By Lisa Haver
Frederick Douglass Charter High School
700 North Broad Street and 1415 Fairmount Avenue 19130
Enrollment: Year 1, 2019-20— Grades 9-10, 250 students; Year 5— 500 students in grades 9-12
Cost to SDP for 5-year term: $29,741,677
Members of the People for People (PFP) organization have applied to open an additional high school, Frederick Douglass Charter High School (FDCHS), at two different locations—700 No. Broad Street and 1415 Fairmount Avenue.
The opening narrative of the application enumerates issues that hinder student achievement, including “pervasive poverty…poor housing conditions….single parent households”, then goes on to imply that granting this application would solve those problems: “…FDCHS will be founded to serve as the innovative high school educational arm of People for People, Inc.—a community development corporation devoted to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty in the lives of North Central Philadelphia residents by providing them with positive alternatives to gangs, drugs, welfare, and crime.” The application states that allowing PFP to open a new charter will help to “break the cycle of intergenerational poverty”. (Board of Education Vice-President Wayne Walker serves on the board of People for People, Inc.) It’s a lofty goal, and one that its existing charter, in operation for 17 years, has not made a dent in. The narrative asserts: “FDCHS will enroll students of all abilities and needs. Our goal is to ensure our students’ academic growth is consistently higher than the national average during the charter term.” That is doubtful in light of the fact that PFP has failed to do so in its existing school.
Concerns cited by the Charter Schools Office at the January 22 hearing include:
- Application lacks specific detail in many sections
- Text-messaging program is not coupled with human social workers
- Insufficient evidence of clear academic approach to subgroups
- Budgetary concerns
- Use of two addresses: 1415 Fairmount and 700 N. Broad
- Neither building is ready for use as a school
- Three members of Founding Coalition are employed by existing operator or related entities
- Section on Founding Coalition in application not complete
- There is no gym in the proposed floor plan
- Amount of credits required for graduation would be hard for students to complete
- In general, application failed to present compelling case for new charter
Answers to questions posed by Hearing Examiner Alison Petersen indicated that issues about overlap among the existing school, the proposed school, the Church, and People for People Inc. had not been adequately resolved by the applicant. In addition, several items mentioned in the narrative were not included in the budget. In keeping with the applicant’s efforts to distance themselves from People for People in both the application and the hearing, Mr. Pri Seebradi, who answered most of the questions, presented himself as leader of the founding coalition even though he is not on that list submitted in the application.
People for People Academic Achievement
PFP has operated a charter at 800 N. Broad since 2001. In 2013, despite low academic achievement and fiscal management issues, the SRC granted PFP an amendment that allowed the school to expand from a K-8 to a K-12. In its 2015 Evaluation Report, the school failed to meet standards in any of the three major categories.
- K-8: SPRs for SY 2013-14 through SY 2017-18: 35% (Watch), three years in Intervene at 9%-5%-5%
- HS: SPR for SY 2017-18: 8% Intervene
(No explanation is given for why PFP HS was not assigned an SPR until last year.) Clearly, PFP has shown that they are not providing anything close to a high-quality education for its students. The organization has not demonstrated that this is a model to be replicated.
The applicant promises an “innovative” school, but there is little evidence of that. The Reading, Math, and Science curricula are all based on products purchased from Pearson, the largest global testing corporation.
Despite interactive notes in the narrative from a consultant previously employed at the District’s Charter Schools Office, there are several other indications that the applicant does not recognize its inconsistencies. For example, it states: “Through the establishment of a positive school environment, we seek to educate the whole child—intellectually, physically, and morally—in a model that values rigorous academics, emphasizes wellness, and develops students’ character.” But it also emphasizes that they will rely on data-driven instruction, giving a long list of standardized tests and benchmarks that students will take throughout the year—in addition to those required by the state. There is nothing innovative about the test-based, data-driven program the applicant intends to implement. “As part of our school-wide academic focus, FDCHS will utilize a data-driven model that centers instructional planning and instruction around a system of assessments that is linked to the standards.” The school will use “personalized” learning, which puts students in front of computers for instruction and assessment. That lessens the time students can learn from and build relationships with their teachers. Remediation would also be offered through online programs: “To support those students in need of academic intervention, FDCHS will offer research-based intervention curricula that include Core Plus Mathematics and Reading Plus.”
