Board Must Reject New Charter Applications

by Lisa Haver

Three weeks from now, at its February 25 Action Meeting, the Board will vote to accept or reject applications for five new charter schools. APPS members, who have analyzed the applications and attended both rounds of hearings, call on the Board to deny all five. 

The Board’s January Action Meeting  did not include a presentation from the Charter Schools Office on the applications. The Board has abolished its committees. Thus, community members will have only two minutes to speak on the issue just minutes before the Board votes in February. Public speakers were given only two minutes each to be heard at the first hearing; no public testimony was heard at the second. In contrast, charter applicants have hours of time to sell their applications, not including private communications with the District.  As in previous years, APPS had to file a formal Right to Know Request in order to see the attachments, which contains most of the budget, curriculum, and staffing information. 

APPS’ analyses reveal serious deficiencies in all facets of the applications, many echoed by Charter Schools Office staff during the hearings. None of the applicants makes a strong case for approval. In addition, the surprising lack of preparation and knowledge about their own applications displayed in more than one of the hearings did little to instill confidence in their ability to operate schools and educate the children of Philadelphia. 

The Board has raised the possibility of closing neighborhood schools and laying off teachers and support staff. The virus has devastated the local economy; tax revenues to the District will continue to decline.  The District does not need any new charter schools. The District cannot afford any more charter schools. 

We will release the APPS’ complete reports and analyses of the five applications before the Board votes. Below are summaries. Please let the Board know, in written testimony or in testimony at the Action Meeting, that they must vote to deny all of these applications.  

Philadelphia Collegiate Charter School for Boys

by Karel Kilimnik

Estimated Cost to District for first 5 year term: $41,329,781

As the Board and District leadership speak of possible school closures, furloughs, and layoffs,  it would be unconscionable to approve any application for a charter school that would further deprive our cash-strapped schools of resources they so desperately need.

The Five Smooth Stones non-profit organization has operated the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys for five years and is now seeking to expand its market into the Philadelphia School District. They propose to open the K-12  Philadelphia Collegiate Charter School for Boys at 7500 Germantown Avenue in West Mount Airy, 19119.  This single-sex school would recruit students primarily from the 19144 area of Germantown but would also draw from 19119, 19126, 19138, 19140, 19150 areas. This organization’s  track record in Baltimore shows low  academic achievement and high suspension rates, among other deficiencies. Neither the members of the PCCSB Founding Coalition nor those in the Proposed Board have strong ties to Philadelphia. The proposed Principal has a troubled background. He and many others connected to this school have spent years working with the NYC Success Academy charter school network, whose rigid data-driven instruction, coupled with harsh discipline practices, offer a troubling picture of what our schools should not be.  While their stated goal of  having students accepted by “top tiered colleges and universities in the country, with full academic scholarships” sounds laudable,  there is no evidence of having achieved  this in their 4-8 grade Baltimore school. It is unclear why they have chosen to open an elementary through high school here instead of expanding their Baltimore School. But the Board should not bring in outside companies to practice on Philadelphia’s children.  The Board should reject this application. 

Pride Academy Charter School

By Diane Payne                                                                           

Estimated Cost to the District for first five years:   $23,045,511                                                       

Pride Academy applicants propose a K-5 school proposed at 2106 Haines Street in West Oak Lane, 19138.  Putting aside the harm to existing public school students, the merits of the application itself offer few reasons to approve. This application was submitted by lone founding member LaToya Johnson.  Johnson currently works as principal of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, which failed to meet standards in the most recent District evaluation.  The question of whether Johnson would be working simultaneously at two different schools, and her commitment to either, remains unanswered.  In contrast, Pride’s personnel policies stipulate that all employees must refrain from outside activities, including supplemental employment,  unless approved by the principal.  Shockingly intrusive demands at any school, but they highlight the hypocrisy of Pride’s founder and future school leader. 

With five existing schools in the 19138 area, there is no need for an additional school of any kind.  The application is long on edu-jargon but short on specifics. The school proposes a Project Based Learning (PBL) curriculum, but the instructional materials and assessments are not designed for use in a PBL format. Pride’s enrollment demands raise a red flag: seventeen forms are required for admission, constituting a significant barrier to enrollment. Public schools require only four documents. In addition, Pride requires existing students to fill out “retention forms” each year or risk losing their place in the school. 

As massive shortfalls loom, Board members have resurrected the ever-lurking threat of “right-sizing”–code for closing neighborhood schools.  Toxins in our buildings threaten the health and safety of students and staff. The Board must place the interests of students and communities above the self-interest of charter investors. Philadelphia cannot afford this or any new charter school. The Board must vote to deny this application.

Empowerment Charter School                                                                           

by Deborah Grill

Estimated 5-year Cost to District:  $26,379,068

Estimated stranded costs to District: $10,090,470

Estimated additional cost to taxpayers for state rent reimbursement: $158,608

The first red flag raised about this application is the discrepancy over the name of the proposed charter school. Although the narrative refers to the school as the “Shirley Chisholm Empowerment Charter School”, the applicants admitted during questioning at the January hearing that the name on the legal documents of incorporation is “Empowerment Charter School”. One hour of the 3-hour hearing was spent getting the founders to agree on the name of the school.  Empowerment proposes  a K-5 located at 5210 N. Broad Street (the former Holy Child School), to open in September 2022.  Projected enrollment is 504 students by year five.  The narrative states that Empowerment  expects to receive applicants from the zip codes in the Logan catchment area (19140, 19141,19144).  The area is already saturated with twelve elementary schools, including three charters. 

