Kings’s choice

This week, all six schools in the Philadelphia School District’s so-called “Renaissance Match” program must make tough decisions about their future. But the choice faced by Martin Luther King High is unique: The known, or the unknown?

The choice at hand

The known in this case is Foundations Inc, a nonprofit based in New Jersey that’s helped manage programs at King since 2003. The unknown is Mosaica Education, an international for-profit company based in Atlanta that has run schools from the Midwest to the Middle East, but never in Philadelphia.

By the end of the week, King’s School Advisory Council (SAC) must vote to recommend one of the two to run King next year. The recommendation won’t be binding, but Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has promised to factor all SACs’ preferences into her own deliberations before she delivers her recommendations to the School Reform Commission on March 16.

Tuesday night, Foundations and Mosaica made their final presentations to the King community. Over a hundred parents and students listened as both organizations promised a comprehensive assessment of King’s programs and curriculum, a new level of individual attention for all students, a safer and more dynamic in-school climate, and an injection of private dollars to buttress the District’s per-student funding.

Mosaica’s Stephen Gibson described a company that has run over 90 schools in eight U.S. states and many foreign countries, including China, India, and Egypt. He pledged to turn King into a magnet for high achievers. “The students have asked me great questions,” he said. “One of them said, ‘If in two years, it’s not working, what then?’ And the answer is, we don’t plan to fail.”

A mixed history at King

Foundations, meanwhile, has spent almost 20 years providing a wide range of academic and administrative services to area charters. It has worked at King since the district first launched its “multi provider” model of privatized school management seven years ago, at first receiving nearly $1.4 million annually to manage King (that amount is now significantly lower, as the per-pupil allotment has gone from $700 to $500, and the school’s enrollment has dipped). In that role, Foundations has helped revive the music and arts programs, created a job development center for students, and helped train and support teachers and administrators. 

But Foundations couldn’t hire or fire teachers or administrators, and since 2009 has been required to collaborate with district officials on many administrative matters, including teacher training. CEO Rhonda Lauer told the audience that this “dual reporting” arrangement hasn’t given Foundations the latitude it needed. “The old way doesn’t work anymore,” she said. “The new way will allow us to work together even more closely.” 

Some in the audience arrived convinced that Foundations has had its chance. Khym Lawson is one of a group of King alumni who’ve been watching the Renaissance process closely from the start. Monday, she spent the day with students, meeting with representatives from both companies. She said she was shocked to see that few of the students knew what Foundations was. “They’ve been here seven years – shouldn’t they have a relationship with the students by now?” Dawson said.

Student Nadiyah Harrell, a junior at King, said that Foundations doesn’t have a high profile among the students. She knows only that the organization has played a role supporting after-school and special education programs. “I’ve heard of it,” she said of Foundations. “I’ve seen them come into class and take notes, but I’m not sure exactly what they do.”

Barry Gross, a second-year English teacher, echoed Harrell. “I haven’t seen a lot [from Foundations]. I know the after school programs were successful,” he said. But it’s hard to judge the organization, he said, since many of the school’s operations have remained under district control. “I know their hands were tied,” Gross said.

Julie Stapleton Carroll, Foundations’ Director of Promise School Services, said the organization’s low profile was in part by design. “Our model was to support the adults who support the kids,” she said. “So it wouldn’t surprise me that they wouldn’t know who we were.” 

SAC still unsure

SAC member Conchevia Washington, parent of a King student, said Foundations can point to some real achievements. “They have made changes – don’t get me wrong. The new computer learning center – that was done by Foundations. That was a positive thing,” she said.

But Washington isn’t entirely comfortable with Foundations’ history in the building. “If they knew that the model was broken, they should have said something to the school district – and they didn’t,” Washington said. “I think they had every opportunity to say, ‘Time out, this thing is not working.’”

Since the organization’s arrival, enrollment has dropped steadily, from about 1,500 students in 2003 to about 1,000 today. And both math and reading scores have hovered well below district averages for years, with little significant change except for a leap in math scores last year. Only about 20 percent of King juniors rate advanced or proficient in math and reading, about half the district average. As of 2009, the four-year graduation rate for King was 43 percent.

Washington isn’t yet sure how she’ll vote. But she’s wondering if it isn’t time to bring in someone completely new, which would certainly be the case with Mosaica. The company has never run an American high school entirely on its own, and it has never run a school in Philadelphia. 

Challenges even for a new choice

And while Mosaica cites some success stories – one of its Ohio schools was recently honored as a state “School of Excellence” – like other for-profit school managers, its track record isn’t perfect.  An analysis by News21, an investigative journalism project supported by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, found that 11 schools cancelled their Mosaica contracts between 2006 and 2009. Six of those schools cited lack of academic progress, lagging attendance, community relations problems or financial concerns, according to News21’s report.

The two candidates got one more chance to pitch their ideas for King to its students, at another meeting March 10. The SAC’s vote followed later in the evening. The results of the vote won’t be officially released until Ackerman makes her recommendations next week.

But according to Barry Gross, the teacher, whoever ends up running the school will face a major challenge, and he hopes everyone involved will be patient. “There’s kids here that need a lot of help,” he said. “They need a lot of small classes. It takes a long time – there’s got to be a culture of wanting to be educated.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.