Kenderton parents push for Mastery to take over; decision rests with Philly SRC

Parents tour a classroom at Young Scholars Kenderton. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Parents tour a classroom at Young Scholars Kenderton. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

In the wake of Scholar Academies deciding to pull out of Philadelphia’s Kenderton elementary, parents in the school advisory council are pushing for the school to be turned over to Mastery Charter Schools. 

At an emergency meeting in early May, Scholar Academies informed parents of its plans to cease control of operations at the school due to fiscal constraints.

The charter agreed to take over the North Philly neighborhood school in 2013 through the Renaissance process, signing a contract that lasts through 2018.

CEO Lars Beck attributed the sudden change of plans to the fiscal burden of serving the school’s substantial special-education student population.

Parents were livid about the decision.

In addition to Philadelphia, Scholar Academies runs schools in Trenton, N.J., Washington, D.C., and Memphis, where it’s opening a new school in 2016-17.

Beck informed parents at the time that the school would be handed off to another charter or returned to district control. That decision sits with the board of Young Scholars Kenderton, which officially holds the charter.

Last year, facing the prospect of non-renewal, Scholar Academies transferred operations of Douglas Elementary, another Renaissance charter, to Mastery.

This time around, Mastery was reluctant to take on the responsibility.

“We met with parents and talked through our hesitations in applying at this late date and told them we would not apply,” said Mastery’s Chief Innovations Officer Courtney Collins-Shapiro in an email correspondence Wednesday.

Parents at Kenderton, though, pleaded with them to change course.

“Its the only plausible idea that’s going to work in such a short time frame,” said Shereda Cromwell, Kenderton’s SAC president.

Collins-Shapiro says the pleas worked. Mastery submitted an application to the school’s board, but said it would only take over the school if the K-8 is allowed to scale back to a K-6.

Here is an excerpt of Mastery’s application:

“Mastery’s experience operating K-8 schools is that they require two leadership teams to operate effectively. Middle school students have significantly different curricular and instructional needs than younger students. Middle school students also have distinct school culture and behavioral support needs. A foundation of Mastery’s success is that school leaders have deep understanding of and are able to support the curriculum, instruction, and social-emotional programming in their schools. Thus, it is very challenging for leaders to have that level of expertise over the entire K-8 continuum. Given Kenderton’s small size, it is not financially feasible to support two leadership teams in a 550 student school.”

Under Mastery’s proposal, Kenderton’s current 6th and 7th graders would go to its nearby Simon Gratz Middle School, known as Mastery Prep.

Cromwell, whose 6th grade son would be displaced by the move, supports the plan. The SAC voted 12-1 in its favor, and Kenderton’s board concurred.

“We still feel like this is a better option than going back to the district,” said Cromwell. “That’s not an option.”

But because this proposal would amend the terms of the charter agreement, it now must receive the blessing of the School Reform Commission.

District officials said they could not yet discuss details of the proposal, and could not say if the district would proffer its own plan.

Kenderton parents are scheduled to meet this week with Superintendent William Hite, as well as members of the district’s charter office.

Cromwell cited the district’s inability to fill staffing vacancies this year as a major factor in the SAC’s decision.

“The district can’t handle the school,” she said. “They couldn’t do it before. What has changed so much to think that they could handle it now?”

Kenderton is a hub for autistic students and ones who need emotional support. The school also runs an intensive learning support program. With the SRC’s blessing, Mastery says it can meet these needs at both Kenderton and Mastery Simon-Gratz Prep.

Cromwell says the SAC has unfinished business with Scholar Academies, and plans to dig deeper into the factors that led to the decision to pull out after the dust settles.

“Right now, we’re just gritting our teeth and bearing it,” she said.

The board chair of Young Scholars Kenderton could not be reached before publication.

A 2014 NewsWorks analysis found that Young Scholars was spending about $900 more per pupil in 2013-14 than the district had been the prior year.

The school director at the time, Hedi Belkaoui, specifically emphasized Scholar Academies’ ablity to serve special education students with individualized education plans. 

“Any single kid — doesn’t matter if you have an IEP — you’re able to come to this school,” he said. “You’re going to be equipped with great teachers, a supportive administration.”

There are 20 operating Renaissance charters in Philadelphia. The program began in 2010 with expectations that charters would dramatically outperform traditional counterparts in boosting student achievement.

The work of a Renaissance charter — which is tasked with serving all students living within neighborhood boundaries — is considered much more difficult than that typical lottery-based charters undertake. (Young Scholars runs one lottery-based charter in Philadelphia which has garnered top ratings.)

The district has recommended against renewing contracts at five Renaissance charters. The SRC voted to revoke Universal Bluford’s charter last year, but recently agreed to a new deal with strict conditions.

It was set to vote on non-renewal recommendations at Universal’s Vare elementary and Audenried high, and Aspira’s Stetson middle school and Olney high school at meetings last month, but postponed action, leaving the decisions in limbo.

Last summer, Renaissance provider Mosaica quietly transferred operations of Birney elementary to American Paradigm after falling into deep fiscal woes.

After months of acrimonious debate, the School Reform Commission voted in April to convert three more district schools into renaissance charters, including Mastery’s bid to take over Wister elementary in Germantown.

But before those deals were finalized, one of the charter operators, Great Oaks, rescinded its application to run Jay Cooke elementary, whose population is almost ten percent english language learners.

Great Oaks cited Scholar Academies’ troubles at Kenderton as a key reason.

Below you can find additional excerpts from Mastery’s application:

· K-6 grade configuration would enable a higher quality transition given the short time line.Operating Kenderton as a K-6 enables the school to shrink from 520 students to approximately 420 students for the 2016-17 school year. This means fewer teachers and leaders need to be recruited and trained to open the school next year. Mastery Prep already has the teaching and leadership staff to accommodate Kenderton middle school students next year. NOTE, in future years, we fully expect enrollment would increase to the 550 student cap as a K-6.

· Transitioning 7th and 8th graders to Mastery Prep enables those students to have a higher quality middle school experience.Mastery Prep is designed as a middle school – with a middle school schedule, school culture, and extra-curricular activities. In fall 2015, Mastery Clymer also transitioned from a K-8 to a K-6, sending their middle schoolers to Prep. The feedback from students and families has been very positive. Students say they particularly appreciate the young adult culture at the school and the range of extra-curricular activities. Families say their children are happy and feel safe and cared for.

· A K-6 Kenderton and Gratz Prep middle school plan stitches together the North Philly communityKenderton is already a Gratz High School feeder school. As a Mastery school Kenderton would be part of the ongoing parent and community engagement that is integrated into the Mastery model. Mastery conducts ongoing parent leadership training and supports parents’ advocacy on a variety of community issues. Mastery works closely with Bulldog Nation, other alumni Gratz groups, and a number of Nicetown/Tioga community organizations and institutions to support youth in the neighborhood. Transitioning 7th and 8th graders to Mastery Prep enables those students to connect to the culture at Gratz and the overall community renaissance that is underway in North Philadelphia and the Nicetown communities.

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