Sign up for Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s free twice-weekly newsletter to keep up with the city’s public school system.
A highly ranked Philadelphia charter school is in danger of losing its charter following allegations of discrimination within their admissions process.
The Philadelphia School District is recommending the city’s Board of Education begin the process to revoke Franklin Towne Charter High School’s charter, citing evidence that the school’s lottery admissions process was allegedly “influenced” by “nonrandom factors” for several years, according to a memo released Monday.
The school, in the Bridesburg neighborhood, is accused of systematically excluding students from certain city ZIP codes where Black families are in the majority.
According to the memo to the board authored by Peng Chao, the district Acting Chief of Charter Schools, the district charter school office “received initial outreach” from the chief academic officer at Franklin Towne in April alleging that the school “implemented discriminatory lottery practices.”
The district conducted an analysis that revealed, for the 2020-21 through the 2023-24 school years, the racial composition of the admitted students versus those who applied “raises questions about the selection process and suggests potential factors influencing the acceptance outcomes,” Chao wrote in the memo.
In an email statement on Monday, Franklin Towne CEO Brianna O’Donnell said her office “ordered an investigation through an impartial reputable outside agency” to look into the allegations when she took over the position in February. “That investigation is still under way,” the statement said.
In February, months before the discrimination allegations surfaced, Joseph Venditti, Franklin Towne’s CEO since 2004, resigned.
The allegations were first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer in May and Chao told reporters on Monday his office would provide evidence supporting the revocation recommendation at the school board meeting on Thursday.
“Our families, and our students need to have faith that the charter schools in our city are implementing fair and open enrollment processes,” Chao said Monday. “This is also about making sure that the adults who have the privilege of operating and governing this charter school directly are also held accountable for what has occurred over the course of time.”
Chao noted Franklin Towne “is not a new school,” as it opened in 2000, and therefore “the individuals in charge of the school…need to be held accountable.”
The school’s student demographics haven’t reflected those of the wider city in previous years. According to its 2014 application for a National Blue Ribbon Award, which the school won, Franklin Towne’s student demographics were 2% Asian, 8% Black/African American, 14% Hispanic, and 76% white in a city where the population was 42% Black and 36% white at the time.
According to the district’s charter school office website, a charter school operating in Philadelphia “must be accessible to all students within their district” and “must enroll and support all students, including those with special needs and limited English proficiency.”
The high school serves 1,300 students in grades nine through 12 and is currently operating under a charter agreement effective July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2024, according to the district memo.
In a statement on the Franklin Towne website, O’Donnell said the school’s leadership was “blindsided” by the district’s decision to initiate the charter revocation process.
“The data used to prepare our renewal application over the summer gave us no reason to believe the school is in any violation that would prohibit our charter from being renewed,” the statement read, cautioning that charter revocation processes “often take years to complete,” hinting at future action: “Especially if appeals are involved.”
The charter office’s investigation revealed a section of the school’s admission data, that included a yellow highlighted note labeled, “Do not take” with a list of 11 students as well as a note labeled, “Not in good standing” with another list of 11 students.
The investigation also highlighted five majority-Black city ZIP codes where, over the course of four school years, fewer than 10 students were accepted to Franklin Towne despite 88 students applying.
The charter school office does not regularly complete admissions analyses like this one, Chao said, but he did not rule out expanding this process to other charters operating in the city.
“We certainly hope that the outcomes here that we’ve seen in the analysis are unique to this scenario…in terms of whether or not this type of evaluation gets expanded into other scenarios, that’s something that we’re looking into,” Chao said.
If the board votes in favor of revoking the school’s charter on Thursday, their action would “kick off a hearing process,” Chao said.
Any hearing officer assigned would then work with the board to consider whether or not to actually revoke the school’s charter “at some point in the future.” After that, a potential appeals process could begin depending on the outcome, Chao said.
O’Donnell said in her email statement “given the voluminous work,” an investigation of this type requires, “we are puzzled as to how the Charter Schools Office could conclude in far less time than a reputable outside agency needs to complete its investigation.”
As to whether the current admission process took place under Venditti or continued after O’Donnell became CEO, Chao said, “it’s our understanding” that Venditti “was still in place for at least part of it,” but that there wasn’t “one set point in time at which there was a handoff” to O’Donnell.
“Acceptance processes and enrollment processes tend to span the course of multiple months from the winter through basically now and families are finalizing their schools for the new year,” Chao said.
Still, O’Donnell said in her statement on the school website, “regardless of how the [board] votes on Thursday, we will continue to educate students, enroll new students, and hire new staff.”
Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at firstname.lastname@example.org.