SRC votes to close M.H. Stanton, create cyber school

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

On the heels of presenting a “doomsday” budget that would reduce schools to the bare essentials, the School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to close North Philadelphia’s M.H. Stanton Elementary School, triggering an explosion of tears and rage from its supporters.

The SRC also voted to establish its own cyber charter school and renew contracts with providers of accelerated and discipline schools. It also added a new provider.

After the 3-1 closure vote, Stanton’s defenders were devastated.

“I’m hurt. I’m hurt really bad,” said Tracey Lester, a Stanton grandparent and vocal supporter.

Lester is one of a number of Stanton supporters who believe that the school was unfairly closed because of its lack of political clout. A proposal to close Stanton and save another school, Tanner Duckrey, was written by a former District official, Quibila Divine, who is also the sister of Commissioner Sylvia Simms.

As it turns out, Simms was the only commissioner to vote to keep Stanton open, but she did not comment about her vote afterward.

Earlier this week, Lester told the Notebook that she planned to testify about her concerns to the SRC, but in the end she chose not to, having been told by District officials that they prohibit the use of testimony to level accusations at third parties.

When the vote was complete and the school’s fate sealed, Lester stood in the hallway with tears welling in her eyes and said she’d put her concerns in writing but dared not speak them out loud after considering the District’s requirements.

“I was told I wasn’t allowed to mention names,” she said, her voice rising as dejected and angry Stanton supporters filed past. “I was hoping for the truth!” she shouted. “We want an internal investigation!”

District officials have defended the Stanton decision, saying it was based on Duckrey’s slightly better academic record and superior building conditions, including a new air conditioning system and an outdoor campus. Stanton needs millions in repairs, they said.

Divine has likewise defended her proposal, saying it was developed with student performance data as a guide. But she acknowledged that the informal stakeholder group that helped shape it, the North Philadelphia Collaboration, made no effort to involve Stanton supporters in the process.

The way events unfolded triggered community frustration and bitterness among those long associated with M.H. Stanton.

Duckrey was one of 37 schools on Superintendent William Hite’s original closure list. But it was one of 10 schools removed when the District revised its first plan in the face of political and community outcry. The revised plan reconfigured how the closings would impact North Philadelphia.

In cutting the 10 schools, Hite added Stanton and Beeber Middle School in West Philadelphia, leaving a total of 29 schools recommended for closure. Last month, the SRC voted to close 23 of those. And earlier this week, Hite withdrew his recommendation for Beeber, leaving Stanton seeing itself as an unlucky last-minute victim of the District’s largest mass school closings ever.

Lester’s testimony had planned to question Divine’s “personal agenda,” but District Counsel Michael Davis said that the District discourages testimony that “rais[es] questions about other individuals in a forum in which [they] may not have an opportunity to respond.”

Stanton, once lauded as a national example of how high-poverty schools could also produce high student outcomes, was also the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary in the 1990s. It attributes its recent academic struggles to the District’s decision to pull back extra supports it had received from the now defunct Office of Restructured Schools.

Other highlights of the meeting:

District cyber school will open
The SRC approved $15 million over two years for a new cyber school called the Philadelphia Virtual Academy, which they hope will draw students back to the District from costly cyber charters. “This is not just a contract where we’re spending money,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn. “We’re spending money to recover money.” The new cyber school will be run by the Chester County Intermediate Unit. Officials have said that reclaiming just 86 of the nearly 6000 Philadelphia that now attend state-approved cyber schools will allow it to “break even.” Each cyber student costs the District an average of $9,000.

New alternative high school
The SRC approved a grant of $875,000 for a 100-student accelerated high school with a focus on arts and media, run by YESPhilly. “We appreciate that this is a very difficult time for public education,” said staffer Kyana Hopkins. “Still, you are choosing to maintain a critical safety net for students who need a chance to finish high school.” Founded in 1999, YESPhilly has worked with such partners as the District, Mastery Charters, and the Philadelphia Youth Network, and focused mainly on teacher development programs, GED and literacy programs, and advocacy for out-of-school youth. The new school will open in September. Altogether, it approved $21 million for alternative school providers.

Charter school union push
A number of teachers from ASPIRA Olney Charter High School asked the SRC to support their attempts to unionize in the face of what they described as deliberate tactics from school administrators to squash their effort. “Teachers’ suggestions are often ignored, and we do not have due process in place,” said teacher Larry Arata. “They’ve refused to engage us in any dialogue, and further, they’ve engaged in repeated activities clearly designed to deter us from exercising our legal rights.”

Teachers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which Arata said is now investigating. “We ask that you communicate to ASPIRA … that scare tactics, intimidation, and retaliatory tactics are not acceptable practices and will not be tolerated by the SRC.” ASPIRA officials did not testify to respond to the teachers’ assertions.

Charter school parents seek new board
Supporters of the embattled Laboratory Charter School sought the SRC’s help in establishing a new governing board. The school’s charter renewal has been in limbo since founder Dorothy June Brown and two colleagues were charged in a scheme to defraud the school of millions of dollars, and parents are embroiled in a battle to stop the existing board from spending school funds defending the accused administrators.

“In Lab Charter, parts of our experiment have gone very well,” said parent Richard Weiss. “But since July, when parents discovered we’d have to fight to keep our school, we’ve had nothing but unanswered questions. Here’s one: How could the SRC or [the charter school office] not replace our current board of trustees in the face of such compelling evidence that they mismanaged funds? How could our board make nothing but cosmetic changes … and expect to retain our charter?” Weiss and others believe there are enough parents to create a new board. “We want our school back. We deserve it. We will retain the part that works,” said Weiss.

Head Start blues
Supporters of a half-dozen Head Start programs asked the SRC to reconsider its plans to outsource more than 2,000 Head Start slots to less expensive private providers. One was Linda Lackey, a 16-year veteran of Frankford Head Start. “A world-class city like Philadelphia cannot afford to lose Head Start – certainly not to be auctioned off to companies and contractors who put money and profits before education,” she said. Another perspective was offered by Mary Graham of the Children’s Village, who criticized “misinformation” about private providers like hers. “Community-based partners are not fly-by-night agencies who want to make money off of children,” she said. “We’re often safer than school-based programs … I’m here to remind everyone that we’re in this crisis together.”

Charter school reforms
Education advocates asked the SRC to rethink its charter school policies and beef up its oversight. Donna Cooper, head of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, criticized the District for failing to provide details of charter school expansion requests. “The School District informed PCCY and others that it would not release the number of new charter seats requested … this lack of transparency raises more questions than it answers,” said Cooper, adding that while PCCY supports quality charters, many that want to expand are performing below District averages. “The District is not in a position to give the charters a blank check,” she said. “We believe that charter expansion should occur only when the District can afford to expand seats in its own high-quality schools as well.”

Meanwhile, David Lapp of the Education Law Center called on the District to expand its charter school office, noting that while charters still generate numerous complaints for “counseling out” challenging students – telling them that “this school’s not a good fit for you” or “we can’t provide the services that you need” — the prevalence of such practices has not been assessed in detail. “We’ve successfully represented dozens of families, many of them referred to us by the District’s own charter school office,” said Lapp. “But it’s not enough to ask a few attorneys at the ELC to protect the rights of 50,000 students.” Lapp praised the work of the District’s four-person charter school office, but recommended that it be expanded to match that of cities like New York (19 staffers) or Denver (24).