New Charter Application from American Paradigm: Tacony Academy Charter at St. Vincent

by Diane Payne

Tacony Academy Charter School at St. Vincent
7201 Milner Street         19136
Area: Tacony
Management Company:  American Paradigm Schools
Proposed enrollment: 900 students at scale
Proposed cost to SDP for 5-year term:   $39,837,160.

APPS members have attended all hearings and  reviewed all applications and attachments on this year’s new charter applications, as we have done in years past. APPS is a member of the Our City Our Schools Coalition (OCOS). Both APPS and OCOS are advocating for a moratorium on the creation of new charters and the expanding of existing ones. The District cannot afford and does not need any more charters.  Charter Schools represent the largest single item in the District’s budget–⅓ of the budget goes to fund charters. This causes direct harm to public school students as fewer resources are available to fix toxic buildings and hire more support staff. The Board has read and heard the legal opinions of several local attorneys, including Susan DeJarnett from the Beasley School of Law at Temple University, on the expense of charters, the many problems with the PA Charter Law, and the responsibility of the District to weight the financial health of the District when making decisions on charter expansion.  APPS members have cited the opinion of David Lapp, who represented the Education Law Center and is now with Research for Action, in his testimonies; links to the opinions of both attorneys have been made available to the Board.

This report is on one of the three applications submitted this year:  Tacony Academy Charter School at St. Vincent. There are several reasons the Board should reject this application, most importantly: negative financial impact on existing public school students, poor academic success over time in existing American Paradigm schools, and pressing financial questions and concerns that affect District stakeholders and all taxpayers.

American Paradigm Schools (APS) operates 4 charters in Philadelphia:  First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter (K-12) in Bridesburg, Tacony Academy Charter in the lower Northeast (K-12), Memphis Street Academy at Jones in Kensington (5-8), and Lindley Academy Charter in Logan (K-8).


Note: SDP posts only the past 4 years’ SPR scores. These scores are for SY 2013-14, SY 2014-15, SY 2015-16, SY 2016-17.  

First Philadelphia Prep (FPP)

Opened in 2002; operating for 17 years; current K-8 enrollment 1,539, HS 328.
The APS spokesperson attempted to cite the just released SPR scores at the January 23 hearing (which the Charter Office Director objected to, as those scores were not yet public information) as somehow representative of success at APS schools. Improvement in some of last year’s scores does not negate the pattern of low Achievement scores across the APS cohort of schools.
Past 4 years, elementary:  Reinforce at 53% the first year, then Intervene for 3 years at 22%–18%–16%.   The SPR Achievement scores for the High School are only available for the last 3 years: Intervene for all 3 years at 0%–1%–2%.

Tacony Academy

Opened in 2009; operating for 10 years; current K-8 enrollment 690, HS 389.  Elementary SPR scores: Reinforce the first year at 50%, 3 years in Watch at 35%–37%–35%.
The High School’s achievement scores declined every year: Intervene all 4 years at 6%–2%–1%–0%.   

Memphis Street Academy

Turned over to American Paradigm Schools (APS) in 2012 as a Renaissance charter;
current enrollment (5-8) 847 students.The District’s Renaissance mission states: “The Renaissance School Initiative is a key part of the School District’s ongoing work to ensure that all students have a great school close to where they live.” That is, the new managers of a Renaissance school are expected to improve the educational experience for the school’s student.
MSA’s SPR Achievement scores:  Intervene for the past 4 years at 2%–2%–0%–1%. (Despite these scores, the SRC renewed MSA’s charter last year.)

Lindley Academy Charter School

Turned over to APS in 2014 as a Renaissance charter; 741 students.
LACS’ SPR Achievement scores:
Intervene all 4 years: 23%–2%–No score for 2015-16 (insufficient data)–8%.  (Why was data insufficient in the 15/16 school year?)
The APM charters clearly are not models for replication. The District uses SPR scores in many decisions made about the future of its schools.  These SPR scores do not come close to “Model.” If the District is looking to replicate “high-quality”  schools, it should be replicating schools actually achieving at the “Model” performance category.

A look at the demographics of the school that the applicant uses as its model–Tacony Academy–shows what happens all too often in the charter sector.  TACS, as the best performing APS school, does not reflect District demographics.  The 2017 ACE report shows: African American 33% (compared to district 50%), White 31% (District 14%), ELL 1% (District 11%), Students living in poverty 57% (District 74%). Although Special Ed numbers are comparable, there is no way to make an accurate comparison between District and charter populations, as  CFO Uri Munson has testified at Board meetings. The fact is, there is no way to tell the level of Special Education needs in Charter Schools. Munson pointed out that District schools have far more “low incidence” Special Education students, that is, those who require greater supports and incur higher costs.

According to the application, Tacony Academy at St. Vincent will receive special education payments of over $29,000 per student, increasing to over $31,000 per students in five years.  These payments are made even though there is NO requirement to use this money on special education needs and NO requirement to identify special education students by level of need. More public money to a private manager with no accountability to taxpayers.

