January 18 — 11:55 am, 2016

There’s hope for public education

School communities are fighting back against charter takeovers.

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. Kendra Brooks of Parents United for Public Education gives her view here. For a contrasting opinion, see what Jonathan Cetel of PennCAN says here.  

On Jan. 11, the School District of Philadelphia announced that John Wister Elementary School would be removed from consideration for a charter takeover. The reason was questionable data that hid the fact that Wister was actually on the upswing. But the real story was that the parents and communities of Wister had from the beginning told the District that they had chosen the wrong school for charter takeover.

Parents at Wister stood up for a neighborhood school with stable leadership, a principal who had stayed with the school for 14 years, a community approach to learning, and a dedication to literacy and enrichment despite the budget cuts from Harrisburg for the last four years.

But contrast that with the rhetoric from the charter takeover groups trying to privatize public education in our city. For two months, we parents listened to charter operators like Mastery revel in the “failing schools” narrative in order to incite despair and desperation into parents and force their move toward charter conversion. Mastery learned few lessons from its failed attempt in 2014 to take over Steel Elementary School, where I helped lead a parent vote against the charter by a 2-1 ratio. Mastery continues to enter into communities with a divide-and-conquer mentality, disrespectful of longtime educators and showing all the arrogance and entitlement that their wealthy backers and lobbyists demand.

For the last two months, Parents United for Public Education has worked with the school communities of Wister as well as Huey and Cooke Elementary Schools to define what it means to have a parent voice and a public process around school reform. 

We want meaningful investment in our school communities and a public process of engagement in school turnaround that doesn’t just reduce parent participation to picking the least worst option. 

One thing is for sure: Parents are consistently choosing public education over charter takeovers. The parents at Wister, like those at Steel and Muñoz-Marín before them, have refused to buy into the District’s rhetoric of failing teachers, failing children, and failing parents that result in their schools being targeted for privatization. John Wister is added to the growing list of school communities that are fighting back against privatization and demanding more parent voice and choice in the decision-making processes to support public schools. 

Despite the fact that District officials have insisted there was no win for public education, the victory for Wister proves that there is hope for public education – and that hope comes from parents.

With his decision to halt the conversion of John Wister Elementary into a Renaissance charter,  Hite has rightly signaled a renewed investment in our public schools. This move will allow the District to commit its limited resources to growing and supporting Wister as a vibrant public institution accountable directly to its students, parents, and community—not to a private entity.

It’s no secret that thousands of Philadelphia students are shortchanged in school—and the students of John Wister Elementary aren’t outliers. One of dozens of neighborhood schools that struggles with high poverty, Wister has worked hard to improve on ever-changing state tests even as funding and support for programming have dried up.

The problem with these schools isn’t that they’re run by the District; the problem is that they don’t have the resources to get the job done. Since 2010, Philadelphia’s public schools have lost more than a billion dollars in state funding that otherwise would have gone to actually educating students. New funding provided by the city has helped keep the District’s doors open, but only state support can move us past barebones budgets.

Across our city, students and families rightly worry that they’re missing out on high-quality, enriching educational experiences. After years of parent complaints and protests, the Pennsylvania Department of Education found in December that thousands of Philadelphia students were not being provided the educational opportunities to which they have a right.

Beyond all the examples of lacking curricula—next to no library or art and music instruction—dozens of schools are operating without basic support personnel: 19 schools have no nurse, and thousands of students go without regular access to guidance counselors. Uncertain budgets have led to stunted staffs and inconsistent leadership.

Charters alone will not solve the deep inequities that have produced our deficient public schools— especially when their supposed successes are built on handpicked student populations and exclusionary discipline practices.

Instead of focusing on offloading difficult schools onto outside organizations, if we turn our focus toward our city’s most vulnerable students — those who live in poverty, are learning English, or are served by the Department of Human Services — we will begin to address the actual educational challenges our city faces.

By committing to Wister and other schools like it, the District will have an opportunity to prove that invigorating and enriching neighborhood schools – where most of our public school students and most of our most vulnerable students are educated – is the best bet for true turnaround.

Kendra Brooks is the mother of four children and a member of Parents United for Public Education. She was the School Advisory Council president at Steel Elementary School from 2013 to 2015.

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