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Summer 2010 Vol. 17. No. 6 Focus on Charter Schools

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The ultimate challenge: serving every student

As neighborhood schools, Renaissance charters face a test: Can they serve every student?

By by Bill Hangley Jr. on May 26, 2010 03:25 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Principal Sharif El Mekki (left) of Mastery-Shoemaker, where turnover is about 10 percent. Charter operators like Mastery that run Renaissance Schools can enforce in-house rules, but expulsions will be governed by the District’s code of conduct.

Jessica Boyle waited patiently to ask her question. For over an hour, representatives from Mastery Charter Schools and Johns Hopkins University had been explaining how they would turn around West Philadelphia High as a Renaissance School. From the front of West’s cavernous auditorium, they shared plans, answered questions, and promised improvements.

Then the third-year history teacher at West stepped to the microphone. “I’ve met a lot of students who’ve been expelled from Mastery and other charter schools,” Boyle said. “A lot of times it’s very good kids who’ve been expelled for things that would not lead to expulsion by the District code of conduct. So my question is, how many students do you expel each year?” 

“I’m not sure that I share your premise that students are being expelled from Mastery, and that’s the reason for our success,” replied Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. 

According to its annual reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, last year, out of about 1,700 students at four Philadelphia schools, Mastery expelled thirteen. 

But then, Gordon acknowledged another side to the story. “Do some students decide that they’re tired of coming? Yes,” he said. “A very small number of students.”

It’s the fate of that “small number” that worries Boyle. Every year, every charter school in the city loses some students. In many cases, the schools report that students leave because they or their families cannot or will not adhere to the charter’s rules in areas like attendance, discipline, and parental involvement. 

At a typical charter, such students always have the option of transferring to a neighborhood school like West. So what happens when a neighborhood school and a charter school are one and the same? 

“You’ll have the right to come to [your neighborhood] school, regardless of who’s running it,” said Benjamin Rayer, head of the District’s charter office. 

He added that Renaissance contracts will require the charter operators who take over the District schools to show they are serving the neighborhood by increasing the enrollment from their catchment areas.

These schools will have some latitude to use detentions and suspensions to enforce in-house rules like hallway etiquette, he said. But any expulsions would be governed by the District’s student code of conduct, which limits expulsion to serious violations like bringing a weapon to school.

Attorney David Lapp of the Education Law Center said that Boyle’s concerns are not unfounded, because the line between where a charter school’s authority ends and a school district’s begins is not always clear. Right now he’s appealing a case in state court contending that a 2nd grader was inappropriately expelled for not meeting a charter’s attendance requirements – not an expellable offense. 

The District’s pronouncements so far have left him “hopeful” about the rights of Renaissance charter students, Lapp said. 

Gordon agreed that these obligations mean Renaissance schools represent the “ultimate challenge” for charters. “We’re going to keep all the kids,” he said, “and the goal is for everyone to be successful.”

But while some worry that Renaissance charters will move problematic students elsewhere, others worry about the opposite problem: that the Renaissance charters won’t have leverage to maintain discipline. 

Walter Palmer, founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in Northern Liberties, said it’s unrealistic to expect every child in a given neighborhood to thrive in a demanding charter school. “When there are children you cannot help, you have to be honest,” he said. “[Some] are so disruptive you almost have a responsibility to move them on. You cannot allow them to disrupt.” 

But instead of following a formal expulsion process, Palmer said charters often encourage parents to “voluntarily” withdraw their child. That happened about a half dozen times at his 180-student school last year, Palmer said. “How many people did we encourage to take their child out so they wouldn’t have a bad [disciplinary] record? And how many parents decided to take their child out on their own, so they wouldn’t have a bad record?” Palmer asked. “We’ve done all of the above.” 

Candy Lerner, now on staff with the American Federation of Teachers in Harrisburg, spent three years as an administrator at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, where the same thing would happen a few times a year. “Some students couldn’t honor the behavior contracts,” she said. “So you say, ‘You have a choice – we can either go through the process and send back a disciplinary record, or you can go back to your neighborhood school.’” 

Lawrence Jones, head of the Richard Allen Preparatory Academy in Southwest Philadelphia, said he’s asked two students to leave so far this year. It’s bad for them, said Jones, but good for the climate of the school. “Unfortunately, sometimes it does have to happen,” Jones said. 

How much it happens citywide has not been measured.

About the Author

Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance writer based in West Philadelphia.

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