January 18 — 11:54 am, 2016

Hite made the wrong decision on Wister

While the school has seen growth, parents want and deserve much more.

After Superintendent William Hite dropped the plan to turn Wister Elementary School in Germantown into a Renaissance charter school, the Notebook asked two commentators to weigh in on the move. Jonathan Cetel of  PennCAN gives his view  here. For a contrasting opinion, see what Kendra Brooks of Parents United for Public Education says here.

In a Jan. 14 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wister Elementary parent Alisha Grant said, "If you know Mastery has a good track record, why wouldn’t you let them come in and get the job done?"

It’s a good question. After all, Mastery’s results have been praised by the likes of Oprah and President Obama; it was one of 12 charter management organizations in the country last year to be awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Education as part of a competitive grant to replicate high-performing schools; and multiple research organizations including Research for Action and the School District’s own Office of Research and Evaluation have shown that in Renaissance schools, student achievement and student attendance are up while student attrition and violent incidents are down.

Grant’s words are compelling, but the actions of parents are even more persuasive. On Jan. 14, parents from Wister delivered 500 signed petitions to the School Reform Commission urging Hite to reconsider his decision. Across all 20 Renaissance schools, families of more than 1,800 students want to attend but can’t because the schools have reached capacity.  

Perhaps the most important parent voice is the one that is completely missing: Thirty-four percent of the families who live within the Wister neighborhood boundaries have chosen to move their children to charter schools (120 students), other neighborhood schools (75 students), or special-admission schools (24 students).

Hite acknowledges both Mastery’s success and Wister’s needs. He says his decision was influenced by a new metric called the School Progress Report (SPR), which demonstrates that Wister made some academic progress. And he’s right. Wister did indeed see some growth. However, the achievement results are still unacceptable. In the 2014-15 school year, Wister had the lowest math score of any elementary school in the city, with 3 percent proficiency on the PSSA. 

In fairness, most critics acknowledge that Wister is indeed struggling, but they put the blame squarely on school funding. With more resources, they say, a school like Wister could shine. As a strong advocate for fixing Pennsylvania’s broken system of school finance, I want to believe that more money alone will lead to improved results in schools with needs as great as Wister. However, in the 2010-2011 school year, the high-water mark for school funding in Pennsylvania, less than half of Wister’s third graders could read at grade level.   

Ultimately, my frustration with this decision lies in my belief that the Wister community will now see no relief. In his announcement, Hite tried to reassure these families by saying, “Other than becoming a Renaissance charter, everything else is on the table. We have to do something at Wister.”

There is simply too much evidence to demonstrate that the School District of Philadelphia lacks the capacity and/or courage to do “something” at a school like Wister that will result in meaningful change. All you have to do is look at the progress made by other schools that were once targeted for Renaissance but then remained under the operation of the School District of Philadelphia. 

Since being “saved” from Renaissance last year, Steel and Muñoz-Marín have made little progress. Muñoz-Marín’s growth score on the SPR ranked in the bottom 4 percent citywide, and both schools fell into the bottom tier of performance, ironically called “intervene.” 

There are 88 traditional public schools that fall into this bottom tier of performance. With Hite’s decision to approve the conversions at Huey and Cooke, there are now plans to actually “intervene” in two out of the 88 schools. At this pace, it will take until 2060 to intervene in all the schools. 

Since we started with the voice of parents, let’s conclude with the voice of students, Jerome King and Terrell Price, two alumni of Mastery’s turnaround of Gratz who are now attending college. 

“Look, we get it. A Renaissance turnaround is a difficult process in a lot of ways. It was unsettling to have such dramatic changes happen at a school that we knew so well. But today, there is no question that we are better off.  When we walk across the stage at our college graduations, we’ll have Renaissance to thank.”

The advocates in the movement to improve Philadelphia’s public schools may disagree on the Renaissance schools process, but we can all agree that we should be striving to build a Wister that puts more students on the same path as Jerome and Terrell. I remain deeply disappointed by Hite’s decision, because I believe he abandoned an opportunity to do exactly that. 

Jonathan Cetel is the executive director of PennCAN; on Twitter: @jonathancetel.

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