SRC hears questions about charter role

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

[Updated 11:20 p.m.] The School Reform Commission continued to listen to criticism of its restructuring plan at its monthly action meeting Wednesday evening, as commissioners heard from more than 30 public speakers. The SRC moved speedily through its resolutions in well under an hour, taking action to authorize charters for three recently approved Renaissance School conversions.

In the public testimony portion of the meeting, the District’s reorganization plan came in for questioning, as some parents and staff continued to express alarm about the proposed direction for the District.

Parent Cathy Roccia-Meier was one of several speakers who questioned the emphasis on expanding charter schools in the District’s transformation plan. Pointing to data showing that charters serve few students with severe disabilities, she slammed the District for allowing one Renaissance charter manager to eliminate its multi-disability support program at a school.

The school, Clymer, in North Philadelphia, was turned over to Mastery Charter Schools last fall. The April 2011 SRC resolution authorizing Mastery’s contract, which Roccia-Meier brought to the meeting, specifies that Mastery must maintain the multi-disability classes in the current school year but does not have to continue the program in 2012-13. Roccia-Meier told the SRC that those students with severe disabilities would be forced back into District-managed schools.

In a post-meeting interview, Thomas Darden, who oversees charters for the District, acknowledged that Mastery had been authorized to discontinue two multi-disability classrooms next fall at Clymer, where he said the high cost of serving those students could have impacted the turnaround effort at the school.

He said that particularly at a small school like Clymer, which also had two life skills support (LSS) classrooms, the standard per pupil payment level to charters mandated by the state for special education students was insufficient to cover the high expense of providing two classrooms serving students with multiple disabilities.

“We agreed to move that program – while Mastery continues to runs the LSS program – so that we could provide the necessary services to those students in a different facility,” Darden said. “Our decision about Clymer was not primarily a cost issue from our perspective; it was what’s in the best interests of these students to make sure we can provide the kind of quality services they need."

In other public testimony, parent activist Cecelia Thompson raised a new concern about the turmoil in the District’s central office. She sounded an alarm about the impact of the imminent departure of the top two District officials in charge of special education: Linda Y. Williams, deputy chief of specialized services and Maria Monras-Sender, executive director for special education.

Thompson said she was concerned about why the two were both leaving voluntarily right now and feared that new leadership may not be hired in time to be oriented by and have overlap with the departing leaders. "There’s no way that anyone can just up and sit in those seats without any training," Thompson said.

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon promised that the top position in the office "will not be left vacant."

The job, Nixon said, has been posted and "a hefty number" of resumes have already been received. She said interviews are being scheduled.

The District’s Renaissance Schools initiative was another focus of SRC action and public testimony.

Speakers lined up on both sides to address the District’s turnaround plan for Creighton Elementary.

District staff proposed last month to convert the school to a charter under the management of Universal Companies, but the SRC heeded pleas by some parents and staff at the school to investigate a turnaround plan led by the current staff.

A few dozen parents, students, and staff from Creighton came out in support of the staff turnaround plan. Seven of them testified against charter conversion. Longtime Creighton art teacher Regina Feighan-Drach, who spearheaded the development of the teacher-led turnaround proposal, said, "We have the passion, commitment, drive, and expertise to turn Thomas Creighton into a highly performing public school."

An opposing view came from three supporters of Universal, who spoke based on their involvement at the organization’s existing charter schools.

Praising Universal’s work, Valerie Smith-Webb, a parent who chaired the School Advisory Council at Audenried High School last year, said she’s been impressed with the positive changes at her school and nearby Vare Middle School under Universal’s management.

"I constantly hear of the positive changes and the pride our children now feel," she said. "I personally hope that Universal can expand its presence around the city."

SRC Chair Pedro Ramos promised a decision on Creighton’s future at a meeting in the near future. He said the commission has demonstrated that it is not a "rubber stamp," adding that the SRC has heard only one statement in support of the staff recommendation to give the school to Universal.

Before discussing Creighton, the Commission approved, by a 4-0 vote, charter agreements for the rest of this year’s cohort of Renaissance Schools. All three schools being converted to charters are adopting new names: Mastery Charter School Cleveland Elementary, Philadelphia Charter School for the Arts and Sciences at H.R. Edmunds (to be run by String Theory Schools) and Memphis Street Academy Charter School at J.P. Jones (to be managed by American Paradigm Schools).

Commissioner Lorene Cary has been ill and was absent.

SRC members have been busy this week. City Council brought back District officials for a hearing Tuesday to discuss the District’s financial situation and proposed transformation plan for closing dozens of schools, expanding charters, and reorganizing the District into so-called "achievement networks" operated by private companies.

Earlier this week, the SRC held a "strategy, policy and planning" open-discussion meeting with a focus on English language learner programs. Tonight, the SRC took action on a variety of contract items, including one to provide $2.3 million in supportive services to comprehensive high schools through 13 vendors.

A draft agenda and list of resolutions are available on the District website.

The meeting was broadcast on PSTV and livestreamed online. Check back here for more news from the meeting.