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At Muñoz-Marín, a contentious lead-up to delayed Renaissance vote

By Bill Hangley Jr. on Jun 4, 2014 03:35 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook. 

When District officials delayed the vote on the Muñoz-Marín School’s future one month ago, they hoped the extra time would allow parents to become better informed about the choice they faced.

Instead, over the last four weeks, the campaign for the North Philadelphia school has grown increasingly contentious, culminating with a complaint filed this week by charter school officials against the School Advisory Council (SAC), alleging that the SAC had undercut their efforts to reach out to parents.

The vote is scheduled for Thursday.

Officials at ASPIRA Inc., a charter provider matched with Muñoz-Marín by District officials as part of this year’s Renaissance transformation process, say that SAC president Maria Cruz has effectively “sabotaged” their attempts to reach other SAC members and bring them on tours of its schools.

“She was against us,” said ASPIRA’s head, Alfredo Calderon. “I submitted a grievance.”

Cruz called Calderon’s allegations “a bunch of bullcrap,” saying that, even though she favors Muñoz-Marín personally, she discharged her duties as SAC president faithfully and never stood in ASPIRA’s way.

“I’m still standing and still fighting,” she said. “Ain’t nothing slow about Maria Cruz.”

District officials say they don’t have any response to the grievance right now. It does not appear that the complaint will have any impact on the two-part election, which will feature a popular vote of all Muñoz-Marín parents and a separate vote for eligible SAC members.

But it does put one more black mark on an election process that has featured mudslinging, scare tactics, and accusations by each side.

“They play very dirty,” said Muñoz-Marín’s principal, Ximena Carreño.

“The whole thing was pretty biased,” said Diana Dahl, director of business development for ASPIRA. “I feel like this is a no-win situation for both sides.”

The road to a grievance

Thursday’s vote will be the second of two Renaissance votes this year.

It was delayed by a month after ASPIRA officials and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez claimed that anonymous parents were complaining to them about the rushed process.

District officials agreed to the delay, saying they hoped it would give Muñoz-Marín’s newly formed SAC time to get better organized.

But over the last month, rather than cooling down, the situation “got more emotional,” said ASPIRA’s Dahl.

The process, like all Renaissance selections, was already emotional enough.

Muñoz-Marín was first named a candidate for Renaissance conversion in April, along with Steel Elementary in Nicetown. District officials hosted two informational meetings at the school, which were by all accounts lively and even contentious, featuring strong, vocal showings by the school’s teachers and their union.

District officials made the same case to Muñoz-Marín that they made to Steel, showing a steady decline in academic performance and arguing that, by their analysis, the school was among the District’s worst. School staff and ASPIRA made their respective pitches for transformation plans.

The school was set to vote when the District announced the delay. Quiñones-Sánchez, a former executive director of ASPIRA, went to the school to deliver the news in person.

Since then, District officials chose not to convene any additional public meetings.

Instead, they left ASPIRA to organize parent meetings of its own – an effort that was largely futile. At one meeting, held in the local recreation center, no parents showed up. At two others, one parent came.

Calderon tried to make the best of it. “One parent at a time,” he said during one meeting, smiling broadly as he stood in a room of empty chairs, near big trays of uneaten chicken and rice.

ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon talks to a Muñoz-Marín parent at the local recreation center. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)

 

His message to the few who came was clear. He and his staff stressed ASPIRA’s commitment to children, spelling out its approach to various challenges and denying that it will “kick kids out” if they don’t get with the program.

He also made a vigorous case against the status quo at Muñoz-Marín.

“Our teachers are younger. Our scores are higher,” he said. “Our trend is going up … their trend is going down.”

He warned parents not to believe all they heard from Muñoz-Marín supporters, showing them an anonymous flyer that he claimed parents had been given which included misinformation (school supporters say they never saw the flyer and had nothing to do with it; Calderon said he wasn’t sure where it came from).

He also stressed that Muñoz-Marín was one of 53 District schools flagged for possible cheating in 2009-2011. The same message turned up in ASPIRA flyers given to parents at the school, which noted that “Cayuga [Elementary]’s leadership has been arrested for their part in this. Are Marin and its teachers next on the list?”

