This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
American Paradigm is applying to open a fifth charter school in Northeast Philadelphia, even though it has declined to sign new charter agreements at three of its schools that now operate under expired charters.
This was a point of contention with the Charter Schools Office at the company’s new charter hearing before the Board of Education.
The charter office’s evaluation also criticized the school for unrealistic academic goals, little evidence of meaningful engagement with the community, and inadequate planning for the progress of the most vulnerable student demographic groups it proposes to serve.
The new school would be called Tacony Academy Charter School at St. Vincent’s, a K-8 school modeled after American Paradigm’s existing K-12 school, Tacony Academy. The building would be bought from the Archdiocese – a 13-acre campus at 7201 Milnor St. that opened in 1857 as an orphanage. St. Vincent’s charter school would start with 400 seats in grades K-3 in the fall of 2019 and expand to 900 seats in grades K-8 in year six, by adding one grade with 100 students each year. The annual cost to the School District would be nearly $11 million in year five, according to the school’s application.
St. Vincent’s mission emphasizes creativity, while at the same time promising progress on standardized tests. The school would “enhance, support, and promote creative and critical thinking, as well as the problem-solving skills of school-age learners in the creation of original inventions as amazing solutions to puzzling problems, while also helping them to master Pennsylvania and national standards.”
The school’s application describes the model as “grounded in data-driven decision making.”
St. Vincent’s replicates Tacony Academy
St. Vincent’s would replicate Tacony Academy’s curriculum and Caring School Communities – a resource package for social and emotional learning purchased by American Paradigm from the nonprofit organization Center for the Collaborative Classroom and used at all of its schools. The charter office noted that curriculum was missing in several subjects and that the social studies curriculum does not fully align with state standards in economics and Pennsylvania history.
Christina Grant, interim director of the District’s Charter Schools Office, said at the hearing that the school provided “general details” on instruction and assessment but did not “comprehensively” demonstrate how the school model would improve achievement for vulnerable students within the community.
The charter office has cited all four of American Paradigm’s schools for violations of the School District’s discipline policies that restrict suspensions on young students for minor offenses. The schools have particularly high rates of out-of-school suspensions, and they put the burden on students to get their own medical exams. And some schools failed to provide five days a week of English language instruction for English learners.
Grant said the “staffing model presented is not sufficient” given the number of high-needs students that the school projects to enroll — 18 percent special education students, a small percentage of English learners, and a student population in which the majority are low-income. Each “reading block” in an English class would have a reading aide to assist with individual instruction. But the budget only pays those aides $11,000 annually for five hours of work each day.
“This raises credibility concerns” about how effective the literacy program would be, Grant said.
Ryan Scallon, chief academic officer for American Paradigm, said the aides are integral to the instructional model.
“During the reading block, they provide foundations and a phonics-based program that we have trained them to deliver,” Scallon said.
The four existing schools
Three of American Paradigm’s four schools operate without a signed charter agreement. Those schools were among a large number of charter schools that did not sign charters with conditions for improvement offered by the School Reform Commission (SRC), which also denied an enrollment increase for Tacony Academy.
At the time, the SRC cited insufficient staffing levels at Tacony Academy – a problem that the charter office cited with the new school’s application as well. It also noted a lack of space, which would be solved after American Paradigm acquired the new 13-acre campus where it would locate St. Vincent’s. American Paradigm only plans to use a small portion of that complex for the new school.
Memphis Street, which is also operated by American Paradigm, signed its charter with conditions attached, under threat of closure by the SRC after being recommended for closure by the charter office. The School Reform Commission ultimately granted the school another five-year term, and the school accepted by signing the new charter.
The state charter law allows charter schools to operate under expired charters, and the School District must continue sending them tax dollars. In order to close charters, districts often have to go to court, and charters can continue to appeal as a means to drag out closure – often for multiple school years. Because charters use tax dollars from the School District to pay their legal fees, they have no incentive not to appeal. Each appeal secures a continuing flow of cash from the city and state.
Bold academic goals
American Paradigm outlined bold academic goals for the new school – goals that none of its existing schools have achieved.
Over five years, American Paradigm states that the school would dramatically increase proficiency rates on English PSSAs from 40 percent to 72 percent. But over the last four years of available PSSA data, none of its existing schools has achieved such an increase. Three of the four schools have less than 40 percent proficiency.
