Southwest Leadership Academy Charter Non-Renewal Hearing Report

by  Lynda Rubin

Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School (SLACS) has had less than stellar academic and financial accomplishments for years. The K-8 school in Southwest Philadelphia was originally authorized by the SRC in 2007 as a K-6 at one location, but currently operates out of two rented facilities, (Gr. 3-8) 7107 Paschall Ave, 19142 (its original location) and (Gr K-2) 6901 Woodland Ave, 19142. It has a City-wide admissions designation, but students reside mainly in the local geographical areas and Delaware County (to which some prior students moved while attending SLACS and continued at SLACS). The school’s student composition is 89% African American, 7% Hispanic and 4% White. Asian Pacific and Multiracial. 13% have special needs, 4% are English Language Learners (ELL) and 69% of the population lives in poverty status.

In 2017 the SRC granted the school’s application for amendments to its charter agreement that allowed it to move to a new facility yet to be built at 1300 S. 58th St.; to add 7th and 8th grades; to increase enrollment to 1032 in 2020-21 and 2021-22. SLACS’ enrollment increased to a high of 749 students in 2020-21, then fell to 717 in 2021-22, both years authorized to enroll 1032 students. 

SLACS has purchased the land, but has not broken ground for the new facility.  It is paying for debt service for clearing the almost 6 acres of land at the 1300 S. 58th St. site. Thus, the SLACS Board has incurred a high level of debt without being able to act on its plans.

A major issue for the SLACS Board of Trustees is the incurred long-term debt due to that purchase of land. The school has not been able to meet the financial requirements to procure bonds necessary to fund further development of the site. SLACS has hired several vendors to assist them with their financial morass, including Santilli and Thomson, a financial company that has profited greatly by obtaining contracts from many of the Charter School Boards and Management companies. SLACS has hired an increasing number of financial advisors to assist them with the financial stand-still, with the cost of each vendor adding to the school’s outgoing costs. 

Although the enrollment did not increase to 1032, Leigh Pernell, current CEO and Principal, stated at the non-renewal hearing that the school had “suffered difficulties with meeting the needs of the increased number of students”, particularly with student behavior and special education accommodations for these new students. She also admitted that they did not have a Director of Special Education until January, 2019. The upper grades have experienced high levels of absenteeism.

Among other issues heard at the hearing is that SLACS has single gender classes. The school states this is because of the social differences between the sexes. The SLACS web page cites the following: “This model has evolved into a core component of professional development based on a wealth of brain-based research. The single-gender model also enables scholars to disengage from traditional societal pressures and focus on academic and leadership development.”
The SDP noted that admission to the school was also made by gender, which is not legal.

 According to the CSO (Charter School Office) evaluation report, 2015 PSSA proficiency is lower than both Similar schools and District schools in ELA, Math and Science. The SDP Notice to SLACS’ Board regarding the Non-Renewal of SLACS runs the gamut of systemic academic failures, as well as growing student absentee rates; lack of timely financial standards and practices necessary to support long term financial sustainability. Organizational failures include not maintaining up to date health records of students, the buildings’ State health standards violations and lack of maintenance of Child Find records for all staff clearances to work with children.

In addition, the school did not comply with two of the four conditions it had agreed to in the last renewal agreement. One of those is allowing a legally ineligible Trustee to sit on the Board. This Board Trustee is former PA State Representative Ron Waters, who was forced to resign his office following a bribery conviction in 2015. Not only did the Board not follow through on that condition after signing the Charter Agreement, it acted as if the matter had been taken care of when it was not. Mr. Waters was in fact listed as a voting member in Board minutes during 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 minutes. After several requests from the CSO, the SLACS Board finally presented to the CSO a memo of his resignation on March 30, 2022. As of the hearing, Mr. Waters was currently listed as a Board Emeritus.

 At the non-renewal hearings that took place in January and February, SLACS placed much of the blame for their non-compliance for documentation onto the District’s CSO’s lack of assistance on navigating the CSO website. Ms. Purnell complained that the CSO failed to assist them in documenting attendance to the state during virtual instruction. She said they didn’t know what to do when students walked away from the screens for lengthy periods at home and/or parents interrupted virtual instruction to berate the teacher. She also stated that after return to in-school instruction, if a child had to be quarantined at home, they marked the student absent, even if the child attended virtually. This last is a violation of PA State Dept of Education rules. 

Charter schools were started decades ago as providing a laboratory for innovation that all schools, including public, could adopt. However, with the lack of accountability while being financed by public school dollars, businesses have seen charter schools as marketable products.

SLACS is a school with longstanding academic, enrollment and financial issues that do not appear to be able to be resolved soon, if at all. It should not be renewed.

The last day to submit public comment to the Board is March 12, 2023.