Calderon’s pitch helped sway one of the few parents who heard it.

“At first I came here thinking, no way do I want charter,” said Michele Hampton, who spent an hour with Calderon and his staff, getting their undivided attention. “But I’m going to keep an open mind. … Even though I’ve backed the people at the school, I have to do what’s best for mine.”

But ASPIRA’s aggressive approach left the principal and the school’s supporters angered and insulted.

“They’re giving away a flyer saying I’m going to be the next one arrested,” principal Carreño fumed. “If they were so good, you don’t have to do that propaganda.”

She responded with an email to parents: “People who feel desperate act in ways to hurt other people,” she wrote. District officials followed up with a letter to parents of their own, disavowing the cheating connection.

The pot boils over

The simmering conflict between the two sides finally boiled over this week, after ASPIRA tried and failed to arrange a final, face-to-face meeting with Cruz and the entire SAC.

Muñoz-Marín’s SAC was created this year as part of the Renaissance process. Cruz said that about a dozen parents are members. To be eligible for the SAC vote, those parents have to take tours of ASPIRA schools.

ASPIRA believes that Cruz has been deliberately sabotaging their attempts to get SAC members out to those tours, canceling at least two dates, Calderon said. She would cite personal or family reasons, he said  (“there was always an excuse”), but he believed the real purpose was to thwart ASPIRA.

Cruz, while acknowledging that she’s a strong supporter of Muñoz-Marín’s current staff (her niece and nephew have had a bad experience at another ASPIRA school, she says), strongly denies any wrongdoing and notes that she and most SAC members took the required tours.

“They’re lying,” she said of ASPIRA’s allegations.

District officials confirmed that “at least” 11 SAC members – most or all of the parent members – took the tours and will be eligible to vote.

Nonetheless, Calderon decided last week that he wanted to meet with the full SAC. He says he requested a meeting at the school, through the District’s charter school office; Cruz said she replied that the SAC wasn’t interested. Carreño, the principal, said she was told by the District to host the meeting anyway.

Thus, on Monday, Calderon said, he and District officials arrived at Muñoz-Marín to find just one SAC member.

Calderon said he also found a PFT staffer (who said she was there to find out why the meeting had been called, in possible violation of District protocols, which prohibit direct contact between providers, school officials, and SAC members), along with three people from the political world: a representative from State Sen. Christine Tartaglione’s office, aspiring state representative Leslie Acosta (winner of the recent Democratic primary, virtually assuring her the seat), and Democratic ward leader Carlos Matos.

“They show up and sit there for the meeting,” said Calderon.

ASPIRA left in frustration. Carreño said she ended up in her office with a very unhappy Peng Chao, a staffer with the District’s charter school office.

“I said, 'Mr. Chao, calm down – I had nothing to do with what happened there.' But I don’t think he believed that,” Carreño recalled. “I said, ‘I told you, they don’t want to meet with Mr. Calderon. Why do you insist?’ They had their extra time … so why they continue with the situation? I don’t understand.”

ASPIRA officials, for their part, believe that the principal was more involved with thwarting the meeting than she let on. “Her partnership with Ms. Cruz is very clear,” said Dahl.

But there is no indication that ASPIRA’s complaints about the process will have any impact on the vote itself. “I don’t have any information on the grievance at this time,” said District spokesperson Raven Hill.

Election day: A repeat of Steel?

And for all the heat around the SAC vote, if history is any guide, the popular vote could render it relatively unimportant.

At Steel, whose Renaissance election was held a month ago, the SAC process was also hotly contested and ultimately bogged down in grievances about the District’s oversight. Those grievances were never resolved, in part because the popular vote was so decisive; parents voted 121-55 to reject their proposed charter provider, Mastery Charter Schools, and remain under District control.

At Muñoz-Marín, neither side is ready to declare victory or defeat, but both sides are well aware of the Steel results.

