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With charter schools looking to expand, communities could feel ripple effects

By Benjamin Herold on Feb 27, 2012 04:02 PM
Photo: Kimberly Paynter for NewsWorks

Quentin Davis during morning ballet practice.

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/WHYY’s NewsWorks 

In this multimedia feature, reporter Benjamin Herold examines Philadelphia's Great Schools Compact through a look inside Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter, a new study by the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project, and an interview Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Every morning, 11-year-old Quentin Davis practices ballet for 90 minutes.

Davis isn’t a prodigy. He's just a regular 6th-grader at the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School in South Philadelphia. At PPACS, one of the city’s most popular and highest-performing charters, kids get seven hours of classical arts instruction every week, and they can "major" in everything from ballet to vocal arts.

“This school is incredible,” said Davis. “You get to do different things and express yourself how you like to do it.”

Nearly 46,000 children already attend one of 80 charter schools in Philadelphia. Soon, that number could grow. Through the city’s new Great Schools Compact, Governor Corbett, Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission have all committed to expand high-performing charter schools like PPACS .

Proponents say that’s great news for Philadelphia students.

“The majority of families in Philadelphia wish they had more high quality school options to choose from,” said Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership and a central figure in the Great Schools Compact.

“They don’t understand why, if we have example of schools that are really good, why can’t we have more of them.”

But as charters expand, there are ripple effects throughout the District and across Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. 

Many say charters pull resources from traditional public schools. And while there are high-performing charters like PPACS, some studies have found that charters as a group don't academically outperform traditional schools. 

Temple professor Carolyn Adams says the growth of charters has also had an unintended consequence.

“The introduction of choice into our school marketplace has really severed that relationship between neighborhoods and the schools located in those neighborhoods,” said Adams.

She and her team at Temple’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project just released a policy brief called “From Neighborhood Schools to Charter Schools.”   Adams said she was surprised at what her team found when they mapped the locations of all of Philadelphia’s charter schools and compared them to the locations of the city’s traditional public schools.

MPIP map

Rather than being spread out across the city and embedded in residential neighborhoods, like District schools, Philadelphia’s charters are overwhelmingly clustered in Center City and along the city’s major commercial streets, said Adams.

“They tend to be on Broad Street, on Market Street, on Germantown Avenue, on Frankford Avenue, on these major corridors,” she said.

When that happens on a wide scale, said Adams, neighborhoods end up losing “anchors” that play a valuable – but often overlooked – role in supporting strong communities.

“Most of us have grown up in neighborhoods where the school was simply taken for granted as a place that would always be there, [where] there would always be a playground for you to play on and you could always find neighbors and friends to socialize with.”

In South Philadelphia, some related tensions have already begun to emerge. 

Last spring, PPACS was one of just a handful of high-performing charters granted the right to expand its enrollment. Next year, it will be opening a second location a block-and-a-half up Broad Street. The problem: it is taking over a building that currently houses a community center that is extremely popular with neighborhood seniors.

community centerRonalta Conn, a feisty 76-year-old who has lived on the same South Philly block since 1942, recognizes that if PPACS didn’t buy the building, someone else probably would have. But she is one of many who are still upset to be losing one of the few public spaces in their neighborhood where people can easily come together to socialize, exercise, receive services, and enjoy programs like “Rock, Roll & Remember” – a class where dozens of seniors belt out the oldies each week

“We feel like we’ve been abandoned,” said Conn.

With both the District and the archdiocese moving to close neighborhood schools that have served their surrounding communities for generations, more community anchors will likely be lost elsewhere. Many are hoping charters will fill in the gaps. But Temple’s Adams says that it will take a concerted effort to change the types of location decisions that charters have historically made.

“I hope that [policymakers] think systematically about the relationships of schools to their neighborhoods,” said Adams. “What Philadelphia hasn’t done that some other districts have is to systematically try to direct some charter operators into taking over vacated space in public schools.”

PSP’s Gleason says the Great Schools Compact could soon change that.

The Great Schools Compact committee is made up of  District leaders and charter school operators, as well as Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer and two members of the School Reform Commission. The committee has already begun discussing how to make underutilized or vacant District facilities more accessible to charter operators.

“There’s a potentially mutual benefit,” said Gleason. “The District wants to shed some of the cost associated with these underutilized buildings, and charter schools are actively acquiring or leasing buildings as they expand.”

In addition, he said the SRC could begin authorizing new charters drawing on the principles of the District’s Renaissance initiative, through which charter operators are now managing 13 neighborhood schools that previously were District-run.

“One of the models I think you’ll see happen in the future in this city is charters will be allowed to expand in exchange for an agreement to primarily take students from a catchment area, so you end up with more of a neighborhood sort of school,” said Gleason.

The signatories on Philadelphia’s Great Schools Compact are working to have a final agreement ready for May, then apply to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for millions of dollars in funds to help implement their vision.

With a significant expansion of the city’s charter school sector now appearing inevitable, PPACS co-founder Angela Corosanite is one of many charter operators who have begun jostling for position. In addition to the 675 additional students PPACS was granted last year, she has applications into the SRC this year to become a first-time Renaissance charter operator and to open a new 1,400-seat high school.

