West Chester school district asks Pa. officials to delay opening of Clock Tower Schools

West Chester’s attorney sent a letter to state officials saying the district isn’t prepared to provide education services to students when Clock Tower opens on July 1.

Photo of a school building

Clock Tower Schools is scheduled to open shortly on the former Glen Mills campus. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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Clock Tower Schools, a residential treatment facility on the former Glen Mills campus, may admit children as early as next month, though it’s unclear what form of schooling they’ll receive.

Contrary to its name, Clock Tower isn’t authorized by the state to operate a school. That means the local school district, West Chester Area, has to provide education services to students, and according to the district’s lawyer, they aren’t ready.

Andrew Faust, a lawyer for West Chester says the district will likely need to teach students admitted to Clock Tower at the facility’s campus or remotely, since they expect them to be under court order not to leave, raising staffing and facility concerns.

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As a result, the district is asking the state to delay Clock Tower’s opening to give them more time to plan.

“We seek your assistance now before the mistake that Glen Mills eventually became is repeated,” Faust wrote in a letter to both the state education and human services departments in late May.

Glen Mills, a once reputable — now disgraced — reform school, operated as a private rehabilitative residential institution, which allowed the school to access state dollars to educate students. State officials shut down the school in 2019 following an avalanche of abuse allegations, including that students’ educational rights had been violated.

The letter also asks the state to work with Clock Tower to free up more classroom space on campus, and to encourage the facility to obtain a license as a private licensed academic school.

Both departments said in a joint response to Faust last week that they’ve “engaged in significant measures to support Clock Tower Schools and West Chester Area School District in fulfilling their respective legal responsibilities and will continue to do so.”

They said Faust’s letter contains a number of “errors and misunderstandings,” including whether children will be allowed to attend school off-campus.

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Children won’t necessarily be required to attend school on campus and will be educated in the least restrictive environment possible, both departments said.

West Chester still expects to teach students on Clock Tower’s campus based on conversations with facility officials, Faust said Friday.

Faust said the district was originally under the impression that Clock Tower would provide its own educational services allowing the district to authorize them as a contractor.

“They presented us with a glossy brochure about the school, characterizing it as a trauma-informed educational program,” he said.

Since learning that’s not the case, Faust said the district has been preparing to serve students on campus. West Chester is willing and able, he said, but needs more time to essentially build a school from scratch while also dealing with the state’s teacher shortage.

“West Chester has to ensure a full educational program, one capable of delivering a full high school curriculum, special education programming, and the needs of English language learners,” Faust said.

State officials shut down Glen Mills, once the country’s oldest reform school, in April 2019. Two months prior, the Inquirer published an investigation that found employees regularly beat children and covered up the abuse for decades.

Lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of Glen Mills students that says in addition to physical and psychological abuse, the school violated students’ educational rights. They reached a $3 million settlement with Chester County Intermediary Unit, the local educational agency which Faust also represents, in January.

The lawsuit is ongoing against several other defendants, including former employees of Glen Mills and officials with the state departments of education and human services.

Clock Tower, which includes eight individuals who worked at Glen Mills and is run by a long-time executive of the school, has been trying to open a program at the site since 2021. State officials denied its initial application, but granted them a two-year license with increased monitoring following an appeal.

Clock Tower responds to ‘perceived obstacles’ raised by local school district

Jeff Jubelirer, a spokesperson for Clock Tower, told WHYY News in an email that the facility will not open until the “education piece is set.” He said leaders have “no reservations” about calling the facility a school despite not being authorized to provide education services.

Jubelirer said the facility plans to have five kids on campus when they open and no more than 25 children at any time, in accordance with its license.

In a written response, Bill Zee, an attorney with Appel, Yost and Zee, the legal firm representing Clock Tower, said the facility has been trying “to rectify several false impressions that appear to exist regarding our capacity to serve students and the timetable under which we will commence operation.”

“The Clock Tower Schools is committed to developing a partnership with West Chester Area School District that will enable us to offer a student-centered, trauma-informed, academic, and rehabilitative program designed to address the unique needs of the highly vulnerable population our child residential and day treatment facility will serve,” Zee said. “It is unfortunate that representatives of the school district have chosen to focus on perceived obstacles to meeting the needs of this population rather than exploring ways that we can work collaboratively to timely address challenges that all schools are facing in the present environment.”

State departments disagree with West Chester’s claims

In response to a WHYY News request for comment, the state departments of education and human resources provided a copy of the letter their secretaries sent to West Chester, days after the request was made, and weeks after West Chester’s letter was received.

Both departments said in the letter that the district’s claims were mostly “unfounded.”

They also batted down the idea shared by some and expressed in West Chester’s letter, that Clock Tower and Glen Mills are one and the same.

“The entity prospectively operating at that location is a newly established and licensed entity known as Clock Tower Schools. The Glen Mills School is not ‘doing business as’ Clock Tower Schools nor has the ‘Glen Mills School’ received approval from DHS to reopen its shuttered residential program under the name ‘Clock Tower’” both departments said.

The departments reminded West Chester of its educational responsibilities and said “This responsibility exists regardless of whether Clock Tower Schools operates a private school on its campus.”

According to the letter, PDE conducted several visits to Clock Tower and met with staff from West Chester. The agency also said it later met with both entities on May 8.

DHS and PDE disputed the idea of a rushed opening.

“DHS granted Clock Tower Schools a provisional residential license on January 26, 2023 — over four months ago. That provisional license which contains significant provisions, such as an admission limitation and an independent monitor, all of which serve to ensure a controlled and compliant opening and expansion consistent with the settlement agreement. The settlement agreement specifically prohibits Clock Tower Schools from providing care to more than 25 children at any one time during the duration of its provisional license,” both departments said.

Faust disagrees with state officials’ characterization of events. He said it wasn’t initially clear that West Chester would need to provide education services to students at Clock Tower and that the state hadn’t been helpful in resolving the matter.

“The letter suggests we received all kinds of support from both the department of human services and the department of education, which is, I’m sorry to say, untrue.”

Faust said he was also surprised that state officials said in their letter that the district could rely on virtual learning to teach students at Clock Tower remotely. He said while the district offers virtual learning to its students, it isn’t their only option.

“For students who have extraordinary learning needs, those who are identified as disabled or as English learners, virtual learning is not a particularly good option,” he said.

Legal advocates familiar with letter express concern over Clock Tower

Lawyers for the Education Law Center (ELC) say they’ve been concerned about the situation at Clock Tower since DHS granted the entity a license to open back in January.

The ELC is one of several organizations representing students and families in the ongoing lawsuit against Glen Mills and the state departments of education and human services.

“We had larger concerns about Clock Tower Schools opening, but in particular, we saw a very acute lack of acknowledgment about how the education for these young people who would be placed at Clock Tower needed to be thoughtfully planned out,” senior attorney Margie Wakelin said.

Wakelin said West Chester’s letter shows just how “ill-advised” it would be for the facility to open in July as planned.

“The commonwealth is now on notice that if it places students in or if it allows students to be placed in Clock Tower, their educational rights will be deprived,” Wakelin said. “That is something that we think that people need to be aware of right now and how urgent this issue is to address.”

Wakelin said she understands why the facility is likely under pressure to open — the state is facing a shortage of beds in residential facilities.

However, she is worried Pennsylvania is destined to repeat familiar mistakes when it comes to juvenile facilities.

“As we’re moving to open new facilities that resemble the ones that were just recently closed, we haven’t engaged in the reform that would be necessary to think that this will be different,” she said.

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