Calderon tried to put a good face on it: “We have a 50-50 chance,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the job we did.”

But he acknowledged that wooing parents away from the District is an uphill fight. “That’s all people know in the neighborhood – the District,” he said. “Even if it’s not working perfectly, they’d rather stay with it than try something different.”

And Dahl said the mood around ASPIRA is more one of resignation than optimism. “It is what it is,” she said. “It’s possible that how things went for Mastery is how they’ll go with us.”

Meanwhile, school supporters remain cautiously optimistic. Their strategy is to get the vote out. On a rainy day this week, retired teacher and organizer Ron Whitehorne stood in front of the school, sending out teams of teachers to knock on doors, identify Muñoz-Marín supprters, and encourage them to vote on Thursday.

“The numbers look pretty good,” said Whitehorne, who was armed with a list of Muñoz-Marín parents – a list ASPIRA does not have – but declined to say where he got it.

And no matter what happens Thursday, both sides agree on one thing: this contentious, combative process shouldn’t be repeated.

“This is not pretty,” said Vivian Rodriguez, a retired teacher who has been vocal in her support for Muñoz-Marín’s current staff.

Rodriguez said that at a minimum, the District should do more to ensure that both sides’ materials are fair and accurate. Better still, she said, “somebody independent” should oversee the whole process – not the District, which, she said, already indicated its preference by matching ASPIRA with Muñoz-Marín in the first place.

Dahl, too, said the District needed to take a stronger role refereeing such campaigns.

“I think both sides are in agreement that there should be some process by which the District approves materials,” she said. “That would help the parents to know the actual facts.”

And Calderon said that if the District really believes a school should be transformed, it should probably do what it has done in past Renaissance processes: declare the charter transformation a done deal and offer parents a choice among providers, rather than offer them the District-or-charter choice.

“If the scores are as low as the District says they are, the District should pair them [with a charter], regardless,” he said.

Carreño said she’s hopeful that she and her staff will be back next year, but uncertain about how the vote will go. She’s ready with her own improvement plans if the parents reject ASPIRA, but like her counterpart at Steel, she’ll need money to implement them – money that won’t be easy to find.

What she did get, she said, was an assurance from the District that if the parents vote against ASPIRA, the District won’t recommend that the charter take over the school.

