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School board overwhelmingly rejects two charter school proposals

Opponents said that a proposed health-sciences charter would undermine an existing District school with the same mission.

A supporter of the District’s Kensington Health Sciences Academy listens as the Board of Education hears about a charter application for a similar school.

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

The Board of Education denied two charter school applications on Thursday, citing poor-quality plans that would not offer city students anything new of value.

“Philadelphia school children deserve high-quality schools,” said board member Julia Danzy. “We must be diligent and provide our children options that provide high-quality outcomes.”

The two charter applications were denied without a single vote in favor. One, a K-8 performing arts school proposed for West Philadelphia called the Joan Myers Brown Academy, was denied by a unanimous 8-0 vote. The other, a career-oriented North Philadelphia school called the High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School (HS2L), was denied 6-0, with two abstentions.

The board has nine members; Maria McColgan was absent.

The board also approved a controversial new contract for Teach for America and agreed to support the staff at McClure Elementary, who spoke out against the plan to make up days lost to asbestos closures by working during their spring break.

“Blameless people should not be punished for the mistakes of people in power,” said McClure teacher Rachel Baschen.

Health sciences high school charter denied

HS2L was a proposed health-and-science school that would have been located near Temple University. Its application was developed with the support of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) and it drew controversy soon after being announced, based on the overlap between its mission and that of a nearby District-run school, Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA).

PSP staff visited KHSA over the summer, studying its techniques and promising staff that a new “partnership” could be in the offing. Instead, PSP later announced that it would be supporting a new charter school that would have replicated KHSA’s mission, triggering an angry response from KHSA’s principal and staff. They argued that PSP deceived them, milking their expertise in order to make plans of its own.

KHSA supporters rallied in opposition to the new school, maintaining that opening a new school with the same mission would undermine the Kensington school’s fragile advances and that the money spent on a charter would be better spent on strengthening neighborhood schools like KHSA.

The District’s charter office evaluation gave the HS2L proposal a harsh review, saying it “lacks the necessary level of detail to demonstrate its potential effectiveness in supporting its health sciences mission.” The evaluation gave HS2L poor marks for all sorts of academic and financial planning and found staff and board members alike short on necessary experience.

“Many of the policies proposed by [HS2L] are incomplete or inadequate,” the evaluation read.

On Thursday, HS2L supporters made their final case to the board, arguing that there is no need to limit the number of health- and science-focused schools because there are so many potential jobs in the field.

“When I think about my family and my community, we’re the ones who are going to be served,” said Kwan Johnson, a North Philadelphia resident who supported the school.

HS2L founder Tim Matheney, who spearheaded the application effort, appeared before the board to repeat the case that he and his supporters have made over the last several months, citing growing career opportunities in health care and the intense need for employment in North Philadelphia. He promised the board an “extensive array of academic and emotional supports,” including mentoring and professional internships, and said the school would offer “genuine hope for North Philadelphia families.”

Matheney argued that the school will maintain “a particular mission to serve communities of color,” such as North Philadelphia. “It’s reprehensible that fewer African American males enrolled for medical school in 2019 than in the 1970s,” he told the board. He cited the letters of support from some of the city’s major university health-care systems, including Penn, Temple, and Drexel.

However, none of that was enough to sell the board members on the idea. Joyce Wilkerson and Lee Huang abstained, citing conflicts, and the remaining six in attendance all voted to reject the proposal.

“I must vote no – the application itself sounds like a science experiment,” said board member Mallory Fix Lopez. KHSA “is no science experiment,” she said, but a successful school.

“We must ensure that what we do truly affords our youth a solid opportunity,” said Danzy. “Unfortunately, I feel this application falls short.”

Board member Chris McGinley took a moment before his “no” vote to admonish the universities that supported the HS2L application.

Several universities provided letters that expressed general support for the school’s mission – including Temple, Drexel, Jefferson, the Community College of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine – and the HS2L application promised they would play a major role, without detailing any concrete commitments or plans. The lack of such practical detail was one of the application’s great weaknesses, board members said, and McGinley said universities should be more careful in the future about backing such ventures.

“I would urge the leaders of our higher education institutions to act with greater discretion when they offer support,” McGinley said, and not rush to sign on to charter school projects that they “may not understand.” McGinley teaches in Temple’s College of Education.

String Theory project goes down for the third time

For the Joan Myers Brown Academy (JMBA), a school to be run by the String Theory management company, the third time was not the charm. The school, named after the founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company, has applied twice before and been rejected both times. The board cited incomplete applications and the relatively poor performance of other String Theory schools.

This time was no different, with board members citing String Theory’s middling academic record and claiming that the company has not shown that its techniques merit replication.

