Observations from APPS member Karel Kilimnik about how privatization is being advanced in the School District of Philadelphia as 2015 ends.
December 24, 2015
Three Neighborhood Schools to Be Turned Over to Charter Operators
In early October Superintendent William Hite announced that three neighborhood schools would be turned into Renaissance Charter. Those schools are Cooke in Logan, Wister in East Germantown, and Huey in West Philadelphia. The school communities were given no say in this. They were told their only choice would be which charter provider would be chosen. Hite learned last year that when parents have a real choice, they will reject being charterized. Teachers, parents and students fought to keep Steele Elementary in Nicetown and Munoz-Marin in North Philadelphia public; the parent vote was overwhelmingly against going charter. This time, he decided to impose this on parents through what turned out to be a very murky process. Teachers were shut out of the process altogether. The district set up an Evaluation Committee at each school and chose five parents to participate. That committee would make its recommendation to the district and the SRC on the future of the school.
What the Hite administration actually did was set up meetings run by District staff to “inform” parents. Parents and teachers at all of the three schools were purposely misled as to the location and time of these meetings. For some reason, none of the meetings was held at the schools themselves. At Cooke, the parents had to become detectives to find the meeting. At Wister, community members showed up at the announced location only to find that the meeting was being held somewhere else. People piled into cars and raced over. Yes, seats were empty at the actual district location simply because they were deceived about the correct place. Are parents supposed to trust the people who deliberately lied to them about the location of a meeting to make an honest decision about the future of their children’s school?
The too-small room overflowed with participants. The District staff was there to sell this plan to parents. To do so they enlisted a parent from Cleveland Mastery charter school. Wister parents were respectful and listened to her story and when she finished questioned district staff for specifics. They had no answers. People saw through their manipulations and sales pitch. District staff seemed taken aback by the opposition to their “wonderful plan.”
APPS member Coleman Poses presented testimony at the November School Reform Commission showing how inaccurate the District data was for Wister. An SRC staff member admitted to Coleman that they used the wrong school’s data for Wister. Despite being told about this mistaken data the District continues to sail ahead with turning Wister over to Mastery.
Mastery Marketing In Full Force at Wister
Although the district told Wister parents they would be able to choose among several providers, the only one who has made a bid (the only one accepted by 440?) is Mastery Charter Schools. Should anyone who has witnessed the district’s favoritism toward Mastery be surprised? Mastery has recruited parents whose children attend other Mastery schools, but who have no relationship to Wister, to engage in a relentless lobbying campaign. Wister parents have been subjected to lies and sales pitches at every meeting. Mastery has distributed multi-colored leaflets before and after school, and they have gone door-to-door in the community. The organizer of a meeting at a local church thought he had provided a place for discussion but quickly realized that it had been hijacked by the Mastery Marketing Machine. One unannounced guest speaker at that meeting was Winslow Mason, Mastery Community Organizing Manager (why does a charter school need someone in this position if they have such a stellar education program to offer?). Mason actually visited a Wister parent at her workplace after obtaining her contact information at the church meeting.
Mastery is waging a war on the Wister community. Every District meeting for Wister parents has been held off site. The first and only meeting held at the school was last week when the district allowed Mastery to hold a public meeting at the school.
The school community held a rally of parents, teachers, students, and community members to greet the Mastery Marketing Machine and tell them they are not welcome at Wister. Mastery pulled in their central staff as well as parents and students from other Mastery charter schools who are not from the community and have no relationship with Wister. They packed the auditorium with their supporters sporting blue Mastery shirts.
As the community rally gathered momentum, Mastery CEO Scott Gordon purposely strode through the middle of the crowd, practically pushing aside speakers. He was the only one to take such an arrogant stance. All of his other staff walked behind the rally to gain entry through another door.
I have attended all community meetings at Wister since this began. When I entered the building, I saw sign-in sheets with no heading or letterhead. I asked those at the front desk who had put them out and who would have access to the contact information on them. They looked at each other but did not answer me. They would not even tell me whether they were district or Mastery employees! There was no Q & A in the auditorium. They broke everyone into small discussion groups, the better to diffuse questions.
I spoke with an 8th grader who attends Mastery Pickett. She told me about her first day and how confusing it was. No one was there to help her understand what was going on or where she should go. She did a get a demerit for being late, though. Another young Mastery student walked out with another APPS member. She talked about how grateful she was to her teachers for being so tough on students because Mastery doesn’t want them to be homeless or go to prison. This is the expectation for their Black and Brown students? No one asked Gordon why he didn’t send his own children to Mastery if it’s such a wonderful school.