“But,” she said, “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2014 5:42 pm
In interactions with Mr. Calderon, I can say he's the type of person who will tell you what you want to hear, while doing the complete opposite of what you want done. A shady character at best.
Submitted by JMH (not verified) on June 4, 2014 6:30 pm
I'm laughing because if what they are saying the SAC President is doing is true, I say good for you woman! They do not like to get beat at their own game!!! The district postpones meetings and slow plays people all the time....LOL...I'm actually cheering right now!!!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2014 8:04 pm
Maybe a flyer needs to be circulated about ASPIRA's shady financial dealings and start asking if Calderon is next to be arrested.
Submitted by Love 19140 (not verified) on June 5, 2014 3:52 pm
Please review all of the audits ASPIRA went through this year and note that NONE of them reported financial mismanagement. I'm sorry you cannot understand that.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2014 9:11 pm
School reform sure smacks of turf war these days….
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2014 10:59 pm
More from Munoz-Marin volunteer Vivian Rodriguez: http://www.workingeducators.org/a_letter_from_inside_munoz_marin_elementary A must read companion piece to this article.
Submitted by aonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2014 10:32 pm
Thanks for posting this. The Munoz-Marin community needs to be commended. I hope the school remains public. It is heartbreaking to see the chaos. Worse yet, when the leadership of the SDP seems to be behind it. Increasingly ,it seems the only hope for our public schools is for the teachers and the parents to work together until this attack subsides. Maybe these are signs that the truth of "reform" is coming to light. I certainly hope so.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2014 6:49 am
MANY CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE TAKING OUR KIDS AND MONEY, BUT NOT PROVIDING A BETTER EDUCATION Enough of the malarkey!! I totally concur regarding ASPIRA. This is not about student choice! ANYONE WHO REALLY CARES: Look into Rumors on Stetson's principal being arrested for serious financial theft. In fact, the rumor is that district folks know this and have kept it quiet! Now look into all of the social gatherings at Tierra Columbiana and Isla Verde paid by Aspira funds! Does anyone want a beer or glass of wine to calm down on a Friday night? Just meet up with ASPIRA folks at these locations at least once a month. Drinks compliments of ASPIRA! In addition, WE do not have money for counselors, nurses, supplies, support staff, PFT is still in negotiations, and most principals/AP took a huge salary cuts, but ASPIRA gets to pay ridiculous salaries and hire friends of friends (rumor is salaries of administrators and retired Philly educators from 90,000 to near 200,000 at Olney HS) Just because ASPIRA cleaned up the school, the students look nice in their expensive uniforms (paid by parents) and students get suspended for minor infractions, does not imply that the students are learning! The ASPIRA Org was reputable for providing students with mentorship and support services, but corrupted folks use money inappropriately!! The Philadelphia Organization is not about the kids any longer. Someone needs to remove Calderon if they want to preserve the reputation of what ASPIRA once was… Now, I am a bit perplexed by some of the Marin articles. I do not hear much about the students. It appears to me that this is all about the principal and teachers saving their jobs. Where do parents not retired educators write the articles? Where are the student voices? If this is a teacher/administrator driven initiative solely for their jobs - how do they differ from ASPIRA? I do understand the complexity of things, but perhaps folks should have worded their passion differently. Now, could the genuine concern be that some of the key players in this initiative at Marin have a reputation of being scandalous when things do not go their way and PRINCIPALS DO NOT WANT them in their buildings? (Word spreads you know…) TO DISTRICT FOLKS: WTH would you keep considering handing over schools to organizations that are shady or under investigation for corrupted behaviors? You are just as corrupted! Do not take rumors lightly!! Lastly, Hite may condone the practices of ASPIRA as he hires his own folks. I will commend him though; the principals he placed have been ridiculously successful!! Bartram HS was under control when lead by Connie Mc (she retired) but the minute it went into the leadership of one of Hite's buddies - CHAOS! Overbrook HS as the students would say "OUT OF POCKET" chaos daily - arrests daily! George Washington HS - if not saved on time will end the same - heading the same direction. GWHS has many outstanding Academic Programs including IB, but the school is falling apart. The overall climate is messy evidenced by the recent OUT OF CONTROL fight, which may have cost the life of a school Sgt! All principals hand picked by our STELLAR Superintendent! Good Luck on Marin Vote!
Submitted by ASPIRA Employee (not verified) on June 5, 2014 3:12 pm
