Science charter school faces budget crisis
It’s now become apparent that charter schools aren’t exempt to budgetary shutdowns and closures, and Truebright Science Academy charter school is just the latest school to face extinction.
Echoing the grassroots missions that were at least partially responsible for saving E.M. Stanton and Isaac A. Sheppard elementary schools, stakeholders and involved parents recently held a town hall meeting at the suggestion of state Sen. Shirley Kitchen, said Truebright CEO Beker Duz.
“The town hall meeting with Senator Kitchen was about our charter school renewal, in regard to the recommendation from the Charter School Office,” Duz said. “More than 100 people were there, expressing their concerns to Kitchen. So she is supporting us, doing everything she can to save Truebright.
“No one wants to see Truebright closed.”
Duz is Truebright’s second CEO since it opened in 2007. It is now up for charter renewal, and a final meeting to decide Truebright’s fate will be held on April 19; however, Duz considers such a meeting a fait d’accompli, since the CSO has already decided to close Truebright.
Duz said the school’s consistent academic achievements have earned Truebright some respite.
“I am happy to tell you that Truebright is meeting its goal” of providing core knowledge that prepares students for college or other post-high school education, Duz said. “We have graduated 97 percent from our first senior class, and of those graduates, 100 percent were accepted to college, so we’ve had real great success.
“We’re located in a part of the city where the poverty rate is really high, and economically, this part of the city has been hit the hardest.”
Truebright’s officials aren’t relenting in their drive to save their school. It has released a massive, 105-page rebuttal of the CSO’s plan to close the North Philadelphia-based school. It goes into great detail in laying out Truebright’s strengths — and its value to the community.
For example, the rebuttal contends that the CSO may have drawn conclusions based on inaccurate and incomplete data. The documents provided by Truebright suggest that CSO believed that Truebright only made Adequate Yearly Progress — AYP — in two of the past four years; has consistently lagged behind state and district standards; that 45 percent of Truebright students are below basic levels, and that Truebright has been placed on warning notice for the 2010–2011 school year.
Duz contends that Truebright has only had AYP status for three years, and reached the qualifications in two of them. Truebright has also matched the statewide and district-wide numbers for math and reading comprehension. Under Duz’ leadership, Truebright has also instituted a volunteer Saturday program, where students — those excelling in their studies and other who aren’t — can go sharpen their skills or receive additional instruction.
Duz believes Truebright’s hybrid nature — the school serves students in grades 7 through 12 — and that the CSO’s decision is based on a too-small data pool also played a role in the reasoning to shutter the school.
“Truebright is a middle and high school, but we have only 90 students in our middle school. There are 200-plus in our high school, so [the CSO’s] decision is based on a small portion of students, and that doesn’t make sense.
“We are making even greater gains, when one considers we have to address the significant learning deficits in the student body,” Duz continued. “Truebright has met previous standards, but even with all the success we’ve had, the CSO is still looking at a very small portion of the student body. “
When reached for comment, the CSO referred to the SRC for comment, but as of Tribune press time, the SRC hadn’t returned calls for comment. Duz said he has reached out numerous times to both the SRC and CSO, netting minimal results.
“We have invited the SRC to [Truebright], but it was renewal time and was told they couldn’t talk to us directly,” Duz said. “And that is why we prepared the rebuttal.
“It doesn’t make sense to reverse a course of action that benefits our most precious resource, our children.”
The SOS has been answered. The Edward M. Stanton Elementary School at 17th and Christian streets has officially been spared closure, thanks to the efforts of the Supporters of Stanton and freshman city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Last month, the School Reform Commission’s board voted not to close Stanton and Isaac A. Sheppard, decisions the board said were based on several factors, chief among them the high achievement of the schools, and the strong community support structure surrounding each.
But without the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of Johnson, Stanton may very well have stayed on the chopping block.
