District again postpones votes to renew two charters

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

The School Reform Commission postponed scheduled votes on two charter schools Thursday, pulling one at the last minute for reasons related to an investigation of test cheating.

Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter High School was one of three city charters flagged by the state for potential cheating after analyses of test results for 2009, 2010, and 2011 showed statistical irregularities. The charter was directed by the state to conduct an investigation, which resulted in the dismissal of an assistant principal and the imposition of stricter testing protocols.

The renewal vote on PE&T was delayed, officials said, not because of problems with the school’s own probe, but because the District is not yet ready to release its investigations into possible cheating at more than a dozen District-run schools.

"We realized at the last minute that this is going to raise a whole lot of issues on the testing integrity investigation of charter and Disrict schools," said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn after the meeting. The PE&T charter renewal resolution details all the steps that the District wants the charter to adopt, including an independent testing monitor, to insure that any cheating doesn’t happen again. Kihn said that the District wanted to insure "consistency of approach" in how the charters and District schools are treated.

The District has been promising the release of its own investigation into possible cheating at 19 schools for more than a year. Chief counsel Michael Davis said after Thursday’s meeting that the investigation was complete, except for decisions on what sanctions to impose on individuals who were implicated in wrongdoing.

A contingent of teachers from the school attended the meeting, along with the chairman of its board and its attorney, both of whom were livid.

Attorney Kevin McKenna said that the SRC sent the renewal at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday and that the charter’s personnel spent the better part of the night and day reviewing it, only to learn a scant half-hour before the meeting was to start that the vote had been postponed again.

"This is a good school, with good staff, and continual inaction by the SRC is not demonstrating goodwill to the school or to the charter community," McKenna said. "Once again we ask you to approve the school’s charter."

Board chair Charles Gibbs said this was the seventh time a vote had been postponed. "The lack of a charter and predictability has negatively impacted our school, staff, leadership, ability to retain and attract students, and have a clean audit," Gibbs said. "We’re ready to put this chapter behind us."

After those test security measures were put in place, scores at PE&T dropped 29 points in reading and 30 points in math in 2012, one of the largest drops of any school in the city.

The other school whose charter was initially scheduled for renewal was Laboratory Charter, whose founder, Dorothy June Brown, is awaiting a federal jury verdict on dozens of fraud counts. After hearing evidence for more than a month and deliberating for a week, the jury on Thursday acquitted two of her associates and announced that it was deadlocked on the counts against Brown. The judge said they would resume deliberations after the holidays.

Brown is no longer associated with the schools she founded. Kihn said that the postponement of that vote was because Laboratory officials were still reviewing the charter and had not yet signed it.

More than two dozen of the city’s 86 charters are operating without charter renewals, some because they do not want to accept enrollment caps that the District is insisting on, others for different reasons. Kihn sent letters to the schools giving them a deadline of Dec. 15 to agree to the District’s terms or face sanctions that could include seeking non-renewals of their charters.

"We are working round the clock to make sure all our charter [schools] have signed charters," Kihn said, adding that the District had spoken to all of them and that the talks "had made progress" in all but a few cases. He said he would release more detailed information Friday.

Also at the meeting, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who was participating by telephone, drew attention to a new report on the District website assessing the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative to turn around low-performing schools. It shows that most of the turnaround charters improved reading and math proficiency of their students at the same time that District scores were declining. One notable exception was Audenried High School, run by Universal Companies, which saw a steeper decline than the District as a whole.

The report also shows that first-year gains in Promise Academies, which are District-run turnarounds, have not been maintained. Most of the extra resources in the Promise Academies have been cut.

The report said that all Mastery charter schools "are on an upward trajectory," while "ASPIRA Stetson is also on track, and Olney High has limited, but positive evidence of change."

"Outcomes for the other providers should be scrutinized closely once data is available for the 2013-14 year," the report’s conclusion said.

Two parents from Renaissance schools run by Mastery spoke at the meeting, saying that the program is improving education for their children.

The District posted the report but did not otherwise draw attention to it.