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Parents react to news of Wister’s planned charter conversion

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

Parents from John Wister Elementary School have mixed opinions about the prospect of big changes at the school, but several who were interviewed agreed on a key point: Wister is a fixture in the Germantown neighborhood and should remain open.

On Thursday, Superintendent William Hite proposed closing some schools, creating others, and turning three elementary schools — Wister, Jay Cooke in Logan and Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia — over to charter management. Decisions about which operators will take over the schools, the District says, will be made after a lengthy process involving community meetings and extensive parental input.

In interviews Friday morning, a day after the plan was announced, parents barely had time to digest the news. Three of six said they had heard nothing about it.

Still, most said they would keep an open mind.

Michelle Brokenbaugh, whose daughter is in 5th grade, had not heard the announcement. “As long as the kids get what they need, then I’m fine with it, regardless of whether it’s a charter,” she said.

Her daughter was doing well at the school, she said. “We haven’t had any problems at all.”

Syiee Parker fretted whether the school might close and said he wanted parents to have “some say” in the future management of the school. His daughter, a 2nd grader, is learning to read and she “likes the school so far,” he said.

Wister was Parker’s home school back in the 1990s. “I graduated from this school and I want it to stay open and I want it to keep its name.”

Parker said he was aware that the school’s math and reading scores are chronically low. “That’s one of the critical problems they’re having here,” he said.

According to Hite’s plan, three parents from Wister (and three from each of the other two schools) would participate in the vetting process once charter management candidates have been identified.

That plan varies significantly from the process 1 1/2 years ago, when parents at Steel and Muñoz-Marin Elementaries were asked to vote on whether to convert their schools to charters. In both cases, the schools rejected charter conversion.

Dasaan Willis has three children at Wister, in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades. He, too, has taken the long view. He would be OK with charter management, he said, “as long as it helps the kids and betters everyone’s education to have them ready for the next step in their lives.”

“Whatever works for the kids is the way I look at it,” he said.

Dezaray Mitchell, whose son is in 1st grade, said she was concerned a charter group would typecast children or push them out.

“They’ll be [counseling] out kids who have problems, who have disabilities,” she said. “When you have a charter, you have all the problem kids on one level. So, I’m trying to figure out, are you prepping them for prison or are you prepping them for school?"

Of the conversion to a Renaissance charter, Mitchell said, “They’re not giving us a choice and I don’t think that’s fair. You’ve got to think about the community, about the parents. This is a community-based school. You’ve got generations of families who have gone here. It’s not fair.”

Geneva Green, whose son is in 5th grade, said she opposed the plan and was upset that teachers and staff, including herself, could lose their jobs. “The teachers are doing the best they can teaching these kids here. The parents need to come together and quit bickering about stuff. They need to leave this school right where it is, just like it is,” said Green, who is a safety officer at Wister.

Yet another parent, Ahn Knight, with a son in kindergarten, said the prospect of charter management didn’t faze her — she attended charter schools as a youth — but she agreed with other parents who want input in the decision-making process.

“I do think a charter may be for the better, even though it’s going to mean a lot of people probably will be out of a job,” said Knight.

“At the same time, parents definitely should have a say in the matter,” she said. “I think a lot of parents feel fine about it being a [District] school. They came here themselves and now they’re sending their kids here. It’s the neighborhood school.”

Kendra Brooks, a spokeswoman for Parents United for Public Education, criticized the planned conversions.

She said the community should have had more input before the decision was made.

“The District is once again going back to its old ways, eliminating the voices of the community and the parents,” she said. “There are other solutions. There’s a big push for community schools. Why couldn’t Wister become a community school?”

Community schools offer to families an array of services and supports, ranging from recreation to health care. While each is different, most commonly, buildings stay open into the night for use by the neighborhood, for sports and adult education, and during the day house social service programs and even clinics.

Brooks and other parents successfully opposed the plan two years ago to place Steel Elementary in the Mastery Charter Schools system.

Wister, Brooks noted, is “walking distance” from Steel. “They keep hitting the same community over and over again. They make business promises and support business moves and not take into account what the community wants,” she said.

The District plans to hold meetings every week until Nov. 15, starting Wednesday night. However, the meetings will not be held at the school and parents must respond by email or phone to a letter sent home with their children in order to be invited to the meeting. (It will be in Center in the Park in central Germantown, about a mile from the school.)

“We want to keep the meeting small so people can have real conversations,” said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

The atmosphere in large meetings in an auditorium setting “does not lend itself to conversations.” Each meeting will have 10 to 15 people, and all parents who want to attend should get the opportunity to be at one of them, he said.

As for not holding the meetings at the school, he said, “We want places that are neutral, welcoming, and part of the community. We want to make people feel more comfortable and willing to speak.”

Additional reporting by contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.

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