Applicants Pitch Five New Charter Schools: December 21, 2020

by Lynda Rubin 

As in any drama or comedy, the cast of characters hints at things to come.The 2020 presentation of new charter applications brought back the same privatizing cast, some with different names, who continue the weakening of Philadelphia public education for their own financial and political gain. This is the annual attempt to expand the companies’ existing charter companies with the funding and protection of non-profits. The organizations behind the new charters may be non-profit in tax terms, but they are backed by for-profit edu-investors whose goal is to take the public out of public education.

For years, Philadelphia has been a Ground Zero for carrying out the ideology of the wealthy proponents of school choice.  Charter companies made many promises but produced few actual gains. Charter operators, with the collaboration of the SRC and the Board, have eluded meaningful oversight for over two decades. 

APPS will testify again that the District does not need, and cannot afford, any new charters–especially in the face of the dire financial straits laid out by Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson. We cannot continue to divert public funds away from public schools and into the coffers of privately managed schools. We can afford neither the stranded costs nor the exorbitant charter CEO salaries.

This introductory hearing, with District General Counsel Lynn Rauch acting as Hearing Examiner, allowed fifteen minutes for each of the five applicants.  Charter School Office (CSO) Executive Director Peng Chao, CSO Director Roger Kligerman, CSO Assistant Director Biridiana Rodriguez, and CSO Applications Project Manager Cameron Voss attended and were called on to testify. None of the Board members attended.  Rauch stated that the law dictates that a final vote would have to be made by March 7, 2021. That means the Board will probably take its vote at the February Action Meeting.

The set rules for public speakers had been changed without explanation before the hearing.  While charter applicants had 15 minutes to speak, members of the public saw their usual three minutes cut to two. More than four speakers per topic were allowed. In addition, Rauch told speakers that they had to state their home addresses before testifying. APPS members refused. Lisa Haver told Rauch that requiring  people to give personal information as a condition of speaking was a “barrier to public expression”. Haver asked the reason for this new rule; Rauch responded that it was “a public meeting”. Nowhere on the District website does it say only Philadelphia residents have the right to speak at District meetings (if that were true, at least one of Hite’s cabinet would never be heard from). APPS co-founder,  Karel Kilimnik, before her testimony, also stated that all speakers had submitted their address information when they signed up to speak on-line before receiving confirmation from the District. Kiliminik told Rauch that the Board had never before required divulging such private information in public. She and Diane Payne then refused to give any information other than their zip codes. Rauch threatened to have their testimony stricken from the record if they did not comply. During Payne’s testimony, Rauch was seen taking a phone call, after which she announced that speakers could testify if they gave their zip codes and attested to living in the city. When we defend our right to be heard, we win. 

Eighteen members of the public spoke, including two people whose names appear as founders and/or board members for the new charter applicants. Rauch had no objection to this.  District staff provided the technology for applicants’ power-points and were available to fix any glitches. 

Aspira, Inc. is again attempting to clone two of its existing charters with its applications for Aspira Bilingual, Business and Technology Charter High School, 6301 N. 2nd Street in Olney, opening with 9-10 / 600 students and expanding to 9-12 / 1200 students; and Eugenio Maria de Hostas Preparatory Charter School, 4322 N. 5th Street in Feltonville, opening with K-5 / 690 students expanding to K-8 / 1035 students.  Aspira Tech states that its target market is 19120, 19134, 19140. De Hostos targets 19134, 19140. However, both Narratives indicate that they have “parent interest” from 16 other zip codes all over the city from South Philadelphia to West Philadelphia and Northwest Phila. Neither school’s application Narrative mentioned  that the Board had voted to revoke the charters of Olney High and Stetson Middle, both Aspira Renaissance charters, for failure to meet academic, financial and organizational standards. APPS members listened in disbelief as Aspira representatives pointed to Olney and Stetson as proof of Aspira’s success–as if there were no public record. Aspira also cited Eugenio Maria de Hostos School as a model despite the fact that de Hostos’s 2018 renewal included a  long list of conditions, in part because of the school’s “Does Not Meet” rating in Financial Compliance.  Aspira, Inc. has been the subject of investigations by both the Philadelphia City Controller’s office and State Attorney General Eugene de Pasquale in 2018. In a 2017 SRC hearing, Aspira legal counsel admitted to misappropriation of public funds, which it characterized as “cross-collateralization”.  Aspira’s record aside, their applications read as barely updated versions of the ones they submitted two years ago: not innovative or creative, but data-driven and test-oriented. 

