Despite pleas, SRC turns down renewal for Lab charter school

Laboratory Charter School of Communications and Language CEO Stacey Cruise prepares to speak before the School Reform Commission during a special meeting to consider the fate of nine city charter schools May 1, 2017. The SRC ultimately voted to nonrenew Lab's charter.

Amid concerns about “overreach,” the School Reform Commission voted Monday night to not renew the Laboratory Charter School of Languages and Communications, despite pleas from parents, students, and supporters.

It also voted to issue new charters, with conditions, for eight schools, and did not act on the Memphis Street Academy Charter School at J.P. Jones, which Philadelphia School District officials had also recommended for nonrenewal.

Lab, a K-8 school with campuses in Northern Liberties and West Philadelphia, will remain open as it enters a formal hearing process, but SRC members warned that if the school does not make swift and profound organizational changes, it could eventually close.

Despite strong academics, Lab has serious issues in finances and governance. It lacks the basic criminal and child-abuse clearances required of all teachers by state law, for instance. Its educators do not have valid special-education and English-language-learner certifications, the district found, and its board does not meet standards for ethics or adhere to its own bylaws.

“These are very serious matters that will take a tremendous amount of work to correct, from my perspective,” commission member Christopher McGinley said.

At Lab’s last renewal, the SRC also had serious concerns about compliance, and those issues have not been corrected, said DawnLynne Kacer, head of the district’s charter office.

Stacey Cruise, the school’s CEO for the last seven months, said she knew that “sweeping and deep changes need to be made in every department of the school,” but said she was confident that Lab could come into compliance.

A large contingent of Lab parents, students, and other supporters pleaded with the SRC to give the school another shot.

Ronnesha Boone, a Lab parent, said she understood the SRC’s concerns about the school’s operations.

“Clearly, changes are required,” Boone said, “but don’t punish the children for them.”

Some questioned why schools with academic problems were being renewed while Lab wasn’t being given another shot. Kirby Smith, a longtime educator who works as a substitute teacher at Lab, said the school is remarkable.

"Are you really going to take one of the brightest stars in your academic constellation and throw it in the trash?” Smith asked.

The nonrenewal vote triggers a formal process. A hearing will be held, with the charter office and Lab officials laying out their cases. After the hearing officer arrives at a decision, the SRC votes again. A hearing before the state Charter Appeals Board is also possible.

The SRC was poised to not renew Memphis Street Academy for academic reasons, but the commission pulled the resolution to gather more data. Charter school officials noted that Memphis Street, a former district school known as Jones Middle School, ranks low on student performance when compared with its peers.

Antoinette Powell, Memphis Street’s principal, said the charter office used a flawed evaluation metric and said the SRC should consider its “tremendous growth.”

“Five years ago, this school was deemed failing by the School District, and the transformation has been remarkable,” Powell said.

Five-year charter renewals were approved for Alliance for Progress Charter School, in North Philadelphia; Multicultural Academy Charter School, in Hunting Park; Preparatory Charter School of Mathematics, Science, Technology and Careers, in South Philadelphia; Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, in Kensington; Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, in Eastwick; Universal Creighton Charter School, in Lawncrest; West Oak Lane Charter School; and Wissahickon Charter School, with campuses in East Mount Airy and Hunting Park.

The SRC was set to consider many more charter renewals, but a number of schools refused to sign them, saying the district was asking for conditions they were not comfortable with.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who has long been interested in the city’s charters, went a step further, saying the district was demanding things that ran afoul of state law.

The district wants charters to agree to enrollment caps; to reserve the right to change school catchment boundaries; to have say over how often charter boards meet, and to require academic standards critics say are stronger than those the district has for its own neighborhood schools.

“The School District of Philadelphia is trying to drastically overstep both the spirit and the letter of existing charter school law in Pennsylvania,” Turzai wrote in a letter to the SRC sent Monday, suggesting that provisions insisted upon by the district might mean the schools “cannot continue or at the very least purposely make it difficult for them to operate.”

Turzai noted the timing: Lawmakers are entering budget season.

“It is tough to justify increases in expenditures to the School District of Philadelphia if the additional money is going to pay for lawyers to draft contracts which go beyond the scope of the law,” said Turzai.

Spokesman Kevin Geary said the district’s renewal process was streamlined, limited conditions on charters, and provided accountability for parents and taxpayers. The SRC has added 2,000 charter seats this year, he pointed out.

“We are disappointed the speaker disagrees with this approach based on the growth of quality Philadelphia school choice,” Geary said.