Gone and back again; Foundations returns to King

When John Henderson of Foundations Inc. walks into Martin Luther King High today, he knows he’ll meet some angry people. His message: don’t blame us.

“[People] have to entertain the notion that Mosaica withdrew,” said Henderson, Foundations’ chief spokesperson. “That put us all in the situation that I don’t think any of us were prepared for.”

Turning around the turnaround

Foundations is the nonprofit organization that has managed King, a neighborhood high school of about 1,000 students, since 2003. Wednesday, it appeared to have lost that job for good after the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to hand King over to a competing charter operator, Mosaica Education, as part of the district’s Renaissance school turnaround program.

The SRC’s decision followed weeks of work by King’s volunteer School Advisory Council (SAC), which endorsed Mosaica over Foundations by an 8-1 vote.

But not 24 hours after Mosaica officially won the job, district officials made a surprise announcement: Mosaica was giving up King, saying it wanted to focus its energy on another school it was awarded, Birney Elementary.

It soon emerged that the moving force behind the decision was Rep. Dwight Evans, who responded to Mosaica’s apparent victory by lobbying hard on behalf of Foundations, his longtime partner in Northwest education projects. With Evans as an ally, Foundations has grown deep roots in the Northwest, running after-school programs and providing services to charter schools. Its executives have raised thousands of dollars in campaign funds for Evans over the years. Foundations considers King its “flagship” school.

Evans’ wishes carried the day. So now, instead of packing up to leave, Foundations is preparing to expand its role at King, not just managing it on behalf of the district, but running it as an independent charter.

The value of a vote

The sudden reversal infuriated Khym Lawson, a King alum who has been active throughout King’s Renaissance process. “Who the hell is Dwight Evans to come in here, stand up, and take the people’s vote and throw it against the wall?” she said. “We had a little bit of people power, and he basically came in and said, it doesn’t matter what you say.”

SAC member Conchevia Washington was similarly frustrated. “I think it’s horrible that they’re now being able to take over the school,” she said of Foundations. “They have done nothing over the last couple months but intimidate our students, intimidate our parents, and intimidate this whole SAC process.”

Washington said that during the Renaissance process, she’d heard multiple stories of teachers being pressured by Foundations to support their bid; one of her daughter’s teachers called her personally, she said, asking her to speak up for Foundations at meetings (Henderson said he had no knowledge of such activities). “It has been a horrible experience with them, and I don’t expect that to change when they take over King,” Washington said.

Washington said that the SAC’s 8-1 vote in Mosaica’s favor was a reflection of members’ strong dissatisfaction with Foundations’ performance. Despite some improvements in climate, extracurricular programs and attendance, King’s overall academic performance remains well below district averages, and enrollment has dropped significantly in recent years.

During weeks of Renaissance meetings, Foundations argued that as a manager, it had lacked the power it needed to truly turn a school around, such as the ability to hire its own teachers. Washington and most of the King SAC weren’t swayed. “I just do not feel as though Foundations was a strong enough company,” Washington said. “Foundations was there for seven years. [They] should have backed out of the school district’s contract if they felt their hands were tied.”

After Superintendent Arlene Ackerman backed the SAC’s endorsement and chose Mosaica, the SRC’s vote appeared to seal Foundations’ fate. But Evans’ last-minute intervention changed everything.

Never, never, never

In his testimony Wednesday, Evans told the SRC that their plans for King would hurt his attempt to build a network of schools, nonprofits and community development organizations that he called the Northwest Education Corridor. And later that evening, after the vote, Evans continued lobbying the SRC, Ackerman and Mosaica – “like a bulldog on a bone,” he said later – arguing that he needed Foundations where it was if he was to build his network.

“I tried to convince them that if I’m given the opportunity, I won’t disappoint these kids,” Evans said. “We want to make Martin Luther King the best school in the nation.”

Early the next afternoon, Foundations’ staff were gathered to discuss their future without King when CEO Rhonda Lauer was suddenly called to the phone. “Rhonda was pulled from center stage,” said Henderson. “She came back with the news and was still in shock and disbelief.”

Soon afterwards, the school district announced Mosaica’s surprise withdrawal. Later Thursday evening, Mosaica’s John Porter acknowledged that Evans’ pressure was behind the company’s move. “We did not want to do anything that stymied the progress” of Evans’ plans, Porter said in an interview with the Public School Notebook. “And we did not believe that without having total support we could be effective.”

Evans said he was proud that he was able to convince Mosaica and the school district to change a plan that had been months in the making. “You don’t do what I do without some bulldog in you,” he said. “That’s the attitude I want these kids to have. That’s the attitude I want the parents to have. When all the odds are against you, as Churchill said, never give up, never, never, never give up.”

Flip-flop frustration

But not everyone sees Evans’ behavior as admirable. “All of this ‘I was a bulldog on a bone.’ Well, you were a bulldog on a bone behind closed doors, where no one had a chance to stand up against you,” said Lawson. “Of course you’re going to win.”

Washington said she and her fellow SAC members will be weighing their options for a response. She’d like to see the whole process start over again next year, rather than see Foundations granted a charter that will give it almost complete control of the school for at least two years.

Meanwhile, Foundations staff plans to meet Friday with King’s administration to start preparing for September. “That’s our first step,” said Henderson. “Then we’ll work our way to the SAC, and the alumni group. We’ll avail ourselves as we’ve always done.”

He believes Foundations can improve on its past record with an expanded future role, but he sympathizes with those who feel the Renaissance process was hijacked by backroom politics. “Accessibility to the [Renaissance] process was a commendable thing,” he said. “Parents often feel that they’re disenfranchised, that they don’t have a voice. In that regard it’s unfortunate that the process almost sort of turned on itself.”

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

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