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Lost in the District's shuffle: City's neediest students





by Andrew Sparks

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Amid the School District of Philadelphia’s financial struggles and sweeping plan to close and consolidate schools, the story of one of the smallest high schools in the city, serving students with the greatest needs, has failed to gain much attention. In June, HOPE Charter School is scheduled to close, sending more than 250 high-need, at-risk adolescents back into a system of schools that has previously turned them away or failed to meet their social, emotional, and academic needs.

HOPE Charter School was founded by administrators from JJC Family Services, a nonprofit agency with the mission to provide family/foster placements, care, and support to severely neglected, abused, abandoned or seriously delinquent children. The founders started a charter school in 2002 after seeing the unmet needs of the children and adolescents that JJC was serving. The school’s mission was, and still is, to “meet the unique needs of students who are not currently succeeding in their conventional school, may not be attending school, or attending sporadically, and/or may be in danger of leaving school prior to their graduation.” The goal was to provide these students with a safe and caring environment and an array of emotional, academic, and social supports.

HOPE’s students come from across the city to the school's West Oak Lane location. Most of its students have attended other high schools, and many have attended more than one. Some have dropped out. Others have been asked to leave their previous District or, in many cases, a charter school. Last year, one student was “promoted” to the 9th grade (by her District middle school) and directed to HOPE a few weeks before the administration of the state's PSSA tests.

Unlike other charter schools across the city, HOPE has almost never turned a student away. This approach has stemmed from its founders’ insistence that all kids deserve a chance at an education, regardless of past struggles or failures.

The District’s primary argument for closing HOPE (and Arise Academy, the only other charter school in the City with a similar mission, which is now on a one-year extension from the SRC) has been that virtually no 11th-grade students reach a level of proficiency on the PSSAs. HOPE and Arise have responded that because most of their students come to the school more than three grades below level, and a majority have attended between one and four other high schools before enrollment, the PSSA score is a terrible indicator of the school's success. Though other indicators might be more appropriate and fair, considering the charter's mission, the District has ignored efforts to figure out a better accountability rubric.

In our view, the Charter School Office did not do its homework in evaluating whether to renew our school. Its review of HOPE, which factored into the SRC's decision to close the school, contained what we contend are factual errors and unsubstantiated claims. Further, the SRC's lack of communication during an already drawn-out renewal process put the board in an untenable position and raised levels of instability and uncertainty among parents, staff, and students. 

HOPE's story is not just that of a poorly managed process of charter evaluation and renewal in the hands of a small Charter Office that lacks sufficient capacity. It raises larger questions about how the District intends to implement its "portfolio" approach to school management, meeting the needs of all students. What about the students who have been the victims of abuse and neglect, students who have grown up surrounded by drug addiction or who have struggled with addiction themselves, gay and lesbian students bullied in their previous schools, teen mothers and fathers, students driven in fear from larger schools? Where will they find a safe, supportive, and caring educational environment?

The pending closure of HOPE, the potential closure of Arise, along with the District’s stringent approach to funding and expanding non-punitive alternative programs (like Kensington’s El Centro program) and years of cuts to in-school support services, are combining to create a gaping hole in Philadelphia’s "system of great schools." Some politicians, reformers and educators savor the concept of "no excuses" schools. But some of these schools have been known to quietly redirect students to schools that are a “better fit” or drop students from their rolls after five consecutive absences. Likewise, schools designed narrowly and exclusively for sub-segments of the alternative education population -- such as schools designed for foster children, schools exclusively serving students with disciplinary histories, or computer-assisted “credit recovery” programs -- still leave hundreds, if not thousands, of students without the emotional and psychological supports they need to overcome lives of abuse, neglect, violence, and poverty.     

Until there are "great schools" to meet the needs of these students, closing HOPE Charter School is not in the best interest of the city, the School District or Philadelphia’s families.

Andrew D. Sparks is a member of the HOPE Charter School board of directors. He received his doctorate in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.  

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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