by Diane Payne
Every application for a new charter school represents an attempt to further the failed experiment on our city’s children. Pride Academy Charter’s application does not provide any assurance that this school would offer an educational experience significantly different from the many existing charter schools that fail to meet basic standards in operation, achievement, and finance. The District, facing a dire financial future, cannot afford any more charter schools. The Board should reject the application from Pride Academy Charter.
The Charter School Office Report included 31 pages of detailed and critical analysis of the many deficiencies in this application. With few exceptions, most sections in the CSO report cited a dearth of supporting evidence in an application heavy on lingo but short on specifics. Although the sub-headings of the CSO report are too numerous to list and include all aspects of the application, the Board must consider the CSO’s analysis of the lack of expertise, background, and community connections of both the sole founding member (who is also the proposed school leader) as well as the proposed board members. It is hard to imagine how to get past this single deficiency when entrusting the lives and education of real students as well as the appropriation of citizens tax dollars let alone the laundry list of documented CSO critiques.
Pride Academy Charter School
- Location: 2106 Haines Street, 19138
- Grades: K-5
- Neighborhood: West Oak Lane
- Projected Enrollment: 360 students
- Management Company: None (OmniVest will manage financial and operational functions)
- Estimated Cost to District for first 5 year term: Per Attachment 34, $23,045,511.
- Estimated Stranded Costs to District over 5 years: $7,021,440
Founding Coalition Members (only one listed): LaToya Johnson
Proposed Board Members:
- Keely James Stewart
- Benita Jessup Ed.D.
- Lamar N. Waples
- Sameerah L. Goodwin
- Christina Waples
- Dr. Janet Thomas
This report outlines the many reasons the Board of Education should reject the Pride Academy Charter School application. The most important reason for denying this and all new charter school applications would be the diversion of taxpayer funds to yet another privately managed school. Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson has reported for months on the uncertain financial future the District faces. His projections show that we may be staring down another “bare-bones budget”, including staff layoffs and closing of more neighborhood schools. The fact that the District has not been able to fully repair the infrastructure and remediate the asbestos and lead crisis is no secret to Philadelpians. These toxic environments have led to the terminal illness of at least one teacher and have affected students and staff with existing health issues, particularly those with asthma. Toxic schools mean future health issues for adults and children. Monson has also noted the ever-growing annual allotments to charter operators. The effects of the diversion of public money to privately managed schools has been addressed in expert testimony from former Education Law Center attorney David Lapp and Temple Law School Professor Susan DeJarnett .
Lapp’s 2015 testimony to the SRC holds true today: “It is my advice that you should include in the record of each applicant, the fact that the district has been declared fiscally distressed, the fact that the elimination of the charter reimbursement line item has force district schools to bear the burden of stranded charter costs, and evidence of how charter expansion has caused a reduction in district-provided services.There is no risk to including these additional claims. If you never raise them, they will be waived and the CAB and the courts could be prevented from considering them,even if they are inclined to do so on their own. On the other hand, if you raise them and lose on those issues, then you are in the same position as if you never raised them to begin with.” (bold added)
Charters were sold as places where, unencumbered by regulations and union protections, innovation could flourish, but that came to fruition in very few charters. The sound bites of charter investors have changed: they still say parents should have a choice, but they no longer advertise a “better” choice. Now that charters have been incorporated into most city school districts, people can see that they have done nothing to improve education; in fact, many are clearly failing their students when measured by objective standards. The state’s charter law has ensured that the process of closing substandard charters is a cumbersome and expensive one. Despite the effusive edu-jargon, charters use the same packaged curricula and testing methods of the data-driven agenda, not innovation or teacher creativity, Barriers to enrollment, administrative connections with existing failing charter schools, and intrusive employment practices have become common among charter schools.
Charter operators have been cited for their lack of transparency and accountability. Pride Academy Charter’s application furthers those concerns. Even for something as simple as getting signatures of community support, Attachment 31 shows that six of the signatures are duplicates who signed as both community members and business owners. The Narrative states (p. 69) that $15,000 needed for start-up would be secured through a grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership or a loan. But other than a vague letter of support from PSP, there is no commitment to financial backing.
A private pre-K-5 school currently occupies the building at 2106 Haines Street. No mention of any co-location could be found in the Narrative. Five schools, three charter and two public, occupy this zip code as well. Further charter intrusion would not not benefit any of these schools.
