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Philly school district proposes to renew 16 charters, move to close one

The Philadelphia School District is recommending that all but one of the 17 charter schools it evaluated for renewal this year be allowed to continue operating. But tensions between the district and the charters may not be resolved just yet.

A charter school supporter holds up a sign during presentations given by city council members and charter advocates at City Hall in January. MICHELLE GUSTAFSON / For the Inquirer
A charter school supporter holds up a sign during presentations given by city council members and charter advocates at City Hall in January. MICHELLE GUSTAFSON / For the Inquirer Read moreMICHELLE GUSTAFSON / For the Inquirer

The Philadelphia School District is recommending that all but one of the 17 charter schools it evaluated for renewal this year be allowed to continue operating.

The recommendations, which the district is to make public Monday, propose conditions for renewing many of the schools, including two run by Aspira, the organization recently accused by Pennsylvania's auditor general of operating charter schools without adequate transparency or oversight.

The recommendations followed lengthy negotiations with charter schools over how the schools should be evaluated. But tensions between the district and the charters — which enroll about one-third of the city's public school students — may not be resolved just yet.

At issue is a threshold put forward by the district for assessing the academic performance of charter schools. Officials say they want to ensure that charter schools are performing better than similar schools at least most of the time.

But charter leaders have argued that the district is setting a higher standard that many schools — including the district's traditional schools — would not be able to meet.

In addition to the schools addressed by the new recommendations, 17 schools previously recommended for renewal are operating under expired charters because they have refused to sign agreements with the district. Philadelphia has 84 brick-and-mortar charter schools.

In response to conversations with charter representatives, district officials said they had made changes to the proposed charter agreements and the performance framework used to evaluate the schools.

"I am proud of these charter agreements. The agreements are the result of over a year of work with the charter sector and reflect more than 60 negotiated changes in terms and conditions," said SRC Chair Estelle Richman. She added that the revised performance framework "provides charter schools with transparent and predictable accountability and ensures charter schools are quality options for students and families."

The recommendations are expected to be taken up by the School Reform Commission this month in one of its final actions before ceding control to the newly appointed Board of Education. It's not yet clear where the new school board will stand in its approach to charter schools.

But the framework still includes the controversial measure of academic success.

"We believe in high standards. We believe they should be reasonable," said Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which operates 17 schools in the city, some that are among 57 talking to the district about changes to the agreements.

While "we're delighted that nearly all of those have been corrected," Gordon said, as many as one-fifth of charter schools and one-quarter of district schools would not meet the academic standard proposed by the district, based on an analysis by Mastery.

"If the district wants to set a higher standard, we should discuss having that standard apply to all schools — district and charter schools," Gordon said.

Under the performance framework, a charter school can earn a maximum of 100 points for academics. Points are awarded on the basis of proficiency, growth, attendance, and, in the case of high schools, post-secondary readiness.

Charter schools are rated on how they fare compared to the district average, as well as to an average of "similar schools" — those with comparable rates of students living in poverty, learning English, or requiring special education. The district removed its schools with academic-admissions criteria from those comparison groups, although those schools are still included in the district average.

Charter leaders note that as low-performing schools are closed, the averages would increase, making them more difficult to beat.

If a school earns more than 75 percent of possible points, it meets academic standards, according to the framework. Earning 45 to 75 percent of points is considered approaching standards, while a score below 45 doesn't  — and opens the door for the district to recommend a school not be renewed.

Charter leaders have opposed using the 45-point mark as the academic threshold for schools to win renewal.

District officials say the 45 threshold minimizes scenarios in which a school could score zero points on proficiency, but still be eligible for renewal. They also note that a score below a 45 doesn't mean a school will be closed.

For instance, Imhotep Institute Charter High School scored a 31, but the district recommended it for a one-year renewal. The rest of the schools recommended for renewal were for five-year terms — the standard for charters.

The lone school not to be recommended for renewal, Charter High School for Architecture and Design, scored a 33. But unlike Imhotep, it did not meet district standards for two other key benchmarks: organizational compliance and financial health.

Five Mastery schools are operating under expired charters. Gordon said the Mastery board would be willing to sign agreements if the district set the academic bar at 40 points, which a school could achieve if it beat similar schools three out of four years, and met standards for academic growth two out of four years, according to Mastery's calculations.

It also wants the district to change language in proposed agreements on whether the district can move to revoke charters based on an annual evaluation.

Two additional Mastery schools, Hardy Williams and Pastorius, have charters that expire this year and were recommended by the district for five-year renewals. Other schools proposed for five-year renewals include KIPP DuBois, MaST, Philadelphia Academy, and Young Scholars.

Most of the rest of the schools evaluated received recommendations of renewal for five years, but with conditions.

That group includes Antonia Pantoja and Eugenio Maria de Hostos, two Aspira-run charter schools. The district found the schools did not meet its standards for financial health — identifying issues with related parties, loan covenants, and timely payments to the state employees retirement system.

But the schools met academic standards — scoring 79 and 78, respectively — and approached standards in organizational compliance.

While the reports recommend renewal with conditions, they do not specify what conditions should be imposed. District officials said conditions would be identified in proposed charter agreements and negotiated with schools.

The SRC previously voted that there were grounds not to renew two other Aspira schools, Olney and Stetson.

Also recommended for five-year renewals with conditions were Universal Alcorn and Universal Institute. Like Pantoja and de Hostos, both scored below the financial health standards — although neither met academic standards, either. Two other charter schools run by Universal Companies, Vare Promise and Audenried Promise, previously were recommended by the district for non-renewal.

Other schools recommended for five-year renewals with conditions were Christopher Columbus Charter School, Discovery Charter School, Freire Charter School, Maritime Academy Charter School, and Pan American Charter School.

The district also cleared the way for the SRC to approve enrollment expansions at four schools totaling 333 seats.

The SRC is expected to take up charter actions at its June 21 meeting. But charter school boards must sign the district's proposed agreements before the SRC can act.