This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
With their time in office drawing short, the four remaining School Reform Commission members voted to approve one new charter school and close another at their April 26 meeting.
The commission, which will dissolve on June 30 and give way to a locally appointed school board, decided not to renew the charter of Eastern University Academy Charter School in East Falls. The vote was unanimous.
The School Reform Commission also voted to approve an application from Franklin Towne Charter School with conditions, despite a dissenting vote from former SRC Chair Marjorie Neff. Franklin Towne, which already operates two schools, applied to open a middle school in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia. The approved conditions will limit the size of Franklin Towne’s new school and include stipulations designed to make sure the school serves a representative proportion of minority students.
In its review of Eastern University Academy Charter School, officials from the District’s charter office found that the school failed to meet academic benchmarks. On the latest round of PSSAs, 20 percent of students in the school’s middle grades scored proficient in English and 1 percent were deemed proficient in math. The school, which opened in 2009, serves grades 7-12.
The school can, if it chooses, appeal the non-renewal decision to the state’s Charter Appeals Board.
A large contingent of Eastern supporters showed up at the SRC meeting and demanded that the commissioners delay their vote, arguing that the school’s fate should be decided instead by the incoming school board. They chanted “new board, new vote” and repeatedly interrupted Rudolph Garcia, the hearing officer who oversaw Eastern’s renewal proceedings.
Omar Barlow, the school’s principal and CEO, said the school was unfairly compared to special admissions schools during its academic review and was judged against a changing, unpredictable rubric. He presented meeting notes from the school’s renewal hearings to the SRC to prove his point.
“If you read these notes of testimony, I guarantee you, you will delay your vote and look into this case deeply,” Barlow said.
Garcia, the hearing officer, was not able to get through much of his presentation due to the crowd’s chants and jeers. He did, however, say that Eastern is “not providing the education you think it is.”
Explaining her vote, Commissioner Neff cited Eastern’s lackluster test scores and said the school failed to meet attendance goals laid out in its charter.
“I don’t believe this school has done its students a service,” Neff said.
Neff, who rejoined the commission to help steward it in its final months, also voted against the proposal to create a Franklin Towne Charter Middle School.
“It was a hard call,” Neff said. “I didn’t feel like they completely addressed in the revised application the concerns raised by the charter office in the evaluation” of the first application that was declined.
During the meeting, Neff said her vote was based on a “lack of a need for this school and the fact that it does not reflect the city population or the area it serves.”
Neff was referring to the majority white student populations at Franklin Towne schools, which are located in Northeast Philadelphia.
Commissioner Bill Green was asked to recuse himself from the vote on Franklin Towne because one trustee at the school is the brother of his former chief of staff. Ryan Mulvey, the trustee, is a legislative aide for State Sen. John Sabatina Jr.
“Sabatina is the ward leader who supported Commissioner Green’s failed run for Congress,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an SRC watchdog group. “Mr. Green’s address on his filing form, 7718 Castor Ave., 2nd floor, is a commercial property whose sign says: Sabatina Associates.”
Green did, however, vote to approve the charter application.
Chair Estelle Richman spoke at length about her own concerns, before describing the conditions.
“The SRC remains concerned about the enrollment practices at existing Franklin Towne schools,” Richman said, leading “to a lack of diversity in the student bodies” in terms of poverty, race, and English learners.
Her other major concerns were the conflicts of interest still present within the boards of Franklin Towne’s new school and their existing high school, which would be both the management company and the landlord for the middle school. Two proposed board members, including the chair, are also on the high school’s board. Despite the charter office explicitly criticizing these conflicts of interest in its evaluation, Franklin Towne did not choose a new board chair when re-submitting the application.
“Still there is overlap between board members of the middle school and its management company,” Richman said, which “raises serious concerns about the decision-making process.”
She also found unacceptable that there would be “no proposed formal evaluation of the management company in the first term of the charter, or a right for the school to terminate the management agreement.”
Richman outlined a series of conditions for the approval of the Franklin Towne middle school application. The first condition was to give admissions preference to students in certain zip codes, in an attempt to create a more diverse student body. The next was “complete independence of the board of Franklin Towne Charter Middle School from its charter operator.” Another condition will reduce the size of the proposed school from 450 students to 300. Lastly, Franklin Towne will need a “revision of admission and enrollment policy to ensure consistency with applicable laws.”
Strawberry Mansion plan draws protest
A number of parents, teachers, and alumni of Strawberry Mansion came out to protest what District officials are calling a “phasing out” of the neighborhood high school in North Philadelphia. This means it is no longer accepting new 9th graders.
Superintendent William Hite has said the building will be used to house alternative schools and a night school, and many community members say they feel blindsided and left out of the process.
Many voiced the idea that the District in the past year allocated fewer resources to the school because it planned to close it all along. Many said they felt that the school was set up to fail.
Ameera Sullivan is both an alumnus and now a counselor at Strawberry Mansion.
“As a student at Strawberry Mansion High School and as a counselor now, I’m seeing the same problems: homelessness, poverty, drug addiction, incarcerated parents, students raising their siblings,” Sullivan said. But she said that as a student, and still in first year she spent counseling at the school, there were support services and programs in place that have vanished since.
“My students today do not have the opportunities that I was awarded as a student and even the programs that were there last year are no more,” she said. “Strawberry Mansion receives teachers who are force-transferred from other schools and students who are kicked out of other schools, including charter schools.”
Ruth Birchett, who lives in the neighborhood, said she testified before the SRC last week, requesting that a working group of community members be convened to give input into the process of phasing out the school, but she never heard back from anyone.
Former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman made an impassioned speech accusing the District of removing successful programs from Mansion after she left in March 2017.
In closing remarks, Hite pointed out that of the 2,267 eligible students living in the Strawberry Mansion catchment area, just 235 attend the school. The District is working with a task force to determine the best use for the building, Hite said, which is operating well under capacity.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the community,” Hite said. “But this is all about making sure that the 2,267 children who live in that catchment area also have an option in their neighborhood school, because many of them are going to other places.”
The SRC, as it always does, also approved several contracts Thursday.
One of them will allow West Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLA-MS), now located on Drexel University’s campus, to move to a larger space at 36th and Market Streets. Drexel plans to eventually build a new campus for SLA-MS, which it will share with nearby Powel Elementary School.