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