As area Catholic schools await word of their fates, a charter school proposed by the head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority and two state legislators has emerged as a factor in the appeals process for at least two parish elementary schools in the city that are fighting to stay open.
According to the unsolicited application submitted to the School District in November, the proposed K-8 Philadelphia Polytechnic Charter School intends to have campuses in Kensington and South Philadelphia. Backers say in the charter application that they had been assured by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that they could rent the former St. Anne's School in Kensington, which closed last year, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in South Philadelphia, which is appealing a proposal to close it in June.
In fact, the charter application was submitted to the School District two months before an archdiocese commission recommended closing Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
In addition, representatives from St. Laurentius School in Fishtown said the archdiocese panel evaluating their appeal seemed to raise the specter of the proposed charter at St. Anne as an argument for closing their school. They were asked how the potential charter might impact enrollment at their school in Fishtown.
"A lot of us don't believe in the charter school model," said A.J. Thomson, a parent working to keep St. Laurentius open. "Some charters have been successful, but this should not be used as a reason for closing our successful Catholic school because one might open one day."
According to the application for the proposed Philadelphia Polytechnic Charter, members of the founding coalition include Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., executive director of the Parking Authority; State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.); State Rep. William Keller, (D., Phila); and Robert DeMento, a marketing executive.
St. Anne's is in Taylor's district; Our Lady of Mount Carmel is in Keller's. Fenerty is the president of the St. Anne Alumni Association.
Thomson said parents at St. Laurentius heard about the questions the panel posed to the school's representative about the charter proposal on Jan. 30 when officials showed 100 parents the appeals presentation they had made to the archdiocese. He said school officials were at a loss how to respond to "such a left-field question. It was not part of the 'facts' sent to the school to refute."
The archdiocese has complained publicly for years that taxpayer-funded charters have siphoned students from Catholic schools - especially in the city. Thomson said he believed it was unfair for the archdiocese to use the prospect of a charter that could generate rental revenue to parishes as a factor in closing Catholic schools.
"Many options are being looked at at this time," a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said in a statement Tuesday. "Keep in mind what the Blue Ribbon Commission said in its guiding principles, 'Various alternatives to the traditional parish elementary school should be considered including, but not limited to, regional schools, multi-parish schools and independent schools. The archdiocese's commitment to those in the inner city and other underserved communities should reflect a need-based approach that establishes various educational alternatives and seeks funding support from diverse sources.' "
The commission on Catholic education in January recommended closing 49 Catholic schools in the five-county archdiocese as part of a broad restructuring plan to provide financial stability and address declining enrollment. Nearly half the targeted schools have appealed the commission's recommendations, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The commission recommended that that school at 2329 S. Third St. be closed along with four others to create a regional school in South Philadelphia at the site of the former Stella Maris School at 814 Bigler St.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is expected to announce his decisions on the appeals this week.
DeMento, who is listed as the contact person on the charter application, did not respond to a call or e-mail seeking comment. Taylor, Keller, and Fenerty did not return several calls either.
The proposed charter's "founders and planning team came together as result of their affiliations with their communities, the archdiocese, and public educators with roots in the targeted community," according to application documents The Inquirer obtained from the School District under the state's right-to-know law. "Each member embodies a strong conviction as it relates to the educational needs facing our young people today."
The proposal calls for the charter to open in September with 375 students the first year at each campus and grow to a combined total of 900 by 2015-16.
"Both sites are former parochial schools and will be available by July 2012," according to documents the founders submitted to the district in November.
The Rev. Francis J. Cauterucci, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, has appealed and did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
The Rev. Edward Brady, pastor of St. Anne's, said recently that while talk about charters has been spurred by the commission's recommendations, he had no knowledge of one being proposed in his former parish school.
"Nothing has come our way," Brady said. "Nothing has come across my desk."
The application says the proposed Polytechnic charter would follow the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr., an educator and literary critic who has written extensively on cultural literacy.
The founding group, which has been circulating "pre-enrollment" applications in nearby neighborhoods, said that it had recruited more than 350 students "with more coming in each day," and gathered hundreds of letters of support from business and community organizations.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the School Reform Commission did not solicit charter school applications in the fall and had no plans to review or vote on any proposed schools.
Apart from converting 13 troubled district schools into Renaissance charters as part of former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's Imagine 2014 education reform plan, the SRC has not approved any new charter schools in three years.
Philadelphia Polytechnic has the same name as a school the SRC reviewed a few years ago. In 2009 the SRC gave preliminary approval to a proposed charter high school in South Philadelphia that planned to give students internships and prepare them for apprenticeship programs.
That charter expired June 30, 2010, when founders failed to submit requested documents and meet other requirements set by the SRC.
Gallard said: "There is no charter."