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A Philly charter school manipulated its lottery to keep kids out, a top administrator says

The school executive said students from certain zip codes were eliminated, and others were kept out because they or their siblings exhibited academic or behavioral problems.

An overhead of the Franklin Towne Charter High School and its surrounding complex. A top executive at Franklin Towne Charter High School said this year’s lottery was fixed, with students from certain zip codes shut out.
An overhead of the Franklin Towne Charter High School and its surrounding complex. A top executive at Franklin Towne Charter High School said this year’s lottery was fixed, with students from certain zip codes shut out.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

Each of the 800-plus Philadelphia families who applied for seats at a nationally recognized charter school thought their children had a fair shot at a spot in this year’s upcoming freshman class. Pennsylvania law guarantees it.

But some had no chance at all.

A top executive at Franklin Towne Charter High School said this year’s lottery was fixed, with students from certain zip codes shut out, and others eliminated because they — or their older siblings — exhibited academic or behavioral problems. Some children were also excluded because Franklin Towne’s chief executive didn’t want to take anyone from a particular charter elementary school, in the event he might have to pay for their transportation.

Patrick Field, Franklin Towne’s chief academic officer and an administrator at the school for 17 years, said the lottery tampering was ordered by Joseph Venditti, the longtime former CEO. Venditti abruptly resigned Feb. 27, citing health reasons, after Field alerted the charter’s board chair about the lottery issues.

Venditti did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Franklin Towne said in a statement that it had commissioned an investigation into the allegations, which it called a “serious matter.”

In the meantime, Franklin Towne is reviewing outside lottery vendors “for solutions that will eliminate any possibility of undue influence on the student enrollment process,” said spokesperson Ken Kilpatrick.

Peng Chao, chief of the Philadelphia School District’s charter schools office, which oversees all Philadelphia charters, said he was aware of the allegations.

“We absolutely are looking into them,” Chao said. “We take them very, very seriously.”

The Inquirer reviewed a summary of the January lottery results showing that 205 students of 813 who applied were offered seats. The accepted students came from 22 zip codes; in 17 other city zip codes, none of the students who applied got in.

It is astronomically unlikely — with odds of 1 in 1,296 trillion — that no students would be selected from those zip codes if Franklin Towne conducted a random lottery as is required, an Inquirer analysis found.

Field, who is still employed by Franklin Towne, said he chose to alert authorities and come forward to The Inquirer because children are being cheated, and because taxpayers are footing the bill. Charters are independently run but publicly funded.

“As an administrator in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I don’t have a choice,” Field said. “As an ethical person, I’m just heartbroken that we’re doing this at a school that I’ve given so much of my life to.”

‘What did I just hear?’

A high school of 1,300 in Bridesburg, Franklin Towne boasts strong academics, with a 97% graduation rate in 2021. It previously was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

The charter also has fielded allegations over its enrollment practices. Though it’s required to admit students from across the city, Franklin Towne’s enrollment is primarily white — a demographic mismatch in a primarily Black school district — a concern raised in 2018 at a School Reform Commission meeting. It has previously been accused of discriminating against special-education students.

Field was proud of the school’s success, which he credited to “remarkable” teachers and supportive families. But on Jan. 4, he overheard a conversation that gave him pause.

According to Field, Venditti was talking with a school secretary about the upcoming lottery — telling her the school had the “names we wanted” and that he would connect her with a member of the IT staff.

“I thought, ‘What did I just hear?’” said Field.

Field felt uncomfortable, so a couple days later initiated a conversation with the secretary.

“I was told that [Venditti] was tired of having bad families automatically get into the school,” Field said.

The secretary mentioned Venditti wanted to cut out students from Christopher Columbus Charter School, in South Philadelphia, because their special-education students had come with a mandate that Franklin Towne had to pay for their for school-bus transportation.

“He’s going to have our IT person pre-run the lottery so that none of the students that he doesn’t want will get in on the day of,’” Field said the secretary told him.

Franklin Towne’s lottery happens the Friday before Martin Luther King Day, in the school’s auditorium. Field has, for years, been the lottery’s public face, reading a script, answering questions for families.

On the morning of Jan. 20, before the lottery results were announced, Field said a secretary asked him to remove from his script any reference to automatic admission for siblings and students from Franklin Towne’s grade school — preferences the charter typically grants. He had a quick conversation with the IT staffer assigned to the lottery.

“I was told that he had the ‘secret squirrel’ file,” Field said. “He said, ‘Joe gave me a list of zip codes that I was supposed to remove.’ I thought, ‘This is a little bit bigger than maybe I thought it was.’ ”

Field didn’t know what to do.

“If I had walked out of there, there would have been a lot of trouble for me,” he said.

The lottery proceeded as Venditti had orchestrated it. But it wasn’t until Feb. 3 that Field got a clearer picture of who had been excluded, when he saw a file with the lottery results.

“Everything that I hoped I wouldn’t find was there,” he said.

None of the 10 students who applied from Christopher Columbus Charter were selected. (”I’m surprised,” said Edward Poznek, Christopher Columbus’ CEO, of the allegations. “They’re supposed to be a Blue Ribbon School. That puts them at the upper echelon of charter schools. I’ve always had a good working relationship with them.”)

