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Steel parents face daunting decision: Go charter or stay with District?

By Bill Hangley Jr. on Apr 24, 2014 03:36 PM
Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

Union supporters demonstrate in front of Steel, hoping to convince parents to keep the school under District control.

Parents of the Edward T. Steel School face a choice: Stay with the District or become a charter?

For Lamaine Robinson, a Steel graduate and now a high school sophomore at Mastery’s Gratz campus, the answer is clear: The District shouldn’t mess with what he considers success.

“Gratz is cool, but I want to support Steel. This is my home school, where I first started,” Robinson said, as he stood outside the K-8 school in Northwest Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood. He recalled Steel as a safe and friendly place that prepared him well for high school.

“This is where my classic memories are at, where all my friends are at,” Robinson said. “Everything was just fun about Steel.”

Steel is one of two schools that could be transferred to charter operators as part of the District’s Renaissance initiative. On Wednesday night, it hosted the first of two meetings that will take place before May 1, when parents will vote on its future.

On the sidewalk, a small cluster of red-shirted teachers and union supporters chanted and held up signs in favor of keeping the school under District control. Nearby, Mastery staff and supporters made their own case to parents and reporters.

Inside, District staff and charter operators presented their competing visions for the school in a boisterous and emotional meeting. The passionate crowd included a number of riled-up Steel teachers.

Most attendees appeared to favor retaining the school’s District status.

“Come on – all teachers are created equal,” said Kevin Wingfield, a Steel parent and School Advisory Council member. “You want to kick these ones out and bring in some new ones that don’t even know your kids? My dad sent me here. I have 11 brothers and sisters and we all got a good education. My kids go here, my grandkids go here.

“It’s a community. The teachers will walk around to your house.”

Levette Parish, a teacher at Steel, called the school a “family.”

“These children know us. They are comfortable with us. They come to us for everything,” Parish said. “This isn’t just a normal school.”

But other parents were less certain about the school’s capacity to improve, particularly in light of the District’s dire financial situation.

“I don’t think you really can do that well, not having enough resources for the children,” said Vaniece Young, whose daughter is in pre-K.

“I really don’t know what you guys offer me – and I’m not thoroughly impressed with what I’ve seen,” said another neighborhood mother, Sherika McLean.

To charter or not to charter: 'A big decision in a short time'

No one denies that the question of the Steel’s future has been fast-tracked. Parents and Steel staff have had only a few weeks to prepare for the coming Renaissance vote.

“This is very awkward,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon as he began his presentation. “You have a very big decision to make in a very short time.”

District officials told the audience that their goal was to halt Steel’s recent academic slide. The school made adequate yearly progress (AYP) until several years ago, when it expanded from K-5 to K-8; since then, its test scores have been sinking at about the same rate as the District as a whole.

“We feel an incredible urgency as we see what’s happening with the students in the schools here,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn. He assured the crowd that “Mastery has been successful” improving similar schools.

Mastery officials promised that teachers, students and parents alike would receive a significant boost in support under Mastery. Flanked by a dozen Mastery staff and supporters, Gordon told parents that if Mastery wins the Steel charter, the school will remain a neighborhood school open to all.

“Mastery does not kick kids out,” said Gordon, adding that the charter operator has cut the number of students departing Gratz in half since taking over the school. “That is true across Mastery schools. … More children from the neighborhood stay in the school,” he said.

He also sought to dispel the notion that Mastery is in it for the money. “We’re a public school. We’re not a private school. I’m driving a 2007 Prius. We are not making money on each additional school,” Gordon said.

Gordon and the Mastery team went on to describe a plan to boost the school’s resources and performance.

“We like to educate the whole child,” said Jovan Weaver, an administrator at Mastery’s Hardy Willliams charter school in Southwest Philadelphia, who would come to Steel if Mastery wins its charter. “Art. Music. Science. Gym. Anger management. Conflict resolution. Clubs. Sports. You name it, we have it.”

A particular focus was on intense support for teachers: coaching, professional development, classroom assistants and more.

“There’s great teachers at District schools and great teachers in charter schools,” said Weaver. “What’s different is the amount of support we give to our teachers.”

A passionate defense

Steel’s principal, Mary Bonner, presented her own vision for the school, fiercely defending its record in the face of budget cuts and the K-8 expansion.

“We can take a little bit and make a lot happen,” said Bonner, who has been at the school for eight years. “We were on a mission long before Mastery showed up at our door.”

Bonner's plan involves creating individualized plans for each student and connecting them with appropriate academic supports.

“We had exactly 13 days to get prepared for this, while we were doing our PSSAs,” she said. “If we have it ready in 13 days, we must be doing something right.”

The school’s foundation is solid, she said: It relies on the state curriculum, has a strong base of community and parental support, and made AYP for three years straight from 2006 to 2008.

Since then the school has added grades and lost staff – unwelcome moves driven by District policies, she said.

“If Steel is struggling somewhere, Steel will not take the blame for that ourselves,” she said to a loud round of applause. “We are a public school.”

