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Mastery drops out; Steel to stay in District

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

After a spirited campaign and a decisive parent vote, Mastery Charter Schools says it is withdrawing from contention to run the Edward T. Steel School in Nicetown, leaving it in the hands of its District staff.

“The parents said they don’t want to partner with us, and we respect that,” said Mastery spokesperson Sheila Ballen.

Mastery officials made the announcement in a statement this morning, shortly after meeting with Steel’s principal. District officials soon followed with a statement of their own, saying they will recommend that the school remain under District control, pending a vote by the School Reform Commission later this month.

Officials say their goal will be to “build on the academic plan designed by the school community and Principal Mary Bonner,” according to a District statement.

Superintendent William Hite praised parents for being involved in the process and cited the results of the parent vote – the first of its kind for the District – as a major factor. Parents voted 121-55 to reject Mastery and retain District control of the school.

“Our goal was to provide a parent voice into the Renaissance process and we have succeeded,” said Hite in the statement.

The news was greeted with relief and happiness by Steel supporters, including Kendra Brooks, president of the School Advisory Council.

“Today’s the best day I’ve had in 30 days,” said Brooks. Hite has personally assured her that the District will help Steel develop the partnerships and funding needed to support Bonner’s plans, she said.

“He didn’t put a dollar figure on it, but he did say, ‘with financial support,’” Brooks said.

Nikki Bagby, another Steel parent and frequent volunteer at the school, says she was “ecstatic.”

“The process spoke for itself,” she said. “We weren’t going to lay down and let anybody tell us what their agenda is. … We are ‘Steel strong.’”

For those hoping for a Mastery takeover, it was a tougher day.

“I wish them the best of luck. But my son will not be going in the fall,” said Jenia Jolley, who has two children at Mastery’s Pickett campus, and a son who will start school next year.

A big choice for parents

Mastery has shown significant academic gains at all of its “turnaround” schools. Jolley and other Mastery supporters were hoping for similar results at Steel, whose test scores have been sliding in recent years.

The Steel parents who voted against the charter provider “are not seeing the big picture,” Jolley said. She thinks the District’s ongoing budget cuts make it unlikely that Steel will have much chance to improve.

“They’re not going to put any money into a failing school,” she said. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Mastery, the city’s largest and highest-rated school turnaround specialist, was “matched” with Steel by District officials as part of the 2014 Renaissance process. Parents at the school, a K-8 with just under 600 students, were given about a month to decide whether to approve Mastery as Steel’s new operator or remain with the District.

After a short campaign featuring passionate arguments from both sides, about 22 percent of eligible parents voted last Thursday, resulting in the 121-55 vote in favor of Steel’s staff.

A second vote by the School Advisory Council went 9-8 in Mastery’s favor, but some parents involved have formally challenged those results, alleging that District officials manipulated the process to favor the charter provider.

Officials have been investigating those grievances. It is not clear whether that investigation will continue.

January Washington, a teacher at Steel, was pleased to learn that her job is safe, but shared some of Jolley’s concerns.

“The confetti’s flying now, but we’ll see how it looks when it all lands,” Washington said.

She worries that the cash-strapped school could continue to struggle, and eventually end up in the charter conversation once again.

Brooks said Hite assured her that Steel would remain with the District and wouldn’t be back in the Renaissance process anytime soon.

"We will remain a public school,” she said.

But Washington said the key question now is whether the District can truly support Steel’s efforts to improve itself.

There is no question that Mastery could have offered a significant boost to Steel’s staff levels, along with at least a million dollars in privately raised grants. As a special-education liaison at the 600-student school, Washington said Mastery would have replaced her with four full-time staffers, including a dean of special education.

Overall, Mastery was planning to bring in about 56 full-time staff, including 42 full-time teachers and eight full-time administrators. In comparison, Steel has about 35 full-time teachers and four full-time administrators, along with a handful of part-time aides.

It will be virtually impossible for the District to match that infusion of resources, Washington said, despite Hite’s promises.

“I would like to see what these supports [promised by Hite] look like,” Washington said. “It’s not really over. You won the battle, but not the war.”

A rushed process, but an undisputed result

This year’s Renaissance process was criticized by many for being rushed and confusing for parents and providers alike.

Hite and SRC Chair Bill Green have promised to revisit the process and improve it next year, with clearer timelines and criteria for schools’ selection.

Mayor Nutter’s top education aide, Lori Shorr, called this year’s process “less than optimal,” but said the outcome at Steel appears to be a genuine reflection of the community’s will.

“They got an honest result from the process they set up,” she said. “I’m quite sure that next year, the process will be better.”

Helen Gym, of Parents United for Public Education, agreed that the Steel community’s strong vote in the District’s favor shouldn’t be seen as merely a result of anger over the process. It reflects a genuine desire on their part to keep Steel a traditional public school, she said.

“This was not a vote just about process,” said Gym, who has been working informally with Steel’s SAC for over a year, advising on safety, school closings, and more recently on the Renaissance vote.

Brooks praised Mastery for sticking to its promise to respect the community’s desires.

“From the beginning, they said they didn’t want to go where they were not wanted, and I respect them for holding to that,” she said.

She added that in her opinion, the SAC vote looked questionable enough that it made sense for the charter to back away.

“With all the grievances and the questions, I’m not surprised,” Brooks said. “They want to maintain their organization’s integrity.”

Brooks said that she’s anxious to get to work and that she’d welcome the participation of the nine SAC members who voted for Mastery.

“I can’t say if they’re going to stay,” she said. “If their children stay in Steel, they really should, so they can be a part of the transformation process.”

But Washington noted that even with the victory for Steel’s staff, some damage has already been done by what she called a “destabilizing” Renaissance process. Many teachers had already started looking for new jobs, she said – herself included.

“I went to a school yesterday, and I thought, ‘Wow, I like this place,’” she said. “I was considering [job offers] up until this morning. … I know at least 10 staff members that have gone [on interviews], and I know a few that have accepted positions.”

Mastery, for its part, said it has offered to continue working with the school, should the principal find that helpful. A call to Bonner for comment was not immediately returned.

The charter provider also noted that the entire process created “conflict” that is “antithetical to our values as an organization.” Mastery officials have said from the start that Steel parents were given a very short time to make a very difficult choice.

They said in this morning’s statement that despite the SAC vote in their favor, in light of the popular vote’s results, stepping out of the process is “the right thing to do.”

“We fervently want all of the community’s children to receive the highest quality education,” Mastery officials wrote. “In that spirit, we truly wish Ms. Bonner and her team the best in implementing their plans to accelerate student achievement.”

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