“I think everyone is very, very excited,” said Corosanite.

Next month, the city could get a sense of just how fast the future will arrive. The SRC is currently scheduled to vote on a full slate of charter expansion requests and new Renaissance charters – as well as the proposed closure of nine traditional neighborhood schools.

Check the story on NewsWorks for a photo slideshow and video from the community center.

The Notebook is partnering with PlanPhilly to cover this process and inform and help foster dialogue. This coverage is supported by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

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Comments (15)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2012 4:13 pm

So there it is--right in our face. The end of Public Ed. looking us in the face and we just take it?? Please, it's past time for us to refuse to play along with this corporate takeover under the guise of helping kids. They're helping their own profit margin first, last and only and guess which kids will be left behind?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2012 5:26 pm

There will still be students who charters won't accept or keep - I have them in my classes. I have students who have been "counseled" out of charters. These are the most challenging students because many have mental health / socialization issues along with low academic skills. Charters won't take or keep them. So, is the SDP high school system going to be either discipline/behavior schools and magnets?

South Philly is saturated with charters. We don't need more.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2012 10:35 pm

I am tired of reading articles about the expansion of charter schools. It creates a real sense of doom and gloom for us public school teachers. It certainly makes me feel like I'll be collecting unemployment and soon forgotton about. We are giving up our rights by allowing charter schools to do this. No longer can you approach a school like a citizen with natural rights. It will now be like a customer asking and hoping for something. If charter schools are so great and want to expand, than I think it should be a must that they have to keep all students. Why should they be allowed to dump them in public schools??

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 28, 2012 8:10 am

A nice article that should make us consider not only the role of a school in a community, but our current segregation of age groups. At Journey's Way, there was a very successful partnership "Reading Buddies" involving their seniors and nearby Levering's 2nd graders. It was immensely rewarding for all participants. As a sidenote, I would add that the program was not initiated by the school, but by the senior center/Journey's Way.

PPACS looks to provide a wonderful experience for their kids. I would definately support this; however, the Renaissance Charter model seems to be a pretty expensive way to expand. Do we know the current cost structure/viability of the PPACS? Why not just continue on this model?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 28, 2012 11:54 am

Still no word on when the Renaissance schools will be announced? It was supposed to be announced last Monday. It seems as if the list will be rushed or backroom dealing is happening away from the eyes of the public. As a teacher at a high school likely on the list, I want to know if I have to change schools yet again or prepare my resume.

Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 28, 2012 11:38 am

Agreed! I do not want to put my voluntary transfer papers in blindly, if my school will be staying in place. Shouldn't the PFT be on this?

Submitted by Veteran of WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on February 28, 2012 1:15 pm

What happened to the innovation school model -- where a group of Philadelphia educators could gain autonomy for an innovative program for a Philadelphia neighborhood school -- freed from the repressive walk-throughs and from being jerked around by Central office types (e.g., Lea School reading area)? Why do innovative schools have to be charters???? I hope that the Boston consulting group takes isn't just more of a stalking horse for charterizing the entire district, though I doubt it. Look who is on the advisory board for this "great schools" project -- all pro-charter folks. Lori Schorr -- are you able to sleep at night? Has everyone drunk the Kool-Aid?

Good piece, Ben. Good work, Temple.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 8:00 pm

They're all bought and paid for by Gates and people of his ilk. BIG MONEY TALKS.

Submitted by Willie Nelson (not verified) on February 28, 2012 1:45 pm

Did anyone else notice that Prof. Adams claims that "Rather than being spread out across the city and embedded in residential neighborhoods, like District schools, Philadelphia’s charters are overwhelmingly clustered in Center City and along the city’s major commercial streets", and right above that is a map showing that her claim is completly off base? Look at the tan dots, they litter parts of north, south, northeast, west, and other parts of the city OFF of commercial corridors.

Submitted by MPIP (not verified) on February 28, 2012 1:01 pm

The tan dots represent neighborhood public schools, and are indeed spread throughout the city. The pink dots represent the charter schools and can be found largely along the city's commercial corridors.

Submitted by Willie Nelson (not verified) on February 28, 2012 2:28 pm

Ah your right. My bad!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 2, 2012 5:44 am

Can anyone tell me why we aren't hearing about layoffs this year. This time last year, it was all the buzz?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 8:07 pm

YES! Extremely good point. I am bracing myself as Site Selection starts from May 1st to June 8th. So, I am wondering if the teachers that are going to be laid-off are going to be notified in April---as you cannot site-select if you are laid off.
Does anyone have any other information to share?

Submitted by Amydsfb10 (not verified) on December 18, 2014 7:11 am
I am very much impressed with the standard of arts education being given to the students at the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School. The schedule followed by the school to provide effective training for the children from ballet to vocal arts seemed brilliant.


Submitted by Brienna (not verified) on February 4, 2015 1:49 pm

Very informative blog post.Really looking forward to read more. A public charter school is a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract (or charter) with the state or jurisdiction. The charter exempts the school from certain state or local rules and regulations. In return for flexibility and autonomy, the charter school must meet the accountability standards stated in its charter. build a lot of muscle

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