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Parents weigh prospect of turning schools over to charter operators

  • steele 20140407 1093182723
    Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

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by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks

Tara Magras has close ties with Edward T. Steel Elementary in Nicetown.

She lives a block from the school, volunteers there almost everyday, entrusts her three young children to the faculty and staff.

Although she concedes that the school's "test scores are low," the prospect of Steel becoming a charter school makes her uneasy.

"I don't have anything against charters," she said in an interview outside of the school. "It's just that I like the teachers here."

Magras' reaction comes on the heels of the Philadelphia School District's announcement last week that it would like to add Steel and Luis Muñoz-Marín Elementary in Fairhill to its portfolio of "Renaissance" charter schools.

Right now, both schools are neighborhood pre-K-8 elementary schools that the District considers among its lower performers.

As Renaissance charters, the schools would continue to be required to serve all kids from the existing neighborhood catchment boundaries, but would be run by charter organizations that employ non-union staff and have more autonomy in how they control their budgets – creating greater flexibility in how the schools spend money.

The District has matched two of the highest-performing turnaround specialists in the city to the schools. Steel would become part of Mastery's network; Muñoz-Marin would go to ASPIRA.

Since 2010, the District has turned 20 schools over to charter organizations through the Renaissance initiative.

But this year, there's a new twist to the Renaissance conversion process: If parents don't like the plan, they can vote to keep the schools within the District.

Magras – who, in the past, has tried and failed to enroll her children at other charters through their lottery processes – wouldn't say how she would cast her ballot.

If parents at Steel vote to allow Mastery to manage the school, all staff would have to reapply for their jobs – a prospect that troubles Magras.

"You're waiting to get to Mrs. Kelly's class because everybody's talking about Mrs. Kelly," but then, when Mastery comes in, she explained, "It's time to go to Mrs. Kelly's class, and then Mrs. Kelly's not here no more. What'cha gonna do?"

"I'm not going to knock the Mastery charter school," she said, "but I think they just need to leave [Steel] as it is and work to make it better."

Another Steel parent, Dolores Waters, chimed in. No need to charterize the school, she says -- just provide more funding.

"I'm a product of Steel ... my mother's a product of Steel. ... Steel school's been in my family since forever," she said. "So we just kicking all this away because Mastery want to come in, instead of just giving money to help. It's not fair to these kids."

Waters has a daughter in Steel's 6th grade. Her son graduated last year and now attends Parkway Center City, one of the District's magnet high schools.

"And he's doing excellent," she said, "because he's a product of Steel."

Some Steel parents, though, plan to embrace Mastery's potential presence wholeheartedly.

"I think it's a good thing," said kindergarten parent Al Greer. "It'll get a better education for the children."

"I know charter schools," he said. "My oldest son, he was in a charter school and he graduated and is in college." (The oldest son attended one of Mastery's lottery-based charters.)

As he spoke, Greer held the hand of his kindergarten son, Semaj. "For his future, I'm voting yes," he said.

Read the rest of the story at NewsWorks

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