In his quest to be the Democrats' nominee for governor, State Sen. Anthony Williams is calling for expanding educational choice and targeting taxpayer funds to charters and other schools that produce results.
But the Southwest Philadelphia charter school he founded as Renaissance Advantage in 1999 and oversaw as board chairman for a decade has experienced rocky times.
The school, which Williams renamed Hardy Williams Academy in 2009 for his late father, was nearly closed in 2003 because of academic and management problems.
Academically, the charter has failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks for the last three years. And, despite receiving taxpayer money, the school did not file federal tax returns for five years. Last school year, the school received $9.2 million.
Williams, whose candidacy was boosted by $3.2 million in contributions from supporters of charters and school vouchers, pledged that the school would do better. He cited the school's leadership under a seasoned executive, its new principal, and an increasing number of certified teachers.
"At the end of the year, I want to measure it based on academic outcomes," said Williams, who remains on the school's board although he stepped down as chair in September. "I'm pretty tough on everybody. I don't want excuses and neither do parents."
The charter, which enrolls 807 students from kindergarten through ninth grade, has posted test scores that lag the state's and the district's.
In 2009, 30.1 percent of the school's fifth graders were on grade level in math and 28.9 percent in reading compared with 52.4 percent and 40 percent in the school district. Statewide, the figures were 73.5 percent on grade level in math and 64.5 in reading.
Nonetheless, parents sing the school's praises.
"They're getting a good education," said Charlene Madison, who has four children at the charter.
Her oldest, Malik Jones, a seventh grader, has attended since first grade. Madison said the school moved quickly to provide special-education services for Malik.
"I'm pleased with the administration, the teachers, and the all-around academics," said Tamika Golson, whose son Shawn Charles is in eighth grade.
Golson, president of the parents' association, said the school had made academic improvements since her son entered in kindergarten. "They're doing what they're supposed to do," she said.
Overall, charter schools have had mixed results. Some national studies say charter students do better than those at traditional public schools. Others found charter students do no better and sometimes worse.
In Philadelphia, 73 percent of 67 charters met the federal benchmarks compared with 41 percent of district schools.
Williams, who is being backed by donors who support expanded school choice, has been on that bandwagon for years. The West Philadelphia politician was among city Democrats who joined Republicans in 1997 to pass the charter-school law. He says charters give inner-city families alternatives to failing public schools.
He helped found Renaissance Advantage at the request of neighbors, Williams said in an interview this week. Despite its humble beginnings in trailers at 48th Street and Haverford Avenue, the charter staked out ambitious goals: demonstrating "the heights of academic achievement" that students can attain when they are provided "superior educational opportunities" and "a safe and orderly environment."
Williams said he was "bothered" that the school had not met federal benchmarks while two nearby district schools - Mitchell and Longstreth - had.
He said he was bothered not because he was connected to the charter but because all children needed and deserved good schools. He said he believed that schools that do not meet standards should be closed.
"I don't hide from the realities," Williams said. "Whether my dad's name is on the side of the school or it has a number, if a school does not work, it should not exist."
Williams said the 2003 dispute with the district that almost cost his school its operating charter was mostly about documents and record-keeping. According to the district, the school did not meet the state requirement of 75 percent certified teachers, had turned in incomplete annual reports, and posted low scores.
The School Reform Commission renewed the charter after the school added tutoring programs and hired a New York education company to manage it.
The school no longer contracts with a management company; 84 percent of its teachers are certified.
Williams said he stepped down as board chairman in the fall because he felt it was time to hand over leadership. Dawn Chavous, his campaign manager, replaced him.
Chavous, who has been on the board and served as Williams' education director in the state Senate, was tapped because she had the time to focus on making sure the school improved its academic performance, Chavous said.
She said the board was committed to the charter's not only meeting federal standards but exceeding them.
Principal Lisa Bellamy said the school had focused on providing more help for struggling students. Support specialists were hired to work with small groups of students. The school also began using a program that gives extra help to those who are not on grade level.
The charter has seen gains on its benchmark tests and is hoping to see higher scores when the state test results are released this summer.
A former assistant principal at the charter, Bellamy returned after working as a principal in the district for two years. She said she relished the chance to return to a school that offered "the whole package" to students, including music, art, computer and Spanish classes, and many extracurricular activities, such as track, yoga, and drama.
Since 2003, the charter has rented buildings at the former Most Blessed Sacrament parish from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The charter, which has been paying nearly $500,000 in annual rent, has made some upgrades but is talking to the archdiocese about buying and renovating the entire complex with two school buildings, an annex, convent, rectory, and church.
Chavous said the board had not decided how it would finance the project, which could cost as much as $10 million.
Charter officials this week said the school did not file federal nonprofit tax returns from 2002 to 2007 because management companies said filing was not necessary. Most charters file the forms, and the board resumed filing them in 2008.
Hardy Williams Academy Charter School
Address: 1712 S. 56th St.
Enrollment: 807, kindergarten through
Student profile: 99 percent African American and 1 percent Hispanic or multicultural; 100 percent low-income.
Proficiency: 46 percent of fiffth graders at or above grade level in math and 29 percent in reading.
No Child Left Behind:
Failed to meet 2009 academic benchmarks.
Enrollment: 530, kindergarten through
Student profile: 98 percent African American and 2 percent Latino or other; 94 percent low-income.
Proficiency: 43 percent of fifth graders at or above grade level in math and 28 percent in reading.
No Child Left Behind:
Met 2009 academic benchmarks.
Address: 5700 Willows Ave.
Enrollment: 518, kindergarten through eighth grade.
Student profile: 98 percent African American and 2 percent other; 89 percent low-income.
Proficiency: 50 percent of fifth graders at or above grade level in math and 35 percent in reading.
No Child Left Behind:
Met 2009 academic benchmarks.
SOURCE: Hardy Williams Academy Charter School; School District of Philadelphia, Pa. Department of Education