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Amid concerns about dangerous building conditions, school board approves charter renewals

Several of the approved charters had gone without agreements for years.

The crowd at the Sept. 19 Board of Education meeting applauds as oncologist and Meredith parent Josh Meyer walks away from the speakers’ table. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)

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

At a meeting Thursday where parents and staff shared their worries about toxic buildings, the Board of Education unanimously approved a cluster of long-delayed charter renewals for Mastery Charter Schools, with no indication of what caused the delays or whether any specific issues had been resolved.

The board unanimously approved seven Mastery schools for renewal, including four that had been operating under expired agreements for several years, apparently ensnared in debate about the details of their renewal agreements.

Exactly what those issues were or whether they were met, revised or dismissed, the board and District officials did not say. Board members asked no questions during the renewal votes, and District staff offered no details.

“What changed? We don’t know, and you’re not telling us,” said Lynda Rubin of the advocacy group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) during public testimony before the board’s vote.

Mastery spokesperson Rae Oglesby acknowledged that Mastery had been unhappy with the terms of the proposed renewals and said that it is now satisfied.

“We delayed signing because we wanted an agreement that was clear and consistent with the law,” said Oglesby. “There were several concerns that we and dozens of other charters had, ranging from transportation to evaluation frequency.”

The new agreements are “clear and consistent with the law,” she said, adding that Mastery is “delighted to have signed charter agreements for the seven schools.”

Oglesby said it was incorrect to say that the District had ever tried to impose “conditions” on the delayed schools.

“We don’t have records of any specific conditions that we needed to meet,” said Oglesby.

Told later of this statement, Superintendent William Hite paused and then replied: “Maybe they were saying they were never going to accept any conditions.”

Lisa Haver, also of APPS, called the sudden surge of Mastery renewals the latest example of an opaque charter renewal process. “Were [proposed conditions] ever written down? Or discussed with Mastery? Who knows?” she wrote in a text message. “All discussions and negotiations [about renewals] are secret.”

Haver said that the Board of Education should explain what happened and how the newly renewed charters are going to improve.

“Those schools had serious deficiencies that needed to be addressed,” she said.

The four long-delayed schools include Clymer Elementary (K-6) and Gratz High School, initially due for renewal in 2016, and Cleveland Elementary (K-8) and Pickett Campus (6-12), due the following year. All four are struggling academically. District assessments – including the School Progress Reports and the Annual Charter Evaluation – put all four in the lowest category for academics (“intervene”). But the four performed comparably to a group of demographically similar District schools, and Gratz outperforms the District average in English, which is a higher benchmark.

District assessments also show slight decreases in the quality of school climate at three of the four, except for Gratz.

Mastery’s three other renewals, Pastorius, Hardy Williams (K-12), and Shoemaker (7-12), matched or outperformed similar District schools in math and English.

All but Hardy Williams are former District schools that were turned over to Mastery as part of a turnaround effort.

Asked whether he was confident that these renewed Mastery schools would offer their students a quality education, Hite offered a cautionary note instead.

“I’m confident that they’re going to have to get it together or face more scrutiny,” Hite said. “I’m confident in the system we have of accountability and of checks and balances. … My position has always been that I’m willing to cooperate with anyone. I care if it’s high-quality or not.”

Earlier this week, the Charter Appeal Board sided with operators who wanted to open a Franklin Towne Charter Middle School, which had protested the District’s effort to impose conditions on the new school, including limiting its enrollment and requiring it to accept students from certain zip codes. It is still unclear what impact that will have on future charter approvals and renewals, and whether it will cut into the school board’s authority to regulate charters and their growth. District officials said no decision had been made yet about whether to appeal.

Task force formed

In other board news, a steady stream of parents, students, and staff implored the board to take steps to clean up toxins in schools, an issue that surged into the headlines after a Meredith Elementary teacher’s diagnosis with asbestos-related cancer.

Among the speakers was Josh Meyer, a Meredith parent and radiation oncologist, who called on the District to clean up an “unacceptable” situation that can have deadly results. “The risk can feel somewhat abstract, especially when your kids come home and look fine … but when I meet people who are coughing up blood, it’s 100 percent real.”

He was followed by Meredith teacher Jessica Tilli, who called on board members to spend “a full day” in a contaminated classroom, and “after that day, ask if you’d feel comfortable sending your child or grandchild to that same classroom.”

“Every school deserves the same level of attention and urgency that Meredith is receiving right now,” Tilli said.

After the teacher’s diagnosis, and several meetings between the District and the Healthy Schools Coalition – made up of the teachers’ and principals’ unions and parents – the District conducted accelerated asbestos remediation and removal at Meredith. It closed the gym for three days to deal with pipes that are insulated with the material, which is dangerous when it releases particles into the air.

Hite promised to step up the District’s response. An asbestos-related task force has been formed and met for the first time this week, he said. The hope is that it replicates the success of a similar task force formed around lead issues after the publication of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Toxic City” series.

The District’s spending on school cleanup has been significantly increased in the last year, but officials say the task requires millions of dollars that it doesn’t have. While agreeing more money is needed, activists pressing the District say that the maintenance and renovation of its vast inventory of buildings – average age, 80 years – could be far more efficient and better organized. A coalition including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and state and city officials is demanding $100 million immediately in additional funds from the state.

Hite told the gathered audience that he understands why parents and staff want answers.

“I understand the seriousness and urgency of having accurate information,” he said. “There’s nothing we take more seriously than the health of our students and staff.”

Later, Hite said he was confident that the newest task force can help his team prioritize spending. He supports the PFT’s call for $100 million to solve the problem, but even if that much cash doesn’t show up all at once, he’s hoping the newfound attention to the problem will soon translate into more resources.

“It’s a huge problem. It’s everywhere,” Hite said. “But with $10 million a year for the next three to five years, we can remediate all the asbestos.”

In other news from the meeting:

  • The Board’s new student representatives, Imere Williams and Doha Ibrahim, were sworn in, pledging their fealty to the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions and the Home Rule Charter and vowing to “discharge the duties of [the] office with fidelity.” Board Chair Joyce Wilkerson welcomed them with a friendly reminder: “You don’t get to sit in the back anymore.”
  • The board voted 5-3 to reject a $1.6 million contract for an online reading program called Newsela, amid concerns that it wouldn’t be used enough by teachers or students. District staff said that several teachers had “reached out” to request the program, but that the central office hadn’t done a lot of outreach to other teachers and principals to find out how much demand was out there. Said board member Julia Danzy: “I’m not voting no because I think it would get us more libraries or librarians, but because I’m not certain students will use it.”

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