Bonner said she and the faculty have been working on an improvement plan since September, looking at data to evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses. Among her goals is to have a “personalized education plan” for each student that connects them to the academic supports they need. She named some computer-based commercial and test-prep curricula, including First in Math, Study Island. Achieve 3000, and Learning A-Z.

She rattled off long lists of community partnerships and dreams – she hopes, for example, to get laptops for all 3rd graders and parent volunteers in every classroom – and stressed the school’s personal touch.

“Our teachers never leave. They retire. And they come back. Am I right, Steel?” she asked, to a rousing cheer.

But she also admitted that, unlike Mastery, she can’t promise an influx of new staff and resources, or even a new paint job.

“Do you as the principal admit you need help?” asked one parent.

“Definitely,” Bonner answered. “Limited resources do have an impact on our school. … We’d love to have a librarian. But our children are still going to read. Our charge is to find a way for our children.”

An emotional debate

Parents said the accelerated Renaissance selection process has created a charged atmosphere.

Robert Stewart, a Steel alum and parent of a 1st grader, said he’s been approached by Mastery supporters every morning for weeks. “Every day I get the same piece of paper – they ask, ‘Are you a parent?’ Are you a parent?’” he said with a laugh. “You get to where you don’t want to look them in the eye so they won’t ask you.”

Stewart praised the school and its staff; one dedicated teacher turned his struggling son into a star student, he said. “The teachers here really care. That’s why I’m here,” he said, pledging to vote to retain District control.

But others aren’t so sure. Parent Jenia Jolley said that no matter what the principal promises, the record shows a decline, and no improvement plan can work without finances to back it up.

“What if the School District doesn’t support that plan? If it stays Steel, how are they going to support it to make the school better?” she asked.

Jolley said the boisterous atmosphere around the Renaissance debate has turned her and other parents off. She nodded in approval as a fellow parent, McLean, told Bonner that she was “totally appalled” by the loud cheers of the teachers during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The teachers were not shushed while people were talking,” McLean said. “Your teachers’ actions have not made me say, ‘I want to send my child here.’”

Bonner defended her staff, who learned of the Renaissance selection just two weeks ago, in the midst of the annual PSSA testing process.

“If you see them acting and reacting in a passionate way, it’s because they are fighting – fighting for their school, fighting for their jobs,” she said. “They’re in a very special place. I’ll apologize to you if you were offended … but I assure you, they are professional people.”

Jolley said later that, as a supporter of the now-closed Germantown High, she understood why parents and staff were trying to save the school they’ve come to know over many years.

But at the same time, she said she’s confident that Mastery can deliver a better product. Asked if she’d vote for Mastery, Jolley said simply, “Heck, yeah.”

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Comments (34)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 24, 2014 4:34 pm
:Mastery can deliver a better product?" Is education for sale? It is marketable? Apparently, Mastery's CULTure is...
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 24, 2014 4:10 pm
The young man made a perfect case for retaining the school, and it's the same case we native Philadelphians have been making: We want our City to retain the character that all of these outside business folks have been working so hard to take away. This is a fight for Philly's soul the complete opposite from a "product."
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 24, 2014 5:27 pm
Don't get bamboozled parents. You should be demanding the school district provides the same resources to your schools that Mastery provides. Most schools in Philadelphia are following the same destructive pattern - closing schools, increasing enrollment at other schools, cutting resources, cutting staff, test scores declining, and then your school becomes the next closed school. My previous school worked hard to build a supportive community for teachers, staff, and families. Teachers knew their students, their siblings, cousins, parents, and grandparents. It wasn't perfect, but the staff was doing a great job. Now I am at a school where there are almost double the number of students as my previous school. It will take time to build the same feeling of community, as well as getting to know everyone. It won't happen in one year, but will take several years. I fear the SDP won't give my school the time to do this - to develop a functioning school with the massive lack of resources and support. Good luck Steel!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 24, 2014 8:36 pm
Get Ready Everyone, Watching the SRC tonight and they are using the school performance index to close a charter school, Walter Palm. Watch out School District of Philadelphia, schools will be closing next year. The funny side of things, the district has failed to give the formula of how they calculate. Been there done this.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 24, 2014 11:08 pm
We do our best for our children in this district! with little or fewer resources, our children get the bare minimal!! music? maybe? art double maybe? physical education is even compromised with testing!! who do you think has to cover? I am so done with this district!!!! testing is what it boils down to! How about many or our children do not perform we'll on written exams but the supports, the outlets that makes school fun! Isn't thats whats its about? Fun! Learning! excelling! performing! dancing and singing! outlets is this what we are fighting about? all of our children deserve a chance to participate in all things within their reach!
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on April 25, 2014 5:27 am
"Mastery does not kick kids out," claims Gordon. What he doesn't tell you is that they change the educational placement of students without re-evaluations, collecting data or having team meetings. I have received two special education students in the past few years where Mastery has issued stand alone NOREPs changing a student's placement from LS to ES in August, without any supporting documentation. The parents told me separately that they were told that their child would have to be placed in an ES classroom if they stayed at Mastery. The parents wanted the Least Restrictive Environment with more behavior supports tried first, but they were told "no." Interesting how that works...
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 27, 2014 9:15 pm
And what you are describing, LS Teach, occurs because parent's don't understand their rights. In the School District of Philadelphia, an LEA cannot change a placement permanently without a re-evaluation, new IEP, and new NOREP. The District can issue a 90-day NOREP while a reeval takes place. These parents need to elect for mediation, due process, or a lawsuit because what Mastery did is against the law. I suspect that these practices will come to light when there is a decision related to the ELC's complaint regarding Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth:
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2014 9:37 am
The young man speaks the truth. #wolfpack
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on April 25, 2014 9:32 am

