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Updated: A closer look at charter renewal recommendations

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Updated 4/26 6:30 p.m: House passed HB97 on Wednesday by a vote of 108-84. District confirms that, "consistent with policy," full resolutions outlining conditions for renewal of each charter will not be available to the public before the SRC votes because they are "quasi-judicial" actions. Two more recommendations, including one for non-renewal for Memphis Street Academy, were released Wednesday. Includes statement from leaders of that school. Story and graphic have also been corrected to reflect more precise report on the ratings of some charters in the academic category. 

There is a graphic at the bottom of this story summarizing the recommendations and ratings school-by-school.

As Harrisburg considers significant changes to the state's 20-year-old charter law, Philadelphia's Office of Charter Schools has released detailed renewal reports on most of the 26 charters that the School Reform Commission will consider next week. 

Any changes in the charter law will have a huge impact in Philadelphia -- more than 80 of the 160-plus charter schools in Pennsylvania are in the city.

Of the 23 with completed recommendations, only one, Alliance for Progress, was recommended for renewal for 5 years without conditions and two, Laboratory Charter of Communications and Languages and Memphis Street Academy, were recommended for nonrenewal. The other 20 were approved with conditions that were not specified.

The reviews use three rankings, from highest to lowest: “Meets standard,” “Approaches standard,” and “Does not meet standard.” And the charters were given rankings in three areas: academics, operations, and finances.

But there were curiosities in the reports -- while four charters that had the lowest academic rating for all or part of their grade spans were recommended for renewal; Laboratory Charter, which the charter office wants to shut down, was one of only seven schools to receive a "meets standards" ratings on academics.  But it received the lowest rating in the other two categories.

Most of the 20 recommended for renewal with conditions scored “approaches standard” in the category of academics. The schools recommended for conditional renewal that scored “does not meet standard” in academics include Belmont Elementary and Sankofa Leadership Academy. Mastery Pickett and Boys' Latin have both middle and high schools. Each scored "approaching standard" for one grade span but "does not meet standard" for the other.  

General David B. Birney, also recommended for renewal with conditions, did not have its academics reviewed at all. The academic category is labeled "not applicable" in the review, due to " limited academic data available for the period under which the Charter School was operated by American Paradigm Schools."

Birney is a former District school turned over to the for-profit company Mosaica in 2011. but Mosaica ran into deep financial trouble in 2014 and Birney was quietly transferred to American Paradigm in the summer of 2015.

American Paradigm operates Memphis Street Academy at J.P. Jones, another former District school, which was recommended for nonrenewal.

Antoinette Powell, CEO/Principal of Memphis Street, issued a statement disputing the findings of the charter office.
American Paradigm has made "significant gains in academic performance," over the past five years the statement said, and "drastically improved the community, the surrounding neighborhood and the reputation of Memphis Street Academy through transformative community partnerships."
It also said that its attendance has improved significantly but was rated as below standard due to a "flawed evaluation metric" used by the charter office.
"We firmly believe that all charter schools must be held accountable and American Paradigm Schools has a proven history of providing high quality educational options to students in Philadelphia," the statement said. 
Officials from Laboratory Charter, the other school recommended for nonrenewal, could not be reached.
There’s a wide range in the severity of issues found at the 20 schools that were approved with conditions. Some scored well, others very poorly.

One that scored well is Keystone Academy Charter, which received “meets standard” in the categories of organizational compliance and financial health, and the middle rating of “approaches standard” in the category of academic achievement.

Alliance for Progress, the school that was renewed without conditions, received the highest possible ranking in academics, and the middle ranking in financial health and organizations compliance.

Belmont Elementary Charter was also renewed for 5 years with conditions, just like Keystone Academy. But Belmont scored much worse: it had the lowest of the three ratings of “does not meet standard” in both organizational compliance and academic success, and received the middle rating for financial health.

How charters should be rated and judged has long been a source of dispute. Some people think that as long as they are doing better as a group than district schools, and parents continue to choose them, most charters should be left alone. Others say that it is important for the integrity of the movement to weed out low-performing charters -- but disagree on what low-performing means.

Over the past several years, Philadelphia has worked hard to upgrade its charter office and adopt nationally accepted standards of charter authorization and oversight. In the past, charter proponents have blamed poor oversight -- or a "lack of quality authorizing" -- for the existence of low-performing charter schools, and have complained that the District's expectations have been inconsistent and not well communicated. 

And then there is disagreement over whether any charter that does well academically should be renewed regardless of whether their finances and operations are up to snuff.

That is a point of contention with HB97. It would change state law to make a school like Laboratory Charter eligible for a 10-year extension while reducing issues around organizational and financial health to mere conditions given the strong academic performance. While the SRC could terminate the charter under these circumstances, it would presumably have a weaker position in the event of an appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.

Laboratory Charter was cited in the charter office's recommendation for falling short in both operations and finances. Among the concerns cited were problems around special education services, staff certification, employee clearances, student health services, and the enrollment process. In addition, it found that the school had not made five required payments into the state retirement system, PSERS,  and fell short of generally accepted practices regarding audits and payroll. It also said that the Board of Trustees did not follow Sunshine Act requirements for its meetings and actions. 

For instance, while the District average for special education students is 15 percent and for charters 18 percent, Laboratory last year had just 6 percent. And, in violation of state guidelines, its application form asks for information on race, parental employment, eligibility for free and reduced price lunch, and the student's report card. 

Laboratory is one of the city's oldest charters, founded by Dorothy June Brown, who was later charged with defrauding Laboratory and two other charters she founded of $6.3 million. One trial ended in a hung jury and a second was terminated when it was determined that the 79-year-old was incompetent to stand trial. 

Keystone got its middling academic rating primarily for a lack of improvement on attendance. The school’s Math English and Science PSSA scores consistently outperformed District schools, charter schools, and even their peer-group of relatively high-performing schools. To score as high as possible, they only need to outperform two of those three groups. But this was the school’s first year meeting that standard in all three subjects.

The percent of students attending 95 percent or more days of school decreased from 61 percent to 58 percent over the five year charter term, during a time period when average attendance was rising in the District.

Belmont got the lowest academic rating by consistently underperforming District and Charter schools on the PSSAs, and only outperforming their peer-group of relatively low-performing schools. They also had the same attendance problem as Keystone.

Belmont had a litany of problems leading to the lowest rating in operational compliance. They were found not to be entirely compliant when it came to student enrollment, English Language Learner (ELL) programming, special education programming, the Sunshine Act, the Ethics Act, student health services, and school safety.

For example, 19 percent of teachers reported having “no time to collaborate regarding students with special needs,” and the ratios of proficiency in math and ELA for students with IEPs compared to those without were both below the Charter School Office’s threshold of one third.

There were even more problems with ELL programming, including: “each English Language Learner at the School during the 2015-16 school year did not receive five days of instruction per week.”

The school was also flagged for requiring certain personal information from students and families that are not required by the state or the District, such as applying student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

So Keystone was given the same exact recommendation as Belmont--to renew for a 5 year term with conditions--even though Belmont’s review is wrought with a myriad of red flags, and Keystone’s review was relatively positive.

And that’s not unique to these two schools--it illustrates the vast range of ratings contained within this category of renewal with conditions. Presumably, the recommended conditions will differ significantly for each school when they are disclosed. 

 

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