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Why close us and not them? School’s supporters point to politics

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

[Updated, 6:30 p.m. with District response]

by Bill Hangley Jr.

If the School Reform Commission votes today to close M.H. Stanton Elementary, its supporters will leave believing it was politics, not academics, that sank the once-celebrated North Philadelphia school.

Tracey Lester, a Stanton grandparent and head of a group called Parents Involved, said that before the SRC votes on Stanton’s closure, she plans to deliver testimony questioning the integrity of the Stanton closure decision. Lester said she believes the decision was influenced by the work of a politically supported coalition called the North Philadelphia Collaboration that included supporters of many schools, but not Stanton.

“I want an investigation,” Lester said. “This affects my grandchildren and my community.”

At the heart of Stanton supporters’ concerns is uncertainty over the reasoning behind a surprise change in plans that came late in the closure process. The District’s original list of proposed closures did not include Stanton, a K-7 school near Temple University. But it did include the nearby Tanner Duckrey School, a K-8 school about a half-mile away.

After weeks of emotional public hearings — including a raucous session in North Philadelphia that included a vocal Duckrey contingent — Superintendent William Hite elected to recommend sparing Duckrey and closing Stanton instead, citing community input and Duckrey’s “slightly” better academic record.

That decision matched the recommendation in a lengthy alternative proposal submitted to the District by the North Philadelphia Collaboration, a group that lists as participants and supporters a number of community stakeholders and area politicians, including City Council President Darrell Clarke, City Council member Cindy Bass, and State Sen. Shirley Kitchen.

The collaboration’s final report was written by former District official Quibila Divine, the sister of SRC member Sylvia Simms. The report recommended that “M.H. Stanton students should be re-assigned to Duckrey since Stanton is the [lowest] performing of the two.”

Divine defended the group’s recommendation to close Stanton and not Duckrey, which she said was primarily based on AYP and School Performance Index data.

“We knew that some schools would be closed,” she said, and the group’s main concern was to keep the best-performing schools open.

And although she said the collaboration’s meetings were open, she acknowledged that Stanton supporters were not specifically invited to take part in developing its alternative closure plans.

“It was not a consideration,” Divine said, describing the collaboration as an informal group formed several years ago, which re-formed around the issue of school closures. The collaboration’s meetings included a number of supporters of schools on the District’s original closure list — including Duckrey, L.P. Hill, Meade, and Strawberry Mansion — but no one from the Stanton community.

“The invitations were open — whether or not they got a flyer to the meetings, I don’t know,” Divine said. “They didn’t come to any of the meetings, because they were going about their way thinking they were going to stay open. No one who came to any of the meetings was turned away.”

Divine said she made her recommendation after meetings with collaboration members. Those listed on the report as “supporters,” like Clarke, Bass, and Kitchen, were not active participants, Divine said, and do not necessarily support every specific element of the plan. Those listed as “participants” — a long list of community advocates and residents — contributed to various conversations, but did not sign off on her final recommendations.

“That’s why [the report] says, ‘submitted on behalf of [the collaboration], written by Quibila Divine,” she said. But she believes the report accurately reflects the participants’ points of view. “This was not Quibila Divine’s plan or Quibila Divine’s recommendation,” she said.

Stanton supporters like Lester believe that the group had outsized influence because of Divine’s relationship to Simms, and other political connections. Divine, however, said she did nothing untoward. “I went to the SRC meetings, as any other person could have done, and spoke on behalf of the schools I wanted to see stay open,” she said.

Divine also said she was part of a small delegation that met privately with Hite to lobby for the report’s recommendations. The group included several community members, she said, but she declined to say whether any of the politicians listed as “supporters,” such as Clarke, Bass, or Kitchen, attended.

“I’m not going to tell you that,” Divine said. “I know politics is politics — politicians have to say what they have to say for their own purposes, and I just don’t want to give that information.”

UPDATE: District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that it based its decision to drop Duckrey and add M.H. Stanton on "hard facts."

He said that officials reviewed the Duckrey facility, which is newer with central air conditioning and had recently been refurbished at a cost of about $1 million.

