Helen Thackston school at risk of losing charter

Alyssa Pressler
505-5438/@AlyssaPressYD
  • The district held a special board meeting on Monday night to discuss Helen Thackston Charter School.
  • Administrators presented a number of issues, like low achievement scores and a lack of verified teachers.

Helen Thackston Charter School is at risk of losing its charter in the coming years after the York City School District called a special meeting where the district outlined problems they've noticed for more than two years.

Among the issues discussed at Monday's meeting were troubling test scores, a lack of transparency regarding finances and little programming related to homeland security, a focus of the charter school. The district presented a resolution to the school board outlining each of these problems in detail. The resolution also includes recommendations and due dates for the school.

The resolution states that if the charter school fails to meet the recommendations by the deadline, the school board can "revoke or not renew (Helen Thackston Charter School's) charter."

"We have tried to reach out to Helen Thackston, particularly related to issues we’ve had with billing, and we’ve had multiple document requests," York City Superintendent Eric Holmes said at the opening of the meeting. "We have been frustrated with our efforts to obtain this information from Helen Thackston."

Helen Thackston Charter School, 625 E. Philadelphia St., York. Amanda J. Cain photo

The school on Philadelphia Street was chartered in February 2009 and officially opened Aug. 19, 2009. The charter lasted  five years through the district and was renewed in 2014.

The school is up for review in 2018. If it doesn't meet the deadlines the district has set, its charter might not be renewed, which is what happened to New Hope Academy Charter School in 2014, according to the resolution which was shared with the school board.

The problems: One of the first problems discussed Monday was the charter school's inability to implement homeland security programming in its curriculum, which was a main point when the district renewed the charter.

Charter school principal Denise Butts has said previously that the school curriculum is based on homeland security programming and focuses on service jobs such as law enforcement and emergency medical services.

Holmes and the district's attorney, Allison Peterson, said through site visits and requests for documents, they found little to no implementation of this programming.

Helen Thackston's attorney, Brian Leinhauser, said the programming is implemented in some of the school's curriculum and some partnerships have been created, but documentation is still in the works. A homeland security coordinator also has  been hired to help with implementing partnerships between local service jobs and other curriculum.

During the public comment section, Bryan Wade, a teacher and the athletic director at the  school, talked about a class he taught last year on homeland security and drugs.

Helen Thackston Charter School's attorney Brian Leinhauser addresses the board as the York City School District holds a special meeting regarding the future of Helen Thackston Charter School at the Administration Building in York City, Feb. 13, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"When it comes to homeland security, there are a lot of things being done," Wade said. "I don’t think that should be missed tonight."

Another issue dealt with the charter school's application process. According to the resolution, parents are requested to provide things such as special education and disability information. Peterson alluded to the fact that this could cause the charter school to discriminate against students who are more difficult to teach. Leinhauser said the enrollment applications have been updated to not include those questions.

Performance: Academic performance was  another major issue the district had with the school's academic performance. An auditor general's report  of Helen Thackston found similar issues. The report, which was released in June 2015, covered from July 1, 2010, to Oct. 9, 2013. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale outlined 12 findings, two observations and 52 recommendations for improvement.

Chief among those concerns  was academic performance. School Performance Profile (SPP) scores are made available for all schools in Pennsylvania and are  based on test scores, graduation rates and other indicators found on the SPP website.

In 2012-13, the charter school earned a SPP score of 57.5 percent, which is considered failing. In order to receive a passing grade, a school must have a minimum score of 61 percent. For the 2013-14 school year, Helen Thackston scored 45.8 percent; in 2014-15 the score decreased to 36.6 percent. For the 2015-16 school year, it saw a slight increase to 37.9 percent.

Though each school building may be subject to different indicators for the performance score, the lowest score for the York City School District belonged to Davis K-8 school, with 41.2 percent. With Hannah Penn K-8 achieving the highest performance score of 52 percent, all of the city district's scores are  failing.

Standardized testing, such as the PSSA exams, is a major factor in SPP scores, which is why the state Department of Education might use another determinant of student success in the future.

Helen Thackston's PSSA scores were among the lowest in the county for the 2015-16 school year, according to past York Dispatch reporting.

York Academy PSSA scores rise, other charters fluctuate

Leinhauser said the academic performance was a concern for Helen Thackston officials and that steps were being taken by the administration. As an example, Leinhauser said the school is focusing more on professional development for its staff.

The charter school has a lack of certified teachers. Charter laws require that 75 percent of the professional staff be certified, but in the 2014-15 school year, the charter reported 70 percent of the staff was appropriately certified.  Leinhauser did not address this issue.

The school has fallen short in this area before. An auditor general's report released in 2015 showed that between the 2010-11 school year and the 2012-13 school year, between 63 and 71 percent of the staff was certified.

Pointing out that the auditor general's report mirrored some of the issues being discussed  Monday, board member Juanita Kirkland asked why the district should trust that the issues would be fixed this time.

Board Member Juanita Kirkland speaks as the York City School District holds a special meeting regarding the future of Helen Thackston Charter School at the Administration Building in York City, Feb. 13, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"If we don’t get it right this time, this board is not going to have much sympathy for my school going forward," Leinhauser said. "I understand that. "

Finances: The district's main complaints had to do with a lack of transparency for financial documents, such as 990s, which all 501(c)(3) nonprofits are required to complete each year. The 501(c)(3) status allows the school to operate as a nonprofit and take charitable donations, which are tax exempt. The school has not filled out 990s since 2013, and the school lost the nonprofit status in 2015.

Additionally, because the school was not filling out 990 forms, yearly financial audits of the school have not occurred since the 2012-13 school year. Leinhauser said this was because the auditor general's report caused "chaos" because the administration had to end its contract with its management company, Edison. Leinhauser said the school has been working to obtain documents needed to complete these audits and 990 forms.

Once the documents are obtained, Leinhauser said auditors can complete all three audits within 30 days, and 501(c)(3) status should be implemented again. In the meantime, he said, he does not believe the school has accepted any donations that would cause legal action.

No matter what, board member Jose Santiago said, these "mismanagement issues" need to be taken care of quickly.

"We have children here that are losing time in their education," Santiago said.

The York City school board will vote on the proposed resolution at their next board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. All board meetings take place at the district's administration building, 31 N. Pershing Ave.