New Charter Application Hearing: Friday, December 20, 2019

by Lynda Rubin   

This hearing presented two new charter applications to the Board: Heath and Science Leadership Academy Charter (HS2L) to be located at 5210 Broad Street, and String Theory/Joan Meyers Brown (JMB) Charter School to be located in Wynnefield.

Despite the fact that this was the first of only two hearings on these applications, and that this was the only one of the two at which public testimony will be heard, the date for this hearing was set for Friday, December 20th, at 4:00 pm–for many the last day before the extended Christmas holiday. APPS members, in testimony at the December Board meeting and in emails to the District, protested this date. The Board did not accede to this request, stating that they were hemmed in by the State’s deadline and that public testimony could be submitted in writing.

Community Fights to Be Heard

Real public engagement means not only allowing educators, parents and community members to attend meetings and speak on important issues, but encouraging them to do so. Putting a banner on the website (2 clicks in) is hardly a substitute for real outreach from the Board.  Being heard and seen as a unified force is far more powerful, obviously, then sending in written testimony seen by a few people. Organizing by APPS and others brought out local school principals, District staff, neighborhood organizations and others who spoke in opposition to both new charters.

To make matters worse, the Board held the meeting in the small committee room, which holds about 50 people, rather than the much larger auditorium. Just before the hearing began, when all seats were taken and the line outside was growing, Lisa stood and asked the Board members in attendance why the meeting was not being moved to the auditorium. No response. With 27 pre-registered speakers on the list, and more allowed to register at the meeting, the Board knew everyone would not fit into the committee room.  Apparently realizing that having 30 people in the atrium holding their own meeting and live-tweeting it was not a good look, District staff finally found chairs and filled in the large empty space in the front of the room so that everyone was able to participate.

Board members Leticia Egea-Hinton, Angela McIver and Mallory Fix-Lopez attended portions of the hearing, presided over by a hearing examiner. Chris McGinley stayed until the last person testified.

Health and Science’s Leadership Academy 

Twelve District high schools have health-related CTE programs that could be compromised by the establishment of a charter school with a similar program. The District should find ways to actively support its current neighborhood schools with CTE programs, including outreach to universities and hospitals.

KHSA staff, students and parents showed up in force to testify about the “underhanded” actions of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) and HS2L CEO Tim Matheny. KHSA Principal Nimet Eren principal recounted that months ago PSP officials offered potential assistance for KHSA’s program, never admitting that they would be using that information for the new charter application or providing a $75,000 start-up grant to HS2L. She welcomed them into the school and thought of PSP as a beneficent group that funded schools in need. Only weeks later did PSP inform her that the “opportunity” they spoke of was actually helping to open a new charter with a model based on KHSA’s. Eren spoke of her shock at PSP’s tactics. Eren testified that KHSA enrolls students at any time, in any grade. HS2L’s application specifically states that they will not enroll new students in 11th and 12th grades.

KHSA’s counselor testified that HS2L CEO Tim Matheney was also welcomed to take a tour and was given access to KHSA’s school plan. Matheney did not disclose his close working relationship with Joseph Neubauer of the Neubauer Foundation or their efforts to support their business plan with more taxpayer/District funds. Neubauer serves as the Chief Board member on Matheney’s Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders. The Neubauer Foundation, which promotes itself as a philanthropic entity, has recently stepped up its grant program, in part, by having the District bring in “Neubauer Fellows” for administrative positions.  Matheney said that approving his charter would somehow be “lifting all boats”. In contrast, the KHSA teachers and parents testified that their school, and others with similar CTE programs could actually be sunk. Another illustration of the level of support for KHSA was the live performance of the Kensington CAPA Drum Core in the atrium as people left the hearing.

String Theory/Joan Myers Brown School

The Joan Myers Brown Charter School, under management of the String Theory company, made two applications to the District last year and was denied both times. Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco, is a living legend in the dance world. One reason the Board denied the previous applications was the fact that it did not include a dance curriculum or propose hiring any dance teachers. This year’s application includes a brief reference to classical ballet and contemporary dance, but refers only to seven  “Arts/Majors Teachers” in Year 3.

String Theory CEO Jason Corosanite, Co-Founder of String Theory Schools, told the Inquirer that he expects JMB to be denied again, as this application differs little from last year’s. He intends to appeal to the state’s Charter Appeal Board.  So much for this charter organization, which claims to be representing the wishes of the community, respecting local control.

Several articles have been written about String Theory’s real estate/business model, including the 2015 Inquirer article by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs, Philly Charters Borrow $500 Million of Taxpayers’ Funds. To hear Corosanite’s testimony, both this year and last, it seems that the community wants and needs this new charter school.  But several members of the Wynnefield Heights Civic and Community Organization came to tell a different story. They testified that String Theory/JMB officials met with them only after the Association found out about the school. They state that many of the 600 signatures of support for JMB come from outside the neighborhood. The Association representatives noted that right across the street from the JMB proposed location is a senior center, and a nursing home is nearby. They also testified that String Theory officials never answered their parking and traffic concerns, nor did they respond to questions about the school’s special education program.  One Association member noted that she has not been able to enroll her autistic child in any charter school. One of the most damning accusations came from one 19131 resident who went to the JBM/ST website. When she clicked the link to “ENROLL”, looking for more information about the school, she was led instead to a petition for people to sign in favor of the proposed charter school. Thus, she questioned the legitimacy of the signatures that String Theory  is now presenting to the Board. She actually took a screen-shot of the page and said that String Theory should delete that page from its website.

Please note that there will be a second meeting in January, date TBA. While the meeting is open to the public, no public testimony will be heard. The Board is accepting WRITTEN TESTIMONY from the public about these two schools up until January 24, 2020.