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Numerous concerns raised about designated Renaissance school operator

Councilwoman Gym is calling for the District to drop Great Oaks as a Renaissance charter provider.
  • helen gym 1
    Emma Lee / WHYY

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City Councilwoman Helen Gym is formally raising questions about the fitness of Great Oaks Foundation Inc. to operate Cooke Elementary School in Logan, saying that its proposed budget and academic programs are "an unjustified mess," defying standard accounting practices and basic pedagogy.

In its application, Great Oaks “offers nothing in the way of educational innovation while relying on a bloated administration,” Gym wrote in a letter to Superintendent William Hite that was released Tuesday. “I urge the District and the SRC to cease all consideration of Great Oaks as a charter operator.”

Great Oaks' chief academic officer, Rashaun Reid, said that Gym made several “misrepresentations” in her statement and that a fuller response would be released later Tuesday.

That response, in the form of a letter to Hite from Great Oaks president Michael Duffy, called the document cited by Gym "out of date by several months" and complained that Gym did not contact Great Oaks with her concerns. Instead, it said, she has made "assertions that have no basis in fact and is irresponsibly trafficking in half-truths to further her own ideological agenda."  

Gym said she found many “troubling” aspects about the application. Chief among them is that the organization has no experience in school turnaround or in dealing with the K-5 population that Cooke serves. Plus, she said, the organization plans to increase administrative costs while cutting teachers and relying on recent college graduates receiving small stipends as tutors.

“I am shocked that a charter which has such a suspect budget and academic program could possibly make it through any sort of vetting process,” Gym said in an interview.

The School Reform Commission has not yet formally paired Great Oaks with Cooke under its Renaissance Schools initiative, but voted last month to invite a full charter proposal from the organization for Cooke. Commissioners will make a final decision later this spring after seeing a full charter proposal.

Gym filed a Right-to-Know public information request to obtain Great Oaks' preliminary application – its response to a District “request for qualifications.” She also criticized the District for not releasing the favored applicants' RFQ responses to the public before its vote. District officials said that was standard procurement process.

According to Gym’s analysis, Great Oaks plans to:

● Collect an annual $550,000 “management fee” and projects a $576,000-plus fund balance in five years.

● Quadruple administrative expenses while spending less than half its funding directly on instruction.

● Reduce the overall teaching staff from 36 to 23 teachers, including reducing the special education teaching force from 7 teachers to 3 teachers, while dramatically increasing the number of special education students that the school serves.

● Replace teachers with uncertified tutors making $7,000 a year and getting free housing.

Reid said that Great Oaks' full charter proposal would be sent to the District on March 11, adding that the budgetary and other numbers in the proposal that Gym cited are not final. He also said that the tutors guarantee that every student gets special attention every day in reading and math in groups no larger than five.

“We are learning more about the community, attempting to meet with families, and identifying the concerns of the Logan community,” said Reid, who received his education degrees from Temple and was a teacher in Philadelphia schools and a principal of Cleveland Elementary when it was a turnaround school under Mastery Charter.

Peng Chao, who runs the Renaissance schools program in the District's charter office, said that he is expecting "a way more comprehensive proposal from Great Oaks" that will be carefully scrutinized. He said it – and two other applications from charter managers for Wister and Huey Elementary Schools – will be made public a few days after they are submitted on March 11.

"These topics will be covered more in-depth in the application phase," he said.

Gym was especially concerned about the plan to cut the special education staff by more than half – from seven teachers to three – while counting on a revenue boost through a one-third increase in the number of special education students it enrolls.

“Great Oaks' budgetary assumptions rely on troubling projections that far exceed District revenue growth and depend heavily on expansion of its special education population,” Gym wrote in the letter. 

Under state law, charters receive more per-pupil revenue for special education students than for than regular education students. In Philadelphia, the formula results in more than double the per-pupil amount. The application said that the special education population would grow by some 30 students.

Reid said that those numbers "are not set in stone" and have not yet been finalized. He called Gym’s characterization of the organization's intentions around special education “scare-mongering” among a “vulnerable population.”

He also said that Great Oaks' other schools do serve special education students, but declined to speak directly about why the preliminary application indicates a decline in special education teachers as the special education population increases. He said Great Oaks' written response and full application would speak to that.

Gym’s analysis showed that Great Oaks is counting on a first-year budget of nearly $6 million, while Cooke’s current school-based budget allotment is just under $4 million. And it projects annual revenue growth of more than 5 percent, when the District itself anticipates growth well under 2 percent.

Chao said that many of Great Oaks' budgetary assumptions were made following District guidelines. For instance, assuming a special education enrollment of 15 percent is within the context of a likely increase in overall enrollment, which has been the pattern for many Renaissance conversions.

Gym also said she was concerned because the leadership of Great Oaks, including president Michael Duffy and board chair Steve Klinsky, a hedge fund operator, were involved with Victory Education Partners. Victory was a provider under Philadelphia's ill-fated experiment to have private managers operate District schools in the years after the state and the SRC took over the District. (In his letter to Hite, Duffy said that he joined Victory after its work in Philadelphia and that he has no current ties with the firm.)

Great Oaks now operates four schools, all start-ups, in Newark, N.J.; New York City; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Wilmington, Del. The oldest, in Newark, is five years old, started in 6th grade, and has yet to have a graduating class.

The Cooke controversy illustrates a pitfall of the Renaissance initiative: trying to expand the group of private education entities willing and experienced enough to take on the difficult task of school turnaround. District leaders this year made a point of saying that one of their goals was to bring more operators to Philadelphia. Even so, it received only four applications for the three schools designated by the District for turnaround.

In an interview earlier this year, new charter head DawnLynne Kacer said that most charter operators are regionally and locally focused.

“There are very few national charter turnaround operators,” Kacer said. “One of the things for Philadelphia to think about is how can we generate interest in Philadelphia amongst those that have traditionally been regionally focused to become more nationally focused. Then the second question becomes is there a possibility of engaging operators who have not traditionally been involved in turnaround, but who have turnaround competencies in their organization. So Great Oaks, for example, has a senior leadership member who worked at not one, but two turnaround schools here in Philadelphia ... so looking for some of those core turnaround competencies and thinking about how we can leverage them for this process. So I think that’s how we ended up engaging some of those different operators this year than you’ve traditionally seen in the past.”

Gym, however, said in the interview that she believes "the whole Renaissance process has been really tainted" by a flawed vetting process for applications and by the controversy around Wister Elementary. There, the SRC defied Superintendent Hite and voted to invite Mastery to take over the school after Hite reversed course and decided the school had shown enough improvement to be given another chance. 

"I think this really shows how flawed this model has become in just a very short time period despite being the primary way charter expansion [in Philadelphia] is happening," Gym said. "People are not voting with their feet for better options. The District is forcing through mass conversion of public schools to charters with suspect providers. The process needs to be a lot more open and transparent."

This story has been updated to include references to Great Oaks' formal written response to Councilwoman Gym's critique.

Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks contributed reporting.

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Dale Mezzacappa

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