The Board of Education will hold a special hearing to vote on five new charter applications, including this one, on Thursday March 4 (time TBA). Students, educators, parents and community members need to tell the Board that the District does not need, nor can it afford any new charters. Sign up to testify in person before 3 PM on Wednesday, March 3 at https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/speaker-request-form/ Or send written testimony to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Lynda Rubin and Lisa Haver
After almost ten years of Aspira’s substandard academic performance and questionable financial practices, the Board of Education finally revoked both of Aspira’s Renaissance charters, Olney High and Stetson Middle schools. Aspira has prolonged the expensive legal process–paid for entirely by the District–by appealing to the state Charter Appeal Board. The District Charter Schools Office (CSO), in an understatement, concludes in its evaluation: “The organization and its affiliated schools do not have a track record of success in academics, organizational compliance, or financial management that lend themselves to further growth.”
Aspira Inc. has been building a portfolio of charter schools for many years. Aspira has demonstrated its primary interest in what an increasing number of charter schools can do for Aspira, Inc.’s finances and public relations image and its secondary interest in educating Philadelphia’s children. Aspira, Inc. points to Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson as examples of the “success” of Aspira’s charter school. This foreshadows the deceptive statements made throughout its application. In 2018, PA Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a financial investigation report about the five Philadelphia Aspira, Inc. charter schools, characterizing Aspira’s financial practices as “the fox guarding the hen house”. In addition, both the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Preparatory Charter School application and the Aspira Bilingual Tech applications read like generic charter school applications.
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 from South Philadelphia to West Philadelphia and Northwest Philadelphia. Neither school’s application Narrative mentions that the Board had voted to revoke the charters of Olney High and Stetson Middle for failure to meet academic, financial and organizational standards. APPS members listened in disbelief as Aspira representatives, at the December 22, 2020 hearing, pointed to Olney and Stetson as proof of Aspira’s success–as if there were no public record. Aspira also cites 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.
After having revoked the two Aspira Renaissance charters for failure to meet standards in all categories–Academic, Organization, and Financial–the Board has no choice but to deny these two Aspira applications.
Eugenio Maria de Hostos Preparatory Charter School
- Proposed location: 4222 N. 5th Street , 19120 (building houses Aspira, Inc. headquarters)
- Target Neighborhoods: Kensington, Olney, Hunting Park, Tioga, but lists extensive zip codes throughout the city
- Management Company: Aspira, Inc.
- Real Estate Manager: ACE/Dougherty
- Projected Enrollment at scale: 1035 students in grades K-8
- To open: 2021/22 SY, with projected enrollment of 630 students in grades K-5
- Estimated cost to District: $72, 277, 926
- Estimated stranded costs: $22,440,600
- Founding Coalition: A Calderone, Ana Benitez, Daisy Rosa, Walter Yakabovsky
- Proposed Board Members: Rachel Duprey, Kevin C. Glover, Joanna Otero-Cruz, Angela Martinez
de Hostos will target students who are first-generation English learners, in Special Education, and those who are not “on track” from low performing district schools. Actually, Aspira’s history shows that it has failed to provide a superior or even adequate education to students with special academic and behavioral needs. Aspira has a signed lease with building owner ACE/Dougherty, which acts as the real estate arm of Aspira, Inc. Aspira, Inc. and Ace/Daugherty operate within the circular real estate relationship that many charter schools do, the ACE/Dougherty buying, renting and repurposing many of Aspira, Inc’s buildings. The CSO Report notes that “Applicant states intent to relocate to another, unidentified facility during Year 1 of operations, furthering questions around the budget’s viability.” It is disturbing that such a relocation of students new to the school is planned almost immediately, since such uprooting is difficult on the students who rely on predictability and stability to be able to concentrate on learning. The CSO Report further questions whether Aspira will have continued preference for the school’s stated targeted families once in a new neighborhood.
While the application cites target areas Kensington (19134), Olney (19120), and Hunting Park/Tioga (19140), it also lists 15 other zip codes throughout the city, including South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia, lower Northeast, and North Philadelphia. This signals their intention to have a city-wide school with disparate enrollment, not a community-based school. Aspira Inc. will operate as de Hostos’s Management Company. Proposed Controller Xinyan Yi, previously Controller at KIPP, will head the Management Company.
Founding Coalition Members (also Founding Coalition for other Aspira schools) include:
- Walter V. Yakabosky is the Training Director for (ECA) Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia.
- Daisy D. Rosa is Vice President at Congresso VP Family/Housing Services. She was previously Quality Assurance Director at Associacion Puertoriquorriquenos En Marcha, listed as a Partner Organization on the application, raising the question of a potential financial conflict about whether they would be paid for services (See Partner Organizations below)
- Ana A. Benitez is Vice-Chair of Aspira, Inc. Board.
- Alfredo Calderón, CEO of Aspira Inc. Calderon was specifically cited throughout Auditor General de Pasquale’s investigation into the finances of Aspira, Inc. and its charter schools.
