Creighton supporters stave off charter conversion – for now
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Responding to passionate support from parents, community members, and teachers for an “outside-the-box” plan to keep Thomas Creighton Elementary under District control, the School Reform Commission decided Thursday evening to delay a planned vote to convert Creighton into a Renaissance charter.
“I agree with my colleagues that we should table this motion at this point,” said Commissioner Wendell Pritchett.
“We have a lot of schools to turn around, and we need to take advantage of every opportunity to engage with our teachers to do that.”
Listen to Benjamin Herold’s radio report for WHYY from Thursday night’s meeting.
Before an overflow crowd, the four commissioners present did vote unanimously to award Cleveland Elementary to Mastery Charter Schools, H.R. Edmunds Elementary to String Theory Schools, and Jones Middle to American Paradigm. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky was absent.
“We were overwhelmed by the show of support for Mastery” by the Cleveland School Advisory Council, said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
“We will take great care to live up to their expectations by serving their children with no excuses.”
The number of low-performing schools converted to charters as part of the District’s Renaissance Schools Initiative will rise to 16 as a result of Thursday’s vote. Cleveland, Edmunds, and Jones will remain neighborhood schools, continuing to serve the students who are currently enrolled and those who live within the school’s geographic boundaries.
Cleveland will become Mastery’s sixth Renaissance school. Both American Paradigm and String Theory run independent charters in the city, but are newcomers to the District’s turnaround program.
But it was the SRC’s surprise decision to rebuff the recommendation of District staff to award Creighton to Universal Companies that drew the most attention.
On Monday night, the majority of Creighton’s School Advisory Council (SAC) voted in favor of an unorthodox proposal developed by the school’s staff that calls for Creighton to be run by a council of three teacher leaders, two parents, and two community members, instead of a single principal.
“We would break the school down into [grades] K-3, 4-6, and 7-8 as small communities,” longtime Creighton art teacher Regina Feighan-Drach told the SRC. She spearheaded the development of the proposal.
“We would be the decision-makers within the school.”
Feighan-Drach said that Creighton used to meet its federal performance targets, but that a string of instructional mandates from District administrators in recent years had handcuffed the staff and led to poor academic performance.
“We want to go back to the things we know work for our children,” said Feighan-Drach. “We want to go back to using novels. We want to go back to integrating arts. We want to go back to integrating music.”
Universal Companies, which now operates four Renaissance charters, was the second choice of the Creighton SAC.
“Out of the five choices they gave us, Universal was the only one that had everything the teachers provided,” said Lillian Hentz, the grandmother of a Creighton student and a member of the SAC.
“But our first choice was the teachers,” Hentz stressed.
Universal officials declined to comment on the SRC’s decision not to act.
Universal has been operating cost-free in two of its current Renaissance charters, Audenried High and Vare Middle, because they have not yet come to terms with the District on a facilities agreement – an issue raised by Commissioner Feather Houstoun during the SRC’s deliberations.
Houstoun described herself as “torn” about the future of Creighton.
“I’m not entirely convinced that a council-led school is as easy a lift as the … faculty and parents believe,” she said.
“But I’d like to know a little bit more before I vote."
Other commissioners also expressed skepticism about the teacher-led model for Creighton, but none of them was prepared to convert the school to a charter, which would force all teachers at the school to reapply for their jobs.
After Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon told the SRC that her staff could engage the staff at Creighton in reviewing their proposal, the Creighton supporters erupted in thanks, then poured out of the auditorium and into the halls of 440 North Broad, singing and chanting.
“We believe that we can create a Creighton that is a great educational system for our kids,” Feighan-Drach said.
The majority of speakers on the three newly approved Renaissance schools supported the conversion of their schools to charters.
“I used to beg my mom every day to take me out of Edmunds,” said 7th grader Kardala Mohamed. “But if String Theory takes over, I will be anticipating coming to school next year.”
The leadership of String Theory is associated with the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School in South Philadelphia.
String Theory representative Mary D’Anella said her organization was “thrilled and gratified” to be awarded management of the school.
“We feel a deep sense of obligation to get in there and improve conditions for the students,” she said.