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Philly’s Black charter school leaders vow to push back after board votes

Student, educators and families of Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School stand in protest.

Student, educators and families of Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School stand in protest during Thursday’s Board of Education Meeting. The board voted to close two Black-operated charters, including Southwest Leadership Academy.

Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat Philadelphia is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reword material that appeared verbatim in a Philadelphia school district press release.

The movement to preserve Black-operated charter schools won’t be deterred by the Philadelphia Board of Education’s votes last week to begin the process of closing two such charters, say members of a coalition who believe certain schools face racial bias in how they’re regulated.

The school board unanimously voted June 23 not to renew the charters of Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School and Laboratory Charter School, which both have Black leadership. Those votes followed the recommendation of the district’s Charter School Office. 

The board also voted to proceed with requiring Memphis Street Academy at J.P. Jones, which is managed by American Paradigm Schools, to surrender its charter. Though Memphis Street is not considered a Black-operated charter, 96% of its students identify as Black, Hispanic, or multi-racial.

Officials said poor academic performance and other oversight issues drove their decisions, and board member Reginald Streater called charges that racial bias influenced the votes “factually false.” However, supporters of Black-led charter schools—including state and local politicians who led a protest outside district headquarters before the votes—say they’re not done fighting what they called the board’s unfair approach. The dispute comes amid an investigation into the city’s charter authorizing practices. 

“We’re going to continue to stand up against any type of systemic bias, whether it affects charter schools, Black-operated district schools, private schools, bodegas, or car dealerships,” said Larry Jones, the CEO of the Richard Allen Charter School who also a member of the African American Charter Schools Coalition. 

Southwest and Laboratory will remain open for now and in the fall. Charter schools can appeal to the State Charter Appeal Board if local boards vote to repeal their charters, and they can remain open during the appeals process. However, that process can take many months, or up to a year in some cases. 

Leigh Purnell, the CEO and principal of Southwest Leadership, said the school plans to appeal the board’s vote. Purnell said the city’s charter schools office failed to work with Southwest Leadership to develop an improvement plan.

“I do not believe the school board received a well-rounded picture, a holistic picture, of our school,” Purnell said.

Ashley Redfearn, CEO of American Paradigm Schools, which operates Memphis Street, said in a statement that the school is currently open for summer programming and plans to be open for the 2022-2023 school year. Redfearn said her organization plans “to pursue every legal channel to continue to provide quality, well-rounded education and support” for the school’s students and community.

Closing Black-operated charters a thorny issue

The votes against the three schools come six months after the board authorized the law firm of Ballard Spahr to probe whether racial bias is a factor in the charter school authorizing process. These allegations came from the charter schools coalition, which represents 22 schools and has called for an overhaul of the district’s charter office, as well as new ways for the district to evaluate the schools. 

Ballard Spahr is expected to release the results of its independent investigation this fall. 

In a report to the board about schools whose charters are up for renewal this year, acting chief of the Charter School Office Pen Chao said Southwest Leadership failed to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management and audit requirements related to short-term and long-term financial sustainability. For instance, the school was unable to provide documentation for 14 of 40 identified financial transactions, a 43% error rate, Chao noted.

Meanwhile, Laboratory Charter did not have a fully compliant enrollment process. It also failed to timely identify students as English learners; and failed to maintain and obtain FBI background and Pennsylvania criminal background checks for employees.

And Memphis Street Academy failed to meet the required academic standards set out in its charter. Chao said the school had previously agreed that if it did not meet any of those academic standards, it would voluntarily forfeit its charter.

Students, parents, and teachers spoke on behalf of the schools before the board votes.

Steven Bilksi, assistant principal and ESL coordinator at Memphis Street said that families served by his school have benefited from the “transformative initiatives” his school has put in place, in accordance with its charter. 

“These initiatives have allowed us to provide all of our scholars and families with the necessary work to succeed academically, socially and emotionally,” Bilksi said.

And Jae Strothers, who works at Laboratory Charter, said that she loves “the work that we do at Laboratory, as well as the children’s parents.”

Local and state politicians, including members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, addressed the board in support of the three schools before the votes. In addition, state Sen. Anthony Williams and City Councilman Isaiah Thomas denounced the anticipated votes during a protest outside district headquarters.

“If they decide to ignore the state legislators who fund the school district, and to ignore the city council members who fund the school district, and still move in the way that they want to, it’s time for us to wage war,” Thomas said.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org.

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