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Students at Kensington Health Sciences Academy can participate in cooking clubs designed to teach about healthy, easy-to-make meals.

Students at Kensington Health Sciences Academy can participate in cooking clubs designed to teach about healthy, easy-to-make meals. (Photo: Greg Windle)

Greg Windle / The Notebook

On the eve of winter break, the District schedules a controversial charter hearing

A health and sciences charter high school is being proposed. A neighborhood school with a similar focus is less than five miles away.

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

A meeting on Friday will bring a classic standoff to School District headquarters: a debate between supporters of a proposed charter that believes it can set a new standard and critics who fear that the new school will undermine fragile gains made in the District’s neighborhood schools.

The setting will be a hearing required for all new charter applicants. The applicant will be joined at the hearing for a proposed charter focused on health and science by staff from a nearby District high school that has a nearly identical mission and model – Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA).

The charter supporters’ philosophy: Fund us, and we’ll make things better for everyone.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” said Tim Matheney, CEO of the proposed High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School (HS2L).

The response from Nimet Eren, principal of KHSA was: “There are many health and science programs in the city, and we should invest in them.”

Matheney said that if his charter is approved, the school will establish strong workplace programs and internships that other schools can replicate. On Friday, he’ll argue that his proposed school will be backed by an “unprecedented coalition of higher education and health-care partners” offering students a unique pathway to work experience in “real-world” settings.

“If we’re able to help our [institutional] partners figure out a robust workplace experience for the kids, we can connect [other schools] with opportunity,” he said.

Eren’s response will be that KHSA and other high schools – including Mastbaum, Franklin Learning Center, and Randolph – already have similar programs and that adding new competition will hurt more than help them. KHSA already has much of what HS2L promises, she said, including an advisory council that includes some of the same institutional supporters as the charter’s – such as Temple and Jefferson Universities. KHSA also offers a small but growing list of workplace options, including 24 internship slots at St. Christopher’s Hospital.

On Friday, she’ll ask the board to “invest in us and help us keep moving forward.”

On one subject, Eren and Matheney agree wholeheartedly: establishing out-of-school career opportunities for students ranks among the hardest challenges for career programs, particularly in the health-care field, where stakes are high and privacy paramount. Any school involved in such efforts needs all the help it can get, whether that’s from educators, donors, or institutions, both Matheney and Eren said.

But although Matheney’s application states that the proposed charter has “a strong desire … to establish partnership with Kensington Health Science Academy,” Eren doesn’t see much that’s new in HS2L’s plan.

“I don’t see any difference between their model and ours, other than that they can have an admissions process and they can attract private donations,” Eren said.

Proposed new academy

The proposed HS2L charter high school on North Broad Street in North Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood would have 600 students. It would occupy the former home of now-relocated Catholic Christo Rey High, just a few blocks south of Einstein Medical Center. The charter would open in 2021 with a freshman class of 150, reaching full capacity by 2024.

According to the school’s 57-page application narrative, admission would be determined by lottery, with a preference for neighborhood residents, and without any academic requirements. An enrollment goal is to be “representative of the racial and ethnic balance of Philadelphia’s student body at large,” the narrative says. The application was obtained by the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools through a Right to Know request.

Matheney, a former principal and consultant, said the idea for the school was initially his, driven by his exploration of the Philadelphia economy, in which the “meds-and-eds” sector is dominant and growing. Almost a third of working Philadelphians are employed in the sector, he said, including about 41,000 in so-called “middle-skill” jobs that can provide stable, long-term careers.

Conversations with industry and educators revealed an “unmet need” for schools that can connect residents with these jobs, said Matheney, who spent eight years as principal of New Jersey’s South Brunswick High before becoming head of the Philadelphia Academy for School Leaders.

He does not want to criticize the District’s current options – “It’s not my job to assess the School District’s existing programs,” he said – but Matheney says that HS2L could do better, particularly when it comes to arranging workplace experiences and internships.

“People in the industry find the idea of HS2L incredibly compelling,” Matheney said.

HS2L’s narrative promises that students will be supported by an “unprecedented coalition” of universities, hospitals, and other institutions. It lists five major partners: Temple, Drexel, and Jefferson Universities, along with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) and Community College of Philadelphia. It includes letters of support pledging assistance with curriculum and program development.

Most of those institutions did not respond immediately to the Notebook’s request for comment on the proposed charter or their plans to work with it.

PCOM’s Renee Cree said in a statement, “We work with several schools in Philadelphia to provide access to our lab spaces, simulation centers [and] experienced faculty … and are excited to extend this support to the students who will attend the High School of Health Sciences Leadership,” she said.

A spokesperson for Jefferson, Angela Showell, confirmed the university’s support for the proposal, but noted that “we do not have any specific plans at this point” beyond including them in its Pipeline Programs that offer summer internships and other career opportunities to high school students.

As for grassroots support, HS2L narrative said that a week of outreach netted 149 signatures of support, including 137 letters of “intent to enroll” from parents of current 7th graders.

For teachers, HS2L pledges to be an exemplary workplace, featuring a collaborative “open practice” model and salaries high enough to attract an experienced staff.

The application narrative also promises strong philanthropic support, including help in securing the lease if necessary. Matheney said that prospective donors “find the focused mission very compelling.”

The HS2L board would include Laura Siminoff, the dean of Temple’s School of Public Health; Janine Yass, a well-known philanthropist and charter supporter; Sharif El-Mekki, a former charter school principal and head of the Center for Black Educator Development; and Candace Kenyatta, head of Grovider, a consulting firm specializing in “knowledge management.” In addition, the HS2L board will “actively seek out at least one parent or guardian to serve in a voting capacity.”