“I first caught wind that there was a possibility to close down Stanton during my tenure as state representative, and there was always the rumor, based on the Facilities Master Plan,” Johnson said. “And I received a letter after I resigned and ran for city council, asking me to come to the meeting and address several of the concerns from neighborhood residents, parents and Stanton workers. I also brought school district officials to that meeting to field the questions and concerns.”
That was Johnson’s first interaction with Supporters of Stanton (SOS). Johnson, a South Philadelphia native with deep familial ties to the neighborhood, and a longtime community activist, felt the urge to help the school; but that commitment truly formed after he received an in-depth plan by SOS to not only maintain the school, but to provide a certain level of sustainability as well.
“Stanton supporters really drew my interest. They we e-mailing about where they were, and they also had a plan when they asked me to advocate for them, and showed the SRC they were willing to step up to the plate and do what was needed to keep the school open,” Johnson said. “What [SOS] did was very unique. Often, we ask parents and neighborhood residents to get involved or get engaged.
“This is a classic example of a group of people stepping up.”
The in-depth counterproposal released by SOS included a very detailed expenditure list, ways the school can save money, and an engrossing profile of the school itself, among other persuasive material.
The community had done its part; now, Johnson had to do his.
With a local developer working on a new housing project in his district, Johnson saw this as the prime opportunity to form a private-public alliance – betting that developers building in the neighborhood would be willing and interested stakeholders.
To that end, Johnson huddled with The Goldenberg Group and MR Scott Development to devise a plan for the developers to fund the school. In return, the developers would obtain seats on the newly-formed Stanton Advisory Council.
“The environment was created by SOS; they made sure with their counterproposal that I had something to [show the SRC]. From there, I believed if fundraising were to be a part of this, I need to get a corporate sponsor,” Johnson said. “So far, we have $80,000 committed to Stanton, which will go toward maintaining the building. Now you have the corporate-public partnership working in the best interests of the children.
“I’m excited about this partnership, and glad that someone on the private sector side stepped up.”
In a letter to Johnson, the Goldenberg Group President Ken Goldenberg confirmed his company would donate up to $50,000 from its profits from the Carpenter Square project to Stanton; MR Scott Development likewise pledged upwards of $15,000 to Stanton.
“I have been heavily involved with the Supporters of Stanton team, and I am a member of the newly-formed School Advisory Committee, so I will continue to be involved in the future,” read a letter from Mark R. Scott, owner of MR Scott Development. “As the co-developer of Carpenter Square, I am excited to continue and increase my involvement at Stanton.”
It was all music to Johnson’s ears.
“We have to engage the business community in doing these partnerships,” Johnson said. “And I am glad the SRC put the kids educational value first in keeping Stanton open, and giving the school a second chance, and allow the community’s residents and parents an opportunity to answer [the SRC’s] concerns.”
It wasn’t the free-for-all many feared, but debate on the closures of several public schools in the city reached its conclusion Thursday, when the School Reform Commission members voted to save just two of the nine schools originally listed. The vote concludes five months of public hearings that included more than 20 meetings with stakeholders citywide.
The two schools that have been spared the axe are Edwin M. Stanton, 17th and Christian Streets, and Isaac A. Sheppard, 120 W. Cambria St. Those schools were hailed as “high-performance schools”, said SRC chairman Pedro Ramos.
“This SRC has been very clear in its commitment to maintain its focus on student achievement while we work toward fiscal stability,” Ramos said. “Tonight’s vote reflects those priorities. The decision to close a school is never an easy one, but we are doing what we need to do to improve the opportunities available to our students while working within our means. And we are doing it the right way, with a process that is open, transparent, and inclusive.”
The SRC, in essence, decided that closing Stanton and Sheppard would do more harm than good, said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard.
“The overall message that the SRC gave out with this vote is they wanted it to be clear that they were committed to maintaining school programs that are high-achieving and benefiting students,” Gallard said. “One of the SRC members were quoted as saying they have to look at this process and think about doing no harm, and that means looking to see if a school program is working, and if the option would reverse or stop the good works that are being done in that program, then that would be something that gave them pause.
