‘Election season’ in North Philly: parents hear pitches on charter conversion

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The stump speeches have begun, and with them, the partisan divide.

Parents at two North Philly elementary schools are fast approaching an election that could forever alter the academic trajectory of their children.

Here the distinction is not Democratic or Republican, but “district-run” or “charter.”

Nestled in the bright, beautiful auditorium at Luis Muñoz-Marín elementary school in Fairhill, parents heard the first round of pitches Tuesday night from both the existing school leadership and ASPIRA — a charter organization with roots in Muñoz-Marín’s heavily Latino section of North Philly.

This following the Philadelphia School District’s recent announcement that it would like to add Muñoz-Marín, as well as Edward T. Steel in Nicetown, to its portfolio of “Renaissance” charter schools.

Right now, both schools are neighborhood pre-K through 8th grade elementary schools that the district considers among its lower performers.

As Renaissance charters, the schools would continue to be required to serve all kids from the neighborhood, but would be run by charter organizations that employ nonunion staff and enjoy more autonomy in how they compose their budgets — creating greater flexibility in how the schools spend money.

(The Steel community in Nicetown will begin hearing pitches from existing school leadership and Mastery charter next week.)

The school district targeted Muñoz-Marín for charter conversion because the school has seen the number of students scoring “proficient” on standardized tests drop precipitously in recent years. From 2009-2012, Muñoz-Marín’s math scores are down 18 percentage points, while reading is down 16 percentage points.

“Since we are working with the school district budget, we have limited funds,” said principal Ximena Carreno at the beginning of Munoz-Marin’s presentation.

Carreno became principal in the Fall, after eleven years as assistant principal. Test scores recorded during her tenure as principal are not yet public.

“Our dedication and our commitment to provide the best possible education for our students comes from our hearts,” she said, flanked by a half dozen members of her teaching faculty.

Carreno stressed that Munoz-Marin serves higher than average populations of students who come from low-income households, who are learning English as a second or third language, and who’ve been diagnosed with a wide range of special-education needs.

“We need to improve, but at the same time we need to be fair,” the principal said. “This population needs a lot more intervention…and a lot of more support.”

Muñoz-Marín’s drop in test scores tracked a trend in the district overall. As some teachers and administrators in the district were implicated in a cheating scandal, the state tightened security around the exams and scores declined overall. 

The numbers

ASPIRA’s pitch centered on a slide-show of data that highlighted how its existing Renaissance charters — Olney High School and Stetson Middle School — greatly outperformed Muñoz-Marín’s growth from 2009 to 2012. 

According to state data, at the same time that Muñoz-Marín’s percentage of growth sank, Stetson, a school which serves similar demographics and is situated a stone’s-throw from Muñoz-Marín, saw marked gains: the amount of students scoring proficient in math climbed by 133 percent, in reading by 50 percent.

The disparity in these growth percentages are even higher for special education students at the respective schools from 2009-2012.

ASPIRA did not include 2012-13 data in its presentation.  According to a report released in December by the district’s Office of Research and Evaluation, between 2011-12 and 2012-13 the percentage of Stetson’s students who scored proficient in reading dropped 4.41 points; math saw a 11.65 percentage point decrease.

Despite the growth differences, the most recent state statistical data tells a different tale. Muñoz-Marín actually has a slightly higher proficiency rate in reading than Stetson, while its math scores are much lower.

ASPIRA’s executive director, Alfredo Calderon, said gains could be made at Muñoz-Marín if parents give the organization the chance.

“We have been supporting this community for 45 years,” said Calderon. “This is part of what we do, who we are. We live and work in this community.”

Maxi Martinez, grandparent of a third grader at Muñoz-Marín says she came to the meeting with an open mind, but has been leaning heavily towards voting ASPIRA. Her four daughters all went to district-run schools at first, but then transferred to Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School.

“And I have four diplomas at home,” she boasted. “My kids have careers, and they’ve moved on and you know they’re doing really well. I don’t think it would have happened in public school.”

Martinez was unimpressed with Muñoz-Marín’s pitch.

“They’re just saying that we have to improve in this, have to improve in that. Well you had time to improve, and it’s not done,” she said.

As a grandparent, Martinez won’t be allowed to vote in the May 1st election, but her daughter will.

“If they don’t change to a charter school. She’s putting my grandson in Catholic school,” she said, detailing how how her grandson has too often been bullied at the school. “She’s fed up. She’s at a point where she doesn’t want to have him here. My grandson gets here and he wants to cry. She’s willing to pay $4,000 a year rather than have him here.”

Pushback from the crowd

Many in the crowd did not share her view, providing fiery bursts of testimony that attested to an overall mistrust in ASPIRA, and charter schools in general.

“You can show me any number you want to show me up on that board,” one Muñoz-Marín grandmother said to a sea of agreeing heads, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s true.”

The event was well-populated by existing Muñoz-Marín faculty and staff, who challenged ASPIRA’s motives and questioned its practices.

ASPIRA has been criticized for its financial practices. The City Paper obtained an audit last year showing that ASPIRA was moving money meant for the charters to its parent organization, which the District has no power to audit.

A coalition of teachers hoping to unionize at Olney High School have also accused ASPIRA of unfair labor practices, which ASPIRA’s board chair has denied.

Of his organization’s critics at Muñoz-Marín, ASPIRA executive director Calderon said he recognized the difficulty of choosing between a known and an unknown.

“It’s a hard process, and I understand that people don’t know us and they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their children,” he said. “They have a fear that they’re going to lose stuff…which is not true, we actually add to it and make things better.”

For Muñoz-Marín parent Serina Williams, the logic is nine-fold:  as in the nine nieces and nephews, ages 4 to 11, for whom she’s assumed parental custody.

“They come from a tough upbringing. Period. Parents was on drugs, left them. And I got them,” Williams said. “They was in and out of foster care. And now they with me.”

Williams and her kids know and love the faculty at Muñoz-Marín. If ASPIRA takes over the school, all teachers will have to reapply for their jobs, a prospect the overwhelmed mother does not want to contemplate.

“They already been through enough change, a lot of change at that,” Williams said in an interview after the event. “So I’m trying to think of the emotional damage it’s going to put them through…when they coming back next year, and see new faces…they can’t be like, ‘Oh, I know her. I’m safe here.'”

Philadelphia School District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn, said he was “pleased” with both of the night’s presentations.

“if you actually looked at each of the presentations and looked at their merits, they both had strengths,” said Kihn, “and I think they both raise questions of parents, and that’s the purpose.”

If both Muñoz-Marín and Edward T. Steel vote yes to Renaissance conversion, the district says the transition will cost $4,000 per student in stranded costs. This will add millions to the district’s budget that won’t directly fund classrooms. If the conversion transforms the school’s performance, that district says the money will be well worth the investment.

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