FIVE charter-school applicants did their best yesterday to impress Philadelphia School District officials as they bid to expand school choice in the city.

The applicants were the first of 40 that will outline their plans during public hearings this week before an independent hearing officer and a staffer from the district's Charter Office. The embattled district has not accepted new applications since 2008, but now is required to as part of the city's recently enacted $2 cigarette tax to provide additional funding.

Each of the groups that presented yesterday said there is a need for its academic model, citing the poor academic performance at many of the city's neighborhood public schools.

"We are closing . . . the [achievement] gap with some of our schools, but there is still a wide gap when we look at someone who is not only considering Philadelphia, but also the suburbs, in terms of finding the highest quality education they can for their child," said Benjamin Persofsky, head of the founding coalition of Partnership School for Science and Innovation in Center City, one of two applications by MaST Community Charter.

Persofsky said PSSI would help retain and attract young families near Center City, thereby strengthening the city's tax base and generating more money for traditional public schools.

Each of the applicants was buoyed by supporters who urged the district to give their school a green light.

Arien Evans, a ninth-grader at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter, run by String Theory, said the school opened a new world for him.

"The first time I came to the building on a shadow day I knew this was where I wanted to be," he said. "The kids were all having so much fun, all while learning. And I'm not a kid where I can sit and stare at textbooks, so iPads were a fantastic alternative for me."

String Theory discussed three of its four proposed locations - East Falls, Grays Ferry and Pennsport. The arts-based school lets students choose a major, and every student plays violin through fourth grade.

Yvonne Haskins, of Germantown United CDC, boasted about community support for Germantown Community Charter, proposed by a coalition of civic groups, alumni and residents. "This community power is the magic the [School Reform Commission] needs in every community across the city to find a way to make the difference. This power brings a partnership money can't buy and politicians can't ordain," she said.

Germantown Community is one of two groups hoping to open a skills-based charter in Germantown to capture students displaced by the closing of Germantown High; the other is Philadelphia Career and Technical Academy.

They weren't the only ones yesterday proposing a career-themed model. Liguori Academy, whose presentation included remarks from founding board member and District Attorney Seth Williams, would cater to at-risk students struggling in traditional schools.

The city's 86 charters educate about 62,000 students - roughly one-third of the district's total enrollment - up from about 43,000 students in 2010-11.

Not everyone at the hearing favored charter expansion in the city. Temwa Wright, a parent of three district students, said authorizing more charters would deplete resources from improving neighborhood schools.

"If you have four hungry children that you are barely feeding, does it make sense to adopt two more?" Wright asked.

Members of Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools protested at the start of the hearing with claims about charter fraud. They called for a moratorium on charters pending more oversight.

A second round of hearings will be held in January. The SRC is expected to vote on the applications in February or March. Any rejected applicant can appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.

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