Inside Chester Community Charter: Drawing praise, money, criticism

Wearing her "Dollar Days" crown, Principal Christine Matijasich watches as kindergarten and first graders keep themselves quiet. Students earn dollars for good behavior, which they redeem for perks like being principal for a day. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Wearing her "Dollar Days" crown, Principal Christine Matijasich watches as kindergarten and first graders keep themselves quiet. Students earn dollars for good behavior, which they redeem for perks like being principal for a day. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer (Wearing her "Dollar Days" crown,)
Posted: March 18, 2012

A group of well-mannered kindergarten students navigate a brightly decorated hallway of the Chester Community Charter School as principal Christine Matijasich looks on.

"Don't forget: Fingers on lips, hands on hips," Matijasich says as the children file by quietly.

The charter school, it seems, is an island of order in a sea of troubles, surrounded by the struggling Chester Upland School District, which remains on life support through June.

Backers hold it up as the epitome of charter success, a school that outperforms the district where most of its student live.

"They have turned a lot of children around," said Janae Avery, the mother of a seventh grader and a kindergartner. "I've seen it numerous times."

But others see it as a financial drain that's sinking the district. Chester Upland this year is paying the charter $36 million, more than a third of its budget.

Critics also challenge its academic achievements, especially in light of an ongoing state investigation into possible state test score cheating, and question how much the owner's management company is getting to run the school.

The Rev. Bernice Warren, who runs Chester Eastside Ministries, an urban ministry that includes a tutoring program for district and charter children, is a critic.

"I'm not against charter schools," she said. "But if this is school choice, then the choice must be better. I have children in my after-school program that come from the charter, and based on their reading skills, some are even more behind than those in the Chester Upland schools."

Any discussion of the district's future focuses squarely on the charter school, which enrolls nearly 3,000 students at campuses in Chester and Chester Township and stands ready to enroll all who want to attend.

During a high-profile visit to the charter's campus last year, Gov. Corbett gave the school a big thumbs-up.

"What you are doing here needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania," he said, "so that they can understand what can be accomplished if there's a vision, if there's a commitment, if there's determination, and if there's choice."

What wasn't mentioned was that the owner of the charter school's management company, Vahan Gureghian, was Corbett's biggest individual campaign donor and served on his transition team.

Whatever one thinks, the rise of the school is a remarkable story.

Founded in 1998 with 97 students in four rented rooms at a Howard Johnson hotel, Chester Community is by far the state's largest charter, with 2,985 students, almost all from Chester Upland.

A majority of district children in grades K to 8 now attend its schools. About two-thirds of the district's students attend its kindergarten.

Before running the school, Gureghian, a Delaware County native and lawyer, was best known for owning a billboard company. He helped the school open, then took over the management a short time later.

Incentives

Gureghian now lives in Gladwyne and is a Republican power broker. He is the Montgomery County GOP finance chair and contributed $334,000 to Corbett's campaign for governor; he was the largest individual donor. He served on the governor-elect's transition team education and transportation committees.

As the charter school grew, the Chester Upland district continued to struggle, its enrollment dropping from 6,630 to 3,470 over the last 14 years.

When the charter opened, the district was already under state control amid complaints of misspending, and test scores were among the lowest in the state. Violence was a chronic problem.

Chester Community Charter promised violence-free schools with better academics. Students are housed in seven new school buildings, with two gymnasiums.

At holidays, students get gifts from Gureghian and his wife, Danielle: $10 Thanksgiving turkey certificates and Christmas presents to every student.

There's a free summer program for struggling students and enrichment classes for more advanced learners.

The offerings have turned many parents into boosters.

"They give them incentives; they make them want to learn," Avery said. "They're like a family there. And they're safe. I love it."

Students treasure it, too.

"I don't want to leave," said sixth grader Nahjae Richardson, at the school since kindergarten. "I like everything here. We're all happy and we all get along."

The school puts emphasis on creating a safe and orderly atmosphere.

Children who behave and succeed academically are given charter-school "dollars" - coupons that can buy school snacks and supplies. Enough coupons enable a student to buy the title of "principal for the day" or to be admitted to school parties.

In Kaitlin Carmichael's kindergarten classroom, each table competes for the stars she awards for good behavior and participation. Stars are counted up in a ceremony before lunch. Winners get charter dollars and the honor of leading the class through the halls to lunch.

Lauren Michetti, another kindergarten teacher, rewards correct answers with goldfish crackers.

At the sixth-seventh grade building on Fifth Street's East campus, charter dollars gain admittance to a campus dance or a pizza party.

"It helps to keep our classrooms and our school under control," principal Sharon Watkins explained. "The classroom environment is focused and positive because they're trying to earn this money."

In the K-1 East Campus building, a "positive behavior team" made up of principal Matijasich, a school behavior specialist, a counselor, and regular and special-education teachers closely monitors student behavior. Disruptive students get special attention.

Said Matijasich, "I have a lot of 'buddies' that check in with me in the morning, get their pep talk and check out with me at the end of the day."

