What to do if your school closes a month into the year: The case of Philly’s Walter Palmer charter

 Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School (Kevin McCorry/for NewsWorks)

Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School (Kevin McCorry/for NewsWorks)

The scuffle between the Philadelphia School District and Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School may soon create more than 1,000 education refugees —students in search of a desk.

The charter’s eponymous founder, Walter Palmer, says the school doesn’t have enough funding to keep its doors open all year.  In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Palmer would not provide a specific date by which the school would need to close, but earlier reports suggested Oct. 1.

Palmer charter serves 1,275 K-12 students at campuses in Northern Liberties and Tacony. Of these, 271 have special education requirements.

Reacting to a letter Palmer sent last week, the Philadelphia School District began mailing notices to parents Tuesday, laying out options for caregivers forced to scramble to enroll their children into another school. Parents will also be contacted via robo-call.

As with all residents of Philadelphia, displaced children can register with their neighborhood, district-run school at any time during the year.

A website accessed through the district’s homepage will become available to Palmer parents from October 1 to 10 in order for them to survey non-neighborhood school options, including charters.

Many charters do not enroll students after the year begins. The district says it will ask some charters (that it deems to be high-performing, that have space) if they would be willing to accept Palmer’s students. No agreements have yet been reached.

“We have moved quickly to put together a process for parents that are looking for other options,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard, who called Palmer charter’s closure “imminent.”

Years long dispute

This is the latest revelation in the on-going dispute between the district and the embattled charter.

In April, the district announced its intention to revoke Palmer’s charter, releasing a six-page memo citing problems including poor academic performance, unstable finances and failure of its associated foundation to maintain its nonprofit status.

The district also says Palmer has fraudulently charged the district for students that did not exist.

The dispute between Palmer and the district has been festering for years. In 2005, Palmer signed a charter agreement capping enrollment at 675.

When Palmer enrolled students above that number, the district withheld payment, but the Pennsylvania Department of Education instead funnelled that money directly to the charter.

The district filed a lawsuit against Palmer charter and, in May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the district’s rationale.

Based on the court’s decision, the state Department of Education has discontinued payment to Palmer for students above the 675 cap.

Palmer charter disputes the district’s and state’s interpretation of the ruling.

In a letter last week to Superintendent William Hite, School Reform Chairman Bill Green, and Mayor Michael Nutter, Palmer “beseech[ed]” the district to restore the $1.38 million that it has refused to fork over for students beyond the cap.

“To withhold funding and force the unplanned shuttering of the school is to punish…students, parents and teachers,” wrote Palmer.

In a May 23 letter, Hite assured Palmer that the school could remain open for the 2014-15 school year, even as the SRC worked to revoke its charter agreement. The district says that promise implicitly required the school to adhere to the cap. 

Palmer’s state standardized test scores went up between 2007 and 2011, but fell sharply in 2012 after the state instituted tougher regulations in the wake of an audit of adults manipulating scores and exams.

Palmer was one of four area charter schools investigated based on an improbably high number of wrong answers that were erased and fixed in test booklets. That investigation was inconclusive and the state has not clarified whether the probe of Palmer has been closed.

Palmer’s most recent test scores have contributed to its low 39.7 score on the state School Performance Profile. The District average is 57.5, and the charter average is 66.

In an interview in April, Palmer dismissed the consequences of school’s poor academic performance.

“The whole ‘No Child Left Behind’ was specious in itself and was unrealistic,” he said. Palmer argues that his charter enrolls a larger share of students who are thought difficult to educate compared with many other higher-performing charters.

“I am not a fan of high-stakes mandated testing,” he said. “No one test fits all and that is not the measurement of intelligence.”

SRC fireworks

At a School Reform Commission meeting held in June, Palmer, a city icon of the civil-rights era, received a slew of vocal support, including from SRC commissioner Farah Jimenez, Councilman Curtis Jones, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and state Rep. Curtis Thomas.

Each praised Palmer’s ability to create a welcoming environment where students and families feel safe.

At the same meeting, SRC chairman Bill Green sparred with Palmer and his top staffers, who were requesting that the board abandon revoking the school’s charter.

“Eighty-five percent of the children in Walter Palmer school will be better off if they attend their neighborhood school academically,” said Green. “The neighborhood schools are better.”

Palmer’s supporters in the crowd attempted to interrupt Green as he spoke, shouting, “lies!”

Earlier in the night, Palmer gave an impassioned speech defending his school.

“We pride ourselves on taking the children that no one else wants,” he said. “The fact that we are constantly taking children who have been failed by the district, who we will continue to take, may mean that we will never make [adequate yearly progress].”

The SRC has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 15 to discuss the revocation of Palmer’s charter.

“I’m 80 years old. I’ve spent 70 years of my life fighting for social justice. And I made a commitment years ago that I will fight for the underclass, and that will never change,” Palmer said in June. “I will fight ’till the day I die.”

The district has scheduled three different parent-engagement meetings to address concerns and answer questions about Palmer’s potential closure.

9/29/14

Ludlow Elementary School550 W. Master St.4:00pm

9/30/14

Ludlow Elementary School550 W. Master St.8:45am

Frankford High5000 Oxford Ave.5:30pm

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.