Philadelphia School District can take back two schools from charter control, a state board ruled
The move comes nearly six years after the Philadelphia School District first recommended that the district cut ties with ASPIRA Olney and Stetson for academic, operational and financial reasons.
A state panel on Tuesday upheld the Philadelphia school board’s decision not to renew two charter schools, setting a course for ASPIRA Olney High School and ASPIRA Stetson Middle School to return to district control later this year.
The move comes nearly six years after the Philadelphia School District’s charter schools office first recommended that the district cut ties with ASPIRA Olney and Stetson for academic, operational, and financial reasons. The school board eventually voted against renewing the charters in 2019 over strong objections from the powerful Hispanic nonprofit that has run them since 2010 and 2011.
The charter nonrenewals mark the first time the district will take back control of schools it had turned over under the Renaissance Schools initiative, a school-turnaround approach launched in 2010 that the district has backed away from in recent years. (In 2016, Scholar Academies abruptly surrendered control of Kenderton Elementary, citing the high cost of educating its large special-education population; the district took back Kenderton and still runs it.)
ASPIRA officials said they plan to file court paperwork to overturn Tuesday’s ruling of the Charter Appeals Board, which voted 4-1 in both the Olney and Stetson cases. Among those voting in favor was Jennifer Faustman, CEO of the Belmont Charter Network in Philadelphia. Tom Killion, a former Republican state senator from Delaware County, was the lone no vote.
“We believe we are in a fairer position as our case moves to the judicial system as we appeal to the Commonwealth Court,” the boards of Olney and Stetson said in a statement. “We anticipate an impartial decision and that Olney and Stetson will prevail against the School District of Philadelphia’s attempt to take control of our school.”
Olney, a high school that enrolls more than 1,700 students at Front and Duncannon, and Stetson, which educates 860 students in grades 5 through 8 on B Street in Kensington, will remain open in their current buildings, district and board officials emphasized. Students’ educations will not be interrupted.
“We realize that the school transitions may be unsettling for many of the students and families who are impacted,” board president Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement. “But please know that the School District will be leading a thoughtful and comprehensive transition process in partnership with the students, families and staff at Stetson and Olney.”
The old School Reform Commission gave struggling Olney and Stetson to ASPIRA as part of its Renaissance initiative that tapped outside providers to run schools. According to a hearing officer’s report, while ASPIRA made progress in improving the schools’ climates, it didn’t live up to the academic promises it made and had financial shortcomings, too.
ASPIRA has fought to maintain control of the schools, which have been in limbo since their charters expired more than five years ago. In 2019, the company sued the School District, accusing it of unlawfully delaying charter renewal decisions to pressure the company into agreeing to conditions like enrollment caps.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the district last year, determining that while ASPIRA was selected to manage the two schools, there was no contract between the company and the district.
ASPIRA, which manages a total of five charter schools in the city, including a cyber charter, has also faced scrutiny from state officials. It was the subject of an auditor general’s report in 2018 that highlighted significant increases in payments the charters made to ASPIRA as an example of flaws in Pennsylvania’s charter school law.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district was committed to making the transition smooth “and ensuring that the new Stetson and Olney schools will be grounded in district standards while also preserving some of the existing programs, services or unique elements that are important to those school communities.”