The location of a new, proposed charter school: The Chestnut Hill Innovation Center.

The location of a new, proposed charter school: The Chestnut Hill Innovation Center.

by Sue Ann Rybak

Northwest public school parents and advocates have expressed concerns about the Chestnut Hill Innovation Charter, a proposed charter school that would be situated on the New Covenant Church of Philadelphia’s campus, the former site of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf at 7500 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.

A letter of intent to establish the school was submitted by Covenant International Institute Inc., a nonprofit educational organization affiliated with New Covenant Church at the same Mt. Airy address.

Chestnut Hill resident Haviva Goldman, parent of a first grader at J.S. Jenks Academy of Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill, said she was surprised when she read the application for the Chestnut Hill Innovation Charter (CHIC).

In an interview with the Local, she said that the charter application “rests on a misleading and inaccurate picture of the neighborhood’s need for another school.”

In a letter to the School Reform Commission, Goldman noted that the application for the charter states that “due to a wait list for those schools (J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences, C.W. Henry Elementary School and Houston Elementary School), students are being bused and/or driven by their parents and/or guardians, distances from their neighborhood schools to other elementary schools.”

Goldman, who is president of the Friends of J.S. Jenks, a nonprofit fund-raising organization dedicated to enhancing the educational and enrichment opportunities at Jenks, said that all the schools have openings.

“I don’t know how they obtained their information, but it’s not based on the facts,” she said. “We are concerned because these are our neighborhood schools, and we want our neighborhood children going to these schools. We are working hard to invest in these schools, so they get better and they are a choice local families want to use.

“In fact, each school often takes in students from outside their catchment area, and there is a demand for that. Opening another charter would only further splinter families and resources away from nearby neighborhood schools. Instead, the district should support and invest in the ongoing efforts that have already been showing great success thanks to family, staff and community support.”

She said that there are two other K-8 charter schools already operating in the Northwest area – Green Woods Charter School and Wissahickon Charter School – both of which have recently expanded. She added that there are also several private schools in the area.

“Our feeling is, that not only do we not need another school, but another school would essentially destabilize everything that we have been building here,” she added. “I don’t think families in the Northwest are in need of more choices. They are in need of the existing choices being well funded, and they are investing in our neighborhood school.

“The School District of Philadelphia recently selected Jenks to be part of their School Redesign Initiative. The district looked at our plan and thought it was innovative and wants to work with us to develop that.”

As part of School Redesign Initiative, Jenks will receive $30,000 to use for planning and to help with implementation of its new proposal. Jenks and other schools selected for the funds were described last year by Philadelphia School Superintendent Dr. William R. Hite as having “innovative visions for teaching and learning, led by dedicated educators and community partners.”

Goldman said nothing in the Chestnut Hill Innovation Charter’s application is innovative or unique.

“Opening up another charter would be completely opposite of the path that they [the district] are already on,” she said. “If you are looking for a school with a curriculum that is innovative with diverse programs, Jenks’ redesign proposal has all those things – in a more developed way.”

Mary Lynskey, principal of J.S. Jenks reiterated Goldman’s characterization of her school.

“Like other Northwest Schools, we have dedicated and determined staff and well-organized, supportive parent communities,” Lynskey said. “As a team, we did not let a lack of resources impact the education process to the detriment of our students. We all work a little harder and continue to find outside resources to sustain our schools until the district drought comes to an end. I don’t know that a charter school in the Northwest will affect Jenks. But we stand with our families, we stand by our programming, and we invite our neighborhood families to choose Jenks – come on in, there’s plenty of room.”

Germantown resident Catherine Collins, a parent of two students who both attended C.W. Henry Elementary School, also said in a letter to the School Reform Commission that there was no wait list for schools in Northwest Philadelphia.

She said the charter school’s application was “blatantly untrue.” She added that Jenks, Henry and Houston elementary schools accept students residing within those schools’ catchment areas and that other district schools in Northwest Philadelphia are also accepting students residing within their catchments.

In the letter, Collins said she questioned New Covenant Church’s motives for the purposed charter.

“According to publicly available documents, New Covenant Church – landlord and financial backer for the proposed CHIC – is functioning at a deficit,” she wrote. “The church’s 2014 990 tax forms show only $20,000 in assets, down from $54,000 the previous year, while the church’s liabilities are up to $67,000 from $47,000 the previous year. Given the church’s troubling financial situation, we question both the financial stability of CHIC and the motivation behind the proposed CHIC charter.”

At press time, officials at New Covenant Church had not responded to a list of questions emailed by the Local on Dec. 10.