Olney West fights to stay under district control

They say you can’t beat City Hall, but can you change the Philadelphia School District’s Renaissance plans? That’s what supporters of one Philadelphia high school want to find out.

Protest planned

On Tuesday, members of Olney West High School’s School Advisory Council (SAC) will rally at District headquarters to ask Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to reconsider her plan to turn the school over to a charter school manager.  They say they’ll share a detailed alternate proposal with Ackerman and members of the School Reform Commission on the same day.  It’s a last-ditch effort for a school that’s scheduled to learn the name of its new charter manager later this week.

As part of the District’s Renaissance program for underperforming schools, Olney West is one of six schools slated to be turned into charters next year in which school teams get to help choose their  providers. Ackerman plans to announce her choice of managers for all six schools at the SRC’s meeting on Wednesday. The SRC plans to vote to approve her selections that same day, followed by a final, authorizing vote in April.

Finally making progress

Supporters of the Olney West effort say the long-struggling school is on track to hit or exceed the academic targets set for it this year. Larry Arata, an English teacher and assistant football coach,said it was “premature” for the District to turn the school over to a charter manager.

“At the beginning of the year, they told us to do everything we could to get [students’] scores up, get attendance up,” Arata said, “We’ve been working really hard. And it’s like they pulled the rug out from under us, despite the gains that we’re making.” Olney West’s SAC hopes the school can be designated a “Promise Academy,” a category of Renaissance schools that remain under district control.

District officials say that won’t happen. “We’re flattered,” said district spokesperson Jamilah Fraser, “but the district doesn’t have the capacity to turn around every school ourselves.”

At the heart of Olney West’s case against a charter takeover are predictive test scores from earlier this year. District officials have confirmed the accuracy of the test results, which were made public by opponents of the Renaissance plan.

Olney’s 2011 predictive tests suggest that the school will beat most of the targets set for it by district administrators.  For example, last year, only 12 percent of Olney juniors rated advanced or proficient in math; the district’s goal for this year was a score of 19 percent, but predictive tests suggest that this year’s results will be 30 percent.

Similarly, only 20 percent of last year’s juniors were advanced or proficient in reading; this year’s goal was 28 percent, and the predictive tests suggest that the result will be 30 percent. According to other predictive data, attendance is up slightly, chronic truancy is down from 74 to 52 percent (beating a target of 66 percent), and the number of students on track to graduate is up from 35 to 57 percent (slightly under the target of 60 percent).

Bad time for a change

Still, even with the improvements, the school’s test scores remain well below district averages, and in the last three years its enrollment has dropped from 1,000 to about 800.

Asked if the Olney West SAC had any chance of delaying its transition to charter management, district spokesperson Shana Kemp said it did not.  “We understand that many of these communities are attached to these schools, and their structures. But there are some needs here that have to be addressed,” Kemp said.

Tuesday’s protest continues an effort that launched with a rally last Wednesday, when several dozen students gathered by Olney West’s front door to chant, “Save our school,” and call for a delay in the charter turnover. They were joined by a handful of teachers and community activists, including Cherita Brown, parent of an Olney West student and a member of its SAC.

“We do understand that Olney West does need to change,” she said. “It has been in the lower test scores for years. But we do believe the track it’s on now could be in the right direction. If fifty percent of the teachers and the principal are gone [as required by the Renaissance process], I don’t think that will be the best situation for the children. 

Brown’s son, Nafis, said the school is better than its reputation. “I was always told, ‘Don’t go to Olney – it’s a bad school, you’ll drop out,’” he said, “But once I got here, each grade I moved up, it got better and better. We have the best teachers in this school. The teachers here are no different from the teachers at Central. 

Winona Handy, an Olney West  junior, said that the prospect of losing the relationships built with teachers was her biggest concern. “They come early, and they stay late – these people care,” said Handy. “I’ve been here since I was a freshman. This is my family, and I want to fight for my family. My mentors being fired? This is an outrage to me.”

Handy, like other students at the protest, said she couldn’t understand why the district was focused on teachers and management when the school suffers from so many material needs. “Peeling paint. Leaking pipes. These are things the school district should have changed, and it never changed,” she said. “And now, taking everyone that loves the school and switching it with total strangers? That’s not going to help. Fix the building. Save the teachers.”

Uphill battle

Kemp, the district spokesperson, agreed that Olney had been making progress, but said it was not enough, and that the charter plan was the best solution.  “We’re not going to sit back when we have a model that can address these problems,” she said. “I understand that some people are concerned about their jobs, but we have to do something about the kids.”

Opponents of the charter turnover say they know they face an uphill battle. All six School Advisory Committees at the so-called “Renaissance Match” process were asked to deliver their recommendations for their school’s new charter management to district officials by last Friday. Five separate charter operators are competing to run Olney West, including Foundations, Inc; Mosaica Education; ASPIRA, Inc.; Nueva Esperanza, Inc., and Johns Hopkins University. All five have made detailed presentations to the SAC and the school community in recent weeks, promising high standards, new investments, and personalized attention for all students.

Of the six Renaissance Match schools, only Olney West’s SAC has publicly pushed for a non-charter option so far. “We’ll make the pitch and see what happens,” said Arata.


This story is the product of a news gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal