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Charters awaiting decisions pack school board’s budget hearing

The Global Leadership Academy CEO contends that the District “promised” her a new high school when she agreed to take over Samuel B Huey Elementary.

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

The Philadelphia Board of Education invited members of the public to give their feedback on the District’s budget and spending priorities for 2019-20 during meetings on Thursday, and two charter school management companies took the opportunity to protest recent board decisions, busing students to a morning hearing to testify on their schools’ behalf.

Staff from ASPIRA Charter School at Stetson, in Kensington, urged the board to reverse its decision not to renew their charter. Stetson, which serves grades 5-8, is a Renaissance charter, which means it is a former District neighborhood school turned over to a charter operator. It continues to serve students from the school’s catchment area. If Stetson’s charter is not renewed, it could revert to the District or be given to another charter operator.

Joanne Esquilin, community outreach coordinator at Stetson, said the school community is “in limbo.” Parents are worried about losing the community resources that are located in the school: a food bank, a clothes share, and a washer and dryer. She described the school as “a safe haven” amid a violent neighborhood that “needs help.”

“Our children walk to school while drug-addicted addicts are shooting up, needles strewn on the ground,” Esquilin said. “Every day is a struggle. … Stetson’s not only a school, it’s a home.”

Stetson students described the school as a caring environment.

“All of our staff and students play a major role in representing our school in good ways and working as a team,” said Stetson student Mia Figueroa. “I believe that Stetson should be a major model for all public schools to pattern themselves after because we all have structure and people really care.”

Other students spoke about Stetson’s “norms.” Maria Esparra said memorizing the norms is “how I became a leader.”

“The norms are that you have to come in the right uniform, obey all the staff — you have to be good all the time,” Esparra said. She struggled through her remarks, periodically pausing and looking back at Esquilin sitting in the crowd, who motioned her on.

At first, Esparra had not identified what school she attended. School Board President Joyce Wilkerson asked her whether she went to Global Leadership Academy, and Esparra said yes. Looking back at Esquilin, she corrected herself, saying that she went to Stetson. Wilkerson asked Esparra what she would like to see the school board focus on next year.

“On our trips,” Esparra said, “and our bake sale — for the money.”

The Charter Schools Office has also recommended for closure Olney Charter High School, another Renaissance charter operated by ASPIRA. Olney student Christy Zakaria told the board that students who “are really bad and don’t behave” get sent to the ASPIRA Academy, a disciplinary placement run by Camelot Education on ASPIRA’s behalf. She worried what would happen if the students who have been isolated for bad behavior are released back into the rest of the student body.

“The norms keep everything in order,” Zakaria said. “If the school becomes public, the Academy kids will go back to classes, and there will be more fights and violence.”

The board has not yet scheduled a vote on Global Leadership Academy’s request to increase its enrollment cap and begin enrolling students in grades 9-12. The charter management company, Global Leadership Partners, took over Samuel B. Huey Elementary School, 5200 Pine St., in 2017. CEO Naomi Booker said that, at the time, the District “promised” her a new high school.

“The District asked me to take over Huey,” Booker said. “The charter office said I could apply in two years for a high school, and I did. Now I’m asking, and you won’t give me that promise of a new high school.

“We’re graduating our 8th grade in two weeks, and I don’t have an answer for my families. Please don’t stand in the way of my scholars’ lives.”

Students from Global Leadership Academy (GLA) lauded the international trips they’ve taken with their school.

Jihaad Pitts said the school “takes time, money, and resources to take us out of the state and even the country. … GLA has been and always will be going places.”

The trips are largely paid for by contributions from GLA families, and participating students are selected by the school.

Karlie Harlie enjoyed her trips to Washington, D.C., and Atlanta and “can’t wait” to go to Canada and Jamaica.

“I will personally enjoy going to a high school where I can be loved and cared about,” Harlie said. “I think GLA receiving this high school will be the greatest thing to happen to the city of Philadelphia. … Why do I need to go to a new high school when I can go to GLA and feel right at home?”