New Charter Application: Aspira Bilingual Business, Finance, and Technology Charter High School

By Lisa Haver

Despite Aspira’s record of academic failure and questionable financial practices, the organization has again submitted applications to open more charter schools in the city.  Aspira Inc. has submitted two applications this year,  for Aspira Bilingual Tech and for de Hostos Prep. They are essentially duplicates of the applications submitted last year, both rejected by the Board of Education. The Board should again deny Aspira’s applications. 

Aspira Inc. operates five schools in Philadelphia. Their two Renaissance charters, Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, have been in non-renewal since 2016 for failure to meet academic, organizational and financial standards. After years of delay by the School Reform Commission and the Board, the Board finally voted not to renew last year after extensive legal hearings. The matter is now before the state’s Charter Appeal Board. Aspira, Inc. has been the subject of investigations by both the Philadelphia City Controller’s office and by State Attorney General Eugene de Pasquale in 2018. In a 2017 SRC hearing, Aspira legal counsel Kenneth Trujillo  admitted to misappropriation of public funds, which he characterized as “cross-collateralization”.  As Temple Professor and charter expert Susan DeJarnatt commented last year: “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.”

At the January 25 new charter application hearing, Interim Charter Schools Chief Peng Chao gave a brief summary of the Charter Schools Office evaluation, which had been sent to Aspira representatives but not posted publicly. No public testimony was permitted at the hearing. As noted by Chao, almost every section of Aspira’s application lacks details or includes contradictory information. Many lack documentation to demonstrate how a specific program would work and/or be funded. 

The Board should reject this application as it did last year.

Aspira Bilingual Tech

Proposed location: 6301 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, 19120 (former Cardinal Dougherty HS building). Application states that Aspira plans to move this school after opening but gives no proposed location.  
Neighborhood:  Olney
Proposed opening: School year 2022-23
Recruitment would concentrate on students in 19120 (Olney), 19134 (North Philadelphia, W. Kensington),  19140 (Fairhill, Tioga, Hunting Park)
Management Company:  Aspira Inc.
Landlord and Real Estate Manager:  ACE/Dougherty 
Proposed school leader:  James Thompson, current Olney High principal (now in non-renewal)
Enrollment at scale: 1200 students in grades 9–12; would open with 600 students in grades 9 and 10.
Estimated cost to District over 5 years: $82. 3 million*
Estimated stranded costs over 5 years: $19.7million* 

*Figures taken from original application submitted by Aspira last year. Attachments with current information, which can only be publicly disseminated through a formal Right to Know request have not been received by APPS as of this writing.

The 972-page Charter Schools Office (CSO) evaluation cites deficiencies in almost every section of the application. This APPS report includes information from the application, the hearings, and the CSO evaluation. 

The CSO evaluation opens with its conclusion that the application “failed to demonstrate that the proposed Charter School would teach all required Pennsylvania Core and Academic Standards.”

At the January 25 hearing, Acting CSO Chief Peng Chao raised a red flag about Aspira’s staffing model which the CSO evaluation characterized as  “flawed in both design and details”:  

According to the Master Service Level Agreement between the proposed Charter School and the management company, as well as the Organizational Chart, direct employees of the proposed Charter School are limited 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 be employees of the management organization. Per the terms of the management agreement, the school Principal would have no direct supervisory relationship over these staff members, posing a challenge in developing a cohesive school culture.  [bold added]
The documents submitted by Aspira fail to demonstrate any community demand for the school. In addition, Aspira Bilingual Tech proposes to recruit from the same areas that their current high school does. The CSO notes that “the Applicant fails to provide a rationale for why it would contemplate an enrollment preference that draws students from an affiliated school with overlapping grades, Olney Charter High School.”

The evaluation states that Aspira “failed to submit a cohesive, balanced budget as a result of inconsistencies across the Application materials” in projected special education costs and projected salary increases. The sketchy information does not allow for a confirmation of the budget’s viability. 

