Panel assures parents on plans for schools

Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman (center) with member Joseph Dworetzky (left) and Chair Robert L. Archie Jr. at the school commission meeting.
Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman (center) with member Joseph Dworetzky (left) and Chair Robert L. Archie Jr. at the school commission meeting. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 28, 2011

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission on Wednesday tackled school turnarounds - including controversial plans for Audenried and Martin Luther King High Schools - and charter school expansions and renewals.

After allegations of conflicts of interest and political wrangling that prompted two proposed-charter operators to withdraw from King, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman assured a committee of parents, students, and staff that they would get to choose the improvement model for the East Germantown school.

The commission said Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos. could proceed with plans to convert both Audenried and Vare Middle School to charters as part of its Promise Neighborhood proposal, but only if the company agrees to manage the schools even if it does not obtain federal funds it is seeking.

Commission member Joseph Dworetzky, who pressed for the proviso, said Universal was still developing its plans for a federal grant for the neighborhood.

Universal officials said their project aims to improve the lives of students and residents in Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, with the schools as focal points. Universal received a $500,000 federal planning grant for the project in September.

With Dworetzky's amendment, Universal will receive the charters only if it signs a memorandum of understanding promising to proceed with or without federal funds.

Commission members Johnny Irizarry and Denise McGregor Armbrister joined Dworetzky in voting yes. Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. abstained because he is a former member of Universal's board.

Shahied Dawan, Universal's chief financial officer, said his company was committed to the schools and would sign the agreements.

At King, Ackerman said, the school advisory committee could choose to have the district continue to operate the school in the 2011-12 school year and again try to be matched with a charter provider the following year. Or, she said, the committee could elect to have King become a Promise Academy in the fall, with a longer school day and school year, and a new staff.

Ackerman said: "I want to assure the staff and the students at King and the community at large that the district and the commission will work tirelessly to improve academic achievement" no matter which model is chosen.

Her comments capped 10 days of developments at King, including disclosures of a closed-door meeting involving Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) after which one charter operator backed out of King, and the subsequent departure of a second charter operator. Mayor Nutter has directed the city's chief integrity officer to look into the King flap.

The SRC Wednesday also authorized three charter operators to take over five low-performing district schools as part of the second year of turnarounds under Ackerman's Imagine 2014 initiative.

Mosaica Turnaround Partners, an Atlanta-based division of the for-profit company that withdrew from King, will operate Birney School. Philadelphia's nonprofit Mastery Charter Schools will take on Simon Gratz High School and George Clymer School. Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania will manage Olney East and Olney West High Schools.

In other action, Associate Superintendent Tomas Hanna said the district was making progress on a plan to improve safety at the district's most troubled schools.

Reported violent incidents are down 14 percent in 46 targeted schools, Hanna said.

As The Inquirer detailed in a recent investigative series, violence is underreported in the district.

Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor hired to monitor conditions at South Philadelphia High after racial attacks on Asian students there, told the SRC that violence had decreased and that students felt safer but still were not "united as a student body."

Noguera identified areas where the school needs to improve, from safety to student advising, but said: "You have great strengths at South Philly High School to build on."

NYU's Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, which Noguera oversees, will be paid up to $145,000 through June for its work at South Philadelphia. That work - including interviews and staff and student training - is mandated by settlement agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Human Relations Commission over the attacks.

The SRC on Wednesday also failed to renew the operating charter of Community Academy Charter School in Kensington. Community, which opened in 1997, was the city's first charter to open.

As was the case in February, when the SRC first considered Community's renewal, the vote was 2-1 in favor of renewing its charter for five years. Irizarry and McGregor Armbrister voted yes; Dworetzky voted no. Archie abstained because his law firm has done work for the charter.

District officials maintain that three votes are required to pass an SRC resolution.

Dworetzky did not give a reason for his vote Wednesday. In February, he cited the school's poor academic record. The school enrolls 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Community is one of at least 18 local charters under federal investigation for possible financial mismanagement. Federal agents raided the school in August 2009 and carried off boxes of documents and copies of computer hard drives.

The commission Wednesday also increased enrollment next fall by a total of 575 students for four charter schools: Green Woods, Freire, Independence, and Philadelphia Performing Arts.

And the SRC voted to fire Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery.

Dougherty was one of six administrators placed on administrative leave in December when the district began investigating leaks about the awarding of a $7.5 million emergency, no-bid contract for surveillance cameras to a small minority-owned company in Mount Airy.

Last month, the district said it intended to fire Dougherty for violating district policy because he forwarded more than 50 e-mails from his district account to his personal e-mail. Many were related to the camera contract.

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or

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