SRC approves expansion for charter to serve immigrant students

“This is an example of a charter school offering quality opportunities, and we certainly support that,” SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said.

The School Reform Commission on Thursday night approved the expansion of a high-performing charter school that will create a program to serve students new to the country.

Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, a K-8 campus on the edge of Chinatown, will eventually add 369 students. One hundred of those will learn in a “newcomer program” for recent immigrants.

The unanimous approval of FACTS’s expansion brought cheers, hugs, and high-fives from the school’s supporters.

“Supporting and welcoming immigrants and refugees is more important than ever,” said Ellen Somekawa, the school’s executive director. “We were started in part because the needs of immigrants and refugees were so poorly met.”

The school, which focuses on honoring students’ cultures, building community, and delivering an arts-rich education, does not currently serve English-language learners at the most basic levels.

FACTS, at 10th and Callowhill Streets, initially applied to open a new charter school, but the SRC denied that application and encouraged FACTS to instead pursue expansion. After the commission voted in favor of the expansion, the school formally withdrew its request for a new charter.

FACTS currently has 478 students, and won a prestigious National Blue Ribbon award in 2016. Most of its students live below the poverty line, and more than half come from homes where English is not the primary language.

“This is an example of a charter school offering quality opportunities, and we certainly support that,” SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said.

The commission also faced some pushback around Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s plan, announced this week, to overhaul 11 struggling schools.

Four schools -- Bartram High, Harding Middle School, and McDaniel and Hartranft Elementaries -- will make changes with plans of their own design. Leadership will remain, but the rest of the staff will have to reapply for their jobs. At three schools, Blankenburg, Heston, and John Marshall, prescriptive, district-led turnarounds will happen, with principals and staff all forced to fight for their jobs. Fels, Ben Franklin, Kensington Health Science Academy, and Overbrook will go into a special high-school program with a focus on ninth graders.

Tianna Rogers, a student at Kensington Health Sciences, noted that the school was chosen as one of Mayor Kenney’s community schools, designated to receive extra resources and social supports. Rogers asked why the district would disrupt that.

“The School District knowingly intervened with the mayor’s primary education policy and a central campaign promise,” said Rogers, a junior at the school. “Why?”

Hite and several members of the SRC said the two initiatives were not at odds -- that the community schools plan was designed to provide social services and other programming, but that the district was charged with moving the needle academically.

“We're working with the Mayor's Office of Education to support the work of community schools,” the superintendent said.

Rogers and Orlando Acosta, a school parent, also expressed displeasure at the loss of longtime principal James Williams, who is leaving the school for a central-office job. They suggested Williams had been forced out.

“We want him there. He's a strong foundation in that school,” Acosta said.

Hite said Williams was not pulled from the school, but declined to discuss it further, citing personnel matters.

Several speakers also decried the continued destabilization of schools with frequently changing turnaround models that do not address a lack of resources to educate children in poverty.

“The people at the table never take responsibility,” said retired teacher Lisa Haver, a frequent district critic. “It’s so much easier to punish the people who have to clean up your mess.”

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