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‘For the first time in almost 12 weeks, we can breathe a little.’

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

By declining to approve any charter operators for Germantown’s Martin Luther King High, the School Reform Commission has left the 1,000-student school in District hands for at least another year.

But King’s School Advisory Council (SAC) now faces a watershed decision: should the school remain permanently under District control?

We caught up with SAC chair Conchevia Washington for a question and answer session. First, some background:

On Wednesday, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman announced that King has two choices:

  • become an Empowerment School, receive some new resources and programs, and re-enter the Renaissance process next spring in search of a private provider, or
  • become a Promise Academy, losing at least half its current staff, but remaining under District control for the foreseeable future.

These are the latest options after the process designed to match King with a private provider this year under the Renaissance Schools initiative went badly awry. Both potential charter providers, Mosaica Education and Foundations, Inc., backed out after a swirl of controversy involving political pressure and possible conflict of interest on the part of School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie.

Ackerman promised to work closely with the King SAC, and entrust them with the final choice between the two models. “I want to ensure the SAC, the students of King, and the community at large that the District and the Commissioners will work tirelessly to improve academic achievement at this school,” Ackerman said in a statement.

The King SAC is a volunteer panel of about a dozen parents and community members that was created by the District and charged with representing King during the Renaissance process. Washington, the mother of a King sophomore, was elected by her fellow SAC members to serve as their chair and chief spokesperson. We asked her how the SAC feels about the choices it now faces, and what its members feel still should be done to shed light on the events that brought King to this point.

Her comments, recorded Thursday, have been edited slightly for clarity.

Notebook: Conchevia, thanks for speaking with us today. What can you tell us about the choice the King SAC now faces, and the difference you see between the Empowerment School and Promise Academy models?

Washington: Right now, I’m waiting for our members to take a look at both options. Obviously this is somewhat new to us – we weren’t necessarily looking at [the Promise Academy] option when we went through the Renaissance Match process. We have two great options in front of us – I will say that. I’m appreciative of Dr. Ackerman and the SRC for realizing that we needed to have something solid to walk out of that meeting with yesterday.

It is unfortunate what’s happened to us, and what I’ve asked the SAC to look at is, do we want to face these challenges again next year? We don’t know what next year can hold. Obviously the budget is a very scary thing. At least with being a Promise Academy we [would be] locked in.

The flip side of that is, the Promise Academy follows the staffing policies of the Renaissance Match program, meaning, we would lose our principal, and the staff would have to reapply, keeping only up to 50 percent. It’s a win-win, it’s a lose-lose, it’s something that we have to seriously consider.

Notebook: After all that happened this year, the prospect of going through the Renaissance Match process all over again next spring must be a little bit daunting.

Washington: It is – I think we’re a little gun-shy. The SAC has gone through a lot, but our students have gone through it right with us. We need to create stability for them, so when they come back next year they’ll know exactly what to expect.

The one thing that we did ask of the District [on Wednesday] was that they send some representatives to our school. I think it’s important that they hold some kind of meeting with our students and our staff to make them aware of what’s going on. We’re limited, as a SAC, in terms of being able to go into the school and hold an assembly – and it’s best that they hear it from the District.

[District officials] agreed with that – they felt it was as important as we felt it was.

Notebook: Besides choosing between the Promise and Empowerment models, what other responsibilities now fall to the King SAC?

Washington: We need to gain a little bit more clarity in terms of what the role of the SAC will be. With the Renaissance Match program, there is the accountability factor [charter operators must share regular progress reports with their schools’ SACs]. We need to get clarity in terms of what our role and responsibility will be [under the Promise model], what will be different, how we will operate as a SAC, and what does that mean to our current members.

Notebook: Have you talked to SAC members at other Promise Academies?

Washington: No, I have not, and what I’m looking to do is talk to the SAC members, potentially at University City High [now completing its first full year as a Promise Academy]. They can offer a little bit of insight – I’d like to get some feedback from them.

I have to remember that not every SAC is as engaged, as involved, as our SAC. I’m glad to say we’ve got an amazing SAC. And I’ll have to take that into consideration when we visit another SAC – how involved are they? How engaged are they? Do they get participation?

Notebook: Did you get any sense from the District that they’d prefer King to take one of the two options?

Washington: No, I think we have full latitude. The ball is back in our court. We just have to make the right decision. The budget is very scary. I want to just move on to welcome in a new principal, welcome in new teachers, and get these kids ready for a brand new school next year.

Notebook: Now that we know where King stands, do you still have unanswered questions about the role played by SRC chair Robert Archie? You’ve called for an investigation into his behind-the-scenes activity – do you still think that’s necessary?

Washington: I still believe that an investigation is warranted. That’s never going to change. I think it’s important to the integrity of the School District. If you don’t stop these unethical practices now, they’re going to continue. I’m grateful that some light has been shed on our situation – but I also don’t want it to go in vain.

Sitting there looking at the SRC meeting yesterday, being there for the Universal presentation, I was really taken aback. [Editor’s note: Archie, a one-time Universal Companies board member, has recused himself from votes involving Universal as he did with King, but on Wednesday he publicly highlighted the company’s successes while its officials made their presentation to the SRC. The SRC then voted unanimously to grant Universal the charters to two schools, with Archie abstaining.]

I felt as though he should have completely remained silent. That was [Universal’s] opportunity to say what they felt like they needed to say. I don’t think there should have been encouragement [from Archie] to get them to say things, and toot their own horn.

I’m happy that that company has been successful – kudos to them. I don’t want to take anything away from them. But in terms of the way it was presented, to me, it was a slap in the face. It was a blatant display of unethical practices. And we’re allowing this to go on.

[Editor’s note: Archie denied after the meeting that he was aiding Universal or engaging in any unethical behavior. He categorically denied playing any backstage role supporting Universal’s charter bids.]

Notebook: Has the mayor’s investigator contacted you? Have you filed any complaints regarding Archie with any public agencies?

Washington: No comment. Some things, I need to keep to myself.

Notebook: Anything else to add, as the King SAC prepares to help guide King through this next phase?

Washington: I think for the first time in almost 12 weeks, we can breathe a little. I hate to have seen what we have gone through. I’m glad the mayor has called for an investigation, whatever it brings out. I’m glad that people are paying attention to us – not just for us. This is something that could happen next year, it could happen the year after that.

I think it’s important to shed a light on how convoluted the decision-making process can be. If we had to take the fall, so that another school or another SAC doesn’t have to, I’m okay with that.

This story is part of a news-gathering partnership between the Notebook and NewsWorks.

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