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February 20, 2024 10:58 pm

Local News

In reversal, Philly school board votes to renew charter school amid shifting political climate

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Dale Mezzacappa, Chalkbeat Philadelphia

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s free newsletter to keep up with the city’s public school system.

In a rare move, the Philadelphia Board of Education voted Thursday to reverse its previous decision not to renew a charter school, meaning it can continue operating for another three years — with 19 separate conditions.

By a unanimous vote, the board passed a settlement agreement that renewed until 2027 the charter of Southwest Leadership Academy, a K-8 school with nearly 600 students that had been having academic, operational, and financial problems, according to the board’s Charter Schools Office.

“I expect the school to make progress over the course of the charter term and build on the recent increases in academic achievement we have seen through the most recent data from the 2022-2023 school year,” said Board President Reginald Streater.

Streater noted that the Charter Schools Office recommended that the board vote to extend the school’s charter, although he also said he remained concerned “about the school’s current financial position.”

After the vote, the school’s CEO Leigh Purnell and Principal Christina Green hugged in relief.

Last June, citing operational, financial, and academic problems, the board voted 7-2 not to renew Southwest Leadership Academy’s charter, putting the school’s future in jeopardy. It has continued to educate nearly 600 students as the school’s appeal of the board’s decision has played out.

The board’s latest decision comes amid heightened pressure from lawmakers and advocates who have claimed Black-led charter schools, like Southwest Leadership Academy, face systemic racial bias in the city. An independent report released in October found no “intentional bias” from district leaders against those schools. But it called the rate of closure of Black-led charter schools “concerning” and said a problematic authorizing and evaluation process could lead to the perception of bias.

The decision also hints at a change in the political climate for charter schools under new Mayor Cherelle Parker, who during her campaign repeatedly said she would not tolerate competition between district and charter schools.

“I will not allow anyone to act as if district-run and charter schools are warring factions,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview.

The board hasn’t approved a new charter school since 2018.

Though they don’t outright control it, the mayor and city council hold a lot of sway over the school district. Parker has the ability to appoint all nine members of the school board; that process is set to begin soon. The city also controls local funding for schools since the school board has no independent taxing power.

On Thursday, Peng Chao, the director of the Charter Schools Office, told board members that the school’s trustees and academic team were working hard to straighten out its problems, and said his office would continue to help. He noted that six years ago, Southwest Leadership Academy was one of the highest-performing charters in Philadelphia.

Before the vote, several students urged the board to keep the school open.

“I would not be who I am today” without the education and guidance she got at Southwest Leadership Academy, said Renee Fernandes, who is now a senior at William Penn Charter, a private Quaker high school “I never saw a private school in my future, but SLA made it happen.”

Purnell and other speakers pointed out that the school is a haven for many students from the African diaspora in Philadelphia. Southwest Leadership Academy “is the very first school where I’ve been able to culturally connect with students,” said Arun Arungodade, who said she was a member of that diaspora.

Shirleen Thomas-Moore, who described herself as “guardian and auntie” to a fourth and fifth grader at Southwest Leadership Academy, said they both learned to read in kindergarten. “I am pleased with the education there,” she said.

In advance of the vote, Purnell thanked the board for letting the school continue. In an interview after the vote, she said, “Our proficiency scores are not where we want them to be, however we are able to achieve tremendous growth with our students.”

Charter renewal includes conditions for academics, financial controls

The board identified several serious concerns about Southwest Leadership Academy before members voted last year not to renew its charter.

A 2022 evaluation by the board’s Charter School Office found that the school didn’t meet standards for academics, organizational compliance and viability, or financial health. The evaluation also found numerous problems with enrollment procedures and employee background checks.

A month after the board’s June 2023 vote not to renew the school’s charter, Southwest appealed the board’s ruling to the state Charter Appeals Board. Critics of the board’s move at the time included Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who chairs City Council’s education committee.

The resolution approved by the board on Thursday offers a conditional five-year renewal of the charter. It is retroactive to 2022, so will expire in 2027. With the settlement, the state appeal is rendered moot.

The renewal agreement includes requirements for academic improvement, but the targets include more flexible options if the school can’t meet the most stringent stipulations.

The conditions say that ideally, math, language arts, and science test scores improve enough to be “no more than 5 points below the district average,” or the average for comparable schools based on grade span and demographics.

If the school doesn’t meet that standard, it will be renewed by the board if it meets average growth benchmarks set by the state, or if it achieves “an annual increase in the proficiency rate” in each subject, “year over year.”

According to state data, 24% of students scored proficient or advanced in English Language Arts on the Pennsylvania state test in 2022-23, up from 19% the year before. In math, 10.1% of students scored proficient or advanced, up from 5 % in 2021-22. Its science scores are somewhat better.

The resolution also said that the school must stop its “gender based lottery” process for admitting its students. The school has separate boys’ and girls’ classrooms.

Southwest Leadership Academy must also prove that all teachers and aides dealing with special education students have the proper certification. The school must also hire a consultant to help recruit and onboard new board members and assure that they are properly trained in “financial oversight and governance.” It also specifies that all board members submit all required financial documents to guard against any potential conflicts of interest.

Additionally, the school is under a tight deadline to submit a “financial and internal controls plan” by Jan. 31.

Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools asked the board for more transparency and consistency in the charter authorization and renewal process.

In 2018, shortly after the city regained control of the district from the state, the newly installed Board of Education reversed the decision of the School Reform Commission to close Richard Allen Charter School for poor performance. Instead, the board gave it a renewal with many conditions. The school is still operating.

Larry Jones, the founder of Richard Allen, is a leader of the African American Charter School Coalition.

At Thursday’s meeting, representatives of the African American Charter School Coalition urged the board to impose a moratorium on closing any charters until the renewal and evaluation process is fixed.

In 2022, the board issued a notice of nonrenewal to Laboratory Charter School, which also has Black leadership, but several months later reversed itself and renewed the charter for five years.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.