Back to the “Evaluation Committee” set up by the district to give parents a choice of provider. Reportedly, the Wister meeting where the lottery was held to choose the five parent representatives was raucous and divisive. Eventually five names were selected. To date, no one who as attended any of the other meetings has been told by the district how the two community members would be chosen or whether they have been. (No teachers are permitted to take part in this process.) Here is the District’s own words on this “Evaluation Committee membership: “ The committees will be capped at 11 members, consisting of five parents/guardians , two external stakeholders, and four School District staff members”. This committee is charged with visiting schools and spending a significant amount of time on other duties. As posted on the District web site:
Here’s a sample breakdown of tasks performed the members of the evaluation committee with an estimated average number of hours required:
- 2 hour review of 2-4 proposals
- 5 hour long orientation session
- 3 review committee meetings lasting an average of 2.5 hours per meeting
- 1-3 school visits taking an average of 1.5 hours per visit
- 3-5“To help better understand the commitment that you will be making, listed below is presentations lasting an average of 1 hour per presentation )”
So far mum’s the word on what is actually happening with this “Evaluation Committee”. If they have met, it has been in secret, as no one in the community has been notified of times and places. What’s to evaluate if only one charter operator has made a bid? Can everyone vote “NO”? Does the vote mean anything? Mastery has been acting like it’s a done deal. Has Mastery been given information on these meetings when parents have not?
December 2015 SRC Action Meeting
I arrived at District headquarters early with homemade sandwiches, wrapped cookies and juice boxes for the children from Wister. With a speakers list of 65, the meeting was sure to go on for hours. The street in front of 440 was filled with police cars. Metal barricades lined the steps. Inside we were greeted by a plethora of police, both school district and city. Why is there such a strong police presence at every SRC meeting? In all my years of attending these meetings I have never witnessed one violent incident.
Our bags were searched and all food was removed. A new rule – we were told that no food or drink was permitted upstairs. I went somewhat ballistic as I explained this was dinner for children. I asked if we could bring the children downstairs to eat. Their response was to toss all of the children’s food into the trash. The next obstacle was going upstairs to the auditorium. Only registered speakers were being allowed to proceed upstairs. We left three of our party downstairs.
I was livid and made a beeline for Chair Marjorie Neff and Dr. Hite, who were already seated at the table up front. The room was packed with charter school supporters. I told Neff and Hite what happened. They both looked surprised but said nothing. (Don’t they know what the police are told to do in their building?) Hite finally said he would buy pizza for the children and called his staffer over to make arrangements.
Are some children more equal than others?
Some background: Mastery circulated flyers in the Wister community promising both transportation to 440 and dinner there. When I asked some Mastery people at the SRC meeting about the food arrangements, they told me they had eaten dinner in the café on the first floor of 440. Later I learned that they were also permitted to bring food into the auditorium. Are there different rules for different people in the school district? In fact, the SRC members themselves have water bottles on their table and are often seen eating during meetings. The public is told we can’t have water bottles because we might throw them. (Again, I have never seen anyone throw anything at an SRC meeting.) As one member of the public asked: how do we know the SRC Commissioners are not going to throw their water bottles at us?
I was so enraged at the blatant inequity on prominent display that it was hard for me to focus on the content of the meeting, but I will share some highlights that managed to penetrate my fury. The auditorium was packed with charter supporters. Throughout the meeting police continued to deny entry to parents, teachers, students, and community members claiming that there was no available seating. Someone counted 86 people who left before anyone else was admitted. The police presence is heavier than at any other governmental hearing. Civil affairs, uniformed officers, district police and security. Officers in the auditorium; officers outside the auditorium. Officers controlling access through the doors. Our tax dollars pay for their overtime.
Are some speakers less equal than others?
Several community members spoke against the SRC renewing Hite’s contract for another five years even with two years left in the current contract. Students under curfew always speak first, and speakers who address resolutions go next. After that it gets pretty murky; the SRC has no posted rules. The December meeting was the third one at which the SRC posted a resolution, then rescinded it without public notice. The resolution calls for the SRC to approve a settlement in the Sunshine Act suit brought by APPS in November 2014 alleging a pattern of violations which violate the public’s right to see and participate in SRC official actions.
Last month APPS member Lisa Haver was interrupted by Commissioner Farah Jimenez when she began her testimony. Jimenez, who has no authority to decide who speaks or when, attempted to stop Lisa from completely her testimony on the grounds that the resolution was no longer listed. Lisa responded that no one from the SRC had called to inform her of that. Chants of “let her speak” drowned out Commissioner Jimenez and Lisa finished her testimony. At the December meeting, they listed the resolution and rescinded it without notice as they had done in November. But this time they simply put Lisa at the bottom of the list—#65—even though she had called almost two weeks before the meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, Chair Marjorie Neff made a brief announcement, with no explanation, that the SRC speaker policy would be changing. Speakers on resolutions would no longer go first. Speakers would be grouped according to topic. And “first-time speakers” would be given preference. Neff did not explain who would be compiling the list or how district staff would be able to verify who was a first-time speaker. Are they going to check all of the speaker lists for the past 15 years? Although the SRC thinks it can rule by edict, there are actually rules they must follow. Does the SRC remember that they are a governmental body and must follow a democratic process which should encourage public participation? As a parent said in her testimony last month after Commissioner Green complained about the public not following the rules: How can we follow the rules when you keep changing them?