The application does not explain how requiring students to read the memoir of 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson as part of the Science curriculum would further students’ understanding of Science. “Specifically, all teachers will be required to read the following texts: Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, and Get Better Faster.” None of these books is about teaching the whole child.
Another inconsistency appears in the applicants’ claim to have an entrepreneurial program. But the longer day and year would make it difficult for high school students to have jobs.
One of the most serious causes for concern is the applicant’s proposal to contract with MindRight, whose CEO answered questions at the January 22 hearing as a member of the Founding Coalition. That seems to be an obvious conflict, although apparently not obvious to the applicants. The application emphasizes a “trauma-informed” program, which amounts, for the most part, to having students text people they have never met to discuss confidential matters about their emotional and mental health. When Ms. Petersen asked what qualifications MindRight requires of staff, Ms. Edwards replied that they had to complete 20 hours of training and have “a passion for serving youth”. Students can text someone at this company and receive “personal” advice—but only after submitting personal contact information to set up an account. The privacy issues raised by Ms. Petersen were not adequately addressed by the applicants.
Frederick Douglass Charter Staff
FDCHS Teachers would be at-will employees with no workplace protections or job security: “Frederick Douglass Charter High School is free to terminate any employee or change the employee’s wages, benefits and other working conditions, anytime, with or without cause or prior notice, for any reason.” The employee code actually prohibits conversation among employees about their salary, presumably upon threat of termination. This policy, which allows the school to fire any teacher at any time without due process hardly furthers stability or help to build relationships in a “trauma-informed” school. Teacher evaluations would be conducted using a template from the New Teacher Project (TNTP). The application states: “Members of the Founding Coalition have enjoyed a long relationship with Teach for America (TFA) and have sourced dozens of high-quality teachers from TFA over the years. Many of them have emerged as successful school leaders across the country. FDCHS intends to partner with TFA and utilize them as a significant source of educator talent.” In same paragraph, however, they assert that they will have highly-qualified teachers. TFA provides minimal training for candidates, usually 5-6 weeks.
Reverend Herbert H. Lusk, Pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church and CEO of People for People, Inc.
Dale Ashley, CPA
Andrew Bell, Camden School District administrator
Corey Dwyer, Principal of People for People Charter
Ashley Edwards, Co-founder and CEO of MindRight
Robert Farmer, banker
Anita Gregory, former case manager at APM
Atiya Harmon, former teacher at People for People
Alina Liao, Co-founder and CEO of MindRight
Michelle Martin, Executive Administrator at Greater Exodus
Angelo Perryman, construction company operator
Anna Shurak, former School District of Philadelphia administrator
Judy Williams, consulting/marketing
Four members of the founding coalition spoke at the January 22 hearing;
each one was an employee or contractor of People for People or a member of Rev. Lusk’s church. There are a number of people affiliated with the Church (which owns one of the proposed properties), People for People Inc, or the existing PFP charter. In addition, two members of the Coalition are CEOs of MindRight, the company that would be entering into a lucrative contract with the school. How would that not be a conflict?
Members also include people affiliated with People for People and Greater Exodus
Dale Ashley, CPA
Robert Farmer, head of Urban America, a real estate company connected to Greater Exodus
Anita Gregory, Secretary for community org/presentations/speeches Greater Exodus
Michelle Martin, Executive Administrator at Greater Exodus
Dr. Judy Williams, former managing director of People for People
When Ms. Petersen asked Mr. Sibradi who would appoint the Board, he responded that it was “a chicken and egg situation”.
Code of Conduct
The application states: “Disciplinary hearing, which may result in a recommendation to the Board of Directors for expulsion for the most serious (i.e., non-minor and/or violent) offenses.” In most cases, that would mean the student would transfer to a District school, which is required to admit all students. Charter schools are not required to accept or retain all students.
Finances and Management
PFP’s most recent District charter evaluation states : “The charter school does not fully adhere to generally accepted standards of fiscal management, as indicated by failure to meet any one of the criteria.”
The school’s management organization, OmniVest, has been a charter school vendor for almost 20 years in the Philadelphia School. OmniVest specializes in new charter construction and also has a contract with Franklin Towne Charter. Additional financial monitoring processes include those provided by OmniVest, such as budget preparation, financial reporting, continued monitoring and development of policies, and federal grant accounting compliance.
