This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to turn over three more low-performing District elementary schools to charter operators as part of its Renaissance turnaround initiative — Jay Cooke in Logan to the Great Oaks Foundation, John Wister in Germantown to Mastery, and Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia to Global Leadership Academy.
At the end of a nearly five-hour meeting, at which more than 60 members of the public spoke, the SRC delayed voting on four existing Renaissance charters recommended for non-renewal: Olney High School and Stetson Middle, run by ASPIRA; and Audenried High and Vare Middle, run by Universal Companies.
The three charter conversions elicited both cheers and jeers from a room packed with both supporters and opponents of the District’s policy of using charter operators to turn around low-performing District schools.
Germantown resident William Jackson has children attending Mastery-Pickett, which serves grades 6-12. “Like, I’m a big guy and I don’t beg too often, but I would bend the stars and jump on the moon for my kids. And I beg you, let’s build a pipeline from Wister to Pickett, to combat the pipeline to prison,” Jackson said.
Grandmother Anita Hamilton sent nine children to Wister, but said conditions in the school have deteriorated over the past 10 years. Her grandson is now in 2nd grade.
“Before Mastery came into the picture, my daughter was going to home-school him. That’s how bad it was,” she said. School leaders "weren’t willing to work with parents to make things better.”
Wister parents came out in force. The school’s conversion has been steeped in controversy, ever since the SRC overruled Superintendent William Hite with a last-minute resolution introduced by Commissioner Sylvia Simms. Hite had initially recommended Wister for charter conversion, then changed his mind after reviewing data he said showed that students at the school were making some improvement.
Simms has come under scrutiny for not fully disclosing work that her sister, Quibila Divine, has been doing to mobilize parents in the Wister neighborhood, work that could pose a conflict of interest for the SRC member. Several people at the meeting called on her once again to recuse herself from the vote, which she did not.
A recusal would have sunk the bid: SRC Chair Marjorie Neff said she would vote against all Renaissance charter conversions, citing their impact on District finances, and Farah Jimenez recuses herself on matters involving Mastery because her husband does legal work for them.
Opponents of the conversion said that Wister should be turned into a community school with added resouces for students and their families, citing the many partnerships it already has in its historic community. They blamed the school’s current low achievement on a lack of sufficient resources.
Many speakers decried the entire enterprise of handing over District schools to private management as betraying democratic ideals. One was University of Pennsylvania graduate student Richard Liuzzi.
"What I’ve observed since the beginning of the school year has been the undemocratic assault on the Huey, Cooke, and Wister communities, all in the name of turnaround, which for far too long in this city has meant a neoliberal agenda that seeks to take our greatest public good – our schools – and hand them over to private interests more interested in profits and propagation than people," he said.
After the vote, Councilwoman Helen Gym, who had urged the SRC to put a moratorium on the Renaissance initiative, blasted the SRC. Gym had issued a report Wednesday using data to question whether existing Renaissance schools were primarily serving students in their neighborhood, as is their mission.
SRC members asked about Gym’s analysis and were told that the charter office is looking at the numbers and that there are reasons for the high percentages of out-of-District students at Renaissance charters. One is that students at Renaissance charters are permitted to keep attending if they move out of the catchment, as are their siblings.
Gym said, "Once again the SRC and District have ignored troubling data, budget deficits, and even ethics to pursue reckless charter expansion, using inexperienced and flawed charter operators, no matter the cost to District students. Everything they claim to represent – high-quality seats, service to neighborhood kids, smart budgeting – is contradicted by their vote tonight."
She had also criticized the fitness of Great Oaks Foundation to run Cooke, citing its model of using young, minimally paid tutors and the fact that it has never done turnaround nor worked with students in lower grades.
The District’s charter office recommended turning over all three schools.
The surprise postponement of voting on the charter non-renewals came after SRC member Bill Green cited the impending release of a report by City Controller Alan Butkovitz on the charter operators. Green said the SRC had been informed that afternoon that Butkovitz planned to release the report after the SRC vote.
Although Green questioned the timing – saying that he didn’t put much stock in the contents of the report and that it would most likely be geared to, presumably, anti-charter "puppetmasters" – he said it was better to wait to vote.
"Although I have extreme doubts that the controller’s report will shed any light on how I might vote – as the charter office actually are experts at reviewing charter schools – I believe we should wait and see what the controller has to say.”
He also said he didn’t receive the entire resolutions until right before the meeting started at 4 p.m.
Students and others from Audenried, Vare, Olney, and Stetson came to passionately defend their schools and urge the SRC to renew them.
Officials from Universal questioned the school evaluation metrics used by the District’s charter office, arguing that their schools did better than most of their peer schools – including Mastery Simon-Gratz, which was recommended for renewal – on several academic indicators.
Students from ASPIRA’s Olney High School said their school was like "family" and had put them on a path to success.
In recommending non-renewal, the charter office had severely criticized the operational and financial management of ASPIRA. Commissioner Feather Houstoun, in agreeing to the postponement, made it clear that ASPIRA is on thin ice with her.
"I am definitely against renewal until I see a guarantee of curative actions on governance and financial matters," she said. Mildly improving academics "doesn’t outweigh the seriousness of the problem here. I don’t think the School District can tolerate that level of refusal to play by the rules."
The SRC voted to renew two charters — YouthBuild, a second-chance school for older youth seeking a high school diploma and Harambee Institute, one of the city’s oldest charters, which had recently fallen on some rough times. Its CEO is former SRC Chair Sandra Dungee-Glenn, who came to speak on its behalf. It was renewed with conditions.
YouthBuild was renewed without conditions. Several speakers, students and graduates, described it as a place that changed their lives and put them on a path to a future. YouthBuild "believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself," said alumna Chalisha Clemens.
Charter office staff pulled from the agenda resolutions to renew the charters of three Mastery schools — Clymer, Gratz, and Shoemaker. Several legal and procedural issues still had to be worked out before charters could be signed, said both District and Mastery officials.
Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks contributed to this story.