October 28 — 5:19 pm, 2014

Parents spar angrily with founder of closing charter high school

l walter palmer Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

Sparks flew at a meeting for parents on Monday night at Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter High School. The school’s basement cafeteria became a battleground between the school’s founder and a throng of incensed parents.

Many had learned only that morning that the high school program at the school’s Tacony campus was permanently closing and that their children would have to find another school two months into the year.

"I’m frustrated with Walter Palmer. I’m frustrated with the District. I’m frustrated with everybody," said parent Courtney Dennis.

The Palmer charter school and the Philadelphia School District have been embroiled in a legal dispute for years over exactly how many students the charter should be allowed to enroll. In May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with the District, saying that Palmer needed to abide by an agreement it signed in 2005, which capped enrollment at 675 kids.

Despite that ruling, Palmer opened its doors this year with close to 1,300 students, knowing that – barring a legal "Hail Mary pass" – it would only get funding for 675.

The pain of that decision really began to sink in over the past few days as parents learned the high school would close, leaving 286 students in a scramble to find another school.

Last spring, after the Supreme Court ruled, Dennis says Palmer officials convinced her that it was still a good idea to send her kid to Palmer’s high school campus on Harbison Avenue.

"But my thing is, why would you accept all these kids, enroll all these kids, and you know you wasn’t funding all these kids?" she asked. "This is horrible."

Last week, Palmer held a lottery to whittle 250 students out of his Northern Liberties elementary school. In total, more than 500 Palmer students have been displaced.

Walter Palmer began the night’s formal proceedings by giving a history of the school’s early successes attracting parents while sprinkling in bits of his own autobiography as a civil-rights activist.

"A lot of them had heard about the work we’d done in the 1950s and 1960s working with Black and Hispanic children – at-risk children – which has really been my driving force for the past 60 years," said Palmer.

Palmer then introduced a slate of representatives from other schools — District, cyber charter, and parochial — explaining that his team would help parents through the transition.

"People are saying, ‘What’s going to happen? You’re throwing them out.’ No, we’re not," Palmer said through a crackling speaker. "We’re going to work with our children until we transition them. We’re going to follow them, even though they may not be on our books."

Fervor builds

The audience listened quietly for more than 10 minutes, but then, as Palmer attempted to introduce some of the senior class to speak about their experience at the school, the crowd grew restless with how the meeting was going.

Soon, the evening’s planned agenda was overrun by the shouts of angry parents.

Rashida Jabbar grew teary-eyed shouting to Palmer from across the room about her grandson.

"I trusted them," she cried. "They’re just throwing him to the wolves. And the only thing this man came here to do is talk about his life. We’ve done heard that story already. We don’t want to hear nothing about his life. What about their lives?"

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism