A divided School Reform Commission approved the expansion of two more charters on Friday, but delayed decisions on two others pending the result of the state’s ongoing investigation of possible cheating on state tests. Five other schools also have pending renewal or modification requests.
The SRC granted a total of 317 additional seats to New Foundations charter and KIPP Philadelphia at a projected cost to the District of $6.7 million over the next five years.
Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted no on both schools' expansions, citing the rapidly escalating cost to the District of adding charter seats as part of this year’s renewal and modification process.
“The cost of these seats is really high,” he emphasized. “I think that requests for additional seats for this process should bear a very high burden to prove their value to the district.”
Saying she was influenced by Dworetzky’s arguments, Commissioner Lorene Cary voted no on expanding New Foundations. Chairman Pedro Ramos and Commissioners Feather Houstoun and Wendell Pritchett voted in favor of both.
The SRC still must address the futures of seven charters with pending renewal or modification requests.
Two of those schools – Imhotep Institute Charter High School and the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter School (PET) – are the subject of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) ongoing investigation of potential improprieties in the administration of the state’s PSSA exam.
A 2009 “forensic audit” of student answer sheets heavily flagged both schools for suspicious erasure patterns and statistical irregularities. Investigators from PDE and the state inspector general’s office have been conducting further inquiries since late 2011.
The department is not rushing through the investigation, said PDE spokesman Timothy Eller. He said the department "wants to ensure that all areas related to the investigation are properly vetted and reviewed." He added that there is no target deadline for its completion.
On Friday, Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives, said that his office wanted to see the results of that probe before deciding the future of Imhotep and PET.
“Our intention is to make our recommendation once we have a chance to evaluate the PDE report,” Darden said.
“If it takes too long, we may change our mind about how we approach that.”
Imhotep founder and CEO Christine Wiggins declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
The SRC also delayed decisions on three schools that were late in providing financial information to the District: World Communications, Laboratory Charter, and Planet Abacus.
Two others, Belmont Academy and Belmont Charter, were delayed without explanation.
The expansions for both KIPP and New Foundations were approved with the goal of increasing the number of high-quality seats available to high school students in the schools’ surrounding communities.
New Foundations agreed to enroll 75 percent of its students from an “attendance zone” made up of 11 elementary and middle schools that feed into overcrowded District high schools in Northeast Philadelphia.
KIPP Philadelphia agreed to accept any applicants who previously attended Fitzsimons High or Rhodes High in North Philadelphia, both of which will close this year. KIPP Philadelphia will be moving into the Fitzsimons building.
KIPP CEO Mark Mannella said he was looking forward to operating a neighborhood-based school. “We like the idea of being a pillar in a community, a place where folks can count on us being there year in and year out.”
A cost analysis of both schools’ expansion requests prompted the commissioners to undertake an involved discussion of the most financially sustainable ways to expand the number of high-quality seats in the city.
Dworetzky said that this spring’s “scattershot” model of approving seat expansions to various charters is more expensive than other alternatives.
“The cost that we’re looking at here is seven times the cost of creating a high-performing seat through [the District’s Renaissance charter conversion] process,” Dworetzky argued.
“The point of the Great Schools Compact was to explore every other way you could create higher-quality seats … Promise Academies, Renaissance schools, or co-location.”
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, agreed, but said that the District’s ability to expand the Renaissance initiative was limited by the District’s dire budget straits and the pool of charters willing to do wholesale turnarounds.
“If we want to have a robust Renaissance or Promise Academy program, we have to invest in those as well,” Shorr said.
“We spent the summer focused on one strategy,” she said, meaning charter expansion.
KIPP is a national example of a successful charter operator that has been unwilling to participate in district turnaround processes around the country.
“We are not arrogant enough to think we have any idea how to do that,” said KIPP's Mannella.
Cary argued that the District’s first priority should be to invest in the schools it runs. “The best way to improve schools is to improve the work of District schools," she said. “That’s the most cost-effective way. That’s the greatest urgency.”
Toward the end of the meeting, commissioners also heard from longtime education activist and consultant Venard Johnson about the climate and physical condition of Alcorn Elementary in South Philadelphia.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” Johnson said. “It’s criminal. Someone should go to jail – that’s how I feel about it.”
Johnson questioned the District’s decision to exclude Alcorn from the Renaissance initiative and urged the SRC to involve the community in their plan to improve the school.
Karren Dunkley, chief deputy of the District’s Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement and Faith-Based Partnerships, agreed to provide the Alcorn community with the District’s current improvement plan by Monday.
“We’d like to provide it in writing so everyone has the opportunity to have an extended conversation,” she said.
Johnson ended by inviting the commissioners to an Alcorn community meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, to further discuss the plan.