WHAT HAD BEEN expected to be a raucous School Reform Commission meeting Thursday turned out to be rather mild since SRC Chairwoman Marjorie Neff announced early in the meeting that the panel would not vote immediately to either renew or reject charters for four area schools.
Last spring, the district's charter school office had recommended the SRC not renew the operating charters of Universal's Vare Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter and its Audenried Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter, both in South Philadelphia, or those of Aspira's John B. Stetson Charter School in Kensington and Olney Charter High School in Olney because of low test scores and concerns about their operations and finances.
The four schools are former district campuses that the SRC converted to charters as part of its Renaissance program to overhaul struggling schools.
Even with the news that there would be no vote, students, parents, an elected official and critics of SRC's plans voiced their opinions when it was the audience's turn to speak. Some recommended that both Universal and Aspira's schools be allowed to remain open, while others insisted they were not performing well.
"We've done and are willing to do what is necessary to maintain and keep it," State Rep. Angel Cruz, who represents the state's 180th District, said of Aspira's Stetson Charter School.
Under the terms of the operating agreements with the district, the school's operators were expected to achieve dramatic academic improvements in five years. The charter office said that hadn't happened.
Both operators - Kenny Gamble's Universal Companies and Aspira of Pennsylvania, the latter of which focuses on Latino youth - had challenged the findings of the charter office and asked for more time.
Neff said after the meeting that depending on whether there is new information, or if some commissioners are able to persuade others to change their minds, there may be another vote on the charters next month. However, the SRC did vote to renew the charter for KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, which has various locations in the city. But it did not vote on renewing the charter for Mastery Charter School at Simon Gratz.
In other action, the SRCapproved a new, innovative high school in North Philadelphia - inside a building it ordered closed in 2013, citing declining enrollment and poor academic performance.
Meanwhile, a Big Picture School will open next fall in the old Vaux High School building at Master and 23rd Streets. It will be a district school run by Big Picture Pennsylvania, the local arm of a national education nonprofit. Big Picture schools stress personal relationships, internships and other real-world experiences.
Vaux BPS would have no admission requirements and be open to students who live in its surrounding neighborhoods. Also part of a collaboration with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, it would eventually have 500 students in grades 9 through 12.
One woman got up to question why the SRC would close Vaux in 2013, when it closed about 23 campuses in total, only to plan to reopen it as a Big Picture school.
"So obviously planning has been going on for a while, and its part of PHA's plan for redevelopment of Sharswood," said Karel Kilimnik, a public school advocate. "In 2013, Vaux was under-enrolled, so where are all these new students coming from?"
No one on the SRC panel answered her.
David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Pennsylvania, said he was excited by what the school could mean for students in the neighborhood, which has reeled from public-school closings in recent years.
Big Picture, Bromley said, "is good at keeping kids in school, keeping them excited to come to school and keeping them engaged and on secondary pathways that are meaningful to them."
The organization now supports alternative programs in Philadelphia and a high school in Camden.
Several other speakers talked about the schools that were closed in 2013 and questioned if the SRC had plans to close more this year.
"We don't need nor deserve another bombshell dropped on us like last October, when we learned that Cooke, Huey and Wister were on the chopping block," said Richard Liuzzi, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student who taught at the Alexander Wilson school before it closed in 2013.
Also on Thursday, the SRC approved two firms to lead the School District's work in investigating and litigating real property assessment and valuation appeals.
- Staff writers Kristen Graham
and Martha Woodall
contributed to this report.