Everything was set for Pamela James' granddaughter to transfer to Franklin Towne Charter High School in Bridesburg. School officials gave a start date and a locker combination for the ninth grader. James paid fees for activities and uniforms.
But hours after James handed over the young woman's Individualized Education Program — the document that spells out the support and services that special-education students must by law receive — the school rescinded the girl's admission. There was no room for her after all, a Franklin Towne employee told James.
Denying admission to a student on the basis of special-education status is illegal, but the nonprofit Education Law Center says its staff has seen "a pattern" of such discrimination from charters.
James' case is not the first such complaint lodged against Franklin Towne, said Peng Chao, an official in the Philadelphia School District's charter schools office. Chao said the school system is attempting to get to the bottom of the situation but has had trouble getting answers from Franklin Towne.
"We're absolutely concerned that the student was potentially inappropriately or illegally denied admission," said Chao, the office's director of strategy and operations, adding that Franklin Towne "has not been as responsive as we would like or expect them to be."
James A. Rocco III, Franklin Towne's attorney, said James has misrepresented the facts — that Franklin Towne officials said James' granddaughter would have to have her special-education plan reevaluated as part of its standard operating procedures, but that James then said she would not send her granddaughter to Franklin Towne. Rocco also said a letter stating that the school was "unable to accept" the young woman was mistakenly sent to James.
Kristina Moon, the Education Law Center lawyer representing James, said that the case is an "egregious example of explicit discrimination" and "representative of a pattern of these types of questions and concerns we get from the parents of students with disabilities. The reality is that all schools — district and charter — need to serve students with disabilities."
While charters do enroll special education students — and are paid a premium to do so, $26,197.24 for a special-education student vs. $8,327.35 for a regular-education student — they under-enroll students whose disabilities are costly to accommodate, like James' granddaughter's.
A third of Philadelphia's public-school students attend charter schools, and about a third of all students with disabilities attend charters.
But an analysis by the Education Law Center shows that there are wide disparities in the type of student disabilities charter schools serve. Charters enroll more than half of city students with speech and language disabilities but just 20 percent of those with autism and 16 percent of those with intellectual disabilities.
James' granddaughter, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, began her ninth-grade year at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy, a charter in West Philadelphia. But when James, who has had custody of the girl since she was 6, moved to the Northeast, the commute to KIPP became onerous.
A charter — an independently run school that operates with public money — was a must for her granddaughter, James said. She won't send the girl to a traditional public school, where she believes discipline and academics are lackluster.
A colleague told James about Franklin Towne, which has won a coveted National Blue Ribbon of Excellence award from the U.S. Department of Education. James figured her granddaughter was a long shot but applied for the mid-year lottery anyway. She was shocked when a Franklin Towne employee phoned her in early January.
"She said, 'Congratulations, your granddaughter has been selected,' and I said, 'Whoa, this is good.' She asked me if I could bring down her transcript," James said. Soon after, James and her granddaughter arrived at the school for a visit, paperwork in hand.
They were wowed by the campus, on the old Frankford Arsenal site, by the friendly students, and by the staff.
"It was really nice — we were just digging the scene," James said. "They had a big banner that said, 'School of Excellence.'"
James filled out a thick packet of papers, indicating one that the girl required special-education services — she has needed emotional support to work through issues that cropped up around not having parents in her life. When James was done, she handed back the papers and also gave an office worker the documents spelling out her granddaughter's required special-education services. The two took a tour, and James chatted with a special-education staffer, who told James how she would check in, James said.
"I figured, we were good, we were in," James said.
A few hours after they left Franklin Towne, James got a call from the same employee who had phoned her initially to say Franklin Towne had a place for her granddaughter.
"She said, 'You know, I'm just going over the application, and I see that she needs special services,'" James said. "She said, 'We don't have space in that room, it's so overcrowded.'" The employee emphasized that they could not enroll James' granddaughter based on her "special learning needs."
James tried to ask more questions, but the employee hurried off the phone, and James tried to follow up both with her and school leaders. Other than a letter saying, "'We are not able to accept her, and you are in agreement,' which I wasn't," James never heard another word from Franklin Towne, she said.
Rocco, the school's attorney, disputes that characterization. In an email, he said that during that call, the employee told James her granddaughter's special-education documents would need to be reviewed, and the girl would possibly need to be reevaluated.
"During the course of that conversation, the grandmother informed the school that she intended to leave her granddaughter at her current school and would not be sending her to Franklin Towne," Rocco said.
Rocco said two letters were written — one, unsigned, incorrectly said Franklin Towne was "unable to accept" James' granddaughter, but made no mention of special-education services. A second draft said the school was honoring James' wish to withdraw enrollment.
"Unfortunately, both letters were sent, and for that, the school is extremely sorry," Rocco said.
Eventually, James found the Education Law Center. On her behalf, Moon sent a letter to Franklin Towne demanding that the school "admit its wrongdoing, correct the policies and practices that continue to persist for the benefit of future applicants, and refund the fees Ms. James paid in reliance on her granddaughter's acceptance to FTCHS."
Maura McInerney, the Education Law Center's legal director, said the Franklin Towne account "is completely disingenuous and factually inaccurate. Ms. James was told in every way that the school did not want her [granddaughter], and that she would not be supported."
To date, there has been no substantial response from the school, Education Law Center officials said, though Rocco said Franklin Towne will "cooperate fully" with the organization. James, who has receipts to prove she paid $52 in fees to Franklin Towne, has not seen a penny of the money.
James found a work-around for her granddaughter's education: Another charter enrolled the young woman, who is content there, James said. But she and Moon worry about other parents and guardians who aren't aware that it's illegal to deny students admission on the basis of disability.
"I am just so frustrated," James said. "How can these people do this? It's just not fair."
It's not clear what consequences Franklin Towne could face.
Even if the district finds Franklin Towne improperly or illegally denied James' granddaughter admission, that wouldn't trigger a "high-stakes act," like charter nonrenewal or revocation, Chao of the district's charter office said.
Once the district's charter office gets clearer answers from Franklin Towne, Chao said, it could issue a public "notice of deficiency" — a notice that it has violated the law — if it finds discrimination on the basis of disability.
Franklin Towne's charter is up for renewal in the 2018-19 school year, and that means a thorough review of the school's operations, academics, and finances before the school board decides whether the school deserves a new five-year charter.