13 charter schools get extensions

The School Reform Commission said it would continue to back them, despite the district's financial woes.

The Senior of the Month award was a tie among (from left) Juan Antonio Caraballo, Juan Alberto Caraballo, and Juan Carlos Caraballo. The Bok High students have worked with White-Williams Scholars, among other programs, and have kept up their grades.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved five-year extensions yesterday for all 13 charter schools that were up for renewal.

And chairman James Nevels said the commission would continue to back charter schools - despite the district's financial problems.

"There has been a consistent support for charters by the School Reform Commission," Nevels said after the the commission's regular meeting. "They are an essential ingredient for school choice, and we will continue to support them."

Two of the schools were renewed on condition that they improve academically and hire more certified teachers.

Hope Charter School in West Oak Lane and the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter School in Center City had failed to meet federal benchmarks and were not in compliance with provisions of the state charter law, which requires that at least 75 percent of their teachers be certified.

Nevels said the commission decided to keep the two charter high schools operating because they had demonstrated "substantial compliance."

"The commission was comfortable that progress is being made," Nevels said.

During the commission meeting, Leslie Leff, a fifth-grade teacher at Wissahickon Charter School in East Falls, thanked the board for renewing her school's charter. But she said Wissahickon was disappointed that it had not been authorized to add 50 children, as had been described in the enrollment projections of the elementary school's original charter.

"We will continue to push for those spaces because our children deserve it," Leff said.

Nevels also said the commission expected to vote in a few weeks on applications submitted in the fall by groups seeking to open 19 new charter schools in September.

Eleven proposals received enough points from the district's screening process to make it to public hearings that the district held in November.

Nevels said the commission was waiting to hear staff recommendations on the applications.

"Let me say clearly: There is no moratorium," Nevels said.

When the district's budget crisis surfaced in the fall, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers urged the commission to place a moratorium on new charters.

At that time, Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive, said an unexpected surge in charter enrollment was one factor in the unexpected $73 million deficit.

Officials said that charters had reported more than 700 more students than the district had anticipated, costing the district $4.6 million more than the $241.8 million than had been budgeted for tuition and transportation.

The district's 56 charter schools enroll nearly 30,000 students.

A year ago, the commission approved six other new charters but delayed their opening for financial reasons. Four of them will begin operating as planned in September, said William Tomasco, an official in the district's charter office.

The four have been authorized to enroll up to 933 students the first year. Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, an elementary school, 208 students; Truebright Science Academy, grades seven to 12, 200 students; Southwest Philadelphia Academy for Boys, a high school, 125 students; Planet Abacus, an elementary school, 400 students.

Tomasco said two other K-8 charters the commission approved have postponed opening until 2008: Antonia Pantoja Community Charter School and Pan American Academy Charter School.

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.