Charter school conversion plan rankles S. Philly parents

    The Philadelphia School District’s plans to dramatically rework 18 schools, turning them into “Renaissance Schools.”

    Two of them in South Philadelphia are slated to become charter schools run by Universal Companies as part of its efforts to revitalize the Point Breeze and Gray’s Ferry neighborhoods.

    Converting them into charter schools got a stormy reception from parents.

    Universal Companies is slated to run two of the Renaissance Schools in the Point Breeze and Gray’s Ferry neighborhoods as independent charter schools. At Audenried High School this week, the plan faced overwhelming opposition from parents, staff, and students — including 11th-grader Ava Reeves.

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    “Whatever happened to democracy, for the people by the people? If this is a democracy and not a dictatorship, and you claim that ‘parents are our partners’ and ‘children come first,’ why didn’t any community members have a say so in which educational provider they wanted for their children?” she said to applause.

    At both Audenried and Edwin Vare Middle School, district officials expressed confidence in their plan. But they still faced tough criticism for the lack of community involvement in their decision-making process. Parents at both schools were upset that Universal representatives weren’t there to answer questions.

    Universal already operates three charter schools, including two Renaissance charters it took over last fall. It also has managed two schools for the district, though its contract for Vare Middle School was terminated in June following years of sustained poor performance.

    Deanna Lewis, who has taught at Vare since 1993, experienced firsthand Universal’s previous attempt to turn the school around.

    “Universal had the opportunity with Vare Middle School. Then gradually as time went on, Universal drew back,” she said. “Now they’re getting a second opportunity? What presentation did they make to you to make them look better than what they did before? And now they’re back again. In my mind, money talks…were we sold to the highest bidder?

    District officials say that the prestigious federal Promise Neighborhood planning grant received by Universal presented a unique opportunity. In addition to converting Audenried and Vare into charters, the district wants to work with Universal to convert two other schools in the neighborhood, Alcorn and Smith elementary schools, into district-managed Promise Academies.

    In an earlier interview, Universal President and CEO Rahim Islam said that if his organization is to truly address the educational needs of the community, he would like Universal to oversee all 11 schools in the area.

    “I’m concerned about every school in the … area of this promise neighborhood initiative,” he said. “My goal would be to have all of them turned to charters… I’d like to take over the entire cluster of schools and run a small district that would address all the issues we’re talking about.”

    Before that can happen, the School Reform Commission must first approve awarding Audenried and Vare to Universal.


    Read Ben Herold’s blog post “Fireworks at Audenreid” at the Public School Notebook site.

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