From a newlywed and new homeowner: Don't turn Huey into a charter
An open letter to Superintendent Hite
By Cecily Harwitt on Dec 1, 2015 03:29 PM
Dear Dr. Hite,
In my role as statewide campaign director for POWER Interfaith, I’ve sat across the table from you more times than I can count. For the last three years, I’ve been fighting for a full and fair education funding formula at the state level that would help all Philadelphia children get the incredible education that they deserve. I write this letter in that spirit, but in a different capacity – as a newlywed and new homeowner.
After living in and building community in West Philly, my husband and I were thrilled to plant roots here for the long haul. We were excited to be so close to beautiful Malcolm X Park and directly across the street from Huey School. Our neighbors, many of whom went to Huey themselves as children, welcomed us with open arms. We knew that Huey, like many under-resourced Philadelphia schools, was struggling, but we were ready to roll up our sleeves and see what we could do to support the school’s improvement.
But 12 days after we moved in, you made your announcement about turning Huey, along with Cooke and Wister, into Renaissance charter schools. As members of the school community, my husband and I have attended every community meeting your staff has held. Having spent a fair amount of time supporting the District, (he as a veteran teacher in both charter and traditional public schools; I as an education organizer) neither of us was prepared for the disenfranchisement and lack of agency we feel as stakeholders in this process.
For two months now, we’ve attended meetings that conveniently change location at the last minute, that present one-sided and misleading information about charter schools, and that tell parents they have a say in their children's destiny while eliminating their chance to vote on whether their school goes charter, which the last round of parents in their shoes had.
Assistant Superintendent Sean Conley has repeatedly pointed out that other District schools with similar demographics are doing much better. We understand the problems facing Huey: the declining enrollment, low test scores, an unacceptably low number of students reading on grade level. Also worth noting, though, is that Huey Elementary has 38 students in its kindergarten classroom and under your leadership has had three different principals. Put in context (severe state cuts that disproportionately impacted poor and minority students), it is no surprise that Huey and many of our public schools are struggling.
I have a few thoughts about the current proposal to turn Huey over to charter operators.
The absence of an in-District turnaround model that is viable and affordable signals a serious void in leadership. Why isn’t there a plan to examine what makes other District schools more successful? What resources is Huey lacking that other schools have? What can we learn from District schools that are improving? These findings are critical for supporting not just Huey but all schools throughout the District.
Charters are not a panacea. The Renaissance schools in particular have a mixed record, just like our public schools. As you know, three of the initial seven Renaissance schools have undergone another round of turnaround in just five years due to poor performance. That means that communities with the most vulnerable students are experiencing another round of instability. We don’t see neighborhoods with more people that look like my husband and me (i.e. White) being forced to constantly undergo this “shock doctrine” treatment.
Community engagement is key. Research shows that community and parent engagement is strongly linked to better student outcomes. Yet the community and parents of our school community, largely poor and black, have been told that they will not even have a vote in the matter. These actions help to further divide and disenfranchise communities.
My neighbors are taxpayers, and they are the experts on what their children need to be successful. Though I hate the reason, I love seeing my community join together to make their voice heard. That energy will be carried forward if we are given the opportunity to do what we all want to do: improve Huey together with adequate support, resources, and proven interventions from the District. We deserve that right.