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Parents weigh prospect of turning schools over to charter operators

By the Notebook on Apr 8, 2014 03:00 PM
Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Tara Magras and her daughter Anyssar, a pre-K student; Anwar, in kindergarten; and Amirrah, in 3rd grade, live around the corner from Edward Steel Elementary.

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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Comments (31)

Submitted by Helen Gym on April 8, 2014 3:05 pm

And once again: Just to make it clear. The District is willing to assume $4,000 per pupil in whatever "stranded" costs just to convert a school to charter, but has no plan for putting additional resources toward District-managed schools. That is not an investment. That is an abdication.

Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on April 8, 2014 3:42 pm
Yes, also the District is composed of human beings. What kind of person would favor one child over another and defend that position as morally appropriate? Answer--Bull Connor, David Duke, and George Wallace and others of that ilk. Their agenda is clear and it's called Apartheid. It's appalling and mind numbing that in 2014, The Supreme Court is even listening to such garbage. WE ALL need to be very afraid.
Submitted by anon (not verified) on April 8, 2014 6:32 pm
i like how they set up the election - let's have two - one for all the parents and one for just a few select members (that we can try to maybe wine and dine) and if perchance we get a split decision, well we'll just flip a (two-headed) coin, ("we call heads") and cast an unbiased tie-breaking vote ourselves. surely you trust us, don't you? "For each school, the district will hold two votes – one for parents regularly participating in the school advisory council, the other a general election for all parents. If the results of these two tallies are at odds, the district will make its own recommendation to the School Reform Commission, but said it could not yet explain how it would choose between the two results."
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2014 7:14 pm
Yep. Once again: "In making his objections, Dworetzky raised sensitive questions about equity within the District in this time of austerity. 'You've got to keep track of where the money's coming from, and this money is coming from everybody else!' Dworetzky said. 'It’s not like it’s just coming out of the air. It has to come from the other students. Dworetzky was the only one of the five commissioners to vote against accepting the money from PSP for the three schools."
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2014 6:03 am
Dear. Ms. Gym, I am not an educator so perhaps you can explain the "stranded" cost concept a little better to me. It is my impression that a charter school actually gets less per capita funds from the District by state law and also has the obligation of arranging for its own facility. So a charter, bottom line, makes due with less cash. If the administration chooses not to make administrative cuts since they are operating less schools, then their administrative costs go up, leading to the "stranded" costs concept. But that its an accounting issue, not a cash issue. If in fact every school was a charter school, would there be one iota of more cash expended by the School District? Perhaps you can clarify this point for me.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2014 7:25 am
Perhaps this will help you understand. (I'd show you a chart of CEO, who are not principles, salaries, but that is kept a closely guarded secret.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2014 1:11 pm
Thank you for the citation. This article did not answer my fundamental question. Let me rephrase. Assume each student is funded at roughly $14,000 per capita in regular schools. The article you cited says that each regular student going to a charter school is allocated only $8,100. That's $8,100 the District doesn't have to spend on students that are no longer in regular schools. If the School District opts not to reduce administrative costs or numbers of teachers no longer needed (since there are less students attending regular schools), their per capita costs to operate the schools goes up (is this the stranded costs)? I suspect the $8.7 million "lost" to the District by enrollment overages at charters reflects about 1,075 students at $8,100 each that have been enrolled in charter schools over the approved caps. But the money is following the student, as it should, shouldn't it? Bottom line, the total number of kids in school, both charter and regular, hasn't changed. The total expenditures from public funds hasn't changed. So we're fighting over allocations, and it appears to me the charter schools (exclusive of necessary contributed income) are operating at well under the per capita average for the District. If any of your readers can explain this more clearly, I would be most appreciative.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on April 12, 2014 3:58 pm
Charters actually spend slightly more per students than District public schools - This is from The Notebook, Jan. 30, 2014 - "Masch: Claim that charters get less money per student than District schools is false."
