Philadelphia school officials have named a new principal for Martin Luther King High in Germantown. You may have heard the story of how a politically connected charter school operator almost took over King.
Now, even though the school has a new plan, plenty of unanswered questions remain.
Last year, William Wade was hired to turn around Vaux High, a struggling school in North Philadelphia. Next year, he’ll be asked to turn around King High in Germantown. What he’s seen of his new school so far is very familiar.
“Same thing. A disconnect between the educators and the community, and just a timed out group–not because they’re doing it deliberately,” says Wade. “They’re just beaten for a minute.”
At Vaux, Wade replaced more than half the staff and did his best to rebuild the school’s culture. After one year, he says attendance is up, violence is down, and 42 of his 70 seniors have been accepted to college.
“We have a data room we meet in, and I mean, every kid’s name is up, and we talk about everything. Predictive testing, attendance, discipline, parental contact,” he says. “It’s all up there and we talk about it.”
Both Vaux and King are so-called “Promise Academies,” a special category of district schools with longer school days and extra classes. Teachers get more training. With Wade in place, the future is now clear for King. That hasn’t been the case for most of the spring.
A turbulent time
Conchevia Washington is a parent of a King sophomore and head of King’s School Advisory Council, a volunteer committee that has been on the front lines of King’s journey through the district’s turnaround initiative. The original plan was to turn King into a charter school. But the search for a charter provider broke down in a tangle of politics, backroom meetings and unanswered questions. Washington says it was heartbreaking. Only now do parents like Washington know who’ll run their school next year.
“It was very heartbreaking for me, as a parent, to know that I still didn’t have all the answers,” says Washington. “But I’m glad that we allowed the system to play out the way that it did, and that we finally got to this point where we can say, ‘We can move on now, we’ve got a model that we think is going to work.’ Now we’ve got the parental support behind it, and now we can move on.”
District officials are anxious to move on but reluctant to talk about how the charter selection process went so wrong. The trouble started last March, after the School Reform Commission voted to award King’s charter to a school management company from Atlanta, Mosaica Education. That left influential state Rep. Dwight Evans, unhappy. SRC chair Robert Archie, a friends of Evans, arranged a closed-door meeting where Evans convinced Mosaica to turn down the $60 million contract.
Mosaica’s withdrawal meant that King’s charter would go to Foundations Inc. It has ties to both Evans and Archie. When Archie’s involvement with the charter contract was revealed, Foundations also rejected King. That left the school leaderless, and raised enough ethical questions that Mayor Michael Nutter announced an investigation.
One former Philadelphia superintendent calls the whole affair “business as usual.”
‘The SRC seems to answer to no one’
“Look, when I was there, I’m not saying everything was done transparently, there was things done in the backrooms and so forth. But the SRC seems to answer to no one,” says Phil Goldsmith, a columnist and civic advocate who has served as Philadelphia’s managing director and as an interim school superintendent. He says Archie’s last-minute involvement in King’s contract is the kind of thing that weakens any district’s credibility.
“There has to be credibility,” Goldsmith continues. “People have to believe decisions are being made transparently, that they’re being made honestly, and they’re being made fairly … when people don’t have that belief, it jeopardizes the school district’s chances of gaining public support, getting more money from Harrisburg, getting more money from the city.”
“When you undermine that credibility, you’re just harming the school children,” he says. “And I think that’s the important thing.”
Goldsmith doesn’t have much hope for the mayor’s investigation, which lacks subpoena power. He says with districts nationwide turning schools over to charter companies, transparency is more important now than ever.
Back at King, Washington says she’s glad that the political intrigue is over, and she calls Wade an excellent choice for principal. She counsels patience during the year to come.
“Remember this is not going to be an easy fix,” says Washington. “There isn’t going to be one principal that is going to walk in there and change everything. It’s a process.”
Washington hopes that the King controversy brings more accountability and transparency to the state-appointed School Reform Commission. Other King parents who aren’t steeped in the process say they will be happy with steady improvement.