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Vote on whether to convert Steel: More at stake than just one school

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

When the parents of Edward T. Steel School students gather at the school tonight for the second of two community meetings, it will be their last chance to hear two competing visions for the school before they vote on its future.

In the vote, parents will choose either Mastery Charter Schools or the District to run Steel starting next year. The choice, however, will carry implications that go beyond the school itself.

For Steel students, what’s at stake is the chance to take part in an academic model that, although not without its critics, has shown real gains in some of the city’s toughest schools.

A vote for Mastery would also be a vote for an injection of new staff and money – a material boost that the District cannot match.

But beyond Steel, what’s at stake here is a reform strategy based on asking providers not just to turn around individual schools, but to operate whole K-12 networks — what the District describes as “an uninterrupted continuum of services to students throughout grade spans.”

Steel feeds into Mastery-Gratz High and some also attend Mastery-Pickett, schools that will also be affected by the parents’ decision. Mastery believes that it can improve the enrollment and performance at Gratz and Pickett if it can prepare students in schools the organization also runs.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said early in the process that creating such K-12 networks was not an explicit goal, but was an “interest” of the District – and it now appears clear that Renaissance 2014 is poised to further this interest, if parents so choose.

The stakes at Steel: ‘I also want my child to have the best’

When discussing Renaissance 2014, officials have always acknowledged that they wanted their providers to have a say in which schools were actually converted to charters and not simply pick those with rock bottom test scores.

But for the most part, rather than emphasize the broader strategy of creating K-12 networks, officials have kept the conversation focused on the needs of the particular schools selected for transformation.

Last week’s meeting at Steel was a case in point. District and Mastery officials both mentioned that Steel and Mastery had been matched in part because Mastery already has a presence in Nicetown and wants to deepen its relationships there.

But the conversation quickly turned to Steel’s students and their needs, and the choice that parents face.

Academically speaking, Mastery has brought significant gains to all seven of its other turnaround schools. It is the only one of the Renaissance providers the District found to be “on track” to achieve all of its turnaround target goals for academic performance.

And, materially speaking, Mastery can offer far more than the District.

Currently, as a District school staffed at “doomsday budget” levels, Steel has about 35 full-time teachers and four full-time administrators (principal, secretary, classroom aide and a counselor), as well as a handful of “noontime aides” working a few hours a day.

In comparison, for the same enrollment, Mastery officials say they plan to bring in about 56 full-time staff, including 42 full-time teachers, 8 full-time administrators (including three assistant principals and deans for instruction, culture, and special education), a full-time counselor, a full-time nurse, and other specialized supports as needed.

The school’s budget appears to be bigger with Mastery. Although next year’s budgets are not finalized, Mastery officials say they expect to be working with an annual budget of about $5.9 million – a figure based on federal funds and the District’s per-pupil payment to charters at its expected enrollment.

They also plan to raise a million dollars or more from private sources, mostly for building improvements.

In comparison, according to the District website, Steel’s most recent school budget is $3.9 million.

A District spokesperson said that although officials cannot confirm specific numbers, “the difference can be generally attributed to stranded costs and potential extra resources outside of per pupil costs.” The spokesperson was not more specific, although it is known that individual school budgets do not include all their expenses and personnel, such as security officers, utilities, and building maintenance that are provided centrally.

Steel has no shortage of supporters who want to see it stay with the District, citing its “family” atmosphere and long community ties. The chair of Steel’s School Advisory Council, Kendra Brooks, says that despite the loss of staff and the recent addition of a middle school, Steel is improving its ties to community groups and outside partners.

“We realized that we needed things at this school,” she said. “We have been going out, reaching out to organizations for support.”

But others are ready for Mastery. “Why not vote for what’s better?” said parent Tanesha Bolt. “I want to be fair. But I also want my child to have the best.”

Parent LaToya Butler, put it this way: “What’s at stake is change.”

The stakes beyond

But parents like Bolt and Butler are not the only ones with stakes in Steel’s vote.

Both the District and Mastery have strategic goals of their own in play.

The District’s interests are reflected in the changes it made this year to the Renaissance process. In past years, the District designated schools for charter conversion, and then looked for interested providers.

This year, however, it reversed the process. Although the District did not ask qualified providers to name specific schools they would like to take over, it did ask them to designate geographical areas and feeder networks they were interested in.

“We invited the applicants to indicate the ways in which they’d be interested in partnering with the District,” explained Kihn.

The District also asked providers to show not only how they would turn a school around, but how they would knit it into their broader “portfolio” of schools.

