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SRC votes not to renew three charters

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by Oscar Wang

The SRC took a first step tonight to shut down three charter schools: Arise Academy and Hope Charter, both of which have a mission to serve severely at-risk students, and Truebright Science Academy.

As representatives from the three schools made their cases for renewal, the SRC asked tough questions. The answers provided did not persuade the commission to reverse the three non-renewal recommendations made by the District's charter school office.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett challenged all three charters to clearly outline a plan to turn their schools around. Implementation of good ideas is key to success, he said, not just the ideas themselves.

Hope Charter administrator Cassandra Russo mainly disputed the District’s use of state standardized test scores to assess the academic accountability of the school. The charter focuses on students who were expelled or voluntarily left other schools, and includes some foster children and those returning from incarceration. Up for renewal for the second time, it received the lowest score possible on the District's measure of quality, the School Performance Index.

The commissioners’ questions centered on the school’s priorities, student retention, and attendance trends.

Ultimately, commissioners were unconvinced that Hope deserved another five-year charter, voting 4-0 for non-renewal. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky was absent.

“This should have been taken care of when the school was created,” Commissioner Pritchett said, referring to the school’s recently developed turnaround plans.

"You have a track record, a long period of time, so it's harder to say you haven't had the time to figure some things out,” added SRC Chair Pedro Ramos.

Truebright was looking for its first renewal. It was asked to explain a drastic drop in performance indicators. In 2010, the school registered an attendance rate of 96.18 percent; the following year, the rate dropped to 81.12 percent.

In terms of academic performance, Truebright met six out of six performance targets under No Child Left Behind in 2010. In 2011, it missed all six entirely.

Bekir Duz, CEO of Truebright, spent his three-minute testimony taking issue with an article in Thursday's Inquirer that focused on his school’s alleged ties to a Turkish religious group. Calling the report “hearsay,” Duz said that the story “waste[s] everybody’s time.”

Truebright board member Baki Acikel contended that an Inquirer story in March 2011 damaged the school’s atmosphere last year and caused low morale among students. He blamed that for the low test scores.

SRC members questioned the Truebright administrators about the test scores, attendance data, and erroneous reporting of data to the state. Ultimately, they voted 4-0 not to renew the charter.

Duz told the Notebook that his school plans to appeal to the state. Schools can stay open during the appeals process.

The recommendation not to renew Arise Academy's charter was clearly the most controversial decision of the three for the commissioners.

Commissioners expressed interest in giving the school time to improve, but said they were not willing to give the school a five-year renewal.

Arise, in partnership with the city Department of Human Services, is the nation's first charter to specifically serve foster children. Beyond its academic program, the school offers social support services to guide students toward graduation -- and eventual emancipation at age 18. Seeking its first renewal, the school does not have enough data available to be given a score on the School Performance Index.

Student Myliesha Baker told the SRC that she felt like a “mute” before matriculating to Arise. “At Arise,” she said, “I felt like it was safe to speak.”

Arise CEO Gabriel Kuriloff touted his school’s value-based program, individualized support for each student, and teachers and staff specially trained to care for foster children.

Students like Baker, he said, are “not victims of the system, but empowered agents of systemic change."

“Invest heavily in our success," he told the SRC.

Ramos said that Kuriloff "couldn't be more compelling in stating the need for a school [like] Arise." But he expressed concern that despite the “best intentions and successes,” the school would not be able to implement its strategy.

After a discussion on attendance, intensive skill remediation, engaging curriculum, and Arise’s finances and leadership, members of the SRC seemed to be willing to give the school another chance.

However, Commissioners Ramos and Pritchett both said they did not believe Arise deserved a five-year charter.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun expressed the same concerns as her colleagues, but said she felt “really uncomfortable with the options” in front of her. If the SRC issued a non-renewal notice to Arise, Houstoun was concerned that Arise would be “putting a lot of human resources and energy into an appeal while they can spend it on their school.”

State law does authorize the SRC to grant one-year renewals of charters in situations where there is insufficient performance data on a school, but the SRC did not publicly consider that option for Arise.

In the end, the commissioners voted for non-renewal, 3-1, with only Lorene Cary dissenting. However, Ramos said that the SRC would be willing to work with the school.

“The process triggered here [with the non-renewal notice] is a beginning, not an end,” he said, mentioning the possibility of a “mutual agreement” that would help Arise improve and continue operating as long as there was sufficient evidence that the school was implementing real changes.

On Monday, the District posted documents summarizing its review of each charter renewal up for consideration, including the staff recommendations against renewing the charters of the three schools.

Supporters of those schools, however, have been vocal in arguing against closure ever since word of the non-renewal recommendations surfaced in mid-March.

The non-renewal vote kicks off a formal hearing process that could take months. Any school that is not renewed can bring its case before the Pennsylvania Charter Appeal Board. Former District charters Germantown Settlement and Renaissance did that in 2008, but their appeals were ultimately unsuccessful.

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