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Charters serving at-risk students plead for another chance

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Recent recommendations from District staff to close two charters have set up a difficult question for the School Reform Commission.

Should charters whose mission is to take in the students who are most at-risk – those in foster care, children who have suffered trauma, youth returning from juvenile placement – be shut down if their test scores don't match up to the standard applied at other schools?

Supporters of Arise Academy and Hope Charter defended their schools at the SRC meeting Thursday night. The two high schools are awaiting an SRC vote April 19 on renewal of their charter. Both learned just days ago that the District staff is recommending that the SRC not renew their charters. Such a vote would close their schools down.

Arise Academy, located in Center City, specifically focuses on serving students who have been in placement with the Department of Human Services, which includes the demographic group at highest risk of dropping out. At Hope Charter, in West Oak Lane, many of the 440 students are in foster care, and its mission is to take in students who have left or been pushed out of other schools.

Hope, which was founded in 2001, has an SPI (school performance index) score of 10, the lowest possible, and is up for its second renewal. Arise Academy, which is in just its third full year of operation, has no SPI score because there is not enough comparative data. This is the first time that Arise is seeking charter renewal.

“We are potentially being penalized for staying true to our mission,” Hope principal Eric Worley told the commission.

Worley’s statement prompted SRC Chair Pedro Ramos to ask directly whether Worley believed the school should be held to a different standard.

“We would like the possibility of being measured in a different way because of the special population we serve,” Worley replied, to applause from the school’s supporters at the meeting.

Gabriel Kuriloff, who has been the CEO of Arise Academy only since June, made a similar plea.

“The data presented by the charter office in no way does justice to what we have accomplished and will accomplish,” he said.

Arise student Mikal Smith told the SRC that the “Arise family structure and support has allowed me to grow and overcome obstacles, my biggest obstacle sometimes being me. In my opinion, Arise seems to be doing the best they can, and they have my back.”

Representatives of both schools acknowledged rocky periods in their history, but reiterated that it takes time to figure out the most effective way to deal with children who have been failed in every other aspect of their lives.

“No question that we have faced challenges and missteps,” Kuriloff  said. “But we make a promise to our students that Arise will always be there for them.”

Several community activists who work with foster-care youth also testified as to the need for schools like this.

Frank Cerbone is the director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which organizes pro-bono attorneys for abused and neglected children. He pointed out that a 2006 report by Project U-Turn found that 75 percent of students in foster care and 90 percent of students returning from juvenile placement drop out of high school.

“This was an indictment of our failure to meet their needs,” Cerbone said. Acknowledging that Arise’s road has been as “rocky as that of some of our kids,” he said that nevertheless, “this community needs Arise.”

Lisa Hixenbaugh, a mental health professional who works at Hope, spoke about the students' academic challenges. “These students have difficulty focusing and concentrating in class, difficulty processing information, forming trusting relationships, controlling their behavior, modulating their emotions, difficulty imagining a future. They have difficulties in class and are poor test takers.”

Arise has 155 students, Kuriloff said outside the meeting, and he pointed out that a few students going missing can severely impact attendance and testing participation data.

“We had four kids go to jail over Christmas break,” he said.

Regardless, he said, “We are adding value. We had an 18-person band. These are kids who never touched an instrument before. Now they have a summer performance schedule.”

As far as figuring out a model to work for these students, Kuriloff said, “We are at the edge of this. We feel we have a unique and powerful vision.

“I know we are not doing as well as we need to, but the District isn’t doing any better [with this population of students]. But the kids love it. They want a home and a family.”

The SRC is under pressure to close low-performing charters. If the only schools targeted for closure are schools like Hope and Arise that were formed to serve severely at-risk populations, that could prove problematic.

Ramos said later that this was a "fair issue to raise."

Both Arise and Hope urged SRC members to visit before making a decision. SRC member Lorene Cary, whose nonprofit organization, Art Sanctuary, has worked in Arise, said that she is still trying to absorb and understand all the information she can before drawing conclusions.

The issue of treating the most at-risk students differently "also comes up in the safety committee," said Cary, who chairs the SRC body that is looking into school climate. "We have to be careful when we are thinking about expectations," and how expectations affect student behavior and achievement.

A third charter also has been recommended by staff for non-renewal, according to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard, who would not identify the school. All three schools have an opportunity this week to provide a written rebuttal of the District's case for non-renewal, Gallard said.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.