Proposed Board Members include: Rachel L. Duprey has been as Manager of various dental offices. Kevin C. Glover has worked as a Mortgage Underwriter in various banks over years. He worked for Aspira of PA Schools, Inc. as a personal finance teacher from 2017 until this past December. Joanna Otero-Cruz has worked at City of Philadelphia Deputy Managing Director for Community Service, and is Director of Concilio, a Partner Organization, another potential financial conflict of interest. Angelica Martinez is Coordinator at the Center for Student Success at Cabrini University.
Several members of the Proposed Board of Directors presently have key positions in the Aspira organization. As stated above, Aspira Vice-Chair Ana Benitez is part of the Founding Coalition. Thomas Darden, Aspira COO, is on the Aspira Management team. Mr. Darden was trained at the Broad Academy, created by billionaire Eli Broad, whose mission is to privatize public education by creating and expanding charter schools. Darden worked at the School District of Philadelphia overseeing charter schools before moving onto a senior position at Aspira, Inc. Xinlan Yi, will be the Controller of the Management Company overseeing de Hostos. Xinlan Yi previously worked as Controller at KIPP Charter Schools.
Partner Organizations will have a significant role in de Hostos Preparatory charter, but questions abound concerning which services these would be and how they would be compensated. The Application Narrative states that “…these groups are to provide supplementary/extension services for both physical and mental health, cultural enrichment, academic enrichment”, and others. But Aspira states later that “de Hostos Prep will not rely on external vendors for any primary academic, health, or other services for the operation of the school.” Since Partner Organizations are not external vendors but are listed as providing services, the question arises as to how the partner organizations will be paid or reimbursed for their services. Hearing Officer Kenneth Roos, at the District’s December 22, 2020 New Charter Hearing, asked this very question. In 2017, Aspira, Inc lawyer Ken Trujillo testified to the SRC that Aspira had engaged in “cross-collateralization” as one of its financial practices, another way of saying “misuse of taxpayer funds”. The Partner Organizations listed are: Concilio Hispanic Community Counseling Services, Taller Puertorriqueño, Office of the State Representative of the 180th District [Angel Cruz]; Pan American Behavioral Health Services, Inc., In the Light Ministries, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM).
The application’s Academic deficiencies paint a picture of a data-driven program with packaged curricula, with nothing to indicate how they intend to provide innovation in either coursework or services. Aspira fails to explain how the school would assist students learning English. The CSO evaluation states, “The submitted curriculum failed to demonstrate that the proposed Charter School would teach all required Pennsylvania Core and Academic Standards. Further, the Applicant did not demonstrate elements of a dual-language model across multiple subjects, as described in the Application.”
The CSO reports that the Organizational model “…proposes a staffing model that is flawed in design and details of implementation.” The CSO notes that stated actual employees of de Hostos Prep School “…are limited to Principal, Assistant Principal(s), Lead Administrative Assistant, Classroom Teachers, Counselors and Teaching Aides. The remaining roles, including all school climate and culture staff and coordinators for special education, psychologists, Intervention Coordinators, etc. would be employees of the Aspira Management Organization. As such, the school principal would have no supervisory relationship over these staff members.”
This Management Agreement clause ties the hands of the principal supervising staff. Glenda Marrero, current Assistant Principal at John B. Stetson Charter School, is the proposed principal of de Hostos Prep.m Again, although the Narrative touts her success, Stetson’s failure hardly supports that claim.
The CSO Report notes that both the proposed academic curricula and staffing model do not support even the minimum requirements for meeting PA academic standards. Aspira’s Narrative regarding its Master Agreement seems to be rationalizing before the school even opens why it may not be successful: “… as a non-profit organization, ASPIRA would not be able to continue to perform all the Services… if there is a material and continuing reduction in or interruption of School Funding … or if there are certain outside factors (e.g., the relative proportion of special-needs students) that make providing the Services materially more expensive and burdensome for ASPIRA. The school understands and agrees that ASPIRA may reduce the type or level of certain Services provided hereunder in order to be able to continue to perform any of the Services under this Agreement, which such Service adjustments shall not constitute a breach of this Agreement or give rise to liability on the part of ASPIRA on account thereof.” This caveat itself is evidence that Aspira, Inc.’s primary concern appears to be financial rather than academic.
The CSO Report writes about de Hostos finances that “the Applicant failed to submit a cohesive, balanced budget as a result of inconsistencies across the Application materials. This includes 1) identifying multiple regular and special education per-pupil rates, with the former exceeding a $2,500 difference and the latter a $4,000 difference, 2) assuming special education rates that range between 20 percent and 27 percent, and 3) assuming salary increases that differ between 1.5 percent annually and 2 percent every other year. These Inconsistencies do not allow for a confirmation of the budget’s viability.” De Hostos Preparatory will pay 10.5% of aggregate annual SDP per-pupil funding per month. The CSO report states, “The Applicant failed to submit a cohesive, balanced budget as a result of inconsistencies across the Application materials.”
The Charter Schools Office concludes: “The Applicant would be managed by ASPIRA, an organization that is affiliated with two charter schools that have been non-renewed by the Board of Education of the School District of Philadelphia. The organization and its affiliated schools do not have a track record of success in academics, organizational compliance, and financial management that lend themselves to further growth.”
