Dwight Evans at odds with school district vote

Dwight Evans still has a vision, but the Philadelphia School District isn’t cooperating.

Wednesday’s vote by the School Reform Commission (SRC)  takes Martin Luther King High out of the hands of one of Evans’ long-time allies, Foundations Inc., and turns it over to an out-of-town company, Mosaica Education. The decision, part of the Renaissance initiative aimed at turning around struggling schools, was a blow to Evans’ goal of maintaining a closely aligned network of schools and community development organizations in his home district of West Oak Lane.

“Leadership is essential. Leadership is ultimately what makes a difference,” said Evans as he waited for the SRC to vote. “I’m here to make the case, don’t be disruptive to what we have laid out. We have a vision and a plan.”

Evans has a longstanding relationship with Foundations. The New Jersey-based nonprofit has managed King in partnership with the District since 2003, and has played an active role supporting other schools and after-school programs throughout his district. “Full disclosure – I’ve known them a long time, they’ve supported me for a long time,” Evans said.

“For the Northwest, Dwight is almost like the mayor,” said Foundations’ executive director of communications, John Henderson. “We are happy to be, in many cases, his first call when it comes to education partnerships.”

A request to reconsider

In his testimony on Wednesday, Evans asked the SRC to consider revising its plan to take King away from Foundations. The Renaissance process, he said, had fallen short of full neighborhood engagement.  “I want to applaud all of the work that everyone has done,” Evans said. “But if you don’t have universities, you don’t have political figures, and you don’t have faith-based organizations [involved], you cannot make the fundamental turnaround. You will fail …. There’s no way you can do this in isolation.”

Evans asked instead that the district help him continue developing what he calls the Northwest Education Corridor – an informal network of public schools, charter schools, after-school and job preparation programs.

While he didn’t mention Foundations in his testimony, he said later that he was asking the SRC to leave the organization in place. King is “a lynchpin” of his informal network, he said, and Foundations was “on the right track.”

Evans, one of 45 people who spoke before Wednesday’s vote, didn’t get the result he was hoping for. After hours of public testimony, the SRC voted unanimously to accept Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s selection of charters for the six so-called “Renaissance Match” schools, pairing King with Mosaica, a for-profit company based in Atlanta.

But his request for a reprieve did not go unnoticed.  “I particularly respect and value the comments of Rep. Evans, who has been a great friend to the Philadelphia School District for many years,” said Commissioner Joe Dworetzky, before casting his vote in favor of Ackerman’s choices. “But I think in the end, my guiding view is, we still need to move this process forward. We need to do the things that are best for the students in the schools.”

Loosening foundation

Evans, a Philadelphia public school graduate who won his first election in 1980, has recently lost some of his once-formidable political clout. For twenty years he held a key leadership position on the House Appropriations Committee, playing a critical role in state budget decisions. He lost that position in the wake of last November’s elections, but he said he’s ready to use the leverage he has to keep Foundations at King.

“There’s a lot of leverages. It’s called, finances. It’s called, raise my voice,” Evans said. “They’ve got to be careful how they make these decisions … There are some people who listen to what I have to say. Now, it’s their choice. I’ve given my input.”

Mosaica was Ackerman’s choice in part because of the strong support for the company by King’s School Advisory Council. Vote results were never officially released, but sources reported that King’s SAC went 8-1 in Mosaica’s favor. Foundations had some success in the building, implementing some popular new programs and extracurricular activities and improving daily attendance. But problems have persisted: enrollment at King has dropped from 1,500 in 2003 to about 1,000 students today, and test scores remain well below district averages.

Hopes for partnerships, new and old

Mosaica Vice President John Porter said he hoped his company could work with Evans. “We’re going to reach out to him, and hopefully he’ll see we should be working together for the kids,” Porter said. “I hope he gives us the opportunity to do that, and I think he would be pleased to see what we’ll do for that community.”

Foundations’ Henderson said the organization expects to maintain anchors in the Northwest, with Evans’ help. “If we navigate the waters from here on out, he’s going to be our ally, and we’re going to be there for him,” Henderson said. Foundations runs the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology, which is a central player in Evan’s educational and community network in the Northwest. “Some of the programs that are attached to King because of us, we would hope to continue, by hook or crook.” 

Mosaica faces a final procedural hurdle before the transition officially begins: an authorizing vote by the SRC, scheduled for April. Meanwhile, Evans said he’s yet to meet with the company’s representatives to explore what role they might play in his neighborhood network. “I don’t know them, so I can’t make a judgment,” he said. “I can only say to you that it would be a huge learning curve [for the company]. It’s about knowing the players and the leaders.”

This story is the product of a news gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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