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 12, 2014 4:29 pm
Yes, "stranded costs" basically reflect the SDP's inability to adjust to loss of enrollment. Evidence the difficulty and time which it took for them to try and downsize. (My neighborhood K-8, which was finally closed after steadily losing over 200 of its once over 600 annual enrollment had, with the exception of a couple of grades, class sizes of 10 or less.) The ultimate irony is, this factor was uncovered/quantified by the BCG (Boston Consulting Group, most famously vilified as being pro-charter even after shedding light on this), in a study funded by the W.Penn foundation. It became critical when the State stopped reimbursing the home districts for charter transfers. The charter funding formula was set up to give charters the same amount per student that the home district spends per child, on educational expenses (capital expenses, transportation, Federal grant funding, debt expenses, etc. excluded). The key word is "spends". As the enrollment dropped, the per child expenditure in underutilized schools went up (you have nearly the same amount spent overall for fewer children), driving the average per child expenditure up for the SDP. This "inflated" per child amount must then be paid to charters, which just starting out, generally did not have the same underutilization problems. Charters also can be reimbursed for facility rental by the State, and transportation costs are taken care of by the State. If they do not provide extracurricular activities, the home district by law must provide them to enrolled charter students. Thus the idea that charters are making due on less per child, is erroneous. So the "jury is out" on whether the extra cost of independent administrations that exists with charters, balances the bureaucratic waste of a large single government administration, that would be the SDP. How the charters adjust to the recent attempts at downsizing of the SDP will also be something to watch.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2014 5:16 pm
Ms. Cheng, Many thanks for your most helpful explanation. I agree with your assessment that the "jury is out" with respect to cost issues (and probably with respect to educational issues also). Were there a fast track to educational success, we would find a way to deal with cost issues. On the educational front, clearly there are successful public schools and unsuccessful charters. While the latter seem able to survive too long, we seem equally unable to duplicate successful public schools within the existing system. One would have to also concede on the opposite end of the spectrum that there are some very successful charter schools and more than a few failing public schools. So, on the one hand, can you scale up charter school successes while eliminating the scammers? In some places, it seems you can. It's just too simple to paint all charters as the financial playgrounds of demagogic plutocrats, or that their successes are only due to "creaming" the best and brightest. On the other hand, can you duplicate successful public schools within the current system as structured? I'd like to think we can, but it seems not. An educational victory is sustaining a successful public school against all the myriad challenges. With this landscape, not a happy one, I would be inclined to defer to parents, not politicos, union ideologues, or visionless administrators. Well, I guess I've taken a shot at everybody. Sorry, just a cynical retiree who has been around a long time (I was already out of school when Mark Shedd was thrown into the fray).
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on April 12, 2014 9:02 pm
First, we have to define "success." The School District "duplicated" SLA - a highly selective magnet school. In order to duplicate the model, they had to duplicate the enrollment requirements and selectivity. The 3 new high schools, while not magnet, have a lottery and an enrollment process. They are NOT neighborhood schools. They will NOT have to take students year round and anyone in a catchment. There are many successes in schools with low scores. Fair and equitable evaluation is necessary before we determine Gleason's "losers." To date, few charters have been closed (e.g. Community Charter, True Bright, etc. are still open. World Communications Charter was given 5 more year despite low test scores. Other schools with financial scandals are still open and were given extensions. Hardy Williams Charter was to close - it was turned over to Mastery and now is buying a former District school. The list goes on...)
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 12, 2014 9:56 pm
Thanks for your reference to Mark Shedd. I've only lived in Philly for 18 years, so I had to look him up. Wow, what struggles he must have had. It is important to see the connection between what has been done and where we are today. So thanks again. Being a volunteer nearly every day at my neighborhood school, it was frustrating and sad to see the negative effects on the morale (and ultimately teamwork) of the teachers by the bureaucratic policies set by the SDP. In addition, our school's principal was not a strong leader, and struggling with a serious illness, was essentially absent. This only exacerbated the lack of teamwork. Since we are talking about money, it was also frustrating to see the waste of a great amount of Title I dollars. A lot of the "compliance" routed money away from its purpose to enrich the impoverished/disadvantaged kids. It kept a lot of paper work and office workers employed instead. Easy to see how successful schools would not be reproduced with such bureaucratic power issues existing. A greater focus on principals might help, but how would that happen without a change of the current power structure? Charters propose to offer the solution to the power structure, but as we are seeing, there is a problem with adequate oversight. The criticism of unequal resources is a valid one also. I do not believe it is intentional, but it is happening nevertheless. The SDP lost a historic opportunity when they did not follow up on BCG's proposal to create a different administrative structure of "achievement networks" of schools with similar strategies. What this might have done was bring more autonomy of decision making that is the advantage of charters, to the SDP traditional schools, while keeping the sharing of resources that is the advantage of working in the larger structure. But of course the idea was too novel to get great support, and the popular vilification of BCG did not help.
Submitted by anon (not verified) on April 8, 2014 3:13 pm
Based on the test scores, there is statistically no difference in reading. There is in math but again, it is not enough to give up on the schools. According to Khin Mastery wants STeel and Aspira wants Munos. ASPIRA claims "this is our community." So, are we going to divide the city up into "our community" and "their community?"
