Parents livid about charter company pulling out of North Philly school unexpectedly

Parent Shereda  Cromwell (right) is furious about Scholar Academies' decision to leave Kenderton elementary. Depicted here

Parent Shereda Cromwell (right) is furious about Scholar Academies' decision to leave Kenderton elementary. Depicted here

At an emergency meeting, Scholar Academies informed parents Wednesday afternoon that it is planning to cease control of operations at Kenderton elementary at the end of the school year due to fiscal constraints.

The charter management organization had taken over the North Philadelphia school in 2013 through the Renaissance process, signing a contract that lasts through 2018.

During a 90 minute meeting with CEO Lars Beck, parents were livid.

“We are so upset. We are angry that our kids are being taken through this process again,” said parent Shereda Cromwell. “Scholar Academies made a promise to us and now is letting us down.”

Cromwell, president of the school advisory council, was one of about ten parents at the meeting. She stormed out after 30 minutes, feeling furious and betrayed.

“They were full of excuses,” she said. “The children are going to be devastated. They went from losing all the teachers they loved in their public school, and now that they started forming bonds with the new teachers, they are now leaving too.”

According to Cromwell, Beck told parents that the school would either return to district control or be transferred into the hands of another charter operator.

Scholar Academies is opening a new school in Memphis in 2016-17 as part of Tennessee’s state-run “Achievement School District.”

“How do you not have funding to run our school, and you can open a school in Tennessee?” fumed Cromwell, a mother of two Kenderton students with autistic-support needs.

In addition to Philadelphia, Scholar Academies runs schools in Trenton, N.J., Washington, D.C., and Memphis.

Kenderton is a hub of special-education services in North Philadelphia, and leaders say Scholar Academies’ sudden retreat is directly related to the fiscal burden of that service.

“Kenderton is facing significant financial challenges due to a number of factors including the school’s rising special education costs. As a result, Scholar Academies has concluded that, next school year, it is no longer able to manage the school in the best interest of kids,” said CEO Lars Beck in an emailed statement. “We shared with our staff and the School Advisory Council today that we are working on a plan for the school’s future that is in the best interest of the students, and also of the families, staff and extended school community.”

Beck said the organization will begin seeking another charter operator for the school next week through a request for proposals.

Asked to clarify how special-education costs are outstripping the revenues the charter receives from the district to provide those services, Beck did not respond.

The School District of Philadelphia was not prepared to comment in time for publishing this story, and could not clarify whether Scholar Academies’ action is legal.

The Philadelphia School Partnership, which invested $1.8 million into Kenderton’s turnaround, declined to comment Wednesday evening.

Last year, facing the prospect of the School Reform Commission revoking Young Scholars’ charter at Douglas elementary (another Renaissance charter), the charter company arranged to transfer the school to Mastery Charter.

Mastery could not be reached for comment.

There are 20 Renaissance charters in Philadelphia. The program began in 2010 with expectations that charter operators would dramatically outperform traditional counterparts in boosting student achievement.  The work of a Renaissance charter — which must serve 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. It was set to vote on non-renewal recommendations at Universal Vare elementary and Audenried high, and Aspira’s Stetson middle school and Olney high school at a meeting last week, but postponed action, awaiting a report from the city controller.

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 last week to convert three more district schools into renaissance charters.

Two of the providers selected lack experience running neighborhood schools.

Cromwell initially opposed the conversion of Kenderton, but later warmed to it. In the Fall, she began again to have doubts about Young Scholars’ ability to transform the school in a meaningful way.

She now believes the entire renaissance endeavor was a waste of time.

“My kids have lost three years of education,” she said, “and Scholar Academies is walking away because they’re more worried about their bottom line.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.