by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Once again, money and charters were on the School Reform Commission's agenda Friday morning.
After a quick meeting at which the SRC renewed the charter of West Oak Lane Charter School, Chairman Pedro Ramos talked with reporters about City Council's agreement yesterday to move forward on a package of tax proposals that would generate $40 million for cash-strapped city schools – just a portion of the $94 million the District says it desperately needs.
“Normally, we’d be thrilled to be met halfway,” Ramos said.
“It’s just that the hole the District is in is so deep that [Council’s] effort, while appreciated, doesn’t really get us completely out.”
Mayor Nutter and the SRC will continue to lobby Council to come up with more funds, Ramos said. Efforts to wring more money from Harrisburg will continue also, he said, but "the news coming out of Philadelphia does not help us."
Ramos’ comments came after the SRC's unanimous vote to renew the charter of West Oak Lane Charter School for five years. Commissioner Lorene Cary was absent.
“We’re ecstatic,” said West Oak Lane's chief academic officer, Sheila Royal-Moses, who was backed by about 60 students and staff from the school during the meeting.
As a condition of its renewal, West Oak Lane agreed to an extension of its current cap on student enrollment. The school is authorized to hold 1,200 students, but had just 813 this year.
During a brief question-and-answer session, Commissioner Feather Houstoun asked West Oak Lane representatives to explain why just 56 percent of students who start kindergarten stay at the school through 4th grade.
“Would you say the children most likely to move out of the program are the ones who are less ready to learn?” Houstoun asked.
“Absolutely,” responded Royal-Moses, who said her school has been bolstering its efforts to identify and address such students’ medical needs, behavior and disciplinary issues, and academic shortcomings in order to improve its retention numbers.
Thomas Darden, who oversees the District’s charter office, said that a 56 percent K-4 retention rate actually exceeds the District average and is on par with most charter schools.
But charters’ ability to retain students, especially those with academic and special needs, is an issue that the SRC will pay increasing attention to as it revamps its monitoring strategy, Houstoun said.
Since voting in April to close three low-performing charters, the District has approved a number of renewals and modification requests, adding hundreds of seats in city charter schools.