New Charter Application: Empowerment Charter School

by Deborah Grill

There are 86 charter schools in Philadelphia.  Despite their claims, few if any can be described as” innovative”. The majority perform academically as well as or worse than District schools despite their ability to cherry-pick students. They boast that they provide choice for parents or students, but in reality the choice lies in the schools’ ability, through barriers to enrollment and lack of due process,  to choose who they admit and who they allow to stay.  They service fewer students with severe disabilities than the District but are compensated according to the District’s average costs to educate its larger population of needier, more expensive special-education students.  District students will never get the resources they need as long as the District is spending a large portion of its budget on charter schools.  The District cannot afford this charter school.  

  • Location: 5210 N. Broad Street, 19141  (former Holy Child School)
  • Grades: K-5
  • Opening Date: September  2022
  • Neighborhood: Logan
  • Projected Enrollment: 504 students
  • Estimated 5 year Cost to District: $26,379,068
  • Estimated 5 year Stranded Costs for the District: $10,090,470

Who is Behind Empowerment Charter School?

Empowerment Charter School is a Jounce Partners initiative.  Jounce’s stated mission  is to “accelerate learning for students in high-need schools”.  Bobby Erzen and Paul Dean–two  men with a total of 3 years of classroom teaching experience at a charter school in New Orleans–created the Jounce program.  The founding tenet of their program–that teacher performance is the most important factor in a student’s education–is built on the questionable research of TNTP, whose research has been deemed by academic researchers to be unable to stand up to peer review.  Jounce concentrates on training teachers and school leaders. Their “rapid teacher development” coaching method employs a rigid and demeaning teaching model described in the Empowerment narrative as a more “intense” version of that used in Uncommon Schools and Success Academy whose schools are known for their rigid adherence to the no-excuse model of instruction and discipline. It was  based on a model with scripted and repetitive practices resulting in automatic actions as opposed to thoughtful educational practices and thoughtful learning experiences. Jounce will conduct professional development and coach teachers initially, but it is not clear what the role of Jounce Partners will be once the school is established and running. At the January 25 hearing the proposed school leader said that it would be up to the Board. We suspect that the board will keep Jounce Partners on.  Jounce Partners has one charter school in Philadelphia, Deep Roots Charter School, which opened in 2018. Their application for Deep Roots Charter School was initially rejected by the School Reform Commission (SRC)  because it was so lacking in almost every respect, but  Commissioner Bill Green urged them to reapply.  The CSO acknowledged that there was no substantial difference between the first and second applications, but that did not stop the SRC from approving.  When the SRC states for the record that a charter application is substandard, then approves it two months later, one has to consider the political influence wielded by the political supporters and financiers of both Deep Roots and Jounce Partners.  Co-founder, Paul Dean is the son of Howard Dean the former Governor of Vermont and Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Like their application for Deep Roots, the application for Empowerment Charter School is  not well thought out and is lacking in details. The Charter Schools Office (CSO) evaluation cited deficiencies and inconsistencies in almost every section of the application, starting with the official name of the school. Although the narrative refers to the school as the “Shirley Chisholm Empowerment Charter School” as well as the Chisholm & DuBois 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.  The CSO cited additional deficiencies and inconsistencies in curricula,  academic data and goals, staffing, budgets, admissions and enrollment policies, code of conduct, leadership, health care services for students and insurance for employees,  promotion and retention policies, diverse learners, extracular activities, community needs, community partnerships, governance, school operations, school culture, due process and more.

