Insider: The SRC May Be Sizing Up Your Neighborhood School Right Now

Saltz: Even if your school has dedicated parents and is showing signs of improvement, the SRC could still turn it into a charter. Just ask the parents at Wister Elementary.

Philadelphia School District Building

Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

Dear Parents: Pay attention.

The School Reform Commission wants to turn three neighborhood schools into charters. The community is outraged. The teachers are marching. The meetings are crazy. And that’s not going to make a difference.

On Jan. 21, the SRC’s monthly meeting devolved into bedlam when Commissioner Sylvia Simms motioned, with no public notice or invitation for comment, to begin the process of turning Wister Elementary over to Mastery Charter as part of the school district’s “Renaissance” initiative. (At the same meeting, the SRC also voted to start the procedure of handing Huey and Cooke Elementaries to charters.) Veteran education reporter Kristen Graham said it “may be the curviest curve” she had seen, and these are meetings that have led to union presidents being arrested and City Council members dancing to “Hotline Bling.” Simms’ motion passed anyway.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, guess what? The same thing could happen to your school.

Wister, Huey and Cooke all have involved parents. Wister has a strong following in Germantown and significant connections to politicians. It has fundraising. It has goals. It has volunteers. And now, the community no longer has control of its neighborhood school.

Simms, who has dodged ethical concerns and an incident where she screeched to protesting students that they were “probably in failing schools,” stressed that her decision stemmed from parents. “Families are literally crying for alternatives,” she told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. I was in the room when the SRC closed almost two dozen schools. Children were falling on the ground, sobbing for their schools. So much for caring about families’ cries.

Simms is the founder of a group called “Parent Power,” which may have been partially funded by the Philadelphia School Partnership, a lobbying firm that has donated millions to Mastery schools. The definition of “power” is worth examining. After two communities rejected charter takeovers in 2014, Simms and the SRC quietly stripped parents of the power to vote on proposed Renaissance conversions. Yes, placing the fate of a school to a majority is terribly contentious. But that incident should remind every parent that the people who will speak for you are under no obligation to speak with you.

(If you’re about to stop reading this article because your child goes to a parochial or private school, remember that taxpayers fork over about $4,000 more per child for each conversion to a charter, even though most charters do not perform better than traditional public schools.)

If you’re a parent who bought into a neighborhood hoping to join up with a rising school, you might think that your school wouldn’t even meet the criteria for a potential charter conversion. Joke’s on you: There is no criteria. There has never been a checklist or rubric released to tell parents if their school could be flipped like a Bella Vista rowhouse. Hite has promoted Renaissance turnovers as being for “low-performing” schools. But a quick glance of the data shows otherwise; if Hite really wanted to close the lowest-performing schools, he would immediately shut all of the cyber charters. Last month, the SRC chose to start the process of turning around three neighborhood schools instead.

Perhaps you think you can attend a neighborhood engagement meeting if officials pick your school for a Renaissance turnaround. Good luck finding the door if you do. At one such meeting about a proposed conversion at Cooke Elementary, the school district added double-secret, hush-hush barriers that confused parents. Maybe you think you’d make it to an SRC meeting instead. Sure. And after a few minutes of testimony, you could watch parents attack each other while lobbyists gleefully spectate like Romans in the Coliseum balcony.

Don’t can’t call your Councilperson, because they have zero say in the process. Don’t call the mayor, because he won’t be able to appoint a new SRC member until 2017. Don’t ask for the data, because the rules for test scores are somewhere north of Calvinball. Don’t ask for a vote or quorum or any semblance of democracy.

What can you, as a parent, actually do if your school is on the chopping block?

You can cry. Cry and pray that Simms or another SRC member deigns to hear your wailing. The SRC has torched the sunshine laws, given up any hope of legitimacy, and snubbed its own Superintendent Bill Hite, who recommended Wister continue to build on recent successes. SRC members seem to seize on public schools because no one can stop them. In that atmosphere, wailing as loud as you can actually makes sense.

Andrew Saltz has been teaching children reading and composition for eight years at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services. He is also a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_saltz.

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