Hope and fear at Martin Luther King High

Martin Luther King High School is officially on its way to becoming a charter school this fall, but not everyone is happy about it.   

The school district has marked Martin Luther King High School for fall rebirth as a charter school. District officials say their plan will turn around one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city. To student David Haughton, all that means is that next year, most, if not all of his teachers will be gone.

“I don’t like this whole charter thing,” said the junior from West Oak Lane as he stood shivering in the exposed breezeway outside King’s front door. “Everybody at King has had the exact same teachers since 9th grade. And now they’re talking about some team? We don’t even know them. Those teams don’t have nothing to do with us.”


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Big changes ahead

Naughton was one of about thirty students and parents seated when the meeting began. They heard district officials introduce the Renaissance process and promise that it will lead to dramatic improvements at King, under the guidance of a charter school “turnaround team.”

Thomas Darden, the district’s Deputy Chief for Innovation and Partnership Schools, lead the meeting, explaining that despite improvements in recent years, academic progress at King still lagged. Only about one in five King students ranks as “advanced or proficient” on state tests, Darden said – well below the district average of about fifty percent.  The limitations imposed by union contracts and other district policies have held King back, Darden said, and a wholesale makeover was the only solution.

“We’re not saying in any way shape or form that this is a failure on the part of teachers or any individuals here,” Darden said. “This is a district failure.”

Nonetheless, the defining element of the makeover is that the new turnover team will have nearly complete autonomy of who to hire and who to fire. For the last seven years, King has been managed by a nonprofit called Foundations Inc., but has retained district teachers, administrators, and curriculum.

The winning turnaround team will have a free hand to lengthen the school day, hire non-union teachers and administrators, and create a new academic program.

Within three weeks, Darden said, as many as five aspiring charter operators  (he would not name them, although Foundations will be one) will come to King to share detailed proposals for how they’d run the school. King’s School Advisory Council (SAC), a volunteer group of parents, teachers and community members that has yet to be fully formed or trained, will be asked to evaluate the proposals and recommend one of the teams by mid-March. The SAC’s choice won’t be binding. But last year, 6 of 7 SACs in the Renaissance process got their first choice.

“We’re not going to say ‘trust us,’” said Darden. “We’re saying evaluate them, and ask them the tough questions.”


Trust the process

After he explained the process to come, parents and students peppered Darden with questions. What about my special child’s special education classes? What about the auto shop program?

It’s too early for specifics, said Darden – the turnaround teams will each have their own proposals, and parents will get their chance to tell them who’s worth keeping. “Trust the process,” he said repeatedly.

Then Haughton stepped to the microphone with a simple question: “What’s the difference between the teachers that are here and the teachers you’re bringing in?”

Darden paused. “What we have tried to identify is proven turnaround teams that have been able to hire staffs that know how to do the work that’s required to accelerate achievement at a much higher rate,” he said carefully. “The turnaround teams have a model type teacher that they know is going to do this work really well.”

“But what if the students don’t want y’all’s teachers, we just want ours, the ones that we’ve had since ninth grade? What about that?” pressed Haughton.

“Your job as a student is to tell the turnaround teams who those teachers are,” answered Darden.

Haughton sat, unconvinced.


More doubt, some hope

Elsewhere in the audience, Darden’s assurances were met with a mixture of hope and concern. Dorothy McCoury says her daughter, a special education student, is doing well at King, and she’s worried that she’ll lose a good thing. “I was not interested in putting my child in a charter school – and I’m not buying everything that he’s saying,” she said. If her daughter’s teachers don’t come back, she said, “I have to move on.”

Janet Peterman, also the parent of a special education student, said she was ready to join the process. Like McCoury, she’s happy with the education her son is getting, but she knows King is far from perfect.

“They need to improve for the other students,” she said. “They’ve given a lot of thought to it – I like the aggressive nature of what they’re trying to do, and I want to work with them.”

Sandra Felton is another parent who’ll stay involved – she’s applied to be a part of King’s SAC, which is scheduled for its first training session this Saturday – but she too worries about what her son might lose.

“Some of his classes have really good teachers,” she said. “That was one of his comments when he came here in the 9th grade – he said, ‘Momma, I’m really impressed.’ They’re going to lose some valuable teachers who have stuck through the violence, stuck through all the things that have occurred here at King.”


Picking teams

Darden promised repeatedly that the winning turnaround team would almost certainly retain King’s most popular and successful programs, like its auto shop classes; and because King is a neighborhood school, it will have to accept all the neighborhood students, including the special education students who make up about a quarter of the school’s enrollment.  Union teachers will be able to apply for jobs on the new team, he said.

And he stressed continually that parents and students can play a role in the selection of the new team, if they choose to. “There’s going to be a lot to do,” he said. “It’s not lost on us that this is ambiguous, and there are a lot of unknowns.”

Standing in the cold after the meeting, David Haughton knew he faced a choice. His first instinct is to start organizing his fellow students to try to stop the transformation. But during the meeting, Darden commended his passion and asked him personally to join the SAC. Would he?

“I don’t know. I have to think about it,” said Haughton. “I asked, what happens if students don’t accept this? They keep saying the same thing: it’s a charter school. That’s not the answer I want.”


The Philadelphia School District has slated 18 schools for turnaround in the fall, three of them are in the Germantown and West Oak Lane area. Bill Hangley is keeping tabs on the turnaround process for NewsWorks. Next up, Pennell Elementary School.

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