Founding Coalition Members

There are 15 members of the Empowerment founding coalition–so many that Empowerment doesn’t include all of them in its application narrative; we will mention some of them here.  Jessica Ross-White holds an administrative position in the School District of Philadelphia. Prior to that she was an instructional coach at Universal Companies, before that a teacher at Mastery Hardy Williams Charter.  Kurt Watson’s position at Greenfield Elementary School is funded by the schools’ parents; it is not clear whether he works for the District or for PlayWorks.  Kevin Shafer is a partner in the City Fund, an organization working to privatize public education by replacing public schools with charter schools or schools run by non-profits.  As Chief Innovation Officer in the Camden School District, Shafer has worked closely with Uncommon Schools,  Mastery Schools, and KIPP; he managed the creation and roll-out of Camden’s first citywide universal enrollment system.  Two members of the founding coalition, Akeere Scott-Mack and Ashley Williams are principals of  Mastery charter schools.  Three others ( Danielle Duncan, Michael Stanford, Denisha Williams) now work or have worked for Mastery Charters in various capacities, as have the proposed school leader and two of the proposed board members. Two of the founding coalition members are Jounce Partners: Paul Dean, co-founder and Executive Director and Samantha Levine School Acceleration Partner.   Tiphanie White is the Office Manager and Special Events Coordinator for City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

Proposed School Leader

Courtney Taylor incorporated the entity known as the Empowerment Charter School.  She  currently works as a Launch Partner with Jounce Partners.  Prior to that, Taylor worked for one year as Mastery’s Assistant Director of Early Elementary Education; for two years as a teacher leader and “Mindset Lead” at Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter; one year teaching at  Russell Byers Charter School; and five years teaching at Southwest Leadership Academy Charter. She has no experience as a school principal.  Taylor’s resume includes no degree or certification in school administration.  Her administrative experience in a charter school is limited. The CSO evaluation states that “it does not appear that Ms. Taylor has had direct experience in leading and managing charter school finance, operations, or vendor relationships, although some of this work would be designated to different staff members.”  She has moved around from position to position over a period of 10 years. Her five years at Southwest Leadership Academy is the longest she has stayed in one position.  What does this say for the stability and capabilities of the proposed school leader and the stability of the school climate?

Proposed Board Members

Three of the proposed board members do not currently live in Philadelphia. One lives in Camden, NJ; one in New York City; and one in Encino, CA.  The narrative states that the board will meet monthly, but  it may be difficult for two of them to attend in person on a regular basis. One of the proposed board members is the wife of the founder and Executive Director of Jounce Partners which, as the CSO noted, may present a conflict of interest given Jounce’s potential financial involvement with the charter school.

  • Kia Johnson is a project coach and consultant with Insight EducationGroup ; E3 provides school equity plans and virtual training for teachers. She was executive Director of Great Oaks Charter School in Wilmington (6 years), teacher at KIPP HS in New Orleans (3 years), recruitment manager for Mastery Charters (7 months), and a seminar leader for TNTP. She currently lives in Encino, CA.
  • Kathleen Provinzano is an Assistant Professor in Drexel University’s School ofEducation.
  • Naeha Dean is the Founder and Executive Director of the Camden Education Fund, founded in 2020. She is the wife of Jounce founder and executive director Paul Dean. The Fund describes itself as  a “non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating progress in Camden’s public school system.”  Prior to founding the Fund,  Ms. Dean served as Chief of Staff to the Superintendent of the Camden City School District for five years and was a TFA teacher in New Orleans for three years.  She currently lives in New Jersey. 
  • Rashiid Coleman  is the Co-Founder of Summer House Institute and former Chief Communications Officer withThe Fellowship Black Male Educators Collaborative, Inc., Dean of School Culture at  Mastery Frederick Douglass Charter School, a teacher at Universal Vare and a Program Coordinator  for Playworks 
  •  Uva Coles is the Founder and CEO of Inclusiva, a consulting firm specializing in workforce inclusion.
  • Andrew Doggett is Assistant General Counsel at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and was a TFA teacher in Philadelphia for 3 years.
  • Lindsey Freedman  currently works at SchoolHouse,  an educational start-up that specializes in setting up and staffing “learning pods” for in-home instruction of small groups of children.  She is the former principal, Chief Schools Officer and Chief Academic Officer with Coney Island Prep (12 years) and was a TFA teacher in Newark (3 years).  She currently lives in New York City.

The CSO evaluation points out that the following organizations listed as supporting the founding coalition would benefit financially if the charter is approved: Jounce Partners (school leadership training); Charter Choices (finance/back-office services);  M-F Consulting (HR/recruitment);  Patricia Hennessy, Esquire (Conrad O’Brian); and BoardOnTrack (governance training).

