This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
The stump speeches have begun, and the opinions are divided.
Parents at two North Philly elementary schools are fast approaching a vote that could forever alter the academic trajectory of their children.
Here the distrinction is not Democratic or Republican, but "District-run" or "charter."
In the bright, beautiful auditorium at Luis Muñoz-Marín Elementary School in Fairhill, parents heard the first round of pitches Tuesday night from both the existing school leadership and ASPIRA — a charter organization with roots in Muñoz-Marín’s heavily Latino section of North Philly.
This came after the Philadelphia School District’s recent announcement that it would like to add Muñoz-Marín, as well as Edward T. Steel in Nicetown, to its portfolio of "Renaissance" charter schools.
Right now, both schools are neighborhood, pre-K-8 elementary schools that the District considers among its lower performers.
As Renaissance charters, the schools would continue to be required to serve all kids from the neighborhood, but would be run by charter organizations that employ nonunion staff and enjoy more autonomy in how they compose their budgets — creating greater flexibility in how the schools spend money.
(The Steel community in Nicetown will begin hearing pitches from existing school leadership and Mastery charter next week.)
The School District targeted Muñoz-Marín for charter conversion because the school has seen the number of students scoring "proficient" on standardized tests drop precipitously in recent years. From 2009 to 2012, Muñoz-Marín’s math scores are down 18 percentage points, while reading is down 16 points.
"Since we are working with the School District budget, we have limited funds," said principal Ximena Carreno at the beginning of Muñoz-Marín’s presentation.
Carreno became principal in the fall, after 11 years as assistant principal. Test scores recorded during her tenure as principal are not yet public.
"Our dedication and our commitment to provide the best possible education for our students comes from our hearts," she said, flanked by a half-dozen members of her teaching faculty.
Carreno stressed that Muñoz-Marín serves higher than average populations of students who come from low-income households, who are learning English as a second or third language, and who have been disagnosed with a wide range of special-education needs.
"We need to improve, but at the same time we need to be fair," the principal said. "This population needs a lot more intervention … and a lot more support."
Muñoz-Marín’s drop in test scores tracked a trend in the District overall. As some teachers and administrators in the District were implicated in a cheating scandal, the state tightened security around the exams and scores declined overall.