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Two-plus hours on a school bus: How a Chester charter taps Philly kids to grow

Chester Community Charter School, which is the largest bricks-and-mortar charter school in Pennsylvania, is targeting Philadelphia students to fuel its growth. Some ride buses for more than two hours to attend a school that has some of lowest charter test scores in the region.

Chester Community Charter opened a new campus in Aston in the fall to accommodate growing enrollment, mostly from Philadelphia students. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Chester Community Charter opened a new campus in Aston in the fall to accommodate growing enrollment, mostly from Philadelphia students. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN

Imagine waking your 5-year-old kindergarten student before 5 a.m., walking him to a street corner in the city's Far Northeast, then watching him board a bus for a 2½-hour ride to a school more than 30 miles away.

Then, imagine he endures the same trip in reverse each afternoon. Five days a week.

For some parents, it's not just a bad dream. Such a routine is customary for an increasing number of Philadelphia students enrolled at Chester Community Charter School.

Data obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News show that the number of students commuting from Philadelphia to the state's largest brick-and-mortar charter school — now with four campuses in Delaware County — has exploded from 45 in 2014-15 to 1,131 this year.

Chester Community's growth with Philadelphia students is taking place even as the Philadelphia School District tries to control the expansion and financial costs of the 84 charter schools, with 65,000 students, that operate within its own borders. The district is moving to close those with poor academic records.

A spokesman for the charter school credits those moves with increasing Chester Community's appeal for Philadelphia parents. A Philadelphia district administrator says the growth says more about slick marketing by a school with a record of substandard performance.

Either way, it highlights another way that charter schools — publicly funded but privately run — continue to upend the educational landscape.

And at least some of the cost of  the eight bus routes that ferry students from Philadelphia to Chester Community falls on the district and city taxpayers. By law, the district pays for transportation and receives partial reimbursement from the state.

Philadelphia officials last week could not pinpoint how much money was being spent to bus students to Chester Community; some may have been former students at charter schools that closed.

Information obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News shows the longest journey for Philadelphia students heading to Chester Community is on a kindergarten bus whose first scheduled pick up is at 5:24 a.m. at Academy and Newberry Roads in the Far Northeast. After 16 more stops, the bus delivers some children to Chester Community's West Campus on Bethel Road in Chester Township at 8:05 and drops others off  at the school's new campus in Aston 10 minutes later.

Most of the other routes take two hours, but the ride on a kindergarten bus that begins at 57th Street and Cedar Avenue in Cobbs Creek, not far from the Delaware County line, lasts only about an hour.

"I can't imagine anybody who would tell you it's good for kids to be on a bus for a long time," said Uri Monson, the Philadelphia School District's chief financial officer, who keeps tabs on charter bills. "As someone who was on a bus for a long time as a kid, if you're spending that much time on a bus, it's hard.… We have those concerns."

A. Bruce Crawley, a spokesman for Chester Community, said the school cannot control the transportation provided by students' home districts.

"On the other hand, we do find it reassuring to know that parents seem comfortable in having their youngsters participate in sometimes-lengthy commutes to have access to a CCCS education," he wrote last month in response to questions from the newspaper.

"We see this as further affirmation that parents believe in our school, that they feel comfortable about their children's safety and well-being on our campuses and they have confidence in our outcomes," Crawley wrote.

As enrollment grows, so do the profits of  CSMI LLC, a for-profit education management company that operates Chester Community, and was founded and is run by Vahan H. Gureghian, a lawyer, entrepreneur, and major Republican donor.

CSMI's books are not public – the for-profit firm has never disclosed its profits and won't discuss its management fee. State records show that Gureghian's company collected nearly $17 million in taxpayer funds just in 2014-15. At that time, the school had 2,911 students, and CSMI was paid $5,787 for each. At that rate, more than 1,000 additional students from Philadelphia might mean nearly $6 million in new revenue.

Monson said some of the growth was fueled by students who transferred from the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in Northern Liberties when that school closed abruptly in the middle of the 2014-15 school year.

"Obviously, we knew it, because we get the bills," Monson said.  "I get my monthly statement about what we're paying out and what the enrollments are."

But Philadelphia officials also say that Chester Community has mounted an aggressive marketing campaign and distributed glossy fliers that don't include information about the charter's academic performance.

"It is fundamentally a marketing strategy," Monson said. "The lure is how you sell yourself,…We all have plenty of examples of advertised products that don't live up."

Results from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams released in September showed that Chester Community had some of the lowest scores among charter schools in the region: 15.6 percent of Chester Community students passed the PSSA reading test in the last school year; 6 percent passed math.  Those scores are similar to those of Khepera Charter School in North Philadelphia, which the School Reform Commission has voted to close in June because of poor academics and financial woes. At Khepera, 15.8 percent of students passed reading; 2 percent passed math.

Crawley said children from low-income families "consistently suffer in comparison to high-income students" on standardized tests. Parents, he said, "seem to be aware that the strong and nurturing support at our school and our no-tolerance policies for disrespectful or violate behavior create the kind of academic environment they want for their children."

He said parents also seem to like that Chester Community makes Chromebooks and iPads regularly available to students and has interactive white boards in every classroom.

Growing enrollment was the reason Chester Community got permission to add the campus in Aston — the fourth location in the Chester Upland School District — when it obtained an unorthodox renewal this past summer that extended the terms of the school's operating agreement with that district until June 30, 2026.

Peter R. Barsz, the court-appointed receiver who oversees the financially distressed Chester Upland district and wields nearly all the powers of a school board, also gave the school a green light to expand its K-8 enrollment. The document not only authorized the site in Aston but also "any other added" locations in the district for the next nine years "as deemed necessary by Chester Community Charter School from time to time.…"

The renewal proposal Chester Community submitted to Barsz during the summer said the school expected its total enrollment would grow to 4,145 students by 2025-26. It already has 4,200.

Enrollment data the Inquirer and Daily News obtained from the Philadelphia district showed a 74 percent increase in the number students going to Chester Community this fall — 648 to 1,131.

"We knew they were still growing, but we were surprised by the growth this year," Monson said. "We will audit, obviously, because there is a large jump in numbers. We want to identify where the kids come from."

Some of the students, he said, may have transferred from city charter schools. For the kindergartners, he said, the district will verify their addresses to make sure the children live in the city.

When a student moves from one charter to another, there's no increased cost to the Philadelphia district. The payment amount does not change even when the charter is in another district.

The Philadelphia School District's $2.9 billion budget includes $856 million for charter payments. So far, Monson said, the growth in the number of students at Chester Community does not pose a serious problem for the district's finances because enrollment at some other charters was lower than expected this year.

Monson said the Philadelphia school system was able to stem the number of students enrolled in statewide cyber charter schools by launching its own virtual school a few years ago. But he said the district has no recourse when families choose to send their children to charters except to publicize the district's own improvements, like better reading scores and higher high school graduation rates.

"Our best antidote, " Monson said, "is to keep having better schools in the district."