The principal would likely be Sharifa Edwards, former teacher and charter school principal who currently works at Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) as manager of school investments. Edwards has agreed to give the position “strong consideration” if the application is accepted, the narrative says.

As for the overall impact of more charters on the District’s strained budget, Matheney said he would worry about the bigger picture later. “My job right now is to earn approval of this school,” he said. “Someday down the road, hopefully, it’ll be my job to advocate for it in Harrisburg.”

KHSA making progress

KHSA is a neighborhood high school of about 450 students, located about 4.5 miles from the site of the proposed charter.

It is in its 10th year as a school focused on health and science, with Career and Technical Education majors in dentistry, pharmacy, and health technology. This spring, teams from all three areas will take part in a statewide competition, the HOSA-Future Health Professionals conference. The school recently added a fourth major – “global leadership” – to teach students to “think globally and act locally to create change.” It is also one of the schools chosen as a community school in Mayor Kenney’s initiative. The aim of community schools is to make the school buildings into neighborhood hubs for health, recreational, and social services.

On paper, KHSA struggles, one of the bottom 5% in the state, according to its achievement metrics. District ratings put it in the “Watch” category – third-lowest of four quartiles – showing modest improvements in academics and climate and uneven results in career and college programs.

But the school has also shown successes. According to District performance reports, KHSA has about a 71% four-year graduation rate, with about 29% of grads starting college the next year. It’s rated a “model” for student retention and climate, with surveys showing strong support from parents. Academic performance overall is low, but improving: about 30% rate “proficient” in Keystone tests for language arts; in math, 12% rate proficient and in science, it’s 13%. Those numbers represent significant upticks – in 2015, just 11% rated “proficient” in English and 2% in math.

Boosting those academic numbers was Eren’s first task when she took the helm of KHSA three years ago. It was only last year that she began to look hard at improving her career academies’ work experiences and internships.

A call from PSP

So Eren welcomed a call last summer from the Philadelphia School Partnership; she believed that the organization’s deep reserves of professional connections and cash resources could help her school improve on its toughest challenge.

“I’d heard that PSP was like the fairy godmother for schools,” she said. “I was very excited.”

During a series of meetings in the summer and early fall, Eren’s staff and PSP discussed the nuts and bolts of internships and career programs. She said she willingly shared everything she could about her school’s progress and challenges. The hope, she said, was that PSP would eventually come back with resources and connections. PSP made no commitments, she said, but nor did its staff ever mention that they might support a charter.

“What they said was that they would keep their ears open for us,” Eren said. “There were no promises made, but I was very hopeful.”

So Eren was taken completely by surprise when PSP staff told her in November that they would be providing HS2L with a $75,000 planning grant, and that her school would have the “exciting opportunity” to learn from the charter.

“Never in my wildest dreams” did she expect to hear that, Eren said.

A spokesperson for PSP, David Saenz, said that the funder hopes to work with KHSA and similar neighborhood schools in the future and that it believes the new charter will establish practices that benefit all career and technical academies.

“We are hopeful there will be opportunities to support both [schools] and that the proposed charter will be a catalyst for encouraging a wide variety of health-related employers to develop partnerships with schools,” said Saenz.

Saenz also said that PSP did not mislead Eren or other school staff over the summer.

“PSP respects the work KHSA leadership and staff are doing and was transparent about its planning grant” to the proposed charter, said Saenz.

Eren agrees that PSP never outright lied to her – but she also doesn’t feel that the organization shared the whole truth as it dug through the details of KHSA’s programs.

“They were not transparent about their charter proposal,” she said. Until the day the HS2L deal was announced, she said, “they never mentioned it.”

Friday’s hearing: First in a process

Friday night’s meeting, before a board hearing officer, will feature a 15-minute presentation from Matheney and his team. A second public hearing will take place in January, although without the opportunity for public comment. Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson has urged staff and stakeholders to submit written testimony if they’re unable to attend Friday’s hearing.

“Make sure we get your testimony so we can incorporate it into the record,” Wilkerson said at the board’s last meeting.

Eren plans to be there in person. As a former teacher at Olney High, run by the charter operator ASPIRA Inc., she has seen both the promise and the pitfalls of the charter movement. She was at Olney when ASPIRA took over, bringing excitement and optimism – and she was there when the charter provider got bogged down in the dubious financial practices that led the District to revoke its charter – a decision now being appealed to the state.

“The first couple of years were really exciting – then things got chaotic. It was really unfortunate,” Eren said of her time with ASPIRA. “We’d accomplished so much during those first few years, but then it felt like it was all slipping through our fingers.”

Her concern with the proposed HS2L charter isn’t so much that it will impact her own school, although it could, she said. KHSA has worked hard to become a “school of choice,” but a brand-new charter with money and connections could easily attract some of her students.

Among the charter’s advantages: Unlike a neighborhood school, it won’t have to accept new students throughout the year. HS2L can run a single lottery and maintain a stable enrollment all year, while KHSA, like all neighborhood schools, is required to accept new students all year, as needed – students who in many cases are coming from the most difficult of circumstances.

“If competition is a good thing, then [HS2L] should have to take children at any time of year, children coming from homeless shelters, children coming from juvenile justice, children coming from wherever at the drop of a dime,” Eren said.

Matheney, who considers himself an entrepreneur as much as an educator, believes that his school will ultimately benefit KHSA and other city schools while helping the city’s poorest communities get a bigger share of the growing “meds-and-eds” pie.

On Friday, he’ll argue that because there’s no shortage of jobs, the District should have no fear of expanding its number of career academies.

“Charter schools, where they’re successful, they’re opportunities for innovation,” he said. “It’s not an ‘either-or’ … it’s a ‘both-and’ situation.”