The application states: “FDCHS intends to lease from People for People, Inc. the owner of 700 North Broad Street, 19131 a triple frontage property located on the corner of Broad Street, Ridge & Fairmount Avenues.” Also:
“On or about July 1, 2020, FDCHS will lease approximately 7,500 square feet at 1415 Fairmount Avenue, located within 150 feet of the 700 N. Broad Street facility. This space will be leased from Greater Exodus Baptist Church and is currently a newly constructed vanilla shell will all HVAC, electric, and plumbing already installed.” Information in the attachments show that $259,000 rent would be paid to People for People Inc in Year One, up to $488, 198 in Year Five. Rent to Greater Exodus in Year One would be $168, 753 up to $179, 729 in Year Five. Why does People for People want to open another high school? Their existing high school has only been in operation for 5 years. This seems to be more about conducting real estate deals for two properties in a rapidly developing area that enrich landlords and real estate brokers than about providing education opportunities for students.
Total Philadelphia School District revenues for the 5-year term would be $29,741,677.
It is difficult, as is the case in most charter transactions, for the layperson to follow the money involved here. This excerpt from Greg Windle’s recent Notebook article provides a roadmap:
When the original charter school acquired and renovated its building, it entered into a circular leasing arrangement with a middleman.
After Lusk purchased the original building on behalf of the charter school, he gave the building to People for People Inc., one of his other nonprofits. But it did not directly lease the building back to the charter school. Instead, People for People Inc. leased the building to Omnivest, a company that Lusk contracted to outsource the school’s business services. Then, Omnivest sublet most of the building back to the charter school.
So the charter school paid rent to Omnivest, which in turn paid rent to People for People, which used it pay the debt service on the loans that the school used to buy the building. But in 2010, the City Controller’s Office reported that Internal Revenue Service documents for the school and the parent nonprofit had “differences” in the amount of rent paid by the school and the amount that the parent nonprofit ultimately spent – the appearance of a profit made by either Omnivest or People or People Inc., but not for the school.
Omnivest is owned by Benjamin Robin Eglin, who appeared at the hearing to speak on behalf of Frederick Douglass Charter School because Douglass also planned to contract Omnivest for its business services. Eglin assembled the proposed budget. He also owns Mandrel Construction Co., which Lusk contracted to renovate buildings with much of the loan money. Englin was also the chief financial officer of People for People Inc. as recently as 2010, but he has since stepped down.
Omnivest was removed as the middleman, and now People for People Charter School rents from People for People Inc., just as the new school would.
The existing school still appears to pay more in rent than the parent nonprofit actually spends.
In 2016, the school’s IRS filing shows that it paid nearly $1.2 million in “rent and shared services” to People for People Inc. That same year, People for People Inc. spent only $860,000 paying down its mortgage. So on paper it appears the remaining $300,000 was for “shared services.”
Most letters express support for Reverend Lusk but do not refer to the success or lack thereof of the organization’s existing charter. Two are from PFP-sponsored organizations, including the Hope Pregnancy clinic.
The applicants stress their commitment to the Francisville community, but for some reason includes the Olney/Logan (19120) as a targeted area.
The school intends to accept applications sent via “Apply Philly Charter”,a website operated by the Philadelphia School Partnership. It is unclear who will make the initial decision about which applications will be considered by the school. If there are still spaces available, a lottery will be held. This is confusing as families of founding coalition members have preference as do those in targeted zip codes. Applications would be placed on a waiting list which is only good for one year. Interested families would have to reapply each year.
After reviewing the application and attachments, and after hearing the testimony of the People for People representatives at both rounds of public hearings, it is clear that there is no reason for the Board of Education to approve that organization’s opening a second high school. In fact, there are numerous reasons to deny the application for Frederick Douglass Charter High School (PFPFD). The applicants fail to make a case that this neighborhood needs another charter school. They fail to demonstrate that this organization should be allowed to operate another school. Since People for People already runs a high school, this application amounts to a request to expand their existing school at two more campuses. It is hard to reach any conclusion other than this is a actually a real estate deal which would enrich the parties involved. The school district does not need any new charter schools. The district clearly cannot afford any new charter schools. The district does not have the capacity to oversee its existing 87 charters. Diverting even more of the district’s budget to more charters will result in the continuing defunding of the district’s public schools. The Board should vote No on this application.