jump from its current rates of 13 percent in the elementary school and 12 percent in the high school. Under the funding formula in the charter law, the amount per pupil that a charter receives for special education students in Philadelphia is more than three times what it receives for non-special education students.
The revised application was “mostly silent” on how the school would close the achievement gap for students with special needs, English learners and students performing below grade level, the charter office said.
It was also “silent” on whether it would identify students experiencing trauma, those in foster care, and those with chronic health issues.
The charter office evaluation found that the proposed school “placed the burden for social-emotional health and the resulting behavior on students.” This refers to Franklin Towne’s “character education program.” The charter office’s evaluation said this program is presented as a way for “at-risk students to overcome challenges that could affect their academic learning without specifically identifying the social-emotional supports the Charter School would provide.”
The District schools average for students living in poverty was 74 percent, but only 33 and 40 percent at Franklin Towne’s elementary and high school respectively, according to 2017 evaluations by the charter office. Its enrollment of 1 percent English learners compares to an 11 percent average at District schools.
Although the application stated that the curriculum could be modified to meet the needs of all learners, evidence of this “was limited to surface level, narrative descriptions,” according to the charter office.
“The applicant stated both that the curriculum is scalable and easily modified to meet the needs of all learners but also that it is ‘highly scripted,’ which appeared to contradict an expectation that teachers would be actively modifying the curriculum to meet the needs of all learners.”
To address this, in its revised application, Franklin Towne changed “highly scripted” to “highly focused.”
In both the old and the new application, the charter office found the curriculum to be “narrowly focused” on “alignment to high stakes testing outcomes.”
At the charter office’s request, the new application includes unit plans for all subjects and grade levels including minor courses such as health and physical education. That curriculum includes a unit on “abstinence,” another on “human sexuality,” but no typical sex education curriculum as is taught in Philadelphia middle schools.