Parents from two charters urge SRC to keep schools open

William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia's new school superintendent, addresses his first SRC meeting as members Feather O. Houstoun and Pedro Ramos listen.
William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia's new school superintendent, addresses his first SRC meeting as members Feather O. Houstoun and Pedro Ramos listen. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 29, 2012

Parents from two charter schools whose founder and former top administrators are under federal indictment urged the Philadelphia School Reform Commission on Thursday to keep their schools open.

"We want our school to continue with a new administration," said Noel Bauman, who has three sons at Planet Abacus Charter School. "There is no other way for our school to continue without that happening."

But Labaughn Clarke, mother of a student at Laboratory Charter School, praised that school's academics and implored the SRC not to overhaul the administration.

"Those who are demanding a change in leadership are in the minority," she said before an audience packed with charter parents, grandparents, students, and teachers at the commission's regular action meeting Thursday night.

Both Planet Abacus and Laboratory are high-performing K-8 charter schools seeking to have their operating charters renewed.

The commission has delayed considering new five-year charters for the schools, pending a district investigation. Michael A. Davis, the district's general counsel, ordered the inquiry after Dorothy June Brown, the charters' founder; the chief executive officers of Planet Abacus and Laboratory; and two other administrators were indicted July 25.

A 62-count federal grand jury indictment charges that Brown and the others defrauded the charter schools of more than $6.5 million.

All have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

After the charges were announced, the boards of the two schools suspended the two indicted CEOs with pay and appointed interim leaders.

Even before the indictments were returned, the district's charter office had recommended against renewing the agreements for the two charter schools because of concerns about their finances and administration.

Planet Abacus is in Tacony; Laboratory has campuses in Northern Liberties, Overbrook, and Wynnefield.

In addition to Planet Abacus and Laboratory, Brown founded Ad Prima Charter School, which has campuses in Overbrook and Frankford.

During the commission's meeting, some Laboratory parents praised Brown's educational track record, pointed to the accolades she has received, and said their school had been misrepresented in news accounts.

Camari Fitzgerald, a sophomore at Central High School, said Laboratory's rigorous academics, high standards, and homework had been "like a high school boot camp" that had helped him excel at Central, where he has a 4.02 grade-point average.

But Luz Loeb, who was president of the parent-teacher organization at Laboratory for four years, said that while the education at the school was "top-notch," she had been troubled for some time by a lack of transparency and accountability at the school and the shortage of resources for students.

Loeb said she believed the charter's management needed to be overhauled "from top down. If the allegations are correct, there need to be replacements of them because the corruption is so deep."

Several Planet Abacus parents called for the creation of a parents' board to work in concert with the charter board, to be involved in all aspects of the school's operations, and to provide oversight.

The commission expects to consider the charter renewals at a later meeting.

Also Thursday, the SRC voted to amend the recently adopted code of student conduct to account for gender-nonconforming students (those who dress in a manner not typically associated with their sex), who will be permitted to follow the dress code of their identified gender. That vote earned applause from dozens of students in the audience.

Kensington Business High student Anita Bingham, a member of Youth United for Change, thanked the SRC for the code but said more must be done - informing students and teachers about the changes, and tracking and sharing data on how the new code works.

"We need an implementation plan for the code so things can actually change for the better for all students," Bingham said.

The meeting was the first for new Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who joked that he had been on the job "six days, seven hours, and 42 minutes, but who's counting?"


Contact Martha Woodall

at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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