At first, Carla Lewandowski thought she’d move to the Main Line when it was time to send her children to school. The East Falls mother of three also contemplated private and charter schools.
“My husband said, ‘We haven’t even looked at Mifflin,’ ” Lewandowski recalled last week. They toured the neighborhood public school and saw a “nurturing environment," with a principal who “knows literally every student’s name." Their oldest child now attends kindergarten at Thomas Mifflin School, and Lewandowski is president of the school’s Friends group.
She and other East Falls parents who have embraced Mifflin are pushing back on a proposal for Laboratory Charter School to move to and expand in their community — a prospect they’re angry they learned about only two weeks ago by chance. The Philadelphia school board is scheduled to vote on the charter’s relocation Thursday night.
“I think we all fear that a charter moving in would impede our progress, especially because I think there’s still a stigma around public schools,” Lewandowski said.
Charters are publicly funded but independently run. In Philadelphia they educate about 70,000, or one-third of, public-school students.
“We have a phenomenal public school in our neighborhood that is also K-8 and has space for more children,” said Mary Alice Duff, a Mifflin parent and vice president of the East Falls Community Council. She said charter schools benefit from “bad data" about Philadelphia public schools: ”Folks just see a charter school, and they see it’s Laboratory Charter School — 'Oh, they’re invested in science!’”
If its move is approved Thursday, Laboratory Charter would be one of two K-8 charters opening soon in the neighborhood. Philadelphia Hebrew Charter, approved by the former School Reform Commission last year, is opening this fall.
The only current charter in East Falls, Eastern University Academy, enrolls grades 7-12.
Laboratory Charter’s 571 students are spread among three campuses in Overbrook and Northern Liberties. But the school is authorized to enroll up to 1,075.
The move to East Falls would let the school consolidate its campuses and operate at capacity, “which will improve the charter’s financial stability,” according to the district’s evaluation of the charter’s request. Charter schools are paid by the district for each student they enroll, so adding students increases funding.
It’s unclear from what schools the charter would draw pupils. Andrea Coleman-Hill, CEO of Laboratory Charter, said it admits students from across the city and has a waiting list. She declined to say how many students were on the list or whether the school draws more heavily from specific neighborhoods.
“If you’re asking if I recruit from East Falls, the answer is no. I don’t recruit at all. Kids apply in the lottery,” Coleman-Hill said. She said the school — which the SRC voted to nonrenew in 2017 due to organizational and financial issues, but then renewed last year — has been looking to move for years.
Coleman-Hill said the charter "would continue to operate” if its request were denied, though she declined to comment on its finances. She also declined to answer questions about outreach to Mifflin parents, saying, “I can’t offer any information on the parents’ feelings.”
“I don’t understand, how does the School District impose a school on a neighborhood and not tell anybody?” said Greg Brinkley, president of the resident council at Abbotsford Homes, a Philadelphia Housing Authority development on Henry Avenue across from the complex where Laboratory Charter would be located.
Evaluating Laboratory Charter’s community engagement, the School District said, “There is no evidence that the charter school has engaged residents" in East Falls, though it still recommended that the school board approve the charter request.
The district identifies neighborhoods where new charters could be beneficial, but doesn’t consider that analysis when evaluating a charter’s requests to move, spokesperson Megan Lello said.
Parents like Duff and Lewandowski have raised concerns about transportation in and out of the complex, which contains medical facilities as well as the Eastern University charter. That school — which is appealing its nonrenewal by the SRC — is planning to move out, though Hebrew Charter will be moving in.
Some in East Falls said they would consider Laboratory Charter. “I think a lot of people up here would be interested,” said Delores Brown, an Abbotsford resident whose third-grade daughter goes to Mifflin. Brown said she was frustrated by a teacher’s treatment of her daughter and thought a charter might give “more one-on-one type” attention.
She also said there was an unfair perception of Mifflin. “They blame it on the projects,” she said. “They’re only children. Is it the teachers or the kids?”
Eighty percent of the students at Mifflin are African American. “Most white parents in our neighborhood don’t send their children to school here,” said Duff, who is white. “I think East Falls has a problem with race, full stop.”
In addition to circulating a petition asking the school board to delay the Laboratory Charter vote — as of Wednesday it had nearly 600 signatures — parents have been going door to door in East Falls.
Duff and Lewandowski said some people have called them racist. “They think we are rejecting the school because it would bring in students of color,” said Lewandowski, who is Latina and whose husband is white. "They don’t understand the politics of it.”
Kenya Nation-Holmes, a Germantown mother who has sent her children to Mifflin since battling with Mastery Charter Schools over control of her local school, doesn’t want Mifflin to lose students. She wondered, though, what would happen to Laboratory Charter if its relocation wasn’t approved.