Submitted by Olney E Boyz (not verified) on April 8, 2014 4:31 pm
Why is ASPIRA still in business? They stole public money earmarked to their students to pay their lawyers in the defense of a lawsuit for intimidating teachers who wanted to unionize. How is ASPIRA, a company who steals from students, allowed to open another school?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2014 5:28 pm
They gots the hook up, period, end of story.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2014 5:39 pm
The SDP is really not giving parents a fair choice. Parents should be very concerned and irate to see how the SDP is trying to manipulate them and use them as pawns in the dismantling of public education. How dare the SDP release more funds for students in charter schools than students in public schools. If they keep claiming charter schools are public schools, then why isn't my school getting an extra $4,000 per student? Parents be warned. If these schools are turned over to charters and your children have disciplinary issues, expect them to be counseled out of the school. It is happening. My school has gotten numerous students from charter schools in the last month. Other teachers I know are going through the same thing at their schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2014 5:06 pm
They want to segregate the school by family income.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2014 7:29 pm
Parents, please don't be swayed and bribed. Charters have not proven to have any significant gains over public schools. Funding public schools instead of charters will make the improvements needed for ALL schools to be successful.
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on April 8, 2014 8:59 pm
As far as I know there are no more pre-k head start programs located in charter schools. If parents chose a charter operator I would ask if you will still have a pre-k program come the fall.
Submitted by Teachin' (not verified) on April 8, 2014 10:44 pm
Parents, don't allow yourself to buy the lies. The charters are a money-making operation and your children are mere cogs in their wheels. How many of your kids will grow up to be professional test-takers? What good do you think it will do your children to spend all of their school time (you can't really call it an education) being taught to take a test?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 11, 2014 9:02 am
As a parent of a student at Steel, I am amazed about how hard many (not all) of the teachers at Steele are willing to work to keep their jobs over the last few days and how the Principal puts on her Sundays best to rally up the troops to keep the school as a public school. Now, if they would only have used this energy everyday of the year to provide my son and the other students with the best education, we wouldn't be in this predicament. What a joke! Maybe there is value in not having a contract for teachers in that it pushes them to give 100% everyday, which is what our kids deserve. Change is obviously hard, but it also can be a good thing. With that, I am willing to take the leap of faith in selecting Mastery!
Submitted by mom on a mission (not verified) on April 11, 2014 6:52 pm
I agree It is sad that this is what it has come to but if its broke and they obviously are unable to fix it why not allow someone else to try.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2014 8:50 pm
Because it has deliberately been broken by starving the public schools since the state takeover. It is by design to make education a source of corporate profit.
Submitted by Susan Manbeck (not verified) on April 14, 2014 12:55 pm
Here is a sentence from an article about Mastery Gratz at axisphilly: Gratz has a slew of administrators—a sharp contrast to the barebones staffing in cash-strapped District schools. There are 23 on the Gratz management team, including two college advisers. Mastery will use your child as a pawn - a thing - to gain more and more money for its company. Your son may not develop meaningful relationships with any teachers as the attrition rate is very high. There is a 1 in 4 chance that the teacher who your son loves one year will be gone the next. Obviously this also means that the new teachers will not know your son and he will be one of many faces, just a number, to them. Let us also hope that your son has no behavior problems as there is a zero-tolerance policy of the school-to-prison pipeline kind. BUT, that said, perhaps your child will get books and other materials. You will also not have to spend time doing homework with your son because they will walk him through it. Let us know how it goes.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2014 1:11 pm
The parents are voting with their feet, and the arrogance of entrenched self-interest to defend a failing status-quo is stunning. Parents are not as stupid or uninformed as you infer. But then again, you, and only you (and your colleagues) know what's best for everybody else's children. Perhaps it's time to step back for a little introspection.