Empowerment Charter School is an initiative of  Jounce Partners, founded in 2012. 

Jounce’s original focus on teacher training has expanded into charter operation. Jounce operates two charter schools: Deep Roots Charter School opened in 2018 in Philadelphia, and Memphis Delta Prep opened in 2015 in Memphis.  Jounce Partners was founded by Bobby Erzen and Paul Dean, who had three years of teaching  experience between them and no experience in school administration.  Jounce’s rapid teacher development coaching method is a rigid and demeaning teaching model that is described in the narrative as a “more intense” version of that used in Uncommon Schools and Success Academy–two charter chains still using the now discredited “no-excuses” model of discipline.  Jounce pushes rigid teaching practices heavy on repetition and rote learning at the expense of creativity and depth. The Empowerment narrative claims that the school will use restorative practices, but offers no details other than the use of a color chart to reward good behavior. 

Empowerment’s proposed school leader is Courtney Taylor, a Jounce Launch Partner. Taylor has no degree or certificate in school administration or any experience as a principal.  Two members of the founding coalition are current principals at Philadelphia Mastery charter schools; four others work or have worked for Mastery  in various capacities; and two of the proposed board members have worked for Mastery Charters. Two of the coalition members currently work at Jounce Partners. One of the proposed Board members, Naeha Dean,  is married to Jounce co-founder Paul Dean, who appeared as one of the Empowerment representatives at the District’s January hearing. 

 Of the twenty-three  letters of community support, none are actually from the Logan community.  One is from a parent whose child was taught by Ms. Taylor years ago. Most are from teachers or administrators from other charter schools in the city.  Some letters are from residents of New Jersey. Several are from people who live outside of the Philadelphia area, including one from the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.  While they claim to be a “community-based” school, Attachment 25 states that enrollment is open to all students living in the city and the state.  The District is already vastly underfunded.  One-third of the District’s total allotments goes to charter schools.  District schools are under-resourced and under-staffed.  The District cannot afford to divert any more funds to an unnecessary and inadequate charter school.

 Eugenio Maria de Hostos Preparatory Charter School

by Lynda Rubin

Estimated cost to District for 5 years:   $72, 277, 926

Aspira Inc. has been building a portfolio of charter schools in Philadelphia for many years. Reports from the District and from government agencies show that none of those schools has been successful in serving the city’s children. The Board voted not to renew both of Aspira’s Renaissance charter schools, Olney High and Stetson Middle,  and to take back control of those schools. Thus it is surprising to see Aspira citing the “success” of their existing charter schools. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a 2018 investigation in which he characterized Aspira Inc. as  “the fox guarding the hen house”.  

De Hostos’ proposed Charter Management Organization (CMO) is headed  by Aspira Inc. Controller Xinyan Yi, a former controller at KIPP Charters and Aspira COO Thomas Darden. Darden attended the Broad Academy which has been training principals and administrators in the privatization of  public schools throughout the country. Darden managed charter schools for the District before joining Aspira. Founding Coalition member Ana A. Benitez is current Vice-Chairperson of Aspira, Inc. Proposed School Leader Glenda Marrero is Assistant Principal at  Stetson Charter Middle School. The Narrative cites her success there but does not  mention that the school failed to meet standards in every year of operation under Aspira. 

 While the application states that De Hostos Prep would grant preference to Kensington and Hunting Park (19134,19140) neighborhoods, it cites fifteen additional zip codes from which they would recruit, indicating that Aspira is seeking to establish something other than a community-based school.  The De Hostos Prep narrative proposes to open as a K-5 school, adding 6th, 7th and 8th grades in successive years. The application states that De Hostos Prep “will not rely on external vendors for any primary academic health or other service for the operation of the school”.  However, it also states that Aspira’s “Partners” will provide supplementary/extension services for both  physical, and mental health, cultural and academic enrichment. If the partner companies are not “other vendors”,  then how will these groups be reimbursed for their services? In a 2016 public meeting, Aspira lawyer Ken Trujillo told the SRC that Aspira had engaged in “cross-collateralization” as part of  its financial methods. A better description is “misuse of taxpayer funds”, as Aspira was illegally funneling District funds from their Renaissance charters to their other charter schools.  The Board should deny any application from Aspira, Inc. Their record clearly shows that they are not able to provide an adequate education experience to Philadelphia students. 

Aspira Bilingual, Business and Technology Charter High School 

by Lisa Haver  

Aspira Inc. has submitted an application for a high school at 6301 N. 2nd Street in Olney, opening with 600 students in grades 9-10 and expanding to 1200 students in grades  9-12 by year five of operation. Although located in zip code 19120, the school would also recruit from Kensington, which is not close and would necessitate students traveling across Roosevelt Boulevard. This application reads as a barely updated version of those  submitted (and rejected) two years ago: not innovative or creative, but data-driven and test-oriented. Much of the program relies on pre-packaged materials, including the “My Learning Plan” for professional development,  an online platform for tracking of coaching sessions and teaching evaluations. 

Founding Coalition member and current Aspira CEO Alfredo Calderone has been the defendant in a number of sexual harassment suits, one settled by Aspira for over $300,000. 

The application misrepresents Aspira’s performance in operating charter schools with their claim of  “demonstrated success with recruiting and successfully serving a high percentage of low income and special needs students.”  Actually, the Board voted last year not to renew either of Aspira’s Renaissance charters for failure to meet standards in all categories. 

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”.

The Board should reject this application.