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A charter school named for a saint, but with secular aims

Among the 40 applications for new charters the Philadelphia School District has received is a novel proposal for a high school for at-risk students that would combine online course work and instruction that would equip them to graduate to skilled jobs.

Among the 40 applications for new charters the Philadelphia School District has received is a novel proposal for a high school for at-risk students that would combine online course work and instruction that would equip them to graduate to skilled jobs.

The proposed Liguori Academy aims to bring struggling students up to grade level, organize them in career clusters based on growing areas of the regional economy, and engage them in real-world projects, so that they have credentials and industry certificates by the end of 12th grade.

Modeled after a successful approach pioneered at a school in California, the proposed school has an unusual history:

It was originally conceived as an independent school within the auspices of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The plans changed, said the Rev. Michael Marrone, the school's founder. The project may be named for Saint Alphonsus Liguori, an 18th-century Italian bishop, writer, and philosopher, but Marrone said the application submitted to the district was for a charter school that would be strictly secular.

"It's not a Catholic school," said Marrone, a priest and former Catholic high school teacher, who is on leave from the archdiocese to shepherd the project he has been working on since 2009. "We have men and women from Catholic schools who have helped us, but we have no religious affiliation whatsoever."

He added: "Our mission is to empower our most disengaged students."

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the proposed charter's origins likely would be a major issue discussed at public hearings.

"We will be looking for an organization that can clearly demonstrate it is going to be a secular school with no religious connection in regards to teaching or any religious symbols," he said.

Gallard said the district expects to announce the public hearing schedule for Liguori and the 39 other applicants on Monday

Liguori Academy, which received a $25,000 planning grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership, has lined up support from area business, education, and political leaders. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent are on the school's board.

The proposed charter is basing its approach on the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (C.A.R.T.), a high-tech school that found success after it opened in Clovis, Calif., in 2000.

David Patrick Wright, president of Wright Solutions Group and former CEO of C.A.R.T., joined Liguori's founding coalition in January. Wright, a Georgia native who calls himself "a reformed high school principal," is Liguori's director of education. He has also taken the model to other states.

"The idea is you take these students who have not been successful in a more traditional model, invite them in, give them some choice in terms of their high school career," Wright said in an interview at the office the academy rents from a community center at St. Maron's Maronite Catholic Church in South Philadelphia.

Wright said the charter hopes to attract disengaged youth who as freshmen are reading several years below grade level and often cannot do basic math. He said the school would focus on ninth graders who have been absent 30 days; suspended at least once; have D's or F's in both reading and math; and scored below basic on the state's standardized tests.

As of Sept. 8, the founding group's research showed there were close to 9,000 current ninth graders in district, charter, and Catholic schools in the city who met all those criteria.

National dropout experts, Wright said, have found that such students have less than a 1 percent chance of graduating from high school without significant intervention.

"When we say significant intervention, we mean a dramatic change in the way the educational program is designed, delivered, and assessed," Wright said. "That's what we're trying to do here."

At the start of the school year, ninth graders would be assessed to determine their academic levels, their interests, and what problems they may have.

They would be organized in career clusters. Working closely with the business community to scope out regional workforce needs, the school has selected four clusters: energy; information and communication; health care and life sciences; business and professional services.

Each cluster would have a six-member team with certified teachers in math, English, science and social studies, a special-education teacher, and a behavioral health specialist.

Students would receive individualized online instruction at school, but they also will work closely with their teachers.

"I call it a high-tech, high-touch model," Wright said. "I think you have to be around caring, nurturing qualified people."

The charter school hopes to open in the fall of September 2016 with 300 ninth graders.

Marrone said that Saint Alphonsus Liguori said: "Education is one of the most important ways by which society fulfills its commitment to the dignity of the person and the building of community."

Marrone added: "There are a lot of things that people in the secular world can take from Alphonsus."