The failure of APS to achieve even minimal academic ratings, despite years of operation, clearly demonstrate that APS should not be granted another charter by the Board. Instead, APS should figure out how to improve achievement in all their existing schools, if they are capable, which is questionable. If they cannot, those charters should be revoked by the Board.


The application identifies a “personalized learning” component for both Literacy and Math totaling 110 minutes per week, with caveats that extra time may be needed but with no specific plan for how.  The reliance on computer-driven instruction should raise a red flag to the Board for several reasons. More computer time means less time with teachers. Researchers and doctors have issued warnings about the problems of increased screen time, especially for young children.  Ongoing concerns about data extraction and privacy concerns were not addressed by the applicant.

Proposed Location

It was alarming to hear CSO Director Christina Grant, at the January 23 hearing, report that the proposed location is adjacent to a Superfund site–and to hear American Paradigm CEO Gerald Santilli  admit that this information was not included in the application.  All important and relevant information should be put forth in a transparent manner.  APS touts itself as experienced and successful, so it’s hard to believe that they just forget to mention the fact that this school would be next to a potentially toxic site.  APS also omitted the fact that there is a cemetery on the property, which was brought up at the hearing. Leaving crucial information out of the report should be reason for denial.  It is difficult enough, because of the PA Charter Law and most charters’ refusal to report, to find important information about the city’s charter schools. Any company that wants to continue to operate with taxpayer money cannot hide important information.

Any Board of Education member who has not seen the St. Vincent property should take a drive and check it out (as I did).  This property is in the middle of an industrial rather than a residential area. There are no homes close by.  In fact, the property is cut off from the nearby neighborhood and pedestrian areas by Interstate 95.  It has empty lots and industrial sites adjacent, is walker-unfriendly, and is desolate and isolated. In answer to a question from Hearing Officer Alison Petersen, Santilli acknowledged that the closest SEPTA bus stop is 6 blocks away.   Students taking SEPTA would have to navigate the 13 acres of school property, then walk another 6 blocks across isolated streets and highways to get the bus. This is not a “neighborhood” school.  It’s a riverfront real estate deal.


Salary and Compensation

Every charter operates not just as a school but in many ways as a separate district with its own set of administrators. Although all information about how charters spend taxpayer dollars should be available to the public, it is NOT.  All public school employees’ salaries can be found online. Not so for charter schools or for their related non-profit and for-profit companies. You can do a tedious IRS 990 search and find information that is usually more than a year old and, inexplicably, missing key salaries.  APPS has done that research, so we have found one window into how charters spend public money–including some paying their CEOs more than Dr. Hite–most for managing one or two schools, compared to the District’s 210 schools.

Below is 990 salary information from 2016 (the most recent year available) for the American Paradigm company. There is no itemization of the “other compensation”. All  schools have their own administrative staff in addition to the APS administration.

American Paradigm Schools

CEO: $204,696 salary + $34,404 other compensation = $239, 100
Chief Operating Officer: $124,904 salary + $31,427 other compensation = $156, 331
Director of Pupil Services: $138,007 salary + $34,165 other compensation = $172, 172
The APS website lists a staff of sixteen administrators, including the daughter of APS President and CEO Gerald Santilli.   No salary information is listed on the 990 for any of the other thirteen administrative positions.

First Philadelphia Charter

CEO Salary:  $154,112 salary + $32,829  other compensation = $186,941
The school’s web page lists a CEO AND a principal.  The 990 does not provide the salary of the principal.  In addition, there are four assistant principals, a director of operations, and an assistant to the CEO, none of which have salaries listed on the 990.

Tacony Academy

CEO/Principal Salary:  $137,161 salary + $40,846 other = $178, 007
TACS website lists 6 additional administrative positions.  These positions are not listed on the 990 even though the 990 instructions instructs the company to “list all of organization’s current key employees.”  The 990 further instructs that the “5 current highest compensated employees making over $100,000” should be listed. Hence the questions remaining about complete information being available on the 990’s.

Memphis Street

A former CEO is listed followed by a current CEO.  One year of combined salaries – $199,043 + $59,906 = $253, 949
The school’s web page lists an assistant to the CEO, a principal, a fiscal director, and an assistant principal, none of which are listed on the 990.

Lindley Academy

“Head of School”:  $120,113 + $40,941 = $161, 054
The school’s web page lists two Deans, two assistant principals, three different directors, and a special education liaison, none of which are listed on the 990.

Property and Real Estate

It is difficult for the layperson to follow the money flow from the charter school to the management, real estate and bond companies.  In 2011, APS purchased a property at 8101 Castor Avenue to use as its headquarters (rather than locate at one of its schools, as some other charter management companies do).   This property was purchased through a joint venture with a company called Stanwood Associates. Online inquiry for this company yields no information. In order to attempt to ascertain who Stanwood may be, you must search the deed transactions for this property.  On the publicly searchable deeds, you discover that Stanwood Associates is simply two people with the addresses of their respective homes listed as the Stanwood address: one in Holland, PA and the other in Naples, FL. The two individuals both sharing the last name Fluehr (which is a well-known name in the local funeral home business) do not appear to be a bank, lending company, or financial institution.  The sale price for the Castor Avenue property in 2015 was $750,000.