Curriculum and Culture

The narrative enumerates the core pillars of the Empowerment educational program:  culturally relevant instructional materials, rapid teacher development, data-driven decision making, evidence-based literacy practices, and a love of learning.   The narrative states that Empowerment will implement a child-centered and culturally relevant pedagogy, but does not specify how.  The narrative cites the same curriculum resources used by many charter schools as well as programs used in Philadelphia public schools.  The CSO evaluation states that the curriculum documents were of “varying levels of quality and fail to meet best practices for curriculum design…The Applicant fails to substantiate its claims that the proposed Charter School will provide lessons that reflect a child centered and culturally relevant pedagogy.”  In fact, the  Health, Safety and Physical Education curriculum was the only complete one submitted. The CSO evaluation points out that among the many deficiencies the application does not include academic or non-academic goals for PA-defined subgroups and lacks details on how curricular materials will be modified for students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and gifted students.

The application narrative states that due to a highly competitive market for high quality teachers, Empowerment will most likely have to hire teachers with little experience (p.3). New and inexperienced teachers are fodder for the Jounce program. As stated before, they plan to initiate their “Rapid Teacher Development Program” with intensive coaching and classroom observations. This  Jounce model of coaching is a rigid program that pushes rote teaching and learning over creativity and depth. The narrative states that this coaching model presents a more intensive version of the coaching models of Uncommon Schools and Achievement First — two charter school chains noted for their strict no-excuses model of instruction. No mention is made of how the Jounce program instills a love of learning.

Empowerment’s code of conduct alludes to the use of restorative practices but gives no specifics of how the school will implement them.  The narrative only   states that a color chart posted in each classroom would indicate students’ daily behavior. During the January 15, 2017 hearing for their application for Deep Roots charter,  a representative from Jounce Partners stated that they intend to combine the best aspects of the no-excuses philosophy and restorative practices.  When CSO pointed out that no component of no-excuses align with restorative practices, the hearing examiner asked the applicants to describe how they would implement restorative practices.  Paul Dean replied that the student who was misbehaving would be removed from the classroom, taken to a dean to practice an acceptable replacement behavior until it was automatic (no-excuses) and then would be sent back into the classroom to apologize to the other students (restorative practices). That is not how restorative practices work.

The narrative states that Empowerment will foster choice by offering its own unique educational model to students and staff, but neither the curriculum nor the teacher training offer any unique methods. 

Proposed Location 

Empowerment Charter wishes to locate in the former Holy Child school, recently vacated by the Cristo Rey Mission High School.  Empowerment’s application includes  a proposed rental agreement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. According to the submitted budget, Empowerment will spend  $2,614,879 for rent over the first five years of the charter.  During those five years, Empowerment anticipates revenues of $158,608 from a state rental reimbursement subsidy to which all charter schools are entitled. Taxpayer funds will be used not only for tuition, but also for a portion of the school’s rent. 

The founding coalition originally intended to open the school at a Point Breeze location but switched to the Logan location without explanation.  (They still mistakenly refer to the Point Breeze neighborhood in parts of the narrative.) Empowerment expects to receive applicants from the zip codes in the Logan  area (they list 19140, 19141, and 19144, which is actually Germantown).  The Logan area is already saturated with elementary schools.  In fact, the narrative acknowledges the twelve existing schools in the Logan area–nine public and three charter schools.

Empowerment says that it intends to be a community-based school.  The narrative states that the school is committed to serving the Logan community and that partnership with the community is at the heart of Empowerment’s work. However, they never reached out to the of the twenty-three letters of support included in the application, none actually comes from a member of  the Logan community.  Most are from teachers or administrators at other charter schools. Several are from people outside of Philadelphia, including the coach of the LA Clippers.  The application lists twelve community organizations that they claim to have connected with, but Empowerment never reached out to the Logan Civic Association, the Registered Community Organization of the targeted area, and the one organization that they should have approached first. The application includes only two Memoranda of Understanding  (MOU), neither from a community organization. The Attachment 25 states that Empowerment will be open to all students in Pennsylvania with preference will be given to students living in Philadelphia.  How can the school be community-based but open to students living anywhere in the state?