This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Thursday’s Philadelphia School Reform Commission meeting again became a forum to debate the School District’s plans for drastic intervention at several of its lowest-performing schools.
The evening began with a clash of minds on the front steps of District headquarters.
Before the meeting, the NAACP joined the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other traditional public school advocates in a rally against the District’s school conversion plans — all of which would result in dramatic faculty shakeups.
NAACP Philadelphia chapter president Rodney Muhammad called for the SRC to be abolished with a reference to the slave trade.
"They are nothing but a consultant group for private industry who wants to take over our children and put them back on the auction block," he said.
Muhammad’s statement was directed in part at Mastery charter — one of three nonprofit charter organizations that has applied to take over three low-performing elementary schools.
Those remarks didn’t sit well with Kirby Ames, a senior at Mastery’s Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia. He stood on the other side of the steps with dozens of other Mastery supporters listening to speakers bash the charter’s motives.
"I think what they’re saying is wrong, because Mastery is a great school system, a great organization," said Ames. "It helps all the students in it. And I think this is a waste of time. I don’t believe any of the stuff they’re talking about up there."
In a follow-up interview, NAACP’s Muhammad said he believed that many charter schools exist solely to make a profit.
"Mastery falls into that, unfortunately," he said, but later added: "The jury is still out on Mastery and what it can do."
Asked to reference a charter that he supports, Muhammad named Math, Sciences & Civics Charter — a non-neighborhood-based school with a mediocre academic record that serves fewer special-education students than the district average.
Mastery CEO Scott Gordon was taken aback by Muhammad’s comments. The charter operator has the best record in Philadelphia of boosting student achievement within a neighborhood-based charter school.
"We believe every child can succeed, and I think we can prove that by the number of students who graduate Mastery, go to college, come back to the neighborhood, teach at Mastery," he said. "This is really about growing our youth and building our city."
In the jam-packed three and a half hour SRC meeting that followed, a central question arose that often sits at the center of big city school debates:
Can vast improvements be made at low-performing schools by providing consistent resources and supports? Or does it also take drastic shakeups in faculty and management?
Mastery Shoemaker principal Sharif El-Mekki testified for the latter:
"We recognize that funding is vital and not providing it is oppression," he said. "But we also know that our community was being failed by adults for years. From my 23 years of experience, I know that adults’ mindset coupled with proper funding can be the difference-maker."