“Each of them has an idea that the model of education that they’re providing is actually unique,” said Kihn. These providers are “interested in trying to sustain that model” and not in spending time to “retrain” students who have first gone to school elsewhere, he said.

The 12-page “request for qualifications” issued by the District in March asks potential providers to “describe how the organization is equipped to facilitate the incorporation of a new school into a feeder pattern that offers an uninterrupted continuum of services to students throughout grade spans.”

Mastery responded by noting that it would be interested in building “K-12 clusters” – either in new neighborhoods, or around its current schools.

“We believe creating these clusters enables us to build upon current community and parent relationships and helps enhance the success of all schools in the neighborhood,” Mastery wrote.

And although it never named Steel, Mastery wrote that it was particularly interested in the Nicetown neighborhood.

“We have particular interest in deepening our roots in the Nicetown/Tioga section of the city [feeding Gratz] and the Germantown area [feeding Pickett],” Mastery wrote.

Adding a feeder area would mean more students would arrive at Pickett and Gratz already familiar with the Mastery approach, the provider wrote, leading to greater success at both schools.

“All our other secondary schools have at least 60 percent or more of the students coming from other Mastery schools; however these two schools do not,” Mastery wrote.

“Our data proves that the earlier we provide a quality, Mastery education to our students, the more they excel later. Being able to have more entering students at Pickett and Gratz come from Mastery schools would help boost academic achievement dramatically over time.”

Mastery officials stress that their interest in Steel goes well beyond feeding students into other Mastery schools.

They say the goal is to prepare students to succeed in any high school they choose.

“We were transparent in the [application process] that our preference is to work in the communities that we already serve,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. “The schools that feed the Gratz cluster … are amongst the very lowest-performing schools and do not appear to be improving.

“We’re interested in not just serving the school building, but in being part of the solution for the entire community.”

The view from Steel

Despite assurances from Kihn to the contrary, some at the school believe that Steel wouldn’t have been picked if it wasn’t for its proximity to Mastery’s network.

For such supporters, at stake in the upcoming vote are the many relationships built up over the years between Steel staff, families, students, and community organizations.

“Steel is ideal [for Mastery], because we’d be a feeder school into Gratz or Pickett,” said Brooks, Steel’s SAC chair. “Our test scores may be low. … But we’re not the lowest in the city.”

Brooks thinks Steel’s been connected with Mastery in part to boost Gratz’s enrollment.

“I sat with 27 8th graders, with high school applications. Most of them did not apply to Mastery [Gratz],” she said. "… The majority of our kids that are doing really well want to go to either special admit [schools] or other charters.”

No one would deny that Steel is, like most District schools, struggling. Still, it does not show up in the state’s School Performance Profile as one of the lowest-performing in the city – in the bottom 5 percent. Instead, it is in the second from the bottom, along with more than 70 other elementary and middle schools. And although its math and reading scores on the PSSA are lower than most Mastery-run schools, its writing and science scores are similar or even higher than some.

Its test scores have been sliding since 2008, but that decline has generally tracked the District’s averages, and in some cases Steel has outperformed them.

However, according to the District’s rating system released Monday, only seven K-8s and two elementary schools are doing worse. Steel’s “SPR” score, which relies heavily on student-growth measures, is 15 out of 100.

Brooks said she struggled to get a straight answer from anyone when it came to the role of feeder patterns in Steel’s selection.

When the process began a month ago, Brooks said, she asked a Mastery official to explain “why we were selected, were we selected as a feeder school to go into Gratz.”

He referred her to the District’s charter office, which took weeks to respond (just days ago she finally got an answer: “No”).

Another neighborhood resident and community organizer, Charisma Presley, said she, too, asked Mastery officials directly about feeder patterns and didn’t get an answer.

After reading Mastery’s RFQ, Presley concluded that “it’s not a coincidence that Steel school was identified as being in need of turnaround.”

She continued: “The state, through the SRC, is looking to unload its responsibility for public education in Philadelphia, and Scott Gordon is aggressively looking to expand his Mastery network, so suddenly Steel school is there for him to take.”

Gordon, for his part, makes no apologies for his interest in the Nicetown community, or for Mastery’s role as the District’s largest and most successful private manager of neighborhood schools. To him, Steel is a school in need, located in a community in need, within a District in need.

“We have been transparent in the entire process that we’re interested in serving the neediest schools [and] that our preference is to work in the communities that we already serve,” Gordon said. “As it sadly happens, the lowest-performing elementary schools in Philadelphia are also in the communities we’re serving.”

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