Thursday night’s School Reform Commission meeting was full of drama and surprise. In the end, three more district schools were put on track to be converted to neighborhood-based charters.
For one of the schools, the SRC went against the superintendent’s wishes.
Superintendent William Hite had recommended charter conversion for Jay Cooke Elementary in Logan and Samuel Huey Elementary in West Philly, matching them, respectively, with charter operators Great Oaks and Global Leadership Academy.
Hite originally had also recommended conversion for John Wister Elementary in Germantown, but changed his mind after the district found evidence of progress at the school.
“We have seen some growth at Wister, and the acknowledgement of that growth then means that the school moves out of a tier that then would normally require our most drastic intervention,” Hite testified Thursday night.
Even with that progress, only three percent of Wister’s students score proficient on state math tests — a point that infuriated many Wister parents who had become attached to the idea of conversion.
“My child deserves better. My child is in a failing school. The school’s been failing. This ain’t just start. This ain’t nothing new,” said David Childs, parent of a first grader at Wister.
Childs sparred with the traditional public school advocates in the crowd who were happy that Hite had chosen against turning Wister over to Mastery Charter Schools.
“Ya’ll don’t even live in my community. Ya’ll don’t know what goes down with my kids, so don’t talk about something ya’ll don’t know,” he said.
Many other parents in the Wister community had sided with the school’s existing staff — expressing a hope that the elementary could instead become one of mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed community schools.
“I love the family that we built at Wister,” testified Novilette Jones, mother of a pre-K student at the school. “I want to thank you for making that decision because you have took a lot of weight off our back…but we are now going to fight for our school.”
Ultimately, though, the pro-conversion outcry was enough to push some of the SRC members to break from Hite’s recommendation.
At the end of the nearly five hour meeting, Commissioner Sylvia Simms introduced a surprise resolution that put conversion back on the table.
“My heart is heavy and I have pent-up emotions about the way the district has allowed many of our schools in low-income neighborhoods to fail our students and their families,” said Simms. “Families are literally crying for alternatives, and they have shown us by their choices that they are not pleased by the way we are educating their children.”
Commissioners Bill Green and Feather Houstoun joined Simms to undo HIte’s recommendation, with a 3-1 vote.
“While we might not have chosen Wister knowing what we know now, we did choose it,” said Houstoun. “We sent the school community through a long process, which will continue. I think we should complete this process at least through the next step.”
Commissioner Farah Jimenez recused herself based on family connections to Mastery. SRC Chair Marge Neff voted ‘no.’
These votes are not technically the final word. They invite full applications from the operators. Another SRC vote will be taken in March or April.
In an interview after the meeting, Hite said he suspected that the SRC could cross him on the Wister decision.
“The SRC just felt the weight of the parents. This was a lot to deal with. This was a tough and emotional piece,” he said.
The shock of the sudden reversal shook advocates for and against.
Pro-conversion advocates cheered the decision and left the meeting high on the prospect of Mastery’s involvement.
Of all the operators considered for conversion this year, only Mastery has a track record of engaging in neighborhood-based school turnaround work. Of the district’s 20 existing Renaissance charter conversions, Mastery has made and maintained the greatest gains on state tests.
“I’m extremely excited. I’m overwhelmed with joy,” said Alisha Grant, parent of a Wister 2nd grader. “I just glad that she made that choice.”
Traditional public school advocates decried the action and questioned the legality of holding a vote on a resolution that hadn’t first been made public.
“I find walk-on resolutions which are not vetted, did not allow public testimony, did not allow for public discussion to be completely untoward in governance,” said Councilwoman Helen Gym in an interview as the meeting drew to a close.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers also blasted the move.
“This is another example of the lengths the SRC will go to charterize our schools, and why Philadelphians want to see this body disbanded,” said union president Jerry Jordan in an emailled statement.
The commissioners voted 4-1 to proceed with charter conversion at Cooke and Huey.
SRC chair Marge Neff voted against each, citing the added costs incurred by adding new charter seats.
“We’re still in a zero-sum game when it comes to funding,” said Neff, “and I don’t believe that we can continue to do that. So, I’m voting ‘no.'”
Global Leadership Academy will now submit a full application to run Huey.
GLA’s existing school, a K-8 lottery-based charter in West Philadelphia, recently earned an “intervene” designation for academics on the district’s School Progress Report.
Overall, it ranked 67 of 140 of all city K-8 schools and 19 of 29 among schools considered peers based on student need.
The SRC renewed GLA’s charter in 2014. The district’s charter office raised concerns about potential enrollment barriers for English language learners — whom were not served at all by the school.
The Great Oaks Foundation will submit a full application to take over Cooke.
Great Oaks runs four schools in Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Wilmington, Delaware. It makes “high-dosage tutoring” a centerpiece of its model by hiring AmeriCorps volunteers to act as full-time tutors.
Great Oaks president Michael Duffy, the former head of the charter office in New York City’s Department of Education, also served as the managing director of Victory Education Partners — a for-profit operator that ran six schools in Philadelphia starting in 2002. By 2011, the School Reform Commission ended all of its contracts with outside managers, including Victory.
Many speakers Thursday night questioned the willingness and the ability of Great Oaks and Global Leadership Academy to equitably serve neighborhood-school populations — which often have higher concentrations of English language learners and students with special needs.
Commissioners Green and Houstoun called on the district’s charter office to vet the operators specifically for this ability before the final vote.
Also Thursday night, the SRC approved a plan to create a new non-selective Science Leadership Academy middle school in University City. It also rejected a revised bid to create Liguori Academy charter school which was pitched from an operator with ties to the Catholic church.