Universal Charter School at Audenried

Two years after completion of the long-awaited $55 million new Audenried building, the SRC gave control of the school to Universal Charters to open as a Renaissance charter in August 2011. Students and educators at Audenried fought to keep community control, but the SRC voted in favor of Universal. The District had been in negotiation with Universal before ground was broken. According to a May 22, 2003 story in the South Philly Review:  “Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies has been linked to the future of Audenried for the past year. The nonprofit organization that promotes neighborhood improvement and investment already manages three city schools and manages a charter of its own. ‘The District is negotiating with Universal to determine what role the organization will play in the new high school,’  [District spokesperson Amy] Guerin said.”  After Universal moved in, the District continued to pay for all operating costs.l

  • 2011: SRC voted to give control of Audenried to Universal                                                        
  • 2015:    CSO recommends non-renewal after Universal fails to meet standards in all major categories
  • 2016:    SRC tables non-renewal resolution indefinitely
  • 2017:    CSO updated evaluation shows Audenried fails to meet standards
  • 2019:    CSO updated evaluation shows Audenried fails to meet standards
  • 2019:    Board votes to approve renewal with surrender clause as agreed to by Universal
  • 2020:    Board does not evaluate compliance with conditions in surrender clause
  • 2021:    Board places Audenried in next cohort, CSO recommends 5-year renewal with new surrender clause

Universal Audenried High School at 3301 Tasker Street in Grays Ferry was taken over by Universal Companies in 2011 as part of the District’s Renaissance initiative. Universal promised to “effect dramatic change” as part of its Renaissance charter agreement. District data,  in-person observations, and state and federal reports over the past ten years show that Universal has failed to keep that promise.  Universal acknowledged its poor performance in its 2019 renewal agreement with the District. Every evaluation over the past ten years shows Universal failing to meet standards in all major categories. The CSO 2021 renewal evaluation again shows Audenried failing to meet standards in every major category.  Yet the CSO recommends that Universal continue to operate Audenried for 5 more years, until 2026.

The 2019 Item approved by the Board stipulates  that “...the Charter School has agreed to comply with certain performance requirements (“Performance Requirements”) as set forth below. Failure to comply with the Performance Requirements may be a basis for revocation or nonrenewal of the Charter School’s Charter…FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Charter School acknowledges and agrees that if the Charter School does not fully satisfy any of the “Conditions for Renewal” set forth in the Charter, the Charter School will irrevocably surrender and forfeit its Charter and will close no later than June 30, 2021.”  [bold added]

The Board, however,  has chosen not to enforce the mutual agreement for surrender and will most likely allow Audenried to operate for another 5 years. The 2021 evaluation shows that Universal Audenried scored below District schools in all tested subjects every year of the past term.  The District’s school profile shows Audenried’s SPR Achievement rates for the  last 3 tested years:  0%–0%–2%, placing it in  Intervene, the lowest rating. 

The school’s current enrollment is 548, less than the authorized maximum of 705.  Audenrieds’s chronic absenteeism skyrocketed from 11% to 66% from 2016-17 to 2017-18.  Subsequent years show chronic absenteeism at 66% and 55%.  The CSO evaluation gives no explanation.  Audenried’s teacher retention falls at 6.3 years compared to the District’s 13.2 years average. Audenried’s in-catchment enrollment, according to the District’s latest profile page, was at 28% despite its Renaissance charter status. 

One of the biggest red flags may be Audenried’s expulsion of 37 students over the years 2017 to 2020. With 538 students, that means Universal expelled 6% of Audenried’s  enrollment. (For comparison, the District expelled, after public Board votes,  36 of its 119, 000 students–0.03%.) In 7 of the 37 cases, Universal did not provide required 3-day notice of hearing, in violation of Chapter 12 mandates.  In 6 of the 37 cases, no hearing notice was provided to students’ families.  Of the 31 notices actually provided, only 1 was delivered as required by certified mail. Of the 37 expulsions,  35 showed no record of the required Board vote.   

Another red flag  is Universal’s ongoing violations of required background checks.  The CSO report states that “multiple employees were found to have expired background checks during the charter term.”  Specifically: “3 of 10 employees’ did not have evidence of active background checks for the duration of the charter term. 6 of 10 employees did not have evidence of active PA Child Abuse Clearances throughout the charter term. 5 of 10 employees did not have evidence of active PA Criminal Background checks throughout the charter term. 2 of 4 employee files reviewed found that Act 168 Documentation was not completed until at least three (3) years after their initial hire date.” How does Audenried “approach” the Organizational standard with these violations? 

Audenried has not met financial standards in any evaluation in its ten years of Universal control. The report cites a number of questionable financial practices, including the fact that official checks were still being signed by Universal’s former CFO, who had been placed on administrative leave. In addition, the  2021 CSO report states: “In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, in-kind revenues of $174,500 were received from Universal Education Companies, Inc., a related party. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, in-kind revenues of $176,250 were received from Universal Education Companies, Inc. a related party, in lieu of payment for management fees.”

Universal Education Companies collected approximately $349,292 in management fees in 2018-19. The 2018 IRS 990 forms show that Universal paid CEO Penny Nixon $209, 088 in annual salary and compensation. Based on the District’s most recent projected costs, the District will pay more than $45 million to operate Audenried for the next five years. 

Universal promised to turn Audenried around, but in fact the school has failed to meet District performance levels, let alone improve the school. The Board should put the needs of the students in the community first. There is no reason to vote to renew Universal’s charter. The Board should follow the CSO’s original recommendation and vote for non-renewal of Audenried. Return control of this neighborhood school to community control.