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East Falls neighborhood rises to protest proposed relocation of Lab Charter

Neighbors say they weren't fully informed. And they have been working hard to revitalize their local District school.

Bonnie Emilius (right) with her children Eric and Amy Diefenderfer, in front of Thomas Mifflin Elementary School in East Falls (Photo: Greg Windle)

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

East Falls is a gracious community where elegant stone and brick homes line the wide and rolling streets. On Midvale Avenue, where a steep hill rises from the Schuylkill River through the heart of the neighborhood, the Colonial-revival style public elementary school comes into view just after the soaring towers of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church.

The school is Thomas Mifflin Elementary, built in 1936, which houses 300 students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.

According to recent census data for the East Falls zip code, just over half its population is white and a third is black, with small but growing contingents of Asians and Latinos. Its residents are primarily middle- to upper-middle class.

However, as in many Philadelphia locales, the school’s demographics do not match those of its neighborhood. About 90 percent of Mifflin’s students are African American. Most of its students are from low-income families, and some of them live in Abbottsford Homes, public housing located just across Henry Avenue.

The more affluent parents of East Falls, most of them white, traditionally have chosen private schools. (William Penn Charter, a centuries-old Quaker school, is in the neighborhood.) More recently, they’ve opted for public charter schools, including Wissahickon and Green Woods, two K-8 charters that are located in the vicinity.

But over the last several years, there has been a renewed push to make Mifflin the school of choice for residents of East Falls. Its white student population has been inching up in the lower grades, and there is a campaign to build a playground at the school. Involved parents like Bonnie Emilius, who is president of the Friends of Mifflin group, and Carla Lewandowski, a professor of criminal justice at Rowan University in New Jersey, send their children there.

Many in the community were, therefore, blindsided by the news that the Board of Education is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution that would allow the 600-student Laboratory Charter School of Communication & Languages to consolidate its three campuses, now spread across the city, at a new location in East Falls. The resolution is in the form of an amendment to Lab Charter’s existing agreement with the District, which the board’s Charter School Office (CSO) is recommending for passage.

If the move is approved, Lab Charter would join a new charter school, Hebrew Public, which was given the green light to open this fall. Both would be located in the sprawling complex on Henry Avenue that at one time was the site of the nation’s first medical school for women, the Medical College of Pennsylvania (MCP). Together, the two schools would eventually have the authority to enroll 1,700 students.

Several East Falls residents and community leaders plan to speak at Thursday’s school board meeting, including Lewandowski. She said she plans to urge the board to reject Lab Charter’s amendment request, or at least delay voting on it.

“This has stunned our whole neighborhood,” said Lewandowski.

She said that, based on the principal’s reports of kindergarten registration for September, more East Falls residents have signed up their children for Mifflin than ever before.

“The potential for Lab Charter to come in and disrupt a really great neighborhood school is upsetting,” she said. “We have a good amount of momentum.”

Lewandowski and others complain that there was no opportunity for the community to weigh in on the move, even though that is a requirement when the Charter School Office considers a charter relocation. The office’s evaluation of the relocation request says that although charter officials provided documentation – more than 200 signatures – that its own parents endorsed the move, “there is no evidence that the charter school has engaged residents and community stakeholders of the new location.”

An online petition asking the board to delay the vote until the community impact of the relocation is properly assessed had 601 signatures as of Wednesday night.

Lab Charter CEO Andrea Coleman-Hill told residents that she put up flyers at a local restaurant on the MCP grounds and convened a meeting attended by several hundred people.

“I heard the principal say a week ago that we had a meeting at the pizza place, we put flyers up in the pizza place,” said Bill Epstein, president of the East Falls Community Council and editor of a monthly community newspaper. “Nowhere else? She said, ‘We had 300 people.’ I can’t find anybody who was at that meeting.”

Epstein (who was a School District spokesman in the 1990s) said that if Coleman-Hill had contacted his newspaper, East Falls Now, to post a notice, “we would have been glad to put out the word.”

Coleman-Hill did not return several calls and an email seeking comment.

In addition to the potential for the new charter to adversely affect the efforts to revitalize and improve Mifflin, community members also have a practical objection – traffic.