Gallard said although he couldn’t speak for the decisions made by individual SRC members, Gallard did hail both Stanton and Sheppard as “schools that clearly demonstrated they were school-communities and focused on improving the overall educational experiences of its students.”
“[These schools] were shown to be capable,” Gallard said. “The SRC members thought closing these schools would harm [the students].”
Schools confirmed for closure are: William H. Harrison Elementary School, 1012 W. Thompson St; George Pepper Middle School, 2901 S. 84th St.; Thomas Fitzsimmons High School, 2601 W. Cumberland St.; Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology, 540 N. 13th St.; E. Washington Rhodes High School, 29th and Clearfield Sts.; Sheridan West Academy, 3701 Frankford Ave.; Charles R. Drew Elementary School, 3724 Warren St. and the William Levering School, 6000 Ridge Ave. The SRC has also agreed to the proposed relocation of the AMY Northwest program from its current location, 6611 Ardleigh St. The SRC has not officially announced where the program would move.
While principals such as James Otto at Sheppard receive educational assistance from Penn State University’s College of Education, most of the schools slated to close are operating in obsolete and sometimes dangerous condition - couple that with a precipitous drop in enrollment and what’s left are schools with only a fraction of the students it once enrolled, operating amidst a crumbling infrastructure.
Still, some argue more should have been done to keep up schools such as Harrison, which provide other intangibles to a neighborhood that go beyond just teaching its youth. State Representative W. Curtis Thomas believes the SRC didn’t give true and fair consideration to keeping public schools open, instead opting to support charter schools.
“A review of the recent SRC meeting agenda shows that most of the focus is on charter schools – the expansion, renewal and approval of charter schools,” Thomas said. “If you didn’t know, you would think that this is the School Charter Commission, not the School Reform Commission. Although this commission is fairly new, it can point to the previous commission for the myriad of problems facing public schools. But, as a result of the recent decision regarding the school closings, this new SRC has become part of the problem, not the solution.”
Thomas, a staunch supporter of Harrison and the North Philly district it serves, has also been a vocal opponent of the SRC’s decision to cut nursing and safety personnel. Thomas also echoed his standing belief that the SRC went about implementing its Facilities Master Plan without a concrete plan for relocating the affected students.
“Why do some areas of the city like North Central Philadelphia have an overwhelming number of charter schools, while the SRC is closing the public schools in the area?” Thomas asked. “Like many parents, I am now convinced that it is time for the courts and the Pennsylvania General Assembly to intervene in reviewing the segregated and discriminatory plans of the Philadelphia School District.”
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwwell – a former educator and chair of councils’ education committee – believes there was a viable third option that the SRC failed to consider.
“Well, I am happy for the schools and glad they get a chance. We’ve received so many petitions [for Sheppard and Stanton], and I know they are real proud of their turnaround,” Blackwell said. “But I am also very concerned about the school closings, and people in those communities have a right to fight for their schools and expect if they can, to turn it around.
“At our hearing, [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President] Jerry Jordan talked about restructuring the schools so they didn’t have to close,” Blackwell continued. “I think his idea was a positive solution to save the schools, instead of close them.”
The Isaac Sheppard Elementary School on Cambria Street in North Philadelphia is proving that big things can come from small places. And although the school is situated in one of the poorest sections of the city and remains on the district’s list as one of the nine to be closed, it has managed to not only succeed, but flourish where most educators believe is the truest measure of academic success — the Pennsylvania System of Scholastic Assessment test scores — also known as the PSSAs.
The rise in Sheppard’s scores is largely attributed to the many Penn State University education students serving yearlong internships at the school.
“Currently, we have seven student-teachers from Penn State who do the entire semester, starting in mid-September and staying until mid-May,” said James Otto, principal of Sheppard Elementary. “We only have 13 classrooms, so that means we have a student-teacher in half the classrooms.
“We also have two supervisors that rotate down here.”
