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At Wister, parents and activists stage walk-in to protest Mastery takeover

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    Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

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With chants like "We're strong, they're wrong, we're gonna fight all day long," a few dozen parents, community leaders and city activists demonstrated Wednesday morning outside and inside Wister Elementary School to protest its impending conversion to a charter school.

The protest was part of a national event organized by the  Alliance to Reclaim our Schools (AROS), which said that similar events were occurring in 30 cities. AROS, which includes the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), is affiliated with the National Education Association and locally with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. PFT president Jerry Jordan participated and addressed the gathering.

Leaders said the idea was to symbolically walk into school buildings to "claim the campuses as an integral part of their communities."

The School Reform Commission decided last month to turn over Wister to Mastery Charter in a surprise vote after Superintendent William Hite had withdrawn his original recommendation to do so. Hite said achievement results showed that students at Wister were making academic progress and the school no longer warranted such "drastic" intervention.

But SRC member Sylvia Simms, saying she was acting on behalf of parents, introduced a resolution at the meeting that garnered enough votes to pass.

Parents and grandparents at the event expressed concerns that an important community institution will be lost and the charter takeovers amount to using their children as pawns in a high-stakes game.

"I feel like they're in it for the money," said Pat Poplar, who has a granddaughter at the Germantown school. She noted that her 24-year-old daughter had also attended the school, a neighborhood fixture since the 1950s.

Parent Sauda Muhammad said a takeover "wouldn't be fair." Her older daughter had a bad experience at Mastery-Pickett, she said.

Principal Donna Smith, who stands to lose her position in the conversion, along with all the teachers in the school, welcomed the protesters, who left after about 15 minutes in the school's entry corridor. 

 

She said she was concerned that Mastery will not accept all the students in the catchment area because she has seen students come to Wister after leaving Mastery schools elsewhere. She attributed higher test scores at Mastery schools to a policy of diverting students with disciplinary or academic issues.

"Where will the children go?" she said. "It's not about jobs. It's for the children."

Mastery has disputed the contention that it pushes out some students. Under the Renaissance schools initiative, charters are required to accept all students within the catchment area, but can divert some if they reach the enrollment cap. District schools that are at capacity can also send students elsewhere.

 

According to District data, about one-third of the students in the Wister catchment now opt to attend school elsewhere.

Wister is one of three elementary schools slated for charter conversion as of September, along with Cooke in Logan and Huey in West Philadelphia.

According to Politico's Morning Education roundup, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten joined a "walk-in" in Los Angeles, and Chicago was expecting 200 "walk-ins." 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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