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SRC votes to terminate Palmer charter, approves 4 others, adopts new charter policy

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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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The School Reform Commission approved a resolution calling for closure of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School on Thursday night, ignoring pleas from two City Council members, a state legislator and Palmer himself to "let calmer heads prevail" and postpone any action.

Before the 4-1 vote for closure, SRC Chair Bill Green pointed out that hearings must still take place before the school can be closed. Commissioner Sylvia Simms opposed the action.

It was a packed and noisy meeting that took more than six hours, with more than 60 people signed up to give testimony.

The SRC also renewed the charters of four schools -- all for five years and all with conditions.

The commission postponed a vote on renewing Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter until it gets a more detailed plan in writing on how the school plans to diversify its student population, especially at its South Philadelphia elementary school.

The SRC also adopted a new charter policy by a 4-1 vote. Among other provisions, the policy allows for evaluations and modifications to a charter to occur annually. It also takes more steps to assure that charters conduct fair and open admissions procedures.

The policy also puts the charter office under direct control of the SRC, which was a key demand of charter operators.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun dissented, saying that she disagreed with moving the charter office under the commission's jurisdiction.

"I am still very concerned that placing it outside the authority of the superintendent will make it harder for the SRC to fulfill its governance obligations to serve all schoolchildren in Philadelphia," she said. "There are too many interconnecting relationships that involve District schools and charter operators."

But the most controversial vote was the one on Palmer charter, a 1,300-student school with campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford whose founder is a longtime city civil rights activist.

The resolution, which would begin the process to revoke the school's charter, cited academic, operational, and financial shortcomings, including declining test scores, a nearly $3 million deficit, and billing the District for students who did not attend the school.

After the District's abrupt announcement Tuesday that a charter revocation vote was planned, Walter Palmer vowed to mobilize his political support, and he did.

"We are very upset to hear about the closing of a charter school out of the clear blue," said Jannie Blackwell, chair of City Council's Education Committee. "This charter school with all its murals, all its leadership, all it has been involved with to help young people, I think is unfair."

She suggested that the District was taking the action because Palmer sued it -- so far successfully -- over enrollment caps.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said that students needed stability and should not be forced to attend another school. He also suggested that Palmer is unable to raise additional philanthropic funds for its operations like some charter operators, which he did not name.

These organizations "seem to find a way to expand in our communities. Mom and pop shops don’t have that. They’re faced with doing on their own."

Blackwell and Jones spoke early in the meeting. State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, who arrived just before the vote, urged the SRC to table the motion for 90 days until all the facts were known.

Chairman Green assured Thomas that the vote is a beginning, not an end. There will be a hearing in June before a final vote, and Palmer can appeal a revocation to the state, a process that can take years.

Palmer and others complained that the District gave no warning before announcing the intention to shut the school in July and followed the sudden announcement with robocalls to families outlining procedures for choosing alternatives for September.

And Palmer vowed to resist the District's move.

"I am 80 years old, and I will never ever submit, nor ever retreat, nor slide into the night without a fight," he said.

Palmer and CEO David Weathington acknowledged problems at the school, but attributed many of them to the severe circumstances of most of their students.

"We pride ourselves on taking students that nobody else wants," Palmer said. He also said that standardized test scores are not a fair measure of their accomplishments.

Weathington, who started in December, said he was brought in to turn the school around.

"We do have issues, we don’t deny that," said Weathington. "We get kids who were expelled, who come to us two or three years below grade level." He said special education students arrive with outdated education plans, so the school doesn't know what services they need.

SRC members didn't seem to be buying.

While praising Palmer's achievements, Commissioner Farah Jimenez said she was "wounded by expectation that these kids are challenged and so we are challenged to serve them."

If the school doesn't believe in test scores, she asked, "So how are you measuring progress?"

Palmer said, "If we get students stabilized and to a point they can function, academics can't be the first and most important thing." He said that creating a positive climate and culture was foremost.

Some Palmer parents angrily denounced the move. Sultan Ashley-Shah said he would never send his grandchild anywhere else.

"Walter Palmer allows positive development to take place and transforms neighborhoods," he said. "It is one place students can grow and nurture their spirit. We're making gems you have had a chance to polish and refused to do so."

The SRC also heard protests from parents, teachers and students -- most of whom said they don't want Steel and Munoz-Marin elementary schools to be converted to charters. The two schools have been designated by the District as Renaissance schools. Parents will vote May 1 whether to remain in the District with the existing staff or to accept a charter operator -- Mastery for Steel and ASPIRA for Munoz-Marin. The final decision will be made by Superintendent William Hite.

Parents from the two schools, many of them angry, said that it was wrong to ask them to make such a critical decision -- District or charter management -- in a 30-day window at the end of the school year.

During the marathon meeting, speakers also complained about standardized testing, the lack of libraries, and intolerable budget conditions in schools, among other probems.

Students from Youth United for Change renewed their demands for a new food vendor who will provide locally grown, healthy lunches.

The four charters that were renewed are Global Leadership Academy, Franklin Towne Charter High School, Mariana Bracetti Academy, and Philadelphia Montessori.

All agreed to enrollment caps, a practice that is still in legal dispute. A lower court ruled this week that the SRC did not have the power to supersede a more recent state law on the matter.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.