Aspira, Inc.’s failure to meet academic, organization and financial standards requires that the Board of Education deny the de Hostos charter application.
ASPIRA Bilingual Business, Finance, and Technology Charter High School
- Proposed location: 6301 N. 2nd Street, 3rd floor, 19120
- Neighborhood: Olney
- Management Company: Aspira, Inc.
- Real Estate Manager: ACE/Dougherty
- Projected Enrollment at scale: 1200 students
- To open: 2021/22 SY
- Estimated cost to District: $82,226, 712.
- Stranded costs over 5 years: $19,688,700.
- Founding Coalition: A Calderone, Ana Benitez, Daisy Rosa, Walter Yakabovsky
- Proposed Board Members: Marcus Allen, Andrew Banas, Daisy Rosa, S. Richard Harrigan, robert Stewart IV, Walter Yakabovsky, Kevin Glover
The Aspira Tech application is rife with misinformation and outright falsifications, beginning with the school’s name. The CSO evaluation notes that even the word “bi-lingual” is deceptive as there is not an immersive language program, only the expectation that many of the prospective students may speak more than one language. The CSO also reports that Aspira “falsely asserts” that the proposed Charter School would be “unique” in providing a CTE program to English language learners, noting that three schools in the target area—Mastbaum, Edison, and Lincoln—offer comprehensive CTE programs to ELL students.
Aspira’s dismal 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. Regarding Aspira Tech’s Academic program, the CSO states that the “submitted curriculum failed to demonstrate that the proposed Charter School would teach all required Pennsylvania Core and Academic Standards”. Aspira promises to have “Assessment and data-driven instruction is at the center of our instructional framework” using the My Learning Plan online platform for tracking of coaching sessions and teaching evaluations. The My Learning Plan platform tracks and measures teacher progress through the use of the walkthrough, informal, and formal evaluation modules.” This is 180 degrees from an innovative curriculum. The Applicant proposes no academic or non-academic goals, nor do they show how assessments are aligned to academic programs.
The CSO evaluation of Aspira Tech’s Organization points to a staffing model flawed “both in design and in details.” The application’s Master Service Level Agreement, as well as the attached organization chart, limits the direct employees of the Charter School to “the Principal, Assistant Principal(s), Lead Administrative Assistant, Classroom Teachers, Counselors, and Teacher Aides. The remaining roles, including all school climate and culture staff would not be employees of the school but of the management organization. For reasons not explained, however, the Principal would have no supervisory relationship over these staff members. The CSO raised this same issue with the de Hostos application.
Given Aspira’s history of mismanagement and misappropriation of taxpayer funds, the CSO’s evaluation of management control and fees in the Finances section must be noted. (Aspira representatives admitted in District hearings years ago that their management fees are among the highest in the city’s charter sector.) The proposed management agreement “provides ASPIRA with responsibility to oversee all aspects of the Charter School’s non-instructional operations, with a lack of detail on the actual fees”. The application refers to fees of “2 percent, 5 percent, and 10.5 percent”. No details are provided on personnel costs; the one document submitted shows “cost inconsistencies” for different roles in Aspira’s existing charter schools. The CSO concludes that The Applicant failed to submit a “cohesive, balanced budget as a result of inconsistencies across the Application materials”.
We concur with Temple Professor and charter expert Susan DeJarnatt: “ASPIRA makes millions of dollars in management fees for the existing schools and rents space to several of them. It proposes to house the BBFTCHS school as well, becoming its landlord as well as its management organization. This is a recipe for financial trouble and should not be allowed.”
Aspira Tech Board members have little or no experience in Education.
Marcus Allen lists his employment with Big Brothers/Sisters (but does not specify position), AchievAbility, VisionQuest; he has no Education background or training. Walter Yakabovsky works in marketing and sales; he has no degree in Education but taught business at Delaware County and Philadelphia community colleges. Robert Stewart IV has a background in business, management and computer technology; he has no degree or background in Education. S. Richard Harrigan is a civil engineer and entrepreneur; he has no degree or background in Education. Kevin Glover’s employment has been in banking and mortgage financing; he has no degree in Education but has taught personal finance at an unspecified Aspira charter school. Andrew Banas works in business; he has no degree or background in Education. Daisy Rosa’s career has been mostly in social services; she has no degree or background in Education.
Aspira Tech names only four Founding Coalition members.
Alfredo Calderone has managed the Aspira organization since 2000, overseeing Aspira’s unsuccessful foray into the charter market. Calderone was named as defendent in several sexual harassment suits brought by former Aspira administrators and staff, one settled for $350,000. Ana Benitez has worked as a building manager for several local organizations; she has no degree or experience in Education. Daisy Rosa and Walter Yakabovsky are also proposed Board members.
Other than a few letters from local politicians, one University of Pennsylvania professor, a local insurance agent, and an unsigned letter on letterhead from the Community College of Philadelphia Athletics, there is little documentation showing community support.
The Board of Education must deny the Aspira Tech application.