Norristown Academy Charter School Withdraws Application after Tense Public Hearing

Attorneys Alan Kessler (from left-front), Frank Catania, and NACS board memeber Greays Mendoza prepare for a public hearing to bring a new charter school to Norristown.

Gabrielle DeFrangesco

Attorneys Alan Kessler (from left-front), Frank Catania, and NACS board memeber Greays Mendoza prepare for a public hearing to bring a new charter school to Norristown.

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The Norristown Academy Charter School withdrew its application to develop a new charter school in Norristown on Monday, May 6th, at 9:15pm during a public hearing for the approval of the addition of said charter school.

Norristown Academy Charter (NACS) wants to open as a new charter school in Norristown, and it is required by PA Charter School law to hold a public hearing.The NACS board previously withdrew an application from March 1st but re-submitted the same application on March 29th.

The public hearing began around 6:30 but members of the community and the school board congregated around 6:00 pm in order to get proper seating.  Eventually, the boardroom of the administration building became jam-packed, parents and faculty spilling into the main office. The large number of bodies accumulated very high temperatures, increasing the tension within.

The hearing started off right away with Alan Kessler, representing NACS, requesting to discuss a “..threatening…” email from a member of the community to Greays Mendoza, a member of the NACS School Board. Kessler read from the email aloud, “…I just know what you’ll be facing next Monday. I hope you take a strong stand against the people who will be coming after you.”

Attorney, Peter Amuso, representing Norristown Area School District, established that this letter came from an individual in the community, and not a representative of the Norristown Area School District School Board legal team.

Amuso then questioned the involvement of CSMI, a for-profit educational management and consulting firm that, is working with NCAS. It was noted that founder and CEO of CSMI, Vahun Gureghian, was included in the chain of the letter received.

Amuso ended by asking each member of the team if they felt threatened and all replied no including Mendoza. This email established the tension between both sides.

“ Nobody should threaten anyone involved with Norristown Academic Charter School,” he stated, moving on to the next hearing exhibits–there were roughly 25–many of which centered on CSMI’s involvement.

Amuso raised the issue of Chester County Community Charter (CCCC), the only other charter school managed by CSMI, having lower safety scores on ReadyPA and Safe Schools index than Chester Upland School District, the public school district from which CCCC draws, and NAHS. Kessler and Frank Catania, another attorney representing NACS, refuted the accuracy of the data due to it being organized and presented by the NAHS administrative team.

The board responded by expressing that all  data being utilized is state data and can be looked up by anyone for accuracy. Catania then blamed the high crime, poverty, and murder rate in Chester as the culprit, following up by referring to CCCC’s SPP (School Performance Profile) growth in the last 3 years as evidence of the school’s strength and potential.

As a rebuttal, Amuso provided data that showed evidence proving that CCCC’s  Keystone and PSSA test scores were lower than both the public school and NAHS, and it has a higher number of safety issues with twice the amount of out of school suspensions.

CSMI, which was brought on for all non-instructional management, charges the charter school for it’s services and $5,600 per student and 3% every year after that.

In the midst of the hearing, Amuso made the observation that NACS did not have any African American members on the board nor a CEO. NACS responded that it has difficulty in recruiting members, but they are always actively looking for supporters. They brought up the fact that many of their previous recruitments had dropped out of the plan due to the high level of difficulty that the idea appeared to be bringing.

After a short recess, Amuso referred to the NACS submitted curriculum, which he established had a lot of errors. Some of those mistakes consisted of the idea that Kindergarteners should be able to read independently and fluently within the first week of school, which the crowd was shocked by.

Amuso asked Jim Wigo, the curriculum developer and former Superintendent of Rose Tree Media School District, about this, and Wigo responded that this objective will help the teachers determine what they should be teaching that year.

Leaving that portion at that, Amuso moved onto the 4th grade curriculum, which was the true beginning of many of the future errors that contributed to the withdrawal.

3rd grade standards (official academic learning goals) were listed instead of 4th grade standards, and many 7th grade standards were listed in the 8th grade curriculum.There were also incorrect descriptions for the English Language Arts standards.

“That is a misprint,” Wigo interjected. New Jersey standards were listed instead of PA for the math curriculum. The curriculum also misrepresented the “PA Core”, Pennsylvania academic standards, as the “PA Common Core”, which Wigo blamed on a “…formatting…” error. Amuso implied that the curriculum team was not prepared after reviewing it “…numerous…” times. On top of the previously stated incorrect ideals, 18 standards were not provided in the curriculum, and two lessons were missing.   

Around 9:00 pm Kessler called for a 5 minute break, but Amuso insisted on finishing up the curriculum review. When Amuso called everyone back in to begin the public comments, Kessler announced that NACS would be withdrawing its application for the charter school due to its incomplete curriculum document. As those in the audience who opposed the charter school’s opening clapped and cheered, Kessler stated,  “Be sure, we will be back”.

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