The Chester Upland School District has a new superintendent tasked with running the financially distressed district at the same time it is considering whether to hand control of some or all of its schools to charter operators.
Carol Birks, a former superintendent of New Haven, Conn., schools, took over in Chester Upland this week. She brushed aside criticism from some there who said she favored charter schools — which are publicly funded but independently operated — over traditional district schools.
“I know people are like, ‘She’s so pro-charter,’ ” Birks said in an interview Friday. “I believe students and families should have an opportunity to choose what school is best for their children. But I have no preference.” A former assistant superintendent in Hartford, Conn., schools, Birks said she had served on a charter school board there at her superintendent’s request.
Chester Upland has become an oft-cited example in the continued battle over charter schools, which are paid by school districts based on enrollment. More than half of its 7,000 students already attend charters, an arrangement that has provided alternatives for families but has further stressed the finances of the district, which the state moved to place under court control in 2012.
Now, the district is weighing expanding that number, despite traditional public school advocates raising questions about whether charter options deliver a better education.
While she will not be making the final decision whether to transfer control of schools — Chester Upland is controlled by a court-appointed receiver, and a Delaware County judge must sign off on any deal to turn over schools — Birks said she would work closely with the receiver and the district school board to do what was best for students.
Birks will make $215,000 a year at Chester Upland. In New Haven, she had a tumultuous tenure. The school board there bought out her contract in October, a year and a half after she began as superintendent, according to the New Haven Register.
Birks declined to discuss her tenure in New Haven. “The only thing I can share is that the board and I separated,” she said.
Juan Baughn, the Chester Upland receiver who appointed Birks on Monday, said that he and others did “a lot of vetting” and that he was not concerned about controversies in New Haven.
“I know there’s things that happen with school boards and superintendents,” said Baughn, the previous Chester Upland superintendent. He said five Chester Upland school board members and the district’s former receiver, Gregory Thornton, were also part of the decision.
“The fact that she has experience with a financially stressed district was a big part,” Baughn said. Asked if he was referring to New Haven schools, he said: “I don’t remember which one it was.”
Baughn said the Delaware County Intermediate Unit conducted the superintendent search, a process that began before he was receiver. He did not know how many people applied for the job, but said “about 10″ were interviewed.
Dariah Jackson, vice president of the Chester Upland Education Association, said the teachers’ union aims to work with Birks.
“I try not to judge a book by its cover,” she said, adding that she hoped Birks would support “keeping Chester Upland open, and working with charter schools. We can coexist.”
The district has not yet solicited requests for proposals from charter operators, part of a recovery plan approved by the court. Baughn said Thursday that a timeline for moving forward with the plan was still being completed.
Birks said she plans a listening tour in the coming weeks, likely via Zoom meetings. She has a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University, master’s degrees from the University of Bridgeport and Columbia University Teachers College, and a doctoral degree from Columbia University Teachers College.
As a native of Bridgeport, Conn., Birks said she identified with Chester students. She grew up in poverty, with a mother who was a domestic worker and pushed Birks to prioritize education.