With charter contract on the line, parents rally behind Stetson school
At least a dozen kids in Brenda Rivera’s family came up through John B. Stetson Middle School, and she remembers the “oh, it was bad” days.
In 2004, a 12-year-old boy was raped by his 11-year-old classmate following an argument over a ball, authorities said. Outside the school at B and Ontario Streets on Wednesday afternoon, Stetson parents recounted similarly bleak stories of classroom violence. Attendance sank to 50 percent at one point, Rivera said, and students' ambitions sank even lower.
But here they are today: Rivera and the other parents, in the school’s matching pale blue shirts, asking for Stetson to stay open. The new Stetson. The Stetson whose charter school contract the School Reform Commission (SRC) last week was advised not to renew. The Stetson that has a lot to improve academically, but is, according to parents at Wednesday’s rally, a lot better than it was.
“If I had more kids, they’d be coming to the school,” said Rivera, whose 11-year-old daughter is currently enrolled in the 5th grade at Stetson. “And not only for the education. They care about the student in general.”
Through the Renaissance Initiative in 2010, the Philadelphia School District tapped ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania, the nonprofit charter school operator, to lead Stetson’s turnaround, with emphasis on “swift and dramatic increases in student achievement.”
But last week, Stetson is one of four “renaissance” schools to fail the District’s charter renewal evaluation process. In terms of education, the district report said that “ASPIRA made initial progress towards this task but progress and student achievement were not sustained throughout the charter term.”
The main concern, however, was not so much in academics, but in organization and finances.
It shouldn't have come as a shock to ASPIRA. In early 2015, The Daily News obtained a letter from the school district to charter operator telling it to clean up Stetson or risk losing the contract. The district outlined 17 conditions, and gave Stetson a year to meet them. On one hand, the letter threw light on simmering tensions between the district and ASPIRA, which runs five charters schools with over 3,000 majority-Latino students in the city.
Of equal importance, the letter (addressed to Stetson board chair Fred Ramirez) also outlined concerns about some of ASPIRA’s financial management practices — such as moving school funds between different entities run by different board members.
According to the charter evaluation process, Stetson didn’t meet the district's expectations. Here’s what the district's charter officer said of Stetson's organizational grievances:
"Regarding Board governance, there were issues of noncompliance with the Sunshine Act, Bylaws, and statements of financial interest. Stetson did not meet highly qualified teacher requirements and missed PSERS payments during the charter term. While the school appears to be in satisfactory financial position, there is a large outstanding receivable from the charter management organization. ASPIRA ended FY14 in a net deficit position. Finally, there are concerns regarding intercompany transactions, a lack of sufficient internal controls, and security agreements with related parties all of which suggest unacceptable financial management practices."
Rivera and a relative at the rally said they weren't totally clued in on the school's financial and organizational woes. One parent suggested asking ASPIRA to hold a community forum on the subject.
Nonetheless, Rivera worries about the alternatives if the contract falls through.
“The city had to shut down 29 public schools because they didn’t have funding,” she said. “What is there is excuse to shut down a school that is doing great, or at least above the nearby public schools?”