Page 11 of the school’s enrollment policy lists seventeen documents that parents must complete before admission, including: Pride’s application, photo/video release, field trip permission, Medical Authorization, Release of Student Records, Home Language Survey, Parent Registration Statement, Emergency Information Sheet, Most Recent Report Card/Test Scores. Four additional forms on the checklist state that they need not be completed on entry, thus conflicting with previous instructions on page 6 which state: “All forms in the “Registration Checklist: to assist parents/guardians in ensuring that all necessary paperwork is accounted for and submitted to PACS. All paperwork and documentation, as indicated in the packet must be returned.”
All students moving up to the next grade at Pride must submit a letter of intent in order to retain their seats. Noted on Page 4 of the Enrollment Policy: “Currently, enrolled students are exempt from the lottery and are guaranteed enrollment in the next academic year if the following step is completed: a. Re-enrollment Packet: Parents will to [sic] complete the re-enrollment packet for each child that is currently enrolled and returning for the following academic year. The re-enrollment packet must be completed in full and submitted by the specified date to ensure the student is re-enrolled. If the packet is not received by the specified date, the student’s space is no longer reserved and may be filled by the next student on the waiting list.” In contrast, students in public schools must provide only four documents to be admitted to PA public schools: proof of age, proof of address, immunization record, and sign a sworn statement regarding the child’s disciplinary record. The Pride admission policy is rife with barriers to enrollment.
Pride Academy Charter proposes a Project-Based Learning (PBL) model. The application does not clearly define how the various grades would actually implement the PBL model or how students would be assessed on projects. Actually, the Pride narrative refers to typical methods of data collection, testing, progress monitoring, and packaged curricula. While the narrative stresses that reading instruction was paramount, it is impossible to discern which materials would be used in this instruction. The Curriculum attachment lists specific skills for ELA but does not specify instruction materials. Math instruction will follow McGraw-Hill’s “MyMath program”. Science instruction will employ Nancy Larsen Science. Social Studies will use Pearson Social Studies, the only one of the proposed subject curricula to specifically advertise PBL use. Project work represents only one item on a long list of assessment tools including: classroom assessments, performance tasks, benchmarks, DIBELS, Fountas & Pinnell, PSSA, PVAS, Future Ready PA index. This list reflects that of assessments used throughout the city’s public schools.
Curriculum and Culture
Searching the application for innovating and distinguishing characteristics turns up little but does quote the prevailing edu-jargon. Page 12 of the narrative proposes a student/teacher ratio of 20:1. (Imagine how successful District schools could be with that ratio.) However, their goal for fully certified staff is 75% or above. Possibly the cost savings in not having fully certified staff can enable such a ratio? The narrative refers to restorative practices on page 15 but includes no explanation of when and how this will be used. Just a few pages later, Pride alludes to “zero tolerance” language in reference to issues around student discrimination and disrespect. Does the Pride founder know that zero tolerance and restorative practice represent opposite approaches to student discipline? Shouldn’t an experienced principal know that?
Pride highlights a positive reinforcement technique labeled “Pride Club” (jp. 27). The description of Pride Club uses the same techniques that District schools have used for years: marbles in a jar, school dollars, green, yellow, red traffic signs, and more. Pride states they will recognize students monthly and provide incentives for “doing the right thing.” The only hint of creativity in Pride’s technique is using their own name as the acronym.
Page 44 of the narrative notes the school’s commitment to hiring 75% or above certified teachers. A real innovation, at least among charter schools, would be a commitment to 100%.
Attachment 20, Personnel Policies, raises serious questions about employees rights and privileges as a citizen and human outside of the employment of Pride Charter. Page 4 states: “A. Employees shall not engage in any outside employment, activity or enterprise for compensation, which is inconsistent, incompatible, or in conflict with his/her duties with PACS. Examples include, but are not limited to:
- Use of school time, facilities, equipment, supplies, prestige or influence in a manner clearly for private gain or advantage.
- Receipt or acceptance of money or other consideration from other than the school for an activity which employee is expected to render in the regular course or hours of his/her employment with the School, i.e., student instruction.
