This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a shocking move, the School Reform Commission Thursday night voted to begin the process of turning over Wister Elementary School in Germantown to Mastery Charter, defying the recommendation of Superintendent Hite.
The move came through a surprise “walk-on” resolution proposed by Commissioner Sylvia Simms four hours into a marathon meeting. It was supported by two other members, giving the action a three-vote majority. Chair Marjorie Neff voted no. Member Farah Jimenez abstained.
The SRC also approved resolutions to turn over Cooke Elementary School in Logan to the Great Oaks Foundation and Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia to Global Leadership Academy, which followed Hite’s recommendations.
Hite had initially recommended the three schools for charter conversion under the Renaissance Schools initiative.
But he then changed his mind regarding Wister after reviewing data and concluding that the school had shown enough improvement over the past year to remain in the District and get extra supports. On the District’s School Progress Report, the school’s rating no longer falls in the lowest category, labeled "Intervene."
During the process of considering the move, a vocal contingent of parents supported Mastery, which worked hard to organize them, while another faction fought to keep the school within the District and stave off privatization.
The SRC’s action sparked both outrage and cheers in the crowded room. Some Mastery supporters shouted “Thank the Lord” while others, parents and advocates, decried the action and accused the SRC of breaking faith.
One member of the audience, Pastor Pamela Williams, shouted at Simms that she should have recused herself from the vote because “your sister works for Mastery.” Simms’ sister, Quibila Divine, is a senior account executive for Citizen Consulting Group, a Chicago-based “public engagement" firm that lists Mastery as one of its clients.
Asked later about this, Simms said, “I don’t know what my sister’s got.”
In proposing her resolution, Simms said that she felt parents, especially poor parents of color, are being failed at Wister and other schools and that drastic action is necessary.
Commissioner Bill Green seconded the resolution and said later that Simms was concerned about the parents and “I support her in it."
Before voting, Commissioner Feather Houstoun explained torturously that in hindsight, she felt that Wister should not have been recommended to be a Renaissance charter. But given how the process had been started with the community, she concluded that the right thing to do was proceed with the next step, which is to invite Mastery to submit a charter application for Wister.
Simms, Green, and Houstoun each reiterated that they continue to support and respect Hite.
Hite said he was surprised but not shocked. “There were a lot of emotions,” he said. “They went in a different direction. That’s what boards do.”
He said that his turnabout on Wister “had nothing to do with Mastery,” but rather with a desire to “recognize progress in a District school. I felt it was no longer a candidate for that level of intervention.”
He observed that “this is what happens when you have finite resources and more needs than resources to fulfill the needs.”
Others were not so sanguine, and regarded the SRC’s last-minute action – which did an end-run around any opportunity for public comment — as the last straw in sealing their frustration with its leadership.
“Obviously doing this with a ‘walk-on’ resolution is an outrage,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who attended the meeting “I came here to the SRC to talk about participation and building a bigger vision for schools. When they pull hijinks like this, it causes a tremendous amount of problems.”
Hite said this isn’t the final word on the charter conversions. The SRC vote authorizes each of the three organizations to submit a charter application. The SRC will take a final vote on those charters in April, Hite said.