Lab Charter’s students would come from all areas of the city, and many would most likely be transported by school buses, because Henry Avenue is classified as a hazardous route. Residents and community leaders say that the intersection of four different roads at Henry and Allegheny Avenues is chaotic and busy, especially during rush hour, and that a rumored alternative for buses to use the complex’s back entrance on Scotts Lane is a nonstarter because it’s residential, narrow and hilly, and has a train crossing.

Another complication: The proposed site already houses Eastern Academy Charter School. The School Reform Commission (the board’s predecessor) voted to close it, but it continues to operate during its appeal to the state. Eastern has plans to move to another location this summer so that Lab Charter and Hebrew Charter can move in, but the plans aren’t final, to the knowledge of District officials. The charter office’s recommendation to allow Lab Charter’s move is contingent on documentation that Eastern will move out in time for Lab to “appropriately prepare.”

Eastern has about 350 students, but they are in high school, and thus not competing with Mifflin. As for traffic, they mostly take SEPTA.

Christina Grant, who heads the District’s Charter School Office, said she was mindful of the potential impact of Lab’s move on the neighborhood and on Mifflin. She defended her office’s recommendation for approval, saying that the state charter law limits her office’s options.

“The whole amendment process is a function of the law. Our role is to evaluate the tenets of the request.” And the fact is that the move would be good for the charter, she said.

“It consolidates their campuses and allows them to serve children universally at one location,” she said. “It’s a smart financial move for the school; it can better utilize its resources.”

Grant said that the charter office is nevertheless working with the District to assess and minimize any impact on Mifflin.

“This is a strong school that is going in a great direction, and we want to assure that that remains true,” she said. “We are definitely working with the District to address the impact of the move, and I would say before the board meeting on Thursday we will have touched base with [District officials]. We are a strong supporter of Mifflin and don’t expect that school to be affected by that move. … We don’t want to negatively impact a District school as the result of a move of a charter.”

Laboratory Charter School has a fraught history. It was founded in 1997 by longtime Philadelphia educator Dorothy June Brown, who was later charged with defrauding it and other charters she started, including a cyber school, of nearly $6 million. A jury deadlocked on the charges; a retrial was abandoned after a judge ruled that Brown had dementia and would not be able to adequately contribute to her defense.

Lab Charter, which now has two campuses in Overbrook and one in Northern Liberties, was last renewed in 2018 for a five-year term, after an initial recommendation for non-renewal. In that evaluation, the charter office determined that it met academic benchmarks, but not its standards relating to organizational compliance, financial practices, and fiscal health. Among its problems has been getting behind in payments to PSERS, the state retirement system.

In its recommendation regarding the request to relocate, the charter office said that “consolidating to a single facility is expected to improve the Charter School’s financial viability, increase access to technology, and vastly improve the health and safety of all stakeholders. A singular transportation system will alleviate stress on families with children enrolled at the Charter School’s different campuses.” It also said that “the new facility will allow the Charter School to expand to its authorized enrollment, which will improve the Charter School’s financial stability.” It now enrolls about 700 students at the three campuses, but is authorized for 1,025.

Board of Education member Christopher McGinley said that in a committee meeting, the proposed relocation of Lab Charter was presented primarily as the swapping out of one charter school for another that would not have a big impact on the community. Issues of more school buses to transport the younger children, enrollment expansion, and the potential effect on Mifflin were not emphasized, he said.

“If there’s new information the board hasn’t considered, I would propose a delay [of Thursday’s vote] to ensure we’re giving full consideration to the impact on the community,” he said in an interview.

The board is likely to hear some of that information from speakers at Thursday’s meeting, including Lewandowski.

“The whole point of charters is to offer people different options. We don’t need more options,” she said. “We have Green Woods, Wissahickon, and Hebrew. And Mifflin.”

While reiterating that her office did its due diligence within the parameters of the charter law, Grant said that “the actual decision-maker will be the board. In reviewing the areas of concern, we can see why this is a good decision for the [charter] school, but the board will have to weigh in on the tenets of the amendment request as well as the feedback we’re receiving from the community. The entire community.”

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