By Benjamin Herold
for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
For years, parents have had to jump through astonishing hoops to apply to the popular Green Woods Charter School in Northwest Philadelphia.
Interested families couldn't find Green Woods’ application online. They couldn't request a copy in the mail. In fact, they couldn't even pick up a copy at the school.
Instead, Green Woods made its application available only one day each year. Even then, the application was only given to families who attended the school’s open house – which most recently has been held at a private golf club in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Green Woods CEO Jean Wallace declined to be interviewed. In an email, she lauded her school’s “very transparent and very collaborative working relationship” with the District’s Office of Charter Schools, which oversees Philadelphia charters.
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But this spring, that very office found that Green Woods and 17 other charters seeking renewal imposed “significant barriers to entry” on families. Some, like Green Woods, went to extraordinary lengths to limit access to applications. Others, like Eastern University Academy in East Falls, made onerous and sometimes illegal requests from applicants for everything from typed book reports to proof of U.S. citizenship.
The findings are detailed in previously unreleased district documents obtained by Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center (ELC) under the state Right to Know law. At best, said ELC senior staff attorney Jennifer Lowman, the barriers found by the district violate the spirit of Pennsylvania’s 1997 charter law, designed to give families more high-quality school options.
“Unfortunately, some of these extensive application requirements flip that choice on its head,” Lowman said. “It becomes the school that chooses, not the family.”
Charters renewed anyway
In recent months, the School Reform Commission has granted new five-year extensions to Green Woods, Eastern University Academy, and 10 other charters deemed to have “significant barriers to entry.” But spokesman Fernando Gallard said that many of those renewals came with conditions.
The District also believes that charter schools’ boards of trustees should “take immediate action” to remove identified barriers. Gallard also said the District plans to make public by late October a report summarizing the application and enrollment practices for each of the more than 80 city charter schools.
“This is groundbreaking work that has not been done before,” Gallard said. “Our position is that these are public schools. They are making a significant difference in the lives of children. And we want to make sure that is open to everyone.”
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed. By law, they are required to be open to all children. If there are more applicants than available seats, they are required to hold an enrollment lottery.
In Philadelphia, like many other cities, parental demand for charters has been enormous. Lowman, from the Education Law Center, says that charters should accommodate that demand by making their application processes as easy as possible. By law, said Lowman, charters should only ask applicants for four things: proof of a child’s age and residence, immunization records, and a statement as to whether the child has been expelled or suspended for certain incidents on school grounds.
The four Philadelphia charters run by KIPP, she said, offer a good example for how the process is supposed to work.
“You fill out a very simple form, and you don’t have to show up somewhere to get it. If you are accepted, you are enrolled,” Lowman said.
Beyond that, said KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella, his schools proactively reach out to parents. In addition to making the form available online, by mail and fax at each of the schools, Manella says KIPP staffers personally distribute applications.
“We go to grocery stores, Laundromats … we will bring the applications to where you are,” he said.
Mannella stressed that charters must do what’s right for children, not just follow the law.
“If we just harvest the applications that come our way, we aren't always going to get the children who need us the most,” he said. “Once [these barriers to entry are] brought to light, I would hope that folks start to reform their practices.”
One parent’s experience
Parent Rebecca Poyourow experienced the barriers to entry at Green Woods first hand. In 2009, when Poyourow was considering sending her oldest son to kindergarten at the school, she was surprised at how “laborious” its application process was.
“There was one night that was an open house night, and that was the only time you could go and pick up an application. You couldn’t be an applicant if you couldn’t get there,” Poyourow said.
That year, the open house was held at Green Woods, which at the time was housed at the secluded Schuylkill Environmental Center in the Andorra section of the city. Poyourow, a middle-class mom from nearby Roxborough, drove past the nearest public transportation stop – then had to go roughly two more miles to the school.
“I was thinking, 'What if I didn’t have car?’” she recalled.
Given the resources and resourcefulness families needed just to obtain an application, it’s no surprise that Green Woods has one of the whitest, most affluent student bodies in the city. In 2010-11, almost 80 percent of Green Woods students were White. Just 17 percent were eligible for a free or reduced price lunch, the lowest poverty rate of any public school in the city.
Other schools determined by the District to have significant barriers to entry have similarly unrepresentative student bodies. According to the documents obtained by ELC, Laboratory Charter and Planet Abacus – both founded and operated by Dorothy June Brown, now under federal indictment on multimillion-dollar fraud charges – also mandated that their applications could only be completed at open houses.
The forms were not available in languages other than English, and applicants were asked to provide their race, eligibility for free lunch, birth certificate, baptismal certificate, and names of their parents’ employers, among other information.
According to its 2011 annual report, just three students at Planet Abacus received special education services. The report for Laboratory Charter said the number of special education students was “N/A,” or “not applicable.”
Like applying for college
Some charter applications read almost like those of private colleges. The 10-page application to Eastern University Academy Charter in East Falls requires student and parent essays, responses to several pages of short-answer questions, a typed book report, and three letters of recommendation. It has also illegally required applicants to disclose their citizenship and disability status.
“We consider that to be against the law,” said District spokesman Gallard.
Eastern principal and CEO Omar Barlow could not be reached for an interview. In an email, he wrote that the application form has been edited to remove questions about special education or discipline records. The additional information the school requests, wrote Barlow, “is designed to help the student and parent or guardian gain an understanding of the mission and philosophy of the school.”
Despite the problems with its application process, the School Reform Commission earlier this spring renewed Eastern University Academy’s charter for five years. There were conditions, however. In the future, said Gallard, the District will annually monitor its admissions policy and require that the board of trustees submit a copy of the policy and information on the process.
The District will also monitor Green Woods, which last month adopted a new admissions policy at the School District’s request. It has agreed to post applications online for at least eight weeks and give preference to students living in the catchment areas of several surrounding District schools.
And beginning next year, when Green Woods moves into a new permanent facility, the school is also supposed to host additional tours for parents.
But when a reporter called the school earlier this week, Green Woods staff said the application would only be made available at this year’s open house, again being held at a suburban country club.
Asked about this, CEO Wallace wrote in an email that the staff had not yet been updated. “The newest admissions policy was just recently approved,” she explained.
With an understaffed Office of Charter Schools, the District has long been challenged to provide effective oversight of the growing charter sector. But Gallard said on this issue of access, the District is fully committed to making sure “that all charter schools follow the state law.”