This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The District’s charter office is recommending that the School Reform Commission approve, with conditions, all three applications to convert District schools to charters.
The guidance includes Mastery Charter Schools’ bid to take over John B. Wister Elementary in Germantown, which had been pulled off the table by Superintendent William Hite, but was restored by the SRC in a last-minute resolution sponsored by Commissioner Sylvia Simms.
Hite cited signs of academic improvement at the school, measured by the District’s school rating system, as a reason for keeping Wister as a District-run school.
The two other applications are from the Great Oaks Foundation to operate Jay Cooke Elementary School in Logan and from Global Leadership Academy to run Samuel B. Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia.
In recommending a five-year charter for Mastery at Wister, the office said that the charter organization "has sufficiently demonstrated that it has the capacity, expertise, and track record to successfully conduct whole-school turnaround in Philadelphia. Mastery demonstrated evidence of reflective practices and has adapted to the specific needs of each of its schools."
The battle over Wister’s future has divided its Germantown community between Mastery supporters and others who want to see the school turned into a community school, a concept for school improvement that is being championed by Mayor Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke.
Of Mastery’s seven Renaissance schools in Philadelphia, one was inherited from a prior provider. It also operates two charter schools that were started from scratch – including one that it took over from the original founder – and three other schools turned over to Mastery under the administration of former District CEO Paul Vallas. It has also added grades in several of its schools.
"The application demonstrates an eagerness to work with the school community to demonstrate how the Mastery approach can most effectively accelerate student learning," the charter office’s evaluation of the charter application stated. "The establishment of a high quality K through 12 feeder pattern between Wister Mastery and Mastery Charter School — Pickett Campus will also provide for a continuum of quality educational services to students in Germantown."
The evaluation praises Mastery’s approach to school turnarounds. "Mastery has established a track record of turning around chronically underperforming schools and has been cited nationally as an example of successsfully executing whole school turnaround under a restart model."
It also cited a revamped educational strategy, dubbed Mastery 3.0, which "includes a focus on challenging students to think independently and a refocused set of discipline strategies based on Restorative Practices."
The two other applications have generated their own controversies as factions in the city line up on different sides of the school reform debate: Should the District add resources and wraparound social services to all schools or opt for drastic intervention and privatization in a few schools at a time?
Under the current funding system, each charter school, incuding turnarounds, comes with a cost that reduces services in District-run schools. Councilwoman Helen Gym last week told the SRC that "in choosing to pursue Renaissance charters, it is clear then that the District is making a choice to choose to invest in some students at the expense of others."
Last Wednesday, parents gathered outside Huey to protest a charter takeover. They say that what the school really needs is more resources and that parents have not been given sufficient voice in the decision.
The charter office found that the application for Huey from Global Leadership Academy is "rooted in culturally competent, progressive education that improves academic performance but also increases attendance and family engagement while decreasing student violence and suspension rates." GLA now runs a traditional charter, called Global Leadership Academy Charter School, but has never done a school turnaround.
According to the application evaluation, GLA’s academic plan will mirror the one at its charter "and will offer students at Huey an opportunity to experience a global studies curriculum." The application shows that GLA has planned adequately around its expansion needs, the charter office evaluators said.
Gym has raised questions about the fitness of Great Oaks to take over Cooke, citing its lack of experience in turnaround and an academic model that relies primarily on low-paid tutors hired through AmeriCorps. Great Oaks has only operated schools with 6th grade and beyond. Cooke is a K-8 elementary school.
The charter office recommendation said Great Oaks had "thoughtfully presented a plan to apply its unique academic and operational plan to a turnaround setting." Its turnaround approach includes "a research-driven curriculum and instruction, high-dosage tutoring, and high-impact community partnerships."
"Great Oaks asserts that students at Cooke will benefit from more time working in small groups and individually with tutors on a daily basis," said the evaluators.
The daily tutoring sessions "from a full-time, college-educated, trained tutor" will provide students "with differentiated instruction based on their skill level." The school also proposes an extended school year and a day that lasts from 8 a.m to 4 p.m.
At a meeting Thursday evening, the SRC will vote on these applications as well as whether to begin renewal or nonrenewal processes for nine other charters, including six Renaissance turnarounds. Four of the six have been recommended for nonrenewal.