Philadelphia school board rejects applications for four new charter schools

Exterior of The School District of Philadelphia building.
The Philadelphia Board of Education voted to deny applications to open four charter schools at its Feb. 23 meeting, which also featured sharp criticisms of the board’s approach to new charters from state Sen. Anthony Williams. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

The Philadelphia Board of Education Thursday night rejected applications to open four new charter schools, continuing its resistance to creating more of the publicly funded but privately managed schools. 

Peng Chao, the acting director of the district’s Charter Schools Office, cited deficiencies in all the applications in his presentation to the board; Chao’s office evaluates the applications but does not recommend action to the board. The four charter applications originated from groups or organizations that have checkered histories when it comes to running schools. 

Tensions flared at times during the meeting, which several charter supporters attended. At one point, state Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat and supporter of one of the charter applicants, said the district was not treating children in all neighborhoods fairly and was restricting academic opportunities. 

Philadelphia’s charter schools educate more than 70,000 students, or about a third of those who attend publicly funded schools in the city. Since regaining authority over the school district in 2018 after 17 years under state control, the board has declined all new charter applications. The last charter school application to be approved was from Hebrew Public Charter School in 2018, shortly before the board resumed control.

But that has not stopped applicants from continuing to propose new schools. Sometimes, they have essentially resubmitted previous applications that the board had rejected.

Two of the new charter schools were proposed by ASPIRA, Inc. During the period of state control over city schools, officials gave ASPIRA control of Olney High School and Stetson Middle School. Both those schools, which were former district schools ceded to charter management organizations as a turnaround strategy, had their charters revoked after financial and academic problems, and the schools were returned to district control. 

ASPIRA proposed creating the 1,200-student ASPIRA Bilingual College and Career Preparatory Academy, a high school in the former Cardinal Dougherty High School building in East Oak Lane. It also proposed the 1,000-student Dr. Ricardo E. Alegria Preparatory Charter School, a K-8 school in the Kensington neighborhood. 

ASPIRA also runs the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, as well as a cyber charter. 

ASPIRA submitted similar charter proposals in recent years that the board had rejected.  Chao told the board Thursday that ASPIRA’s latest applications were not significantly revised from the last submissions, despite feedback from the charter office on where they were deficient. 

In both applications, he said, “the overall approach to operations management was confusing,” and in the case of Alegria, the proposed site would only accommodate the school for one year. 

A group of educators and others — including Naomi Johnson-Booker, a longtime educator in the city and CEO of the Global Leadership network — applied to open Global Leadership Academy International Charter High School, which would eventually enroll 1,200 students in grades 9-12 on North Broad Street. There are currently two Global Leadership K-8 schools and Booker has long sought to add a high school.

The Perseverance Leadership Academy Charter School was proposed by the trustees of the Daroff and Bluford charter schools, which had been run by Universal Companies. But in August, Universal abruptly walked away from managing the schools in August, leaving families and the district in the lurch. Daroff closed before the school year began, while Bluford remains open, although the trustees promised to surrender its charter at the end of this school year. 

The trustees are proposing to create a new charter in the Daroff and Bluford buildings. But both those facilities are owned by the school district and “not available for lease or license at this time,” Chao said.

In addition, the charter office raised red flags about the proposed schools’ ability to teach core academic standards. 

The board voted 8-0 to reject the applications from ASPIRA and Perseverance Leadership Academy. On Global Leadership Academy, the vote was 6-2, with Lisa Salley and Cecelia Thompson voting against the resolution to deny the application. 

State senator slams board over funding

Several parents and students testified at the meeting in favor of Global Leadership. 

Williams, the state senator, also spoke on behalf of Global Leadership, and got into a combative exchange with Board President Reginald Streater. 

Williams said he felt “frustration and significant concern” over the board’s record of rejecting new charters. He pointedly noted that he has fought in Harrisburg — the state capital — for more funds for the school district, but suggested his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, overwhelmingly Black and low-income, is not getting the funds it deserves and needs from the district. 

“You should come and meet some of the people who reside in those communities,” Williams said. Most of them, he said, have children who “can’t get into Masterman or Central,” two of the district’s premier magnet schools. Parents in those areas, he said, want a chance for their children to be educated. 

“Thousands are in prison for the simple reason they can’t read,” he added. 

As Streater sought to interject during Williams’ comments, the senator cut him off, saying, “I’m not here to debate you.” 

“Sounds like it,” Streater shot back. 

Later, Streater apologized for his testiness. He said he had been distracted by reports of a shooting outside a school in North Philadelphia that injured five teenagers, a 31-year-old woman, and her two-year-old daughter that happened during the meeting.

But Williams wasn’t the only person who expressed frustration with the board. After the vote against Global Leadership, someone in the audience at the meeting shouted, “You need to stop playing with children’s lives.”

The board’s ongoing refusal to approve new charters isn’t the only issue creating tension between the charter community and the district. Black charter operators and other advocates have accused the district of discriminating against them, saying that while a minority of charter schools are run by Black people, they make up the highest percentage of those that are closed. 

Both the Global Leadership and Perseverance applicant groups are mostly Black, while the ASPIRA applicants are Latino. Streater and Williams are both Black. 

The board hired a firm to investigate the racial bias allegations in 2021, but has not said when the investigation will be completed.

Correction: This story has been changed to eliminate a reference to Global Leadership Academy Southwest having been non-renewed. Global Leadership Academy Southwest was renewed for five years in July. Another charter school with a similar name, Southwest Leadership Academy, is in the non-renewal process.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org. 

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