Looking at the property for First Philadelphia Prep is another exercise in trying to figure out who is controlling this money.  Another non-profit–Frankford Valley Foundation for Literacy (FVF)–is involved in the finances of this property located at 4300 Tacony Street.  Again, there is no dedicated FVF website; any information must be gleaned from secondary sources. The address for FVF listed on the 990 is also 4300 Tacony Street.  A secondary website shows the principle contact is a Gerald Smith, but on the 990 the principle contact is Mark Piech, who is listed as the Board President.  The debt appears to be somewhere in the $40 million range for this new state-of-the-art school built in 2004.

Tacony Academy Charter’s elementary building is newly purchased, renovated and expanded; the high school is on a separate campus and is new construction. When neighbors raised some objections at the time of the high school property purchase, Santilli’s response to them was, “Would you want to go to Lincoln or Frankford?  Perhaps if American Paradigm and other charters weren’t diverting so much money, Lincoln and Frankford would have the resources they need.  This carelessly flung insult at our public schools goes to the heart of the parasitic nature of this process. Just looking at the buildings on these three different campus sites shines a light on the inequity inherent in this multi-tiered system that favors a few at the expense of many.  The non-profit associated with these buildings is Frankford Valley Foundations for Literacy II.

The 990 for FVFII lists that address as 601 Route 73, Marlton. N.J.–which is the address of Santilli and Thomson LLC.  In fact, per the 990, both Mark Piech and Santilli share the same phone number. And both foundations share the same Board Members one of which is a Patricia Piech (relation to Mark?).  The total of tax-exempt bonds for this 990 equals $31,300,000.

Now the money machine of Santilli and Thomson LLC, American Paradigm, Frankford Foundation for Literacy and Frankford Foundation for Literacy II, along with their paid administrative staffs and related construction companies, is seeking another riverfront real estate deal to the tune of approximately $23,000,000 as per Mr. Santilli’s testimony.  This taxation without representation is yet another reason to deny this application.

To pretend that a well connected and well versed financial machine is not cranking out more charter schools is to ignore what is hiding in plain sight.
It is really hard to defend this application on education outcomes when their entire cohort of schools has NO “Model” achieving schools. The financial institution of Santilli and Thomson LLC was founded by Gerald Santilli (who at one time was the Executive Director for Financial Services for the District) and Michael Thomson.  Mr. Santilli took this knowledge of District financial operations and leveraged a successful financial institution serving the ever growing Charter School business. In addition to the APS schools listed here, Santilli and Thomson count several Philadelphia charter schools as their clients: Charter High School for Architecture and Design (which was recommended for non-renewal last year), Eastern University Charter (which is currently in revocation process),  Global Leadership Academy, Independence Charter, Mariana Bracetti Charter, MaST and MaST II, New Foundations Charter, West Oak Lane Charter, Philadelphia Academy Charter, Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter (a String Theory school and the largest charter in the city), Philadelphia Charter for the Arts and Sciences at Edmunds (a String Theory school), and Richard Allen Charter (recommended for non-renewal last year).

Santilli informed Hearing Officer Alison Peterson that he has stepped down in his capacity at Santilli and Thompson and is now the CEO of APS. However, the Santilli website does still lists him as a principal of the company.

School District Payout to New Charter

The anticipated School District subsidy for this school over the five-year charter is approximately $39,837,160.  This amount should be considered by the Board as it continues to tell us that it will take years to address the issues of toxic buildings and to to get boilers working properly, asbestos removed, lead paint abated, mold removed, rodent and insect infestations remediated. District staff have testified at Finance and Facilities Committee meetings that it will take many years to install air conditioning in public schools. That $39 million should be considered as Board members enter buildings with sheets over the library stacks and remember that the District, for 210 schools, has 7 school librarians.  It should be considered when the Board sees children in crisis stuffed into rooms of 33 or more students.

Community Support

The application lists Attachment 29 as “Community Support.”  The document consists of 19 pages and states at the beginning, “As a result of our extensive outreach, we are including in this attachment, evidence of the outreach, petitions of support from families, letters of intent to enroll, and support from key members of the neighborhood and science community including John Cambridge, CEO, Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, Peter Smith, President, Tacony Civic Association, and Nikola Lonchar,
President/Founder, Tesla Science Foundation and the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle’s School of Business.”  There are no petitions or letters of intent in this attachment.  There are only FIVE letters of support and three of those are from businesses already related and working with the APS schools.  The remainder of the pages seem to be advertisements by TACS for information sessions. This is not evidence of community support.

Vote No

The financial discrepancies, poor academic performance, opaque money deals, incomplete information in the application, and more are all reasons to deny this application.  The first and foremost reason to deny is to do NO additional harm to the District’s public school students.  Do NOT add to the inequity already built into a rigged system of “choice”.