- Any activity which results in the employee’s service to the school being less than Satisfactory. (bold added)
- Employees shall inform the CEO/Principal of his/her intent to engage in any outside activity or employment. The CEO/Principal shall advise employees in writing regarding the appropriateness of any such outside activity.” (Bold added)
The personnel policy includes highly intrusive requirements for employee disclosure of outside activities and employment that the CEO/Principal must approve. The school’s electronic hand-scan method of recording employee attendance raises alarms about the administration’s respect for employee privacy. That and the monitoring of employees’ outside activities stem from the at-will status of all employees. (See details below in Curriculum and Culture.) Staff members without job security know that raising concerns or objections to these autocratic policies can result in termination. At-will employment status also reduces staff’s ability to advocate for their students for fear of reprisal. Would a teacher face retribution for supporting a certain political candidate or initiative? A troubling double-standard arises when Pride CEO/Principal LaToya Johnson can demand employee adherence to strict oversight of outside endeavors and employment while she maintains her position as CEO/Principal of an existing charter school, West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School (WPACH). Actually, Johnson has only served as WPACH CEO/Principal since 2019. The school provides no SPR information on the District website despite its establishment in 2002. The Charter School Office’s last renewal report indicates the school failed to meet standards in achievement, operations, or finance. The fact that Pride has only one founding coalition member indicates a lack of professional and community support for this proposed charter.
There are five schools in the 19138 area of this proposed location:
- Three Charter Schools: West Oak Lane Charter School, K-8; Wissahickon Charter School, Awbury Campus, K-8; Pastorius Mastery, K-8
- Two Public Schools: Anna B. Day, PreK-8; Pennypacker, PreK-7
- Page 59 of the Pride Narrative notes that although enrollment is citywide, five zip codes within two miles of the school will be targeted: 19119, 19126, 19141, 19144, and 19150 This page also incorrectly lists only two public schools and two charter schools within the 19138 zip code.
The application lists only one founding member: LaToya Johnson. Ms. Johnson has spent her career in brief employment stints at various charter schools with no long-term commitment to any. She has served as the principal of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School (WPACS) since 2019. Juggling the important position of school leader (especially in these uncertain times) while simultaneously founding another school raises questions about her commitment to either position. The 2015/16 WPACS renewal came with a laundry list of conditions many of which fell into the “barriers to enrollment” category.
Proposed Board Members
- Keely James Stewart is an attorney.
- Benita Jessup holds an Ed.D and worked at the School District of Philadelphia from 2007-2013 as an elementary teacher. Since then, she has worked in Chester County Charter Schools (CCCS), whose schools are managed by CSMI, the for-profit management company founded by controversial lawyer and GOP donor Vahan Gureghian. A 2019 Washington Post article enumerated CCCS’s failures: “CCCS students perform worse on state tests than students in the school district of Chester Upland. Its students also do worse than the students attending the other charter school in town. In 2016-2017, only 5 percent of CCCS students scored as proficient in math, with a whopping 80 percent scoring below basic. Only 14 percent scored proficient in English language arts.” This is hardly a reference which promises success.
- Lamar N. Waples holds degrees in business and whose employment history is in business. He currently serves on the Board of Mathematics, Civics and Science (MCS) Charter School. Founding member Johnson stated at Pride’s January 25th District hearing that Waples would continue to maintain his seat on the MCS board as well as the Pride Board. As noted above, MCS charter school was recommended for non-renewal for failure to meet standards but renewed when MCS agreed to hire a special education master. After a two-year postponement due to the school’s refusal to accept conditions, the Board of Education granted a renewal in October 2019 after agreeing to remove a surrender clause that would have imposed deadlines for the school to meet all standards. The school had met standards in none of the three major categories. MCS did accept the District’s unusual condition that they accept a Special Education master to oversee that program. At the October 2019 Board meeting, an attorney from the Education Law Center (ELC) urged the Board to vote not to renew the school’s charter for the reasons given here and because ELC was representing a family who had brought suit against MCS for discrimination.
- Sameerah L. Goodwin has no education experience; her degrees and experience are in business.
- Christina Waples has no education experience; her degrees and experience are in accounting.
- Dr. Janet Thomas worked for the School District of Philadelphia from 1976-2001. Her resume indicates that her duties were administrative; she lists no actual classroom teaching experience. Thomas has worked in ministry positions since then.