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At Potter-Thomas, change the only constant

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For the past eight years at Potter-Thomas Elementary School, the only constant has been change.

As a low-performing school, it was turned over to Edison Schools in 2002. But because it made little improvement, it was taken away from Edison in 2008.

During and after Edison’s tenure, Potter-Thomas has had a total of six principals. This year, parents finally got one they liked and who seemed to be making a difference. Since Dywonne Davis-Harris came in September, there has been a palpable change in school climate and a renewed focus on academics.

“With this new principal, we have seen an improvement overall, even in the behavior of the students,” said Guadalupe Tovar, who has three children at the school.

But now, as a designated Renaissance School, Potter-Thomas is facing yet another upheaval, just as parents thought they had found some stability. The school is in line to be matched with one of five possible outside providers – all of which would convert the school into a charter.

Parents – the school is 95 percent low-income and 78 percent Latino – are worried about what becoming a charter will mean.

“Now there’s resources for parents and kids,” said Elizabeth Álvarez, whose granddaughter is a student. “There was nothing before and now they want to take it away from us.”

Álvarez and several other parents want to keep the principal, and as a result spoke before the School Reform Commission asking to become a Promise Academy – or undergo turnaround under the supervision of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. That way, the school can stay within the District and have a better chance of retaining Davis-Harris at the helm.

“We the parents are very fond of the way our administration leadership team and us have brought the school and made all the changes to put Potter-Thomas to where it is today,” said Midgalia López in testimony before the SRC, as a group of Potter-Thomas parents stood by. The day before, they had held a protest at the school against becoming a charter.

López is a noontime aide at the school and grandparent of a 3rd grader. “We need a chance,” she said. “And that chance is a Promise Academy.”

Ackerman was responsive to their concerns. She said she would make an exception for Potter-Thomas among the nine schools now undergoing the matching process, giving the school the option of rejecting all potential partners and becoming a Promise Academy instead.

The community will have its meeting with the potential providers on May 6, and the School Advisory Council, which is made up of parents and several representatives of local organizations, has until May 11 to decide.

If, after that meeting, “the community is still not satisfied,” said Benjamin Rayer, who is running the Renaissance process for the District, “becoming a Promise Academy might be an option."

All this uncertainty, however, is just creating more anxiety among parents and grandparents who are used to being buffeted about by institutions and government in one of the poorest areas of the city.

Rumors are flying

“Some say there’ll be free uniforms, others just talk about how good everything is going to be, but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Tovar said.

At the school, which is 78 percent Latino and 20 percent African-American, 25 percent of the students are English language learners, 15 percent are in special education, and the churn of students is constant. In 2007-08, nearly 100 students in the 475-student school withdrew during the year, and another 70 enrolled. The following year, those numbers declined, but were still high.

Despite those factors, of the 14 Renaissance-eligible schools reviewed by a team of evaluators earlier this year, Potter-Thomas received one of the most positive reports. Some of the schools were cited for total breakdown of leadership, lack of instruction, and out-of-control climate.

But at Potter-Thomas, the reviewers said, “leadership has worked to create a unified voice that is focused on high expectations for student achievement,” “there are clear goals and improvement strategies,” and “school administrators serve as an instructional leadership team.” Teachers have common planning time and more opportunities for professional development.

At the same time, it noted, good instructional practices “have yet to be established school-wide.” Scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests (PSSA) remain woefully low, especially in the upper grades.

Davis-Harris agreed that the most improvement to date has been made in school climate and student behavior, which she attributed to help from parents, teachers and the District. “I knew it was going to be a good challenge when I first came here,” she said.

Whatever happens, she said, her work to improve the students academic achievement is an ongoing task.

"We’re using multiple approaches to do it," she said. "We have instruction specialists providing our teachers with teaching techniques every week. We create an environment where we can give each other feedback. We all have in mind that this is to benefit our children."

As part of the process in deciding the school’s future, SAC members and anyone else who is interested will have the chance to visit other schools operated by the potential tunaround teams, which include two Latino-focused organizations, ASPIRA and Congreso de Latinos Unidos. Both run charter schools. They are the only providers who have expressed particular interest in working with Potter-Thomas.

Nicholas Torres, president of Congreso, said that the parents don’t have animosity towards these groups, but have a fear of the unknown. “It seems parents are reacting to a lot of rumors, and it seems there’s no official providing actual information,” he said. “That’s why it is important for parents to show up to the meetings that will be held there.”

For Tovar, however, the issue is simple. “What we want is to have stability for our children” she said, “because they keep changing things around here even if they work.”

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