There were then two lists, with 11 students each. One, labeled “do not take,” included students with siblings at Franklin Towne — apparently because their siblings had behavioral or disciplinary issues or special education plans, Field said.

Franklin Towne also typically admits students who attend its elementary school, on the same campus. But some grade school students were on a “not in good standing” list — children Field said had disciplinary, attendance or academic issues.

As public schools, charters can’t legally exclude students for those reasons. Field combed through years of school documents to see if he could find any definition of what “not in good standing” meant. He found nothing.

And when Field examined the demographic profiles of the 205 students who had been admitted and the 608 who weren’t, something stood out, he said.

In 17 city zip codes, all 110 students who applied were denied. For instance: None of the 14 students who applied from 19148 in South Philadelphia were accepted. Neither did any of the 10 students who applied from 19146 — Graduate Hospital and parts of Grays Ferry and Point Breeze — or the nine students who applied from 19150 in East Mount Airy.

By contrast, 5 of the 17 students who applied from 19154, in the far Northeast, got in. In 19137 — Bridesburg, where Franklin Towne is located — 16 out of 36 students got in. In total, accepted applicants came from 22 zip codes.

The Inquirer’s analysis of the results found there was virtually no chance they were random. The probability of the 17 zip codes all being excluded in a random lottery is 0.000000000000077%.

A random lottery would very likely have chosen at least 21 students from those 17 zip codes, according to the analysis.

The lottery particularly disadvantaged Black residents. Applicants who were selected lived in areas with a smaller share of Black residents than those who weren’t chosen, the analysis found.

Philadelphia school district officials have in the past called out Franklin Towne for its demographics not reflecting the city’s.

“Fifteen years ago, we were one of the white charter schools in the city,” Field said. In recent years, though, the school’s population has grown more diverse — today about 54% white, 23% Hispanic, and 12% Black. Field said he didn’t know “whether or not that was one of the rationales for why certain zip codes are redlined.”

Most of Philadelphia’s 83 charters now participate in a centralized application process that lets parents apply to schools across the city simultaneously. Franklin Towne, though, continues to collect applications and hold lotteries independently.

Field said he wasn’t aware of previous tampering with the lottery. “In hindsight, it would seem like we didn’t” join the centralized process, he said, “because then we can’t do this.”

‘He was outraged’

By Feb. 8, Field decided he had to come forward. He reached out to Joe Garbarino, the Franklin Towne board president. He sent Garbarino an email with a timeline and an analysis of the file he had seen.

Garbarino “was outraged,” and pledged to launch an investigation, Field said.

But according to Garbarino, that plan was scuttled by fellow board members, some of whom had met with Venditti before a Feb. 27 board meeting.

During the board meeting, Garbarino said he proposed hiring the Fox Rothschild law firm to investigate the allegations, but board members voted 5-2 against it. (Minutes from the board meeting don’t mention the vote, but say Garbarino “summarized concerns” related to the lottery, and “several board members suggested” having Brianna O’Donnell, the new CEO, “look into the allegations.”)

Garbarino resigned during the meeting.

“It’s troubling that the high school attempted, in my opinion, to prevent children from being admitted without cause,” Garbarino said, adding later that “if this is proven, this is deplorable.”

Kilpatrick, the Franklin Towne spokesperson, said Garbarino’s claims about the board’s actions were false.

Meanwhile, Venditti also immediately resigned — after announcing days earlier that he wouldn’t leave until June, Field said.

The board minutes say Venditti recently had surgery and could no longer perform his CEO duties, and that Garbarino asked the board to present him with a retirement package, with Venditti entitled to two weeks salary for every year worked.

“In light of the school’s current financial and academic success under his leadership, it was suggested to present him with a check for $350,000,” the minutes state.

Garbarino, who said he believes Venditti resigned because of the allegations, said Venditti was owed the check as part of his contract.

“It’s known that the board doesn’t vote against Joe” Venditti, Field said. “The board gives Joe what Joe asks for.”

Margie Wakelin, an Education Law Center-PA lawyer who has worked with families in complaints against Franklin Towne in the past, said changes are imperative.

“We need to ensure that our public schools — and charter schools are public schools — have public accountability, and are serving our students of Philadelphia,” said Wakelin. “All zip codes, all students.”

About the data
The Inquirer obtained data on students who entered and were selected in Franklin Towne Charter High School's admission lottery. In total, 812 students from Philadelphia applied and were given first preference in the lottery, which was supposed to be random. (One applicant was one from Bucks County.) 

In total, 205 students were chosen from zip codes that had 702 total applicants; 17 zip codes had 110 combined applicants but none selected.

To calculate the probability that a fair lottery would exclude applicants from those 17 zip codes entirely, The Inquirer calculated the number of ways 205 students could be chosen out of 702 and divided it by the number of ways that 205 students could be chosen out of 812.

The Inquirer also calculated a one-sided confidence interval to arrive at the minimum number of students from those 17 zip codes who would be selected with 95% probability. The probability that the lottery would pick no students was added to the probability that it would pick exactly one such student and so on until the sum of the probabilities reached 0.05. Twenty-one such terms produced a sum of 0.04, which means that at least 21 students would have been selected with 95% probability.

The Inquirer's methodology was vetted by Drexel University mathematics professor Pawel Hitczenko.

Racial and ethnic data were sourced from the American Community Survey 2021-2017 estimates.