The company intends for the school to increase proficiency rates on the math PSSAs from 40 percent to 58 percent. When looking at the last four years of PSSA data (since the last time the standards were changed), none of the existing schools has achieved such an increase and three of the four schools had proficiency rates of 12 percent or less.
“[Tacony Academy] made significant gains between 2017 and 2018, and those gains put it at the state average in English and significantly above the neighborhood schools as well as District schools,” Scallon said.
Tacony Academy is the best performing middle school in the American Paradigm network by a large margin, though the other middle schools are Renaissance charters. Tacony’s students scored 62 percent proficient or advanced on the latest PSSAs, though the network’s next highest-scoring middle school, Lindley Academy, is at 26 percent.
Most charter school applications from existing operators compare the record of the operator to the scores of local neighborhood schools. American Paradigm took a slightly different approach. Instead of using test scores, it used the scores of Great Philly Schools – a website that gives schools a rating of 1 to 10 by averaging a number of metrics, both academic categories and other categories, like safety and attendance.
But it left out the scores of its own schools, which range from 2 to 5. It listed the eight zip codes where the new school would give students an admissions preference and the scores of all the schools in each zip code. Though the zip codes included many schools with low ratings, none lacked a school with a rating of 5 or higher and many had multiple schools with such ratings.
Grant expressed concern about the new school’s ability to appropriately educate English learners. American Paradigm anticipates that 5 percent of the students will be English learners. By year six, that would be 45 students. But the budget only had one teacher for English learners, resulting in what the charter office called an “inappropriate caseload.”
The evaluation also found “the application lacked any reference to English language proficiency goals for English learners.”
The only one of American Paradigm’s schools with more than 3 percent English learners is Memphis Street Academy, with 16 percent. But it was also flagged by the charter office because most of its English learner students did not receive five days of English language instruction each week.
Analysis of special education data by the Education Law Center found a common pattern among charter schools in Philadelphia. The American Paradigm schools tend to disproportionately enroll special education students with relatively inexpensive disabilities to address, like the need for speech therapy. Because the state’s charter law requires school districts to send per-pupil special education payments to charters based on the average cost of educating a special education student, the practice brings in extra money for the school.
Analysis of state data shows three of the four schools receiving amounts of special education dollars more than double what they are actually spending on special education services. The exception is Lindley Academy, which receives roughly $2.5 million for special education students and spent $1.5 million on special education services in the most recent data. The most extreme case is Tacony, which receives approximately $5.5 million but spent just $1.3 million on special education services in the most recent data.
A tense history of community engagement
“Beyond the District statement and Great Philly Schools’ data, the application contains minimal research and data to support the benefits that the proposed charter school may bring to the community,” the evaluation from the charter office concludes.
American Paradigm submitted 249 forms from students who intend to enroll in the school if it opens with 400 seats. American Paradigm staff collected signatures at two events held at schools run by the company. The application asserts that the school would provide GED classes for parents and “explore” partnerships with organizations to provide fresh foods and green spaces. It lists potential partnerships with 19 different organizations but did not include any evidence of commitment from outside providers for these services, according to the evaluation.
American Paradigm submitted letters of support from the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Tacony Civic Association.
Neighbors at another local group, the Wissinoming Civic Association, were not pleased with the last real estate acquisition that American Paradigm made in the neighborhood. In 2013, American Paradigm was turned down when it attempted to buy the property it is now buying from the Archdiocese, where it would build the new school. At the time, American was looking to buy a building to house Tacony Academy’s high school grades.
When it was rejected, American Paradigm turned to the Wissinoming Civic Association, which owned a billiards hall that its leadership wanted to sell to American Paradigm. American Paradigm planned to demolish it and build Tacony Academy’s high school there instead. When the association’s leadership invited neighbors to a meeting where it intended to vote on the proposed sale, neighbors railed against American Paradigm’s proposal and criticized the company’s current CEO for a lack of knowledge about the streets surrounding the building.
In the end, the association voted to approve the sale after the association’s leadership cited its bylaws and limited the vote to 13 people. Many neighbors left that meeting furious, but Tacony Academy’s high school opened on the site.