"Student achievement is the civil rights issue of our time and the reason we exist."   From the Mastery mission statement

This from an organization that does not challenge in any way the inequitable distribution of school resources or the continuing inequality of wealth that leaves black people on the bottom.   The No Excuses mantra of Mastery along with its single minded emphasis on test scores and conformity to rules suggests that we should put aside the challenge to make our society one in which all people enjoy the same opportunites in favor of biting the bullet and making the best of it.   

Scott Gordon, six year old Prius aside, is a well compensated businessman who has little connection and understanding of the Nicetown community.  Mastery is the favored child of the hedge fund managers and corporate CEOs who have disinvested our communities and now want to make a buck from privatizing our schools.  That Gordon and his crew of achievement gap missionaries can get away with posing as friends of people of color is a sad commentary.

Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on April 25, 2014 11:45 am
I get the self delusional privateers...I get the Pennsyltucky politicians...I get Pileggi and Corbett...I will never understand Hite, Nutter, Blackwell, Mondesire, Seth Williams, Anthony Hardy Williams, Dwight Evans, Walter Palmer and every other AFAM "leader" in this city reversing 80 years of blood, sweat and tears that ALL truly evolved folks laid down in the name of equity in education. These people are re-engineering educational apartheid. For what? Some pie in the sky community center/jobs programs...these are schools that have limited funds...this has to end. I have no idea how these people look in the mirror...the Pennsyltucky racists can always wall off their guilt as they do not have to witness the destruction first hand... Those that "live" and "work" in this city who do the engineering for the rich will meet their maker and I pray for their rotten souls.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2014 6:36 am
But you understand going back to a system that has failed minority and poor children for decades? You blast corporate privateers, but do you really think that back room deals, inflated construction jobs and union leader payoffs are any different? You don't even know what you're fighting for, you've just been told to fight to maintain the status quo of oppression, corruption and greed.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2014 7:56 am
You do not have a clue what you are talking about! No one has ever said we want to "go back" to the status quo. The status quo is inequitable funding for urban schools. We want equitable funding, the same as they get in wealthy school districts, so we can give our students the education they need and deserve. Giving money to corporate profiteers will make things much worse and return us to segregation based on family income! The corporate profiteers are the same people who have been saying funding urban education is a "waste of money" for decades. What has made them suddenly care about students in low income schools? They are hitting public education at its most vulnerable spot in order eventually privatize all public education so they will have a money pipeline to tax dollars.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2014 3:20 pm
Is no one going to touch the “Come on – all teachers are created equal,” statement? It's almost like when Jerry compared teachers to interchangeable chairs. (
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2014 3:48 pm
For decades underserved communities have been playing the school shell game (if there is a 'good school' in a neighborhood, I 'live' there). We have moved to 'better' neighborhoods to get 'better' education for our children. Many children started their trek to school early in the morning at their parents expense (no tokens provided by the district then because you never revealed that you were not in that catchment). If the district school in our neighborhoods were so great and so worth saving why are were we looking for ways out? Seeing dissatisfaction with the level of education in 'neighborhood' schools charters started popping up around Philly for various reasons; we need a school relevant to our culture, a school for children who learn differently, early track to college, religion etc. Nobody complained it was considered a choice and people pretty much left the little charters under the radar. When parents saw success in some of those schools and started to choose them more and more over their neighborhood school objection to began to grow. Meanwhile, the district continued to squander money and allow the neighborhood schools to continue to decline. Now that the 'chickens have come home to roost' and a good number of schools are in a piteous physical condition and are failing our children miserably; we want to save them? We want to keep the status quo? If that takes 5-10 years is it okay that children will miss quality education for that amount of time as long as it's fixed by then? Will those children get a do over? Everybody can do it better, everybody is to blame, everybody has the solution but right now children just need to get a good education. We shouldn't have to search for good education it should be in EVERY school. Factions have been battling so long they now just fight to be fighting. There is not common ground or desire for solution (that would end the battle) just be the last one standing. This is not an indictment of teachers or their sincerity. Nor should it be an indictment of charter schools that exist because of parental demand for their services and are really a byproduct of the district's inability to provide what it exists for. It is an indictment of a whole system that has lost it's purpose and lacks the ability to right itself.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2014 5:42 pm
What you are not understanding is that this is by design. There has been a deliberate policy to undermine urban public schools. That's why the state took over in 2001 and has made things progressively worse with high paid administrators brought in from outside. We have been set up for privatization over the last ten years and now they are ready to move in for the killing of public schools except for the children from low income families who are rejected by charters.
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