Submitted by mom on a mission (not verified) on April 11, 2014 6:06 pm
I would love to see Steel go to a charter based school it is better for the children's education after all that is the overall goal right? for a few years now Steel has tried to get their score up show some improvement but was/is unable to do so, so what happens now we continue to let the children suffer because we are afraid of "change"? It make no sense if it is in the best intrest of the children then what is the issue? Yes Steel has been in the community for years but unfortunately public school education is not what it once was, we are at a point where it isn't enough just to have a high, school diplomia, or even as far as a BA to be succuessful in this ever changing and growing society we have to strive for more Masters and PH.d Charter schools are prep based to lead, guide our children in that direction. I have children that have been to and graduated from Steel one has graduated from a Mastery school I have two who are currently Mastery students and on who attends Steel. so I know the benifits and the issues with both. I think it is time for a change and if Mastery is willing to come in and help our children get to where they need to be than we should be helping them not hindering them.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 11, 2014 7:59 pm
First, let me say this -- test scores alone do not tell the story of what a school does for its children and its community. A school, and children, are alot more than test scores. The test scores being used, as I will address at the next SRC meeting, have no credibility, validity or reliability. Cognitive ability of elementary children can not be validly assessed by any standardized test. The test scores certainly can not be used to judge the value of a school or to measure the whole of the achievement of its students. How do they compare to other schools of similar circumstances? Second, the School District has done nothing even arguably calculated to improve Steel. Have they lowered class size? Have they provided reading specialists for the needy students? Math specialists? Do they have a program to deal with student dyslexia? What has the district done to help the school? Instead, he school has been deprived of the resources it needs. Third, there is no parent trigger law in Pennsylvania and the way this has "gone down" is suspect and lacks credibility. It is a deal which was done in the back rooms of school district politics and the Gates Compact committee. The Steel parents have not been fairly and sufficiently informed of all the issues about what is happening. The question which begs for an honest answer is why can't the school remain a public school AND get the additional resources? Who has the guts to answer that question honestly? This is not about improving schools at all. It is all about giving a school to Mastery because Mastery wants that school to advance the agenda of Mastery. It is time to be honest.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 11, 2014 8:24 pm
What exactly is the agenda of Mastery? Provide students with a safe and rigorous learning environment? I find it very frustrating and somewhat hypocritical that you (Rich) were openly invited to a Mastery school and you had nothing but nice things to say once you visited, and yet you continue to bad-mouth them! You are a very smart guy and if you had the choice to send your son or daughter to Steel or Mastery there is NO doubt in my mind that you would send your kids to Mastery. It's just a better overall option. You also ask about what the district has done to help Steel and the real question should be what has the leadership in the building done to help Steel? The answer is not a god damn thing. The Principal is a joke and as a result Steel, its students and the community are at a severe disadvantage. If the school doesn't get taken over as least provide Steel with the best leader(s) possible.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 11, 2014 10:05 pm
Mastery's agenda is to privatize and run as many schools as possible. That is no secret. They openly advertise themselves as a charter school network. That is no secret. They are constantly sending groups of people to SRC meetings to lobby for more schools. They are constantly trying to manipulate things in their favor. While schools were closing last year and children were being displaced, Mastery was bringing busloads of children to 440 to promote Mastery. Mastery, as a CMO, is even moving into Camden. That is no secret. What I have witnessed in the last two years was Mastery putting its self interests above the interests of the common good of all schools and all students. What I saw when I visited Smedly was a good school which had all of the resources any school could ask. I wrote a very objective review of what I saw. I really liked the teachers and the principals. I could not do a full evaluation though, because I was only allowed to do a monitored walkthrough. However, the fact of the matter is that any elementary school can be a good school, if given adequate resources and effective leadership. What a good elementary school is and does is no secret. The best schools I have seen were regular public schools. We know what good schools are and look like. What the staff there has done and not done is a good question. I bet the answer is that they have done exactly what they were told to do by the management, and that they really had no control over the learning program. The leadership is Dr. Hite, his Team, and the SRC. The question is what have they done for Steel prior to turning it over to Mastery? Why was there no needs assessment ever done? Is our purpose to have a good neighborhood school for every child? Or, is our purpose to feed business opportunities? There are a host of ethical and legal issues here. We need to have open, honest, full public discussion of these issues. Everyone should be well informed. Every school should be well funded and well resourced. That is our first priority. It is my belief that every school should be run and led for the best interests of its students, their communities and the common good, not the best interests of those who want to run schools under a business model. I believe it is in the best interests of the community to have schools as true public schools where students, parents and teachers have rights as citizens. Think deeply about that. Think what public education means to a free America and Democracy itself.
Submitted by tom-104 on April 11, 2014 10:46 pm
The first day Bill Green took office this was said about his agenda: "In them, he envisioned a "recovery school district" model (similar to what's currently in place in Louisiana) that, in effect, would create two distinct landscapes of public education in Philadelphia. One landscape would include the district's well-performing schools, and the other would comprise the district's "failing" schools The former would be managed by a local school board appointed by the mayor; the latter would be managed by a intensive turnaround team overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Education." This is the plan. To bring back segregation for children from low income families. People in Harrisburg and in corporate education reform believe educating children in low income families is a waste of money. Therefore the public schools are being starved and the charters fully resourced. It has nothing to do with "performance" in public schools. It is about creating a privileged education sector and another sector for children who will be prepared for a life of menial labor or prison.
Submitted by Me (not verified) on April 14, 2014 9:22 am
So let me guess, you are a Mastery employee?

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