By contrast, he said, the Stanton facility needed more than $3 million in repairs, including a new heating system. And Duckrey has an outdoor campus, while M.H. Stanton does not.

"The District also reviewed the academic record of both schools, and Duckrey demonstrated a better academic record, even though only slightly better," he said. "But we believe it has the programs and facilities to better serve students."

Hite has previously cited community input and Duckrey’s academics as factors in his decision. When questioned about the decision by commissioners last week at Stanton’s final closure hearing, Hite said, “Duckrey is slightly better performing. The building is also in better condition. So that was another consideration.”

Lester said she believes Duckrey escaped the ax by virtue of the collaboration’s clout and connections, not Duckrey’s academic record. She and other Stanton supporters acknowledge that Duckrey’s current academic data do show a small advantage. But they say that the schools are comparable overall and that Stanton has a better long-term track record.

“They had a big advantage over us,” said Lester. “We were deemed the better school on the original list — and all of a sudden things changed. As a grandparent, and a homeowner who pays taxes, I want to know what’s going on.”

Data suggest that Hite’s description of “slight” is an accurate way to describe the differences between the two schools. State PSSA results from 2011-12 show that Duckrey hit 10 of 17 AYP goals, with proficiency rates of 30 percent for math, and 27 percent for reading. Meanwhile, Stanton hit 7 of 13 AYP goals, with reading and math proficiency rates of 28 and 22 percent, respectively.

Duckrey scored an 8 on its School Performance Index, while Stanton scored a 9 (with 1 as best and 10 as worst). Both schools have comparable rates for attendance, suspensions, “serious incidents” and academic improvements. Enrollment in both has dropped somewhat in recent years. Detailed PSSA data show that both schools have struggled recently to perform to District averages.

However, data also show that Stanton’s long-term record is better. Duckrey has made AYP only once in the last 10 years — in 2004 — while Stanton has made it 3 times in 10 years, most recently in 2007. Duckrey’s PSSA charts show results that bob up and down — sometimes dramatically — from year to year. Stanton’s, by comparison, tend to show a steady decline from its heyday in the last decade when it was receiving extra resources under the District’s now-defunct Office of Restructured Schools.

That’s a big part of what frustrates supporters like Kathryn McFetridge, a Head Start teacher who’s been at Stanton since 2007. “Stanton has a tremendous history,” she said. “It’s arguably one of the greatest models of success and excellence in urban schools and with disadvantaged learners.”

Stanton’s rise to national prominence began in 2002, when it received a new curriculum and a variety of new resources. Student performance improved rapidly, and in 2006 it was one of five schools nationwide to receive the Education Trust’s “Dispelling the Myth” award for demonstrating “the power of committed educators to transform the lives of children.”

But budget cuts and policy shifts have left those days behind, McFetridge said. “Nobody remembers when we were at the top of the top,” she said. “We had academic coaches in the building, a full-time nurse, art, music, a GED program, Saturday school, socialized recess … We had a lot more support from the District at the time. The students from this school achieved success when they were given the tools and resources they needed to be successful.”

McFetridge hopes the SRC chooses to keep the school open and supports its proposal that it become a “community school” that includes evening programs and adult GED classes.

And Lester says that if the SRC does close the school, she’ll want answers about the role of politics. “I want an investigation. I want a federal investigation into the whole SRC board on … what were the facts. Did they have any facts? They haven’t shown any,” she said.

But SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said he’s confident that the District made its decisions based on sound data. “The information that the administration puts out are facts,” he said. “How people interpret those facts can vary — that’s certainly not unusual.”

And Divine said that she still believes Duckrey is the better of the two schools. She had little patience for any suggestions that her relationship to Simms gave the collaboration any advantage, or played any role in Hite’s decision — a frequent accusation levied anonymously on Notebook comment threads.

“The craziness that’s coming from those adults — I don’t even understand how it could come out of their mouths,” she said. “They’re trying to get under somebody’s skin, and it’s not working. Because it’s about these children. And if they’re so concerned about doing the right thing, they should have been teaching these children. And that’s what they have not done.”

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