The Philadelphia school board voted Thursday to accept the Charter High School for Architecture and Design’s agreement to close after the next school year, with the possibility of continuing the school under district management.
But exactly what will happen to the design-focused school, which was facing nonrenewal by the district for academic and compliance reasons, is still unclear. Officials said the agreement — which eliminated the need for the board and charter to go through lengthy and expensive nonrenewal hearings — didn’t mean the district would necessarily take over the school, or create a new design program.
As for the school’s future beyond next year, Naomi Wyatt, chief of staff to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., said that it was still to be determined.
Opened in 1999 with the goal of sending more African American students into architecture, the struggling Center City school agreed to surrender its charter on June 30, 2020, in exchange for the board calling off nonrenewal hearings that were scheduled to begin this week. The agreement also included a commitment by the district and CHAD to explore the creation of a design-focused school or program.
Earlier this year, CHAD signed a contract with String Theory Schools, agreeing to pay the charter operator $60,000 a month for consulting. CHAD was also prepared to hand over management of the school to String Theory. CHAD’s board president said it was “doing everything in its power to save" the school.
Those agreements weren’t discussed at Thursday’s meeting.
Joyce Wilkerson, president of the school board, said CHAD leadership had come to the district “when it became apparent the charter school framework was not a framework that was really working” for the school, where test scores and attendance declined in recent years, along with other issues.
Wilkerson said she hoped the agreement “could possibly be a model for other situations in front of the board,” when a charter school "is not an effective framework, but there are good concepts, programs that are part of the school.” Officials said the district would be working with CHAD students to make sure they were informed and help them enroll after the charter closes.
The vote, which was unanimous, came during a “special-action” meeting to consider several charter-school issues.
Here’s what else the board decided.
The board unanimously denied an application by Freire Charter Schools to form a Multiple Charter School Organization. The designation, created in 2017 by state law, would have allowed Freire to merge its two Philadelphia charter schools under the auspices of a new organization, with the schools governed by a single board.
In its evaluation of the application, the district said it had questions about the “quality of financial management” at the two Freire schools, which it said had both overspent their budgets over the past two years. And while the application said consolidation would allow the schools to achieve economies of scale, the district said the organization’s projected five-year budget did not reflect that benefit. The schools projected spending more on salaries, even without staffing changes.
Several board members expressed concern about how the structure would affect their authority over charter schools, which educate one-third, or 70,000, of Philadelphia’s 200,000 public school students.
While there are currently charter networks with multiple schools — Mastery, for instance, runs 18 charters in the city — each individual school has its own governing board.
“I have great concerns about this approach to separating out groups of schools,” said board member Christopher McGinley, though he noted that the schools would retain their individual charters under the new organization.
Pennsylvania currently has no Multiple Charter School Organizations. To be eligible, one of the charter schools seeking to form the organization has to rank in the top 25 percent of Pennsylvania charter schools in state evaluations. (Freire Charter School, in Center City, did; TECH Freire, in North Philadelphia, did not.)
An application by Propel Schools seeking to merge eight schools in the western part of the state was denied last year by the Pittsburgh School District and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The state Charter Appeals Board is scheduled to hear Propel’s appeal next week.
Wilkerson said limited guidance in state law "reinforces the need for us to be aggressively vigilant about this, and we will be.”