The CSO’s executive summary, noting that the Board of Education has voted not to renew Aspira Olney High School and Aspira Stetson MIddle School, concludes with this observation: “The organization and its affiliated schools do not have a track record of consistent success in academics, organizational compliance, or financial management that lend themselves to further growth.”  Although Aspira makes the usual claims to serve a need unmet by the District, the CSO concludes:  “The Applicant does not strongly demonstrate how the proposed Charter School would be unique or innovative compared to existing schools with similar CTE programming. The Applicant has not demonstrated a compelling need for the proposed mission and school model.”

Proposed Board Members
With a couple of exceptions, the proposed board includes the same names as in last year’s application: Marcus Allen, Walter Yakabowsky, Sean Harrigan, Robert Stewart, and Kevin Glover; Daisy Rosa and Andrew Banas were not part of last year’s application. The CSO notes:

While the proposed Board members have experience in community service, housing, banking, business, advertising, and education, no members of the proposed initial Board appear to have experience in founding or opening a charter school. Two of the proposed board members have potential conflicts of interest not addressed in the application. Walter Yakabowsky lists “Aspira Charter School Philadelphia” as a business partner for his employer, Energy Coordinating Agency of Pennsylvania. Kevin C. Glover is listed as a proposed Board member of the proposed Charter School as well as the proposed Board member for another charter application submitted by ASPIRA in the 2021-2022 cycle, Aspira Eugenio Maria De Hostos Preparatory Charter School. Additionally, Mr. Glover appears to have a potential conflict of interest not addressed in the Application; he lists one of his existing employers as Aspira Schools Inc” where he currently works as a Personal Finance teacher (Attachment 7). Proposed Board Member S. Richard Harrigan does not appear to have any relationship to Philadelphia as he currently lives in New Jersey and appears to work in New York City. [bold added]
Proposed Board Member S. Richard Harrigan does not appear to have any
relationship to Philadelphia as he currently lives in New Jersey and appears to work in New
York City.  [bold added] 

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 K-12 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.

Founding Coalition  
Aspira President and CEO Alfredo Calderonl  Ana Benitez, Vice Chair of the Aspira Board of Trustees Walter Yakabowsky [see above]
Daisy Rosa, the Vice President of Family and Housing Services for Congreso deLatinos Unidos
Russell Pocaro, a business teacher at Camden County Technical School.
Two of the five members of the Founding Coalition, Mr. Yakabowsky and Ms. Rosa, are also proposed as Board Members.
The CSO sees the  inclusion of Mr. Calderon and Ms. Benitez on the Founding Coalition as “problematic” as ASPIRA Inc. would benefit financially from the fees and reimbursement costs that the Aspira Tech would pay to ASPIRA for management services. Also, Aspira Tech would co-locate with the ASPIRA business offices and pay rent to Aspira.  The CSO notes: “Although the Applicant speaks to the Board of Trustees adhering to practices currently employed at existing Aspira managed charter schools, a review of records finds that those Boards are consistently out of compliance with applicable laws.”

As is the case in most new charter applications, the applicant promises an educational experience based on “innovation’.  In fact, however, Aspira proposes the same data-driven, test score-based program, with Aspira purchasing packaged instructional materials including  Achieve 3000 and Imagine Math. 
Aspira would use data from several assessment tools including MAP test, Achieve 3000, Imagine Math, and Unit Assessments, to develop “individual pathways” for students. Those pathways are not detailed by Aspira in the application; the CSO notes that  “the documents submitted fail to show sufficient evidence that the proposed Charter School is prepared to modify curricular materials for all core content areas and CTE tracks.”