Empowerment Charter School (K-5) with citywide admission at 5210 Broad Street in Logan, the former Holy Child Catholic school and the former site of the now relocated Christo Rey, a Catholic mission school. Empowerment Charter School representatives referred to the school as  “Shirley Chisholm Empowerment Charter School”, but as the CSO representatives pointed out, the name of civil-rights activist and Congressperson Shirley Chisholm is not in the official school name. The applicants are affiliated with Jounce Partners.  Jounce’s website boasts of the work of Courtney Taylor, Empowerment proposed School Leader and Jounce School Launch Partner, to “build a school that will incorporate the full Jounce model”. Jounce, incorporated in 2014,  promotes a scripted teacher repetition model that one Philadelphia teacher described as “dehumanizing”.  Jounce advances a method in which school principals spend 80% of their time coaching teachers in Jounce methods. Although most charter organizations have discontinued the “No-Excuses” program, Jounce and its affiliated charters are ramping up this punitive model. The SRC approved the Jounce-affiliated Deep Roots charter and has imposed the Jounce teacher-training methods in District schools.  It cannot be emphasized enough that the Jounce program is based on extreme restrictive, repetitive, and a non-child centered  program that may work for business management, but not for the social, emotional and creative lessons that so interest children to succeed.

Philadelphia Collegiate Charter for Boys, 7500 Germantown Avenue, Mount Airy.  For some reason, their plan is to open with grades K,1 and 4 with intent to expand to a K-12 elementary/middle/high school.   Lawyer and business entrepreneur Jack Johnson Pannell, founder and CEO of Baltimore Collegiate for Boys, as well as founder of several other non-profits, seeks to expand into the Philadelphia market. Before founding Baltimore Collegiate, Pannell led a charter school network for one year in that city. Collegiate’s application states that Pannell will both serve on the board and become Head of School. Pannell testified that he called his old college roommate, Mark Sellers, now living in Germantown, to join him in this effort. In the Collegiate Charter School official narrative, Sellers is listed as a retired commercial litigator in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania who currently serves on the boards of organizations in Northwest Philadelphia. He is also the treasurer of Germantown United Community Development Corporation (GUCDC) which has several city contracts for business corridor development, street cleaning, community organization and foreclosure prevention. In his testimony, Sellers gave a brief history of the Germantown area and what it has lost, invoking the memories of Germantown High and Fulton Middle schools.  Sellers is the Proposed Chair of Philadelphia Collegiate Charter School for Boys, Inc.  Malik Russell told of his own history leading turn-around schools.The application’s narrative noted that Russell served as principal in two New York City Success Academy charter schools following his training in the Success Academy Fellowship, Assistant Principal and Resident Leader. Success Academy has been the subject of several news stories on their harsh No-Excuses model, even with students in early grades. Previously Russell had been a corporate associate, specializing in finance and law, and worked as associate and vice-president at Goldman Sachs.  Russell used such poetic terms as “skyscrapers of education” and “floors of books, floors of math”.  Pannell appears to be building a multi-state chain of Collegiate Charters for Boys without having established any record of success, especially for a high school, in his original city. 

Pride Academy Charter, proposed K-5 at  2116 E. Haines Street in  West Oak Lane. Speaking on behalf of Pride Academy was Robin Eglin, founder of Omnivest Management Company, a charter school management, financial services and real estate development company founded in 2000, just as charters were establishing a foothold in public school systems. Dr. Latoya Johnson, the proposed School Leader, testified that the school model would be based on Project-Based Learning and Innovation. Robin Eglin’s presentation gave a mostly financial rationale for approving the school.