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Racial allegations thrown over provision given to one Philadelphia Black-led charter high school

Universal Audenreid’s renewal comes with stiff stipulations in ‘surrender clause’

City Councilman Isiah Thomas
City Councilman Isiah Thomas says the surrender clause for Universal Audenreid High School is “another example of an added level of scrutiny for Philadelphia’s Black institutions.”
City Council / Isiah Thomas

More than a month ago, the African American Charter Schools Coalition accused the School District of Philadelphia of discriminating against Black-led charter schools by targeting them for closure at a disproportionate rate.

Now the coalition is pointing to the treatment of one charter high school as the latest in what they say is a pattern of discrimination by the district’s Charter Schools Office.

District officials renewed all charter schools this year, but attached a “surrender clause” to the renewal for Universal Audenried Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School, a predominantly Black school in South Philadelphia. The provision gives a charter school the opportunity to improve rather than face non-renewal for being out of compliance with their charter agreement, officials said. But the school typically has to agree to close, without going through the state’s appeals process, if it doesn’t improve.

In a statement to Chalkbeat, the Charter Schools Office said the provision creates a “path forward for the charter school.”

But the coalition, and other charter supporters, say the “surrender clause” would allow the district to close Universal Audenried without appeal — and they questioned why it was the only school to receive such a provision this year.

“When a surrender clause is a condition of renewal, the school district violates the law and subjects the charter school to its findings without the due process of appeal,” said Penny Nixon, superintendent and CEO of Universal Schools. “The Board of Directors of Universal Schools will not agree to a charter renewal agreement containing a surrender clause for Universal Audenried or any of the Universal Family of Schools.”

Nixon said Universal Schools plans to seek legal counsel on the provision.

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the national charter advocacy organization Center for Education Reform, said the clause is a “poison pill in the renewal process, which in effect gives districts the upper hand to close a charter regardless of its quality, facts or demand.”

But the Charter Schools Office said Universal Audenried already had such a provision in its current charter, which was for a period of five years ending this month. Officials said they decided to extend it because the school was out of compliance in several areas, including its expulsions process, background checks for employees and some financial practices. Both sides must agree to the “surrender clause.”

Out of the thirteen charter schools listed in this year’s cohort of schools renewed by the district, there are six Black-led charters: Global Leadership Academy at Huey; Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School; Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School; Universal Charter School at Audenried; Universal Charter School at Vare; and West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School.

Three of the 13 schools’ current charters had a “surrender clause,” including Universal Audenried. District officials, through their review process, decided that two of the three met the conditions for renewal with conditions but without the surrender provision. Universal Audenried didn’t, they determined. (The Charter Schools Office didn’t name the other two schools.)

Board President Joyce Wilkerson defended the Charter Schools Office’s determination and said the surrender provision gives Universal Audenried “another chance.”

“Universal Audenried’s renewal report clearly outlines the many ways it is out of compliance with its charter and the law,” she said. “Most importantly, these include the expulsion of over 30 students, many of whom were not provided with basic due process rights. This is particularly concerning as Universal Audenried is a Renaissance charter school that should be aligning with district policies that promote restorative justice and restorative practices for students.

Additionally, the charter school’s own independent audit found material weaknesses in the charter school’s financial practices in multiple years. The Charter Schools Office’s recommendation is a path forward for the charter school and would allow Universal Audenried another chance to fix these significant problems.”

The African American Charter Schools Coalition called for an overhaul of the district’s charter office more than a month ago, demanding fairness, transparency, and equity when it comes to evaluation, oversight and expansion of charter schools.

The group’s call to action came after the majority of the school board voted to follow the recommendation of a hearing officer to not renew Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff schools in West Philadelphia. Only board members Lisa Salley and Cecelia Thompson voted against the non-renewals.

Board members later agreed to look into claims of systemic bias made by the coalition. Some city council members also have called for a review.

City Councilman Isiah Thomas, who agreed with calls for an investigation, said the surrender clause is “another example of an added level of scrutiny for Philadelphia’s Black institutions.”

“It is unacceptable that the only district school to receive renewal with a surrender clause is a Black-led school,” Thomas said in a statement to the district. “We cannot use terms like ‘racial equity lens’ and ‘anti-racism curriculum’ while putting discriminatory clauses on schools that are created by and for the Black community.”

Audenreid’s Principal Joshua Anderson told Chalkbeat the provision was a surprise.

“I’ve been at Audenreid since 2011. I was a history teacher there and I’ve sort of seen the transformation and the improvements that have happened over the past 10 years. Based on the school performance report that the district publishes every year Audenreid is often the highest performing neighborhood school in the city.”

Kenny Gamble, music mogul and founder of Universal Schools, said Universal has done an excellent job of providing a high-quality education to students. He said they will “vigorously fight against any injustice that seeks to violate the rights of an appeal or, more importantly, educate our children.”

David Hardy, who is a member of the coalition and founder of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, called the provision “an attack on charter schools which are serving the least advantaged students and which parents have depended on as long as the District schools have failed them.”

It was announced on Thursday that the head of the Charter Schools Office, Christina Grant is leaving Philadelphia to become the state superintendent in Washington D.C. Peng Chao will lead the office in an interim position. Grant declined to comment on her departure.

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