After turmoil, King High looks to turn the page

Updated: 4:57 p.m.

District officials expect to have a new principal in place for Martin Luther King High School in Germantown by next week, hoping to begin the journey past the turmoil that has marked its recent history.

“Whoever the principal may be, [the] job is going to be very hard,” said Khym Lawson, a member of a recently formed King alumni group. The person’s “major job will be getting everybody focused and getting the trust back.”

This year district officials had hoped to convert King into a charter as part of its Renaissance turnaround initiative for struggling schools. But King’s charter selection process went badly awry following the last-minute intervention of a powerful local politician, State Rep. Dwight Evans, and School Reform Commission chairman Robert Archie. Both of King’s prospective charter operators eventually bowed out.

King, a comprehensive neighborhood high school, will now become a Promise Academy, a category of Renaissance Schools run by the district under special rules allowing a staff shakeup, longer school days and Saturday classes.

But before that decision was made, King, its staff, and its 1,000 students endured weeks of uncertainty that took a toll, Lawson said.  “Distrust grew between everybody,” she said. “It was so disjointed, and totally messed up. You didn’t have a unification of anything.”

The tumult has caused painful rifts and slights among segments of the school community.

Teacher Jen Freeman, King’s union representative, said the school will survive if the next principal can keep a firm hand on the wheel . “King needs strong leadership,” she said via email. “With the right leader in place, King will be okay.” Freeman does not plan to stay at the school.

Conchevia Washington, parent of a King sophomore and chair of King’s volunteer School Advisory Council (SAC), said the school needs a “no-nonsense, strong principal with a lot of ethics, who demands respect and gives respect.”  The last thing the school can afford is a greenhorn, Washington said. “King is not a school where you can just find someone with principal credentials and bring them in the door. We’re not in a position where we can have a ramp-up period. It’s got to be instant.”

A school in turmoil

Darran Whitfield, another King alumnus who played an active role in King’s Renaissance process, said that watching the school over the last eight weeks has been like watching a painful divorce. “Each family member is experiencing their own problems,” Whitfield said. “Relationships have been strained, and in some cases destroyed.”

On March 16, the School Reform Commission (SRC) formally awarded King’s charter to Mosaica Education of Atlanta, a choice endorsed by the King SAC and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Within hours of that vote, Archie, the SRC’s chairman, called a closed-door meeting at which Rep. Evans successfully convinced Mosaica to step aside in favor of a second company, Foundations Inc., a New Jersey-based nonprofit with ties to both Evans and Archie.

For several weeks, it looked as though Mosaica’s withdrawal meant that Foundations would win King’s charter – a five-year deal worth an estimated $12 million a year – despite having been formally rejected by the King community during the public Renaissance selection process.

But while Foundations was preparing to take over the school, the King SAC explored bringing Mosaica back.  Some King teachers openly supported Foundations in testimony to the SRC. But the King SAC decided to ask the SRC to reject Foundations, which spent many years helping manage King under a series of district contracts, but never showed that it could deliver major improvements in classroom performance.

After Archie’s previously undisclosed role assisting Evans and Foundations was revealed in mid-April,  Foundations backed out of the King charter, citing “unrelenting hostility” by unnamed members of the King community. That left King facing a completely uncertain future, without any charter providers at all.

In that vacuum, emotions soon boiled over. In a series of heated email exchanges, some teachers accused the King SAC of unfairly supporting Mosaica, while others accused teachers of cutting “back door deals” with Foundations.

Most teachers declined comment, but one who asked to remain anonymous said the accusations reflected the painful turmoil that gripped King following Archie and Evans’ last-minute intervention, and Mosaica’s surprise withdrawal.

“For a school with a bad reputation and a population of essentially working class children and their families, all the rapid and degenerating changes have been devastating,” wrote the teacher. The email exchanges, the teacher said, were “mostly petty … and highly representative of the general daily atmosphere of our school.”

The teacher, who won’t stay at King, said many of his colleagues now walk around “in a panic–what am I gonna do?  Am I out of a job?” while others lay low and wait things out, hoping for another union job in September.

Even the alumni group has not been immune. Lawson and Whitfield worked together from the first days of the Renaissance process to bring an alumni voice to the table, organizing meetings between students and prospective charter operators. But the group split, in part, over the question of whether and how to endorse one of the two charter providers. Whitfield is now organizing an alumni group of his own.

Moving forward

Soon after Archie’s role in King’s charter selection process was revealed, Mayor Michael Nutter, who appointed Archie, announced an investigation into the SRC chair’s backroom activities. Some, including the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board, have already called for Archie’s resignation based on ethical considerations – Archie had long recused himself from Foundations-related votes because his law firm has represented the organization. Nutter’s investigation is ongoing, but the mayor has not said when he expects to share any results.

Washington said the King SAC will continue to play a role in the Promise Academy transition. This Thursday, the SAC will host a public meeting for parents and students who want to learn more about the school’s future. The SAC plans to interview three finalists for the principals’ job, and make a recommendation to the district, which will have the final say. 

In addition, some SAC members will sit on the committee that reviews applications for teaching positions. As a Promise Academy, King will be required to replace at least half of its existing staff.

“I hope that in the next two or three weeks we can finally put some of this to rest – that we have a principal in place and we get to interview teachers,” Washington said. She vigorously defended the King SAC against allegations of past unfairness – and she says she welcomes any scrutiny of the group.

Next year, Washington said, the SAC will expand to include more teachers, community members and the new principal. The SAC will be charged with monitoring King’s new administration and will receive the same quarterly progress reports that go to district officials.

Alumna Lawson said that whoever takes over the school will not only have to heal the rifts among whoever remains from the current staff and community leadership, but also knit in a whole new crop of teachers and students. “It’s almost like a brand new school,” she said, “with the exception of the students that are already there.”

 

UPDATE: District officials say the King SAC will not interview or review the finalists for the principal’s position. District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser said that because other Promise Academy SACs did not have the same opportunity, “it would be unfair” to allow the King SAC to formally weigh in on the hire. “We’ve worked very closely with the SAC, and we know what kind of person we’re going to need” to fully engage the school community next year, Fraser said. The district has narrowed its search to three finalists and plans to announce a final choice next week, Fraser said. The final choice is up to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

 

This article is the result of news gathering partnership between NewsWorks.org and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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.