Language and CTE Offerings
The CSO found Aspira’s use of the term “bilingual” in the name of the school and throughout the application because Aspira is not proposing a dual-language immersion program but just the chance for students to take Spanish classes–as most if not all high schools offer.  The CSO also disputes Aspira’s claim that it 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.The CSO notes several other deficiencies in Aspira’s proposed curriculum and its failure to meet core standards. One example:  “ The Applicant did not submit a Chemistry Curriculum. Rather, it provided a Scope and Sequence that listed topics and standards covered. There are no resources, activities, or planned instruction.”   [bold added]

School Climate
Aspira’s application promises a school culture “rooted in core values of honesty, respect, integrity, citizenship, pursuit of excellence and cooperation…managed through a positive behavior support plan…”  But Aspira’s implementation seems based on the same regressive agenda seen in many charter schools that have moved ( but not far)  from the “no-excuses” approach to discipline in many charter schools. Aspira Tech would have every student begin, for reasons not explained, at the second to lowest tier of the six-tier rating system. In order to move up in rank, the student would have to demonstrate “compliance” with the student code of conduct. Ranking students, placing them in a box before they even begin their high school years, warning them that they must comply or be demoted publicly–is this the way that Aspira believes that young people should be treated? This hardly paints a picture of a positive culture.

Board Governance
The CSO raises a number of issues about the Board governance and the potential violations of the PA Sunshine Act. Aspira’s by-laws state that just the presence of a Board member at a Board meeting amounts to assent to an action unless the board member objects to the action. They also imply that committees of the board may take action on behalf of the board if that authority is provided in Board resolutions. Committee meetings may not necessarily be public meetings, so the board would in essence be allowing secret votes on official items. In addition, the CSO notes that the by-laws are written in a way “that does not require the board to hold its public meetings in locations that are accessible to the proposed Charter School’s community.”

Because Aspira Inc. would serve as the manager of all aspects of the Charter School’s non-instructional operations the CSO concluded that “submitted materials give Aspira a significant amount of control over all aspects of the proposed Charter School’s operations and fail to provide a clear schedule of fees.” Aspira’s lack of transparency, their misuse of taxpayer funds as admitted to by the attorney in 2017, and their failure to meet financial standards at both Renaissance charters provide a clear picture of Aspira’s shady and fraudulent finances over the past ten years. It would be an act of governmental malpractice for the Board to give Aspira control of any more public funds given the organization’s record.

Third Party Service Providers
The CSO has noted that Aspira would act as the manager of all aspects of Aspira Bilingual Tech’s non-instructional operations. The application, however, fails to provide a clear schedule of fees that would be paid to Aspira Inc. for those services. Aspira Inc. did submit a Management Service Level Agreement (“MSLA”) between Aspira Inc. and Aspira Bilingual Tech that  lists services to be provided in 
Educational Support Services, Finance & Accounting, Facilities Management Services (including Safety, Custodial & Maintenance), Human Resource Management Services, Transportation Services, Management of Nutrition Services, Information Technology and Support Services, and Communications. The CSO notes that the narrative “does not articulate why it is beneficial for the proposed Charter School to enter a management agreement that cedes significant control of the day-to-day operations of the Charter School to ASPIRA, the management company.” [bold added] 
The CSO also cites a “lack of clarity” on anticipated management fees because of both “discrepancies across documents and insufficiencies within them”.

Health Services
The CSO  concludes that Aspira “does not demonstrate a clear understanding of State requirements for student health services, and inconsistently states what services will be provided, and who wouldprovide them.” The health and safety of students and staff must always be a priority, but especially during an ongoing pandemic. Teachers at Olney High walked out after the death of a student from Covid. Teachers reported Aspira administrators had ignored their demands to increase Covid safety protocols prior to the student’s death.

Leadership Team
Aspira Bilingual Tech names current Olney High Principal James Thompson as this school’s proposed principal. Olney High has failed to meet all basic standards during Thompson’s tenure there.  The CSO again raises concerns about the leadership team structure, primarily whether it would comply with PA Charter School Law “when it calls on staff of the management company to serve in a supervisory role for school employees.”