This week marks the last of the Philadelphia School District’s Renaissance Match meetings, where communities have been meeting representatives of the charter schools that hope to take over six neighborhood schools.
It’s all part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance School Initiative.
On a recent night at Simon Gratz High in North Philadelphia, a man the kids call Uncle Buddy is joking with students about his fading basketball skills.
“I thought I still had a shot at the league, man!” he says.
Lawrence “Buddy” Martin is 60 years old and lives in Southwest Philadelphia. Last year, his neighborhood elementary school became a charter school. This year, the same thing will happen at Gratz. Martin has come to Gratz with a message: Charters can’t do it alone.
“I’m a funny guy, I love to have fun, but it’s all about the kids. Like right now, I need to find out, what’s happening to that one that’s not transitioning?” he says.
Martin is a member of Hannity Elementary’s School Advisory Council, a volunteer committee created by the school district to monitor Hannity’s progress under the Renaissance turnaround program. He calls himself “the charter school police.”
“They have a contract. Now as a SAC member, our job is to go over that contract, and then, as they progress–we have to do quarterly reports–have they met goals?” he explains.
Three come courting
About 100 people were at Gratz to listen to three charter providers. One will run the school next year. It was the public’s first chance to hear from them directly.
“Today we’re going to hear from Universal, then we’re going to hear from Mastery, and then we’re going to hear from Mosaica,” says Martin.
Each of the three has its own history and style. But they all make many of the same promises. Like Mosaica’s John Porter, all three say they’ll start with careful assessment:
“Again, we start off with a needs assessment. That’s going into the school, talking to the parents, talking with the community members about what you want from this school,” says Porter. “What do you want the school to be?”
Like Mastery’s Joe Ferguson, representatives of all three promise to help every child:
“You’re going to see a lot of charts like this from a lot of providers. So briefly, what you’re gonna see are math and reading scores at our high schools,” says Ferguson. “So in math and reading at all three of our turnarounds, you’ll see anywhere from a 30 to a 50 percent jump.”
And they all say they’ll do their best to preserve popular programs and bring back Gratz’s best teachers.
“I know its like a rumor going around that when Universal comes and takes over the school, that we’re going to get rid of the basketball team, and no, we’re keeping everything and adding to it!” says Universal Companies Shahied Dawan.
In the audience, parent Lisa Bennett was impressed with all three providers’ passion. But it was hard for her to say which would be better.
“I actually didn’t see a difference. I just see people willing, eager, and want to help our children. That’s all I see,” she says. “If you ask me all, of them had good stuff.”
Some welcome changes; others don’t
Student Ray Anderson, a senior at Gratz, says any of the three would represent an improvement, if they do what they say they’ll do.
“I can’t really sum up the words to say how imperative it is that the school has an initiative as far as academically, it has so many good teachers, it’s so many good students,” he says. “It’s a batch of bad students, they are honestly making things horrible.”
The audience peppered the providers with questions about everything from special education to the school mascot. Some worried aloud that good teachers and programs will be lost. None called for the Renaissance process to halt.
That hasn’t been the case at every Renaissance meeting. Students at three high schools have walked out to protest the changes. At West Olney High, second-year teacher Elaine Fingerman still hopes to stop her own school’s transition.
“We’re at least 20 percent over their statistics on every single target goal,” she says. “Our dropout rate is lowered. On track to graduate is up 20 percent. So we’re saying ‘were doing all this.’ “
Fingerman is organizing a protest at Olney for later this week. District officials respond to these kinds of criticisms by saying that no matter how painful change may be, perennial poor performers such as Gratz and Olney need new management. They say it’s too late to reverse a process that they promise will help.
Back to Uncle Buddy
Martin says charters need watchdogs. But if they don’t have the active support of their communities, they’ll fail.
“I know the climate. I know what’s out there. I know the frustration, and you can give up. I’m going to get you as much help as possible so you can help these kids,” he says.
This week, advisory committees at Gratz and five other schools will tell Ackerman which of the competing providers they like best. Ackerman will consider that input before she makes her own recommendations to the School Reform Commission later this month.