Board President Wilkerson cited String Theory’s performance when she explained her “no” vote. String Theory runs two schools in Philadelphia, one of which, the Philadelphia Charter School for Arts & Sciences at H.R. Edmunds, closely matches the profile of the proposed new school. String Theory’s track record at Edmunds is not good, said Wilkerson, and the new proposal offers no reason to think that results at JMBA would be any different.

“At Edmunds, the academic performance has declined over the last three years,” Wilkerson said. “If [Edmunds] were a District school, we’d be talking about what changes or interventions were needed. … This is clearly not a model that should be replicated.”

String Theory founder Jason Corosanite, speaking on behalf of the school’s “founding coalition,” chided Wilkerson for considering what he said was irrelevant information.

“We are very proud and excited about our schools that String Theory manages,” Corosanite said. “But the performance of these schools is immaterial under charter school law.” Corosanite has indicated in the past that String Theory would appeal the denial to the state’s Charter Appeal Board.

He also said that the company would be “open to revisions to the final agreement,” in order to address concerns about budget and academic plans.

Another supporter, Jameela Bent of the Wynnefield Heights Civic Association, said her community group had decided to support the proposed charter after its leaders met with the group and addressed concerns about traffic and enrollment.

Bent said the proposed school would have made an excellent option for her own son, who has a long commute to his current school, leaving at 7 a.m. and not getting home until dinnertime.

“With an opportunity like JMDA, he would have performing arts baked into his day, he would have a few minutes walk [to school], and he’d have time to study – and be a child,” said Bent.

However, the board was unconvinced and voted unanimously to reject the application.

TFA, teacher residencies, McClure’s spring break

In other news, the board approved a pair of contracts that they hope will help with teacher recruitment and gave a break to a school whose teachers were slated to lose their spring break due to the asbestos crisis.

The board approved a $325,000 contract with Teach for America to support recruitment of up to 20 corps members a year to work in hard-to-staff schools. The 30-year-old organization recruits mostly recent college graduates and places them in schools after just a summer of training. Supporters and opponents of the controversial contract squared off in testimony.

TFA veterans praised the group, among them Persia Ali, a teacher at Overbrook High who credited the organization for helping her make a midlife career change.

“I had no idea how to get into teaching,” she said, and now she’s part of a community she loves, with vibrant students who depend on her and the other TFA alumni at Overbrook. “We act as their moms, their counselors, their social workers,” she said. “They need us.”

Opponents, like Lynda Rubin of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a watchdog group, said the District had relied on TFA for far too long and needed to focus on recruiting fully qualified professionals.

“We’ve been told it’s a temporary stopgap measure – but it never stops,” Rubin said. “You know what would keep teachers in this system? Being valued and respected on a daily basis, not on a treadmill.”

McGinley praised the work of TFA veterans like Ali, but opposed the contract.

“While I respect your work, I do not respect the organization,” McGinley said, citing its ties to deep-pocket donors who seek to “undermine” and “privatize” public education.

TFA doesn’t offer fully prepared teachers that Philadelphia students deserve, McGinley said, and its record of minority teacher recruitment isn’t good enough to justify the expense.

“Five weeks of a summer workshop is inadequate,” said McGinley. “We need teachers who are ready to deliver on the first day.”

But in the end, the board voted 5-3 to approve the deal. “We need to not turn away from any source that can help us – particularly [with] teachers of color,” said Danzy.

The board also approved spending $638,000 for teacher residency programs at Penn, Temple, Drexel and the Relay Graduate School of Education. Relay was founded by charter school leaders and is controversial among traditional public school advocates.

Without comment, the board also approved a resolution authorizing a settlement agreement for $850,000 with a teacher who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related condition. The teacher, who spent part of her career in two schools known to have had problems with potentially dangerous loose asbestos, has filed a notice of intent to sue the District.

Finally, the board agreed to give teachers at McClure Elementary a spring break, after it appeared that it would be lost. McClure, in Hunting Park, is one of 10 schools that was temporarily closed this year due to asbestos contamination. It lost 15 instructional days, and the District planned to make that up by asking teachers to work over spring break, which is April 6-9.

A parade of unhappy teachers testified that losing their break was an unnecessary hardship.

“This is unfair and unjust,” said teacher Monica Ricci, “Yes, students deserve instructional time. But it should be the District’s responsibility to solve for instructional time. … Because of their neglect and lack of funding, we have to suffer?”

Board members agreed, voting 5-3 to reject the proposed spring break plan. District officials will now find another way to make up the students’ legally mandated instructional time.

“It just seems to me that this is hardship caused by the District,” said board Vice President Wayne Walker. “I hate to deprive them of the opportunity for a break.”

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