Former String Theory Charter Schools Superintendent Sues for Discrimination

Gail Avicolli says the schools' CEO attacked her over her age and weight.

Photo by Gregory Bezanis, courtesy South Philly Review

Photo by Gregory Bezanis, courtesy South Philly Review

In 2012, the readers of the South Philly Review chose Gail Avicolli from the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School (PPACS) as the “Best Principal in South Philly” in the newspaper’s annual Reader’s Choice Awards. Three years later, after a short stint as the superintendent of the school’s corporate parent, String Theory Schools, the beloved 69-year-old administrator has filed a lawsuit against the schools, alleging that she was discriminated against and harassed.

Avicolli, who started working in education back in the ’60s, was hired as the principal of PPACS in 2005, five years after the charter school opened at the intersection of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia.

PPACS founder Angela Corosanite went on to open three more charter schools in Philadelphia, and in 2012, she established management company String Theory Schools and made Avicolli the superintendent of all of the schools that same year.

According to the lawsuit, Corosanite told Avicolli that she would have to resign from her position at PPACS in order to accept the new job at String Theory. Avicolli says that during her work at PPACS, her employment package including benefits and severance information was always clearly spelled out in writing but that when it came time to start working at String Theory, she was never given those details.

At the start of 2014, right after String Theory Schools won a five-year renewal on its charter school contract, Avicolli says that she requested a meeting with the company’s business manager to clarify the terms of her employment and to request that her package mirror the one she had at PPACS. According to the lawsuit, two other female String Theory administrators — both of whom are younger than Avicolli — made similar requests and they were granted. Not so for Avicolli.

Her job happiness started to disintegrate shortly thereafter, she says. According to the suit, Corosanite began harassing her and making derogatory and discriminatory remarks about her age and weight. Avicolli believes this was a strategy designed to get her to resign.

Among the comments that Corosanite is alleged to have made to Avicolli:

  • I know you weren’t always so heavy, it was change of life. You were thin when you were young.
  • Do you know how much your health insurance costs me because of your age?
  • I do not see your face or a person when I look at you. All I see is your age.

According to the lawsuit, Corosanite told Avicolli that she would no longer receive paid time off over the Easter and Christmas holidays. Avicolli also alleges that Corosanite removed her and her husband from the school’s medical insurance policy and that she applied for COBRA benefits for Avicolli without her knowledge.

By the end of February 2014, Corosanite had demoted Avicolli to principal of the fifth and sixth grades, promoting one of those other, younger female administrators above her.

Avicolli went out on sick leave in March due to severe headaches and stress-related symptoms that she says were caused by Corosanite. She was hospitalized in mid-March.

When she requested that she be placed on short-term disability, invoking the Family Medical Leave Act, she says that String Theory denied her. According to the suit, the reason given was that Avicolli was employed by String Theory and not PPACS, and management claimed that String Theory had fewer than 15 employees, thereby excluding it from the FMLA provisions.

Then, while she was still out sick, Avicolli says she received a letter from the Public School Employees Retirement System indicating that String Theory had marked her down as retired. She says this was done without her knowledge or consent.

In June, doctors cleared her to return to work, and when she notified String Theory of this, the company told her that her position was being eliminated at the end of that month due to budgetary issues.

Supporters responded with a petition, which received 434 signatures. It read, in part:

We the parents are extremely disconcerted that this decision was made to terminate Dr. Avicolli without any discussion prior to or subsequent to her dismissal. We feel deceived by this discretion and are determined to keep Dr. Avicolli on, and we will do everything in our power to save her position in our school. Petition: We the parents of PPACS children beseech the administration to keep Dr. Avicolli at PPACS. Dr. Avicolli is a very good principal and deserves to be treated with respect. She has taken our school PPACS to a whole other level of learning and by maintaining her position the children would get better scores on our exams, have better classes and performances for the present and future students at PPACS.

Avicolli’s reputation goes back well before her time at PPACS, with former students raving to us about her. “Mrs. A was the best,” said one. “A wonderful woman and an incredible teacher,” said another.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court earlier this week, names as defendants Corosanite, PPACS and String Theory. The alleged offenses include discrimination, violation of the equal pay act, and harassment. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Neither Corosanite nor Avicolli nor her lawyer immediately responded to a request for comment on the suit.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.