Concerned that a proposed charter school would take resources and students away from it and other traditional public schools, staffers from one Philadelphia high school are fighting back.

The Kensington Health Sciences Academy educators oppose the proposed charter — High School for Health Sciences Leadership — whose officers will testify Friday before district officials in hope of winning a favorable recommendation to the school board for a 2021 opening. Some KHSA staff have already publicly railed against the proposal; more plan to testify at Friday’s hearing.

“Charter schools in this city already take funding away that public neighborhood schools need desperately while [charters] choose their students under the illusion of families having more school options,” Jenifer Felix, a Kensington Health Sciences teacher, told the school board this month. “The reality is that the schools sort and select who they want and send the students with the highest needs to underfunded neighborhood schools like KHSA.”

Felix and teachers at other neighborhood high schools say they routinely receive students who have been pushed out of charters. And a 2019 analysis of charter school enrollment found that Philadelphia’s charter schools as a whole serve a population that is more affluent and advantaged than traditional public schools.

The arguments crystallize the broader tensions between traditional public and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. In Philadelphia, more than a third of all public school students — over 70,000 children — attend charters.

The health-sciences charter application is particularly alarming, KHSA staff say, because it’s being supported by the Philadelphia School Partnership, a powerful nonprofit that donates millions to improving educational outcomes for low-income children. They say that over several months, PSP officials talked with them about their school, its partnerships, strengths, and challenges, suggesting that the nonprofit might invest in Kensington Health Sciences.

A sign in Kensington Health Sciences Academy hallway uses letters on the periodic table of elements. The school is one of 17 of Mayor Jim Kenney's community schools.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A sign in Kensington Health Sciences Academy hallway uses letters on the periodic table of elements. The school is one of 17 of Mayor Jim Kenney's community schools.

KHSA principal Nimet Eren said officials from the nonprofit recently told her they had “an exciting opportunity” for the school.

“I was elated. I thought, ‘PSP’s going to help us — maybe they found a partner that wanted to work with us, or maybe they were going to support us financially,'” said Eren, a recent winner of the Lindback Award for distinguished principals. “I believe the district is doing great things. I think that neighborhood schools are worth investing in.”

Ultimately, she found the opportunity less than exciting: The PSP officials told her they were giving $75,000 to the charter group that Kensington Health Sciences staff believes could hamper its ability to provide students a quality education.

“I was very confused as to how this would be helpful to us,” Eren said. PSP officials told her, she said, that KHSA could learn from the new school. She pushed back — if the partnership wanted to fund the health sciences model, why not invest in her school?

“They indicated it was because we were a neighborhood school and all our kids were not ready to participate in [Career and Technical Education] programs,” said Eren. Some of her students shine at state and national health careers competitions, but others struggle in English and math.

That, Kensington Health Sciences staff say, is the crux of the problem: Charter schools have at times set criteria to exclude the neediest students, or encourage students to leave if they have disciplinary problems or other issues. Traditional public schools must take all pupils whenever they show up.

Messages found on a bulletin board in Kensington Health Sciences Academy teacher Maddie Luebbert's classroom. Luebbert and others in the KHSA community fear the impact of a proposed health-sciences charter.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Messages found on a bulletin board in Kensington Health Sciences Academy teacher Maddie Luebbert's classroom. Luebbert and others in the KHSA community fear the impact of a proposed health-sciences charter.

David Saenz Jr., spokesperson for PSP, said the organization respects KHSA’s work and was transparent about funding the health-sciences charter, which PSP officials believe will serve a city with more than 200,000 health and education services jobs.

“We are hopeful there will be opportunities to support both, and that the proposed charter will be a catalyst for encouraging a wide variety of health-related employers to develop partnerships with schools,” Saenz said in a statement.

Tim Matheny, a lead founder of the would-be health-sciences charter, said he could not speak about PSP’s dealings with Kensington Health Sciences, but agreed that there’s room for both schools.

Matheny, who once worked as principal of a large public suburban New Jersey high school, said he understands KHSA’s frustration with charters that exclude less-than-ideal pupils. He said his school would be different.

“I don’t believe charters should cherry-pick students,” Matheny said. “If we wanted to, we could have crafted our charter application in a different way.”

Each of the 450 students at KHSA is considered low-income; one in five is an English language learners, and one in five has special education needs. The school enrolls students leaving juvenile justice placements, students who struggle with food insecurity, and those in the foster care system. The school, singled out by the city for its promise as one of just 17 community schools, has drawn plaudits for its academic growth and the innovative ways it supports some of Philadelphia’s neediest students.

With a proposed North Broad Street location, the health sciences charter would be located within five miles of six district schools that offer a health-related technology curriculum: Kensington Health Sciences, Randolph, Mastbaum, Franklin Learning Center, Sayre and Dobbins.

“This school will be in direct competition with us, especially considering health-related community partnerships and funding opportunities,” said Maddie Luebbert, who teaches English at KHSA.

It also takes many pages from the KHSA playbook, Susan Weinand, who teaches dental assisting at Kensington Health Sciences, and Luebbert said — aspiring to partner with many of the same organizations Kensington Health Sciences has teamed with, pledging an advisory model and a focus on being culturally relevant.

“A new charter trying to duplicate our school’s mission will expand the teacher shortage that already exists among health related programs,” Weinand said. “Resources are already very thin, and pulling them away from our students who very much need and deserve them is irresponsible.”

Editor’s note: Additional context on charter admissions has been added to this article for clarity.