Alrighty folks….let’s get some facts straight. As an employee of ASPIRA, I know that: 1. Calderon does NOT have a company credit card, expense account, or any other perks…other than one reserved parking spot for him at the main building. Are you really faulting him for a parking space? 2. What employees do after work hours is their business and paid for out of their own pockets. ASPIRA does not interfere with or pay for the personal lives of their employees. 3. ASPIRA utilizes the School District of Philadelphia pay scale to guide its salary structure. All staff are paid deserving salaries while maintaining school sustainability. 4. Look at the data. ASPIRA schools have made remarkable progress. Performance data, youth winning national competitions, programs winning awards, students being accepted into Penn and other great schools…and you really dare to say we are “not providing a better education”?? Please open your eyes to the great things ASPIRA is doing for its youth. 5. Regarding the Principal of Stetson….what proof do you have of the rumors you are spreading? As a citizen, if you have proof of fraud or theft or any other misconduct or illegal activity, you have the moral responsibility to report it to authorities. I encourage you to do so. If all you are doing is spreading rumors without proof behind them, shame on you. You’re putting someone’s reputation and livelihood on the line without valid evidence. Come on! 6. ASPIRA has had plenty of audits this year and there have been no claims of financial mismanagement of any kind. What more proof do you need to stop the nonsensical and libelous rumors of their financial practices? Seriously, your comments are making your lack of education apparent. I hope this comment helps you out so you can stop looking foolish.
Submitted by ASPIRA Employee (not verified) on June 5, 2014 3:31 pm
Alrighty folks….let’s get some facts straight. As an employee of ASPIRA, I know that: 1. Calderon does NOT have a company credit card, expense account, or any other perks…other than one reserved parking spot for him at the main building. Are you really faulting him for a parking space? 2. What employees do after work hours is their business and paid for out of their own pockets. ASPIRA does not interfere with or pay for the personal lives of their employees. 3. ASPIRA utilizes the School District of Philadelphia pay scale to guide its salary structure. All staff are paid deserving salaries while maintaining school sustainability. 4. Look at the data. ASPIRA schools have made remarkable progress. Performance data, youth winning national competitions, programs winning awards, students being accepted into Penn and other great schools…and you really dare to say we are “not providing a better education”?? Please open your eyes to the great things ASPIRA is doing for its youth. 5. Regarding the Principal of Stetson….what proof do you have of the rumors you are spreading? As a citizen, if you have proof of fraud or theft or any other misconduct or illegal activity, you have the moral responsibility to report it to authorities. I encourage you to do so. If all you are doing is spreading rumors without proof behind them, shame on you. You’re putting someone’s reputation and livelihood on the line without valid evidence. Come on! 6. ASPIRA has had plenty of audits this year and there have been no claims of financial mismanagement of any kind. What more proof do you need to stop the nonsensical and libelous rumors of their financial practices? Seriously, your comments are making your lack of education apparent. I hope this comment helps you out so you can stop looking foolish.
Submitted by Daniel Fitzsimmons (not verified) on June 5, 2014 8:01 pm
So, Aspira has made remarkable progress? Really? Do you consider under 50% proficiency good enough? Even under 40% for lower grades at Stetson? Is that really good enough. There are School District Schools being closed that are doing better than that. Hmmm. School District Schools aren't receiving awards or doing great things? I work at Cramp, right in your own backyard, and we just finished up work with the Picasso Project, we had kids designing new yard space with the Trust for Public Land, we've received numerous grants and awards. We're tops in the country in many of our computer programs. We've piloted several programs, including Literacy Through Photography and an XBox Program with Microsoft. Do I need to name more? What makes you think that school district schools are not doing great things? Open your eyes to the community you work in and see the great things WE are doing for our youth. Oh, you had students go to Penn? Many district schools do to. And many other colleges and universities around the country, even around the world. Do you really think that Aspira is the only one providing these opportunities? Are you really that sheltered? Maybe if we could just get rid of kids we didn't want then things would be even better. We've had countless students who have been kicked out of Stetson thrown back at us. We can't just send them to the fourth floor. We can't grip up students. But, yet, we educate them all the same. We take everyone. Have you read this: http://citypaper.net/article.php?Aspira-offers-no-answers-on-charter-sch... No financial issues? Maybe you should check your facts. Please get over yourself. ASPIRA is not the great thing that you make it out to be. The things you mention are being done by schools all over this city, even in your own community. Seems an overwhelming number of parents don't want you anywhere near their children as well. Marin overwhelming majority to remain a district school. I guess ASPIRA just isn't that great.
Submitted by Love 19140 (not verified) on June 6, 2014 3:34 pm
Aww I feel bad for you. No one said other schools dont do well. ASPIRA was simply citing some things that have made them one of the top CMOs in the city because of the claim that their schools dont perform well. I think doubling academic proficiency in one year of school management says a lot, don't you? Of course proficiency is still lower than other schools! ASPIRA started at 10-20% when the schools came from the District. What proficiency percentage, after just 3 years, would you say would be "excellent" growth and, let me ask, how long, if it has accomplished it at all, has it taken the District to see that kind of growth in its schools? You can ignore it and try to manipulate everything, but ASPIRA has been around for 45 years and continues to expand because it is a proven organization that keeps the best interest of STUDENTS at the center of all things. All organizations have faults and successes. ASPIRA's successes far outweigh its imperfections.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2014 8:46 pm
Maria Cruz for "MAYOR" !!!

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