Members of the School Advisory Council at Martin Luther King High say that despite the last-minute intervention of an influential state legislator, the battle for control of their school is not over.
When the School Reform Commission meets this week, the King SAC will ask commissioners to stick by their original plan to hand King over to the charter operator Mosaica Education, despite that company’s surprise rejection last month of the SRC’s offer to run King. The SAC does not want to see the school run by Foundations Inc., the top choice of State Rep. Dwight Evans, and the only other candidate for the job.
Officials at Mosaica have told the King SAC that the company is willing to return to King if it can do so with full community support.
“We are still committed to [Mosaica] – and we know they are committed to us,” said Conchevia Washington, parent of a King sophomore and chair of the King SAC, a volunteer committee of parents, students and community members charged with overseeing King’s charter transformation. “We want that original [SRC] motion to stand, and come hell or high water, we’ll deal with it.”
Short of that, they’d like to see a year’s postponement of plans to make King a charter, keeping it under district control, with Foundations gone from its current, limited management role. Subsequent meetings with Foundations have not convinced the SAC members that the organization has a viable turnaround plan for King, Washington said.
A final SRC vote to authorize King’s new management is scheduled for April 27. Asked to discuss Mosaica’s surprise withdrawal, and to share any thoughts on what factors they’ll consider when deciding King’s fate two weeks from now, none of the four members of the SRC would comment for the record.
A Master Plan
Mosaica, a for-profit company based in Atlanta, won the opportunity to run King as a charter after an SRC vote in March. A neighborhood public school of about 1,000 students, King is one of six schools included this year in the district’s “Renaissance Match” program, in which struggling neighborhood public schools are transformed into charters.
The district formed volunteer School Advisory Councils at all six “match” schools, asking parents, students and community members to weigh the proposals of competing charter providers and recommend a final choice to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
In March, King’s SAC voted 8-1 to recommend Mosaica over Foundations, a nonprofit based in New Jersey. Based on the SAC’s endorsement, Ackerman recommended Mosaica to the SRC, which unanimously approved the choice on March 16.
That appeared to signal the end of a long run at King for Foundations, which has managed the school since 2003 as part of the district’s experiment with Education Management Organizations, or EMOs. As a manager, Foundations won praise for new programs and an improved climate, but King’s test scores have consistently lagged far behind district averages.
Foundations blamed this on its limited power, which would change if King is becomes charter and the organization gets full control to hire and fire staff, determine curriculum, and collaborate with local organizations. Foundations’ EMO contract is slated to expire in June.
Immediately after the SRC’s vote, John Porter, head of Mosaica’s turnaround division, said he was “ecstatic” and couldn’t wait to get started at King. It would have been Mosaica’s first chance to independently run a comprehensive American high school. Based on standard per-pupil reimbursement rates, the King charter will be worth over $11 million annually.
Evans, however, was not ready to give up his lobbying on behalf of Foundations, his longtime partner in education projects in Northwest Philadelphia.
Among other things, the organization helped him establish both the West Oak Lane Charter School and a continuing education center called the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology (PCAT). Its executives have donated thousands of dollars to Evans’ campaigns over the years.
Evans sees a Foundations-run King High School as essential to his vision of a Northwest “education corridor” in which day-care centers, charter schools, public schools and after-school programs align to provide a broad network of support.
Evans spoke with Porter before leaving district headquarters after the SRC’s vote. “I expressed to him the things that we had tried to do in that neighborhood, that we had been working on for a decade,” Evans said. “That was the extent of my conversation – just telling him what we were trying to do.”
Evans said he also spoke with SRC Chairman Robert Archie. “I just basically expressed my frustration about moving this thing forward and getting this thing done,” Evans said.
The next day, Mosaica turned down the King charter, telling the district that it did not want to “stymie” Evans’ plans.
Porter has since declined to discuss his meeting with Evans in detail, but he told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that another reason for withdrawing was that “we did not believe that without having total support we could be effective.”
Support – the way back in
Mosacia’s sudden withdrawal left members of the King SAC deeply frustrated. They had spent weeks weighing the competing proposals from Mosaica and Foundations before making their choice. But after the company’s withdrawl, Porter told SAC members Mosaica remained open to the idea of running King.
In an email to Washington, Porter wrote that “our commitment and desire to work with King have been, and still are, unwavering. However, we were of the belief that we should not stand in the way of any master plan for the King community that was perceived as offering greater benefit to the students; namely, the plan proposed by State Representative Dwight Evans ….
“If the circumstances were to change, the entire community was of one accord, and Mosaica were offered the opportunity to work with MLK, we would stand ready,” Porter wrote to Washington. Reached by phone, Porter confirmed the contents of that email.
Washington said the SAC’s decision to continue supporting Mosaica is based on its belief that the company offers a better turnaround model than Foundations. “We’re not anti-Dwight, and we’re not anti-Foundations,” said Washington. “We’re not fighting him – we’re fighting what he did. Dwight has done some amazing things [in Northwest Philadelphia]. But in this situation, I don’t feel that Foundations is in the best interest of our kids.”
School officials have said that as long as Mosaica is out of the running, the SRC’s only choices are to ether to authorize a charter granting control of King to Foundations, or to leave King entirely under district control next year. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has called the outcome of King’s Renaissance process “tragic,” but she has also said that the ultimate decision about King is now in the hands of the SRC.
Meanwhile, Evans, who helped pass the 1997 Pennsylvania law that made charter schools possible, dismissed accusations that he improperly influenced a public process by lobbying on behalf of Foundations after the SRC approved Mosaica.
The members of King’s SAC “have a right” to push for their choice, Evans said, but added, “I have equally as much a right as a citizen, as a person who lives in that legislative district, who works hard on that district, and who has demonstrated more than anybody that I’ve been totally committed to turning King around.”
He remains convinced that Foundations is the right choice for King, and that as a charter it will be able to deliver better academic results than it has to date.
“I did my job for those young people, those parents in that community,” said Evans. “I’ve fought for that community for a long time.”
This story is the product of a news gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
Editor’s Correction: The picture that originally ran with this article did not represent the SAC. Most of the people in the picture were members of the MLK Alumni Association and not the SAC. The alumni association has stated that it will work with whatever charter company comes into the school. NewsWorks regrets the error.