The Philadelphia School Reform Commission began a new process Friday morning for handling charter-renewal applications by renewing charters of two schools that agreed to limit enrollment and meet other conditions.
The five-member commission voted unanimously to award five-year operating agreements to Multi-Cultural Academy and Sankofa Freedom Academy, based on their academic performance and because they fulfilled other requirements.
Multi-Cultural, a college-prep high school in North Philadelphia, pledged not to grow beyond its authorized limit of 275 students through 2017.
Sankofa, in Frankford, has an Afro-centric curriculum. The school now has 463 students in kindergarten through sixth and ninth to 11th grades. It agreed to abide by the maximum enrollment of 650 students, set in its original 2009 charter, when it completes its growth to a K-12 model in 2013-14.
During Friday's meeting, the SRC also signaled that it would be scrutinizing charter schools' enrollment procedures and reasons students withdraw.
Multi-Cultural and Sankofa were among more than 20 charters seeking renewal that had expected the SRC to vote last week. Instead, in light of mounting fiscal uncertainty and fallout from a recent court decision, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos announced a new process and game plan for pending charter renewals and expansion requests.
The new approach calls for negotiating with the charters on enrollment caps and encouraging them to recruit students from neighborhoods with few good education options.
Commission members and Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, Friday praised officials from both Multi-Cultural and Sankofa for working hard with the district over the last week to negotiate new terms for their operating charters.
"I know this was unanticipated. Extra. More work," commission member Lorene Cary said. "We are very grateful; we are very appreciative."
Ramos agreed, adding: "You're the first folks to step up to a higher level of accountability. We do appreciate it."
The question of enrollment limits became critical after Commonwealth Court ruled this month that the SRC had violated a 2008 state law when it tried to cap enrollment at the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. Ramos has said the district would appeal.
But the potential financial implications are grave for a district that must cut $26 million in expenses by June 30 and is facing a shortfall of $218 million after July 1.
"The district is trying to balance those challenges," Ramos said.
Ayesha Imani, Sankofa's chief executive, was glad her school's charter had been renewed at last.
"It's been a very challenging process," she said. "I'm excited to move forward in terms of the education of the children."
James Higgins, executive director of Multi-Cultural, said his school was relieved that it had been able to implement changes over the last 12 months that made renewal possible.
The school was plunged into turmoil in May when the charter's board ousted Vuong Thuy, its founding CEO, amid complaints of a rodent infestation, unsanitary bathrooms, and a "toxic" climate in which staff, parents, and students were berated and demeaned.
Higgins said that three of Thuy's supporters later left the board and that the current five members have been involved in efforts to make the school's operations more transparent.
Multi-Cultural, which opened in 1998, offers a college-prep program and is known for its strict behavior policy. During Friday's SRC meeting, commission member Feather Houstoun questioned Higgins about the high number of students - 33 - who leave each year.
Higgins said that while the school had not expelled any students in the last year, a small number leave rather than go through an expulsion hearing. He said others have left to be with their friends or because they didn't want to do the three hours of homework a night required at Multi-Cultural.
"This school is not for every student," he said.
SRC members expressed concerns.
Cary said the SRC often heard complaints that "charter schools are allowed to 'cream-pick . . . dump, throw out' students who do not succeed according to your very rigorous and carefully thought-out programs."
Ramos said district staff would monitor the school's practices.
"We don't kick out kids who are not smart," Higgins said after the meeting. "We take kids who want to be in our school and want to follow our prescription for success. There is nothing wrong with that."
Charters differ, he said, and that's why there are 80 of them in the district.
In all, 25 city charter schools are up for renewal this spring. The district's charter office recommended approval for Multi-Cultural and Sankofa and 15 others, and nonrenewal for three. It is awaiting additional information from five others before making recommendations.
The reform commission is scheduled to meet Friday mornings through June 30 to consider the remaining charter proposals.
Commission members Joseph A. Dworetzky and Wendell E. Pritchett participated in Friday's meeting by phone.
The SRC began the process last week of closing three city schools the charter office said did not merit renewal: Truebright Science Academy, Arise Academy, and Hope. Hope, a high school in West Oak Lane that offers second chances for troubled students, is not connected with the Hope Partnership for Education, which operates a small private middle school for low-income students in North Philadelphia.