This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At what promises to be a long and contentious meeting Thursday night, the School Reform Commission plans to vote on whether to hand over three more low-performing schools to charter operators – Wister in Germantown, Jay Cooke in Logan, and Samuel B. Huey in West Philadelphia.
It will also vote on whether to renew nine other charters, including six that are Renaissance turnaround conversions of District schools. Of those six, the charter office recommended not renewing four. (The office recommended renewal for a seventh former District school, Mastery Shoemaker, which was converted in 2006 before the Renaissance initiative.)
Nearly 70 people have registered to speak at the meeting, which starts at 4 p.m.
Councilwoman Helen Gym is urging the SRC to put a moratorium on conversions, citing an analysis by her staff indicating that some Renaissance charters serve a smaller proportion, and in some cases a smaller number, of neighborhood students than the schools did when run by the District. Gym has also raised questions about the fitness of Great Oaks to operate Cooke.
The controversy over the SRC’s embrace of turning around underperforming schools primarily through privatizaton has split political factions in the city and roiled neighborhoods. In some low-income communities, it has set parents and neighbors against each other in the quest for the quickest and best path to better educational opportunities for their children.
The battle became even more heated this year around the fate of Wister Elementary. Superintendent William Hite at first recommended that the school be turned over to a charter operator, but then changed his mind, he said, after reviewing data that showed some academic growth under the District’s management.
Subsequently, Mastery – the biggest and most successful turnaround operator in Philadelphia – and allied pro-charter forces mounted a major effort to secure Wister. They won a surprise vote in the SRC after Commissioner Sylvia Simms submitted a resolution to disregard Hite’s change of heart and two other SRC members backed her.
Mastery plans to come to tonight’s meeting with the signatures of more than 300 families who want to send their children to a Mastery-Wister school. This year, total enrollment at Wister was 369 students in grades K-8.
“These numbers prove that families in Germantown are not afraid to stand up and say, ‘We deserve a better school for our children,’" Mastery CEO Scott Gordon said in a statement. "We presented the facts and offered a real opportunity for parents to realize necessary change, fast, and you can see the results in the number of families signing on even before we have been awarded the privilege of partnering with the school.”
Mastery operates most of the other neighborhood schools in Germantown, including Pickett, a grade 6-12 school that students from Wister could attend. The charter office cited that fact, of having what’s called a "feeder pattern," in recommending that the SRC award the school to Mastery.
The office also recommended that Huey be turned over to Global Leadership Academy, and Cooke to the Great Oaks Foundation. Unlike Mastery, neither operator has ever done a school turnaround.
Also on tonight’s agenda are resolutions to renew, with conditions, two Mastery-operated schools: Simon-Gratz High School and Clymer Elementary. No Mastery school has ever been recommended for non-renewal.
Four Renaissance schools have been recommended for non-renewal: Olney High School and Stetson (grades 5-8), both operated by ASPIRA; and Vare (grades 5-8) and Audenried High School, operated by Universal Companies. One other Universal-run school, Bluford, is undergoing the non-renewal process. Another facing non-renewal, Young Scholars-Frederick Douglass, arranged to cede management to Mastery.
A pro-charter organization, PennCAN, issued a statement to "cautiously support" the non-renewal recommendations, because, unlike in the past, they are "based on a rigorous review of the schools’ progress towards meeting clearly defined standards of academic performance, organizational compliance and financial health."
The head of the District’s eight-person charter office, DawnLynne Kacer, has said the high rate of non-renewal recommendations is a sign that the Renaissance initiative is being monitored well and working.
But Gym and other critics – citing the District’s budget austerity, schools without basic services, and a teacher recruitment and substitute crisis – maintain that the Renaissance initiative is misguided and destructive to the larger mission of assuring a high-quality education for all students in the city.
"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," she told the SRC at its budget hearing last week. "The alternative is to take an approach of a strong restoration agenda that rebuilds confidence in our public schools and sees essential services as mandates, not subjected to discretionary fancy. It’s a path that values systemwide investments for every child in every school and sets a baseline for staffing, programs and resources that seeks equity. "
On the eve of the meeting, Gym released a now-and-then analysis of enrollment patterns at Gratz, Clymer, Stetson, Olney, Audenried, and Vare since their conversion to Renaissance charters. It indicated that most are serving a smaller proportion, and number, of neighborhood students than were enrolled at the schools before they became charters. This defeats the purpose, she said, and it is more costly to the District if students are drawn from outside a school’s attendance zone.
Her office’s analysis of publicly available District enrollment numbers showed, for instance, that in 2015, Gratz had more than 10 percent fewer students from the catchment area than in 2010. Now, more than half of Gratz’s students live outside its attendance zone. In 2015, Olney had 253 fewer students from the catchment area than it did in the year before conversion, she said.
The reason for the decline should be explored, she said. It is important to know "whether the decreases in charter enrollment may also represent a decline in the student-age population or families ‘voting with their feet’ to leave these charters."
She also said that if these Renaissance charters are enrolling significant numbers of students from outside their catchments, they cut more deeply into the District’s limited funds.
"Renaissance charters are supposed to be more cost-neutral than start-up charters that take students citywide," she said. "But that’s not the case if the student population for Renaissance charters is coming from other schools. If we estimate the average per-pupil expense to the District as approaching $10,000 per additional charter school student, the District’s stranded costs for those 1,600 additional out-of-catchment students is thus likely to amount to more than $15 million per year, just from these six schools alone."
Charter proponents have said that an increase in out-of-catchment students indicates that the schools are more popular with parents as a better option for their children.
PennCAN’s Jonathan Cetel, in supporting the nonrenewal recommendations for the four Renaissance charters, said "a struggling Renaissance school leaves its community with a choice between two equally regrettable options." Although it is "unfair" to renew a school failing to meet standards, he said it is "more unfair to return it to District control."
Watch the SRC meeting live online or on PSTV Comcast channel 52.