Surveillance cameras scan classrooms, hallways, and stairways. Watkins can watch and even listen in on classes, monitoring students and teachers.

Parents get "report cards," grading them on whether their children complete homework assignments, have high attendance, follow the dress code, and behave. Those who score "advanced" are invited to a banquet thrown by the school and paid for by the Gureghians. One family is picked to go to Disney World.

Monitoring behavior

Still, the school struggles with student behavior. Last school year, it reported 154 assaults and 112 fights among students and 31 assaults on the staff. Hundreds of children were suspended, some in kindergarten and first grade. Its incident rate was higher than Chester Upland's last school year and slightly lower the year before.

But the charter has an answer for that.

"Our people report even the most minor incident," said school spokesman A. Bruce Crawley. "They are captured [on video cameras]. We believe . . . we have schools that are relatively free from violence. And parents share that view."

As for comparisons with Chester Upland, he said: "I would only feel comfortable with that if we had the same person making the report in both places and the state was monitoring how the reporting was done."

Chester Community's reward system extends to the PSSA, the state math and reading tests that set the standard for school success or failure. Students who pass - score proficient - get $100 Foot Locker coupons. Those who score advanced get $125 coupons.

Teachers each receive a $1,000 bonus if the school meets the state standards. They can get $1,000 more if their grade score exceeds that of the same grade in all Chester Upland schools, another $1,000 if they surpass grade scores in selected Delaware County districts and Philadelphia, and another $1,000 if the grade exceeds the state average for African American students.

The charter has exceeded state academic benchmarks since 2009, after failing in all but one year between 2003 and 2008. Some regular Chester Upland schools met state standards about as frequently; others rarely did so.

Chester Community's K-8 average PSSA scores are higher than Chester Upland's, though some district schools did better in the third and fourth grades. The charter topped the state average in one grade in math and two in reading.

The charter's successes, however, have been questioned as a result of a statewide analysis of test results. In 2009, it found erasures on many tests where most or all corrected answers were switched from wrong to right, a statistical improbability. Questions were raised about subsequent years as well.

While the investigation continues, the state banned Chester Community teachers from monitoring tests for their own students. Testing ends Friday.

School Chief Executive Officer David Clark said the charter has cooperated with investigators.

"I'm 100 percent confident that there was no improper behavior by our teachers," he said.

In a letter to the Chester Upland district last fall, charter school attorney Francis Catania labeled the state report "substantively misleading, unreliable, and statistically flawed."

Despite their overall satisfaction, some parents have concerns.

School average scores on state tests last year, for instance, lagged behind most Delaware County districts.

The teachers are relatively green, averaging about five years of classroom experience. The state average is about 12 years. Other charters average about 6.5 years.

They are also among the lowest paid in the state, averaging $39,790 last school year. The state average was $55,500; for charters, $45,435.

Clark, the school's CEO, said teachers have a support network of grade directors - former teachers who oversee their work - and tutors, counselors, and aides.

Suing the state

Special-education students make up an unusually large percentage of school enrollment - 26.7 percent last school year, well over the state average of 15.2 percent and Chester Upland's 21.3 percent. About 40 percent of special-needs students are identified with "speech or language impairments" - generally a mild disability; the state average is 16.2 percent.

The charter gets $25,528 for every special-education student from Chester Upland - more than 2.5 times the amount it gets for district regular education children. Critics question whether the school overidentifies special-needs students to get more money.

The state conducted a special audit of the program in 2008 and initially found irregularities. The charter sued and the state agreed to accept the school's decisions.

Clark said the school screens entering children for disabilities and strictly follows state regulations. To be most effective, he said, "you really need to get a child when they first come into the school. We understand that. Our philosophy is based on that."

The charter school pays CSMI L.L.C., the management company Gureghian heads, a fee of about $5,600 per student, according to a recent state report. That totals $16.7 million this school year - more than 41 percent of the charter school's budget.

'Essential help'

The school has gone to court to block release of documents on how the money is spent and how much profit Gureghian's company makes.

Earlier this month, a state report said a portion of state payments to the school was not "an essential educational expense" because many charter schools pay an 8 to 10 percent management fee.

Chester Community defends the fee, saying Gureghian's services go "well beyond what other management companies offer." His company, it said, provides "essential help" so that students "continue to achieve great things."

Chester Community touts its success in placing eighth-grade graduates in area private schools.

About a quarter of last year's graduates were admitted to private schools, the school said. The rest went to Chester High, to Chester Upland magnet high schools, or to other area public schools.

Charlie Warren, a Chester Upland school board member, countered that many charter students entering Chester High after eighth grade struggle. "Their children are not achieving, and we see the results when they come back into the school district," he said.

Clark contended that the charter's placements speak for themselves, labeling criticisms of its academic performance "trash talk."

"At first, we were going and looking for schools [for eighth-grade graduates] - it was challenging," he said. "Now they come looking for us because of our history of successes."


Contact Dan Hardy

at 215-854-2612 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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