Otto said that the Penn State students who sign up for the internship know going in that that they will be placed in an urban setting, and that they — students themselves — are basically on their own while in Philadelphia, and must set up their own living and transportation arrangements. All this to teach Philadelphia’s public school students, and to gain real and honest experiences teaching in the public school system.
“The students that apply for the internship already have to be the best that Penn State has to offer, and they basically understand going in what the environment will be,” Otto said. “Many of the student-teachers are from suburban or rural homes.
“We’ve got some special [interns],” Otto continued. “Most Penn State interns stay and get hired in Philadelphia because they love it so much.”
Penn State University has partnered with Sheppard on numerous academic initiatives over the years. In 2010, Penn State began a virtual tutoring program during Sheppard’s “Power Hour” of extra after-school learning, utilizing Skype and Apple’s iChat technology. All of these programs are part of the broader “Sheppard School Urban Initiative,” which, according to the Penn State College of Education’s website, outlines goals such as: improving the educational experience for the students at Sheppard; preparing students for success in the 21st century; engaging the parents meaningfully in the education of their children; connecting the school to the community; engaging other partners to address community needs that inhibit learning; enhancing the performance of teachers and future teachers and understanding how to develop effective university-to-school partnerships between urban schools and remote universities.
“From our student-teacher perspective, it has been an amazing experience for Penn State students to experience schools and communities different from the ones they grew up in,” said Penn State University Assistant Professor of Education Allison Kootsikas, herself a former Sheppard intern. “And I would say for Sheppard, we’ve doubled the number of adults in the classrooms, and during that time, tests scores have risen. I’d like to think some of it had to do with the extra hands who brought new and innovative methods to the classroom.”
Kootsikas said the grant-funded programs also provided a computer to PSU students who worked at Sheppard for a number of years, allowing them to better communicate with Sheppard students and each other. “It’s been a positive experience for any student who went through the student-teacher program,” Kootsikas said. “They learned something about themselves, and the types of teaching they would like to do.
“We have lots of students who decided to stay in the region.”
Currently, Penn State’s college of education sends interns to all points throughout the state. Those regions include Central, Greater Philadelphia, Greater Pittsburgh and the Schuylkill area. Isaac Sheppard is its own entity within Penn State’s regional matrix.
Penn State’s involvement isn’t the sole explanation for Sheppard’s rise, however. Otto, a long-time educator in his 9th year at the school, has either overseen or implemented a number of changes to the way Sheppard’s students learn — and the way his teachers instruct.
“Every morning, we do an intervention block for our third- and fourth-graders, to help prepare them for the PSSA,” Otto said. “Kids are divided by ability, with different teachers in smaller groups throughout the building. So every kid gets a little bit more personal attention, and it really helps highlight the skills the kids do have — and the areas they need help in.”
Another program that began under Otto’s watch is the successful Saturday “Discover Science” program, a model Sheppard runs in conjunction with Greater Philadelphia Cares and Merck; basically, GPC supplies the people, while Merck provides the technology.
“We’ve been doing this program for 8 years… [along with GPC and Merck] we get about 20 to 25 volunteers, from 10 to noon, practically every other Saturday,” Otto said. “Our science scores have soared since we’ve been getting kids involved in Discovery Science.”
Otto and his staff do face fiscal restraints, in light of the school district’s wave of cuts to both programming and building accessibility. But he says those costs are worth it for the education of his students.
“It is basically something that we have to pay for out of own budget, which means I have to have one custodian to open the building, turn on the lights and the heat; and then there must be someone representing the district, and that’s usually me.
“But it’s a great program, and it’s all hands on.”
Otto has also made space for the inclusion of art classes in Sheppard’s programming, something lacking in many schools throughout the district.
“We have instructors from the Rock School come here two days a week; they provide dance instruction on Tuesdays, where kids get modern and hip-hop [instruction], and on Thursday, ballet,” Otto said. “This is offered to our third- and fourth-grade students, and goes on during the school day.
“At the end of the year, they have a little recital,” Otto continued. “One for the students, and another one where they can invite their friends and families.”