The Battle for Wister Elementary School


At the December 17, 2015 meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, APPS member Coleman Poses testified that the SRC was using incorrect information for the Wister Elementary School “turnaround” to Mastery Charter.

On January 11, 2016, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite announced that he had reversed his position on Wister Elementary and that he was recommending that it remain a public school.    According to NewsWorks reporter Kevin McCorry:

The proposed conversions have been a topic of fierce debate at School Reform Commission meetings in recent months. Each school has seen parents and advocates pushing both for and against conversion.

Wister was home of the most coordinated campaign to keep the school within district control. Community member Coleman Poses correctly pointed out that the district relied on faulty enrollment data in its pitch to convert the school.

The response of local corporate education reformers was to go into overdrive, as Hite’s reversal would interfere with Mastery’s attempt to create its own charter district in Philadelphia.   The Philadelphia Inquirer, owned by Mastery backer H. F. Lenfest, published an article publicizing Mastery’s petition drive.

On January 18, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook published a commentary by Jonathan Cetel, director of the corporate education reform group PennCan, in which he says that Hite made the wrong decision on Wister.  He contends that regardless of the faulty data, Wister should be turned over to Mastery. In a comment after the article, Coleman Poses responded:

I take issue with several of the points that Cetel makes in his commentary. He speaks to the fact that 34% of the families in Wister’s catchment area have chosen other schools to attend. Nowhere does he mention the fact that the school’s capacity is 517, and that the school was operating at 88% of its capacity in 2013.  But even if we accept Mr. Cetel’s argument that 34% of Wister catchment families have voted with their feet, what does this say about the 66% of the families that have remained in their local district school?

Mr. Cetel points out that money alone will not solve Wister’s problems, but his argument appears to belie this point. He mentions that in the 2010-2011
school year, Wister received more money from the district, yet was still struggling academically. Missing from this argument, however, was the fact that Wister was still making AYP, and that, when the money was taken away, proficiency rates diminished at the school. Missing also, was the fact that the
school was still not funded the way that schools in richer districts were
funded. Given the fact that Wister also has more socio-economic challenges than many of the schools in richer districts, the results at the school are even more impressive.

What confirms Mr. Cetel’s argument might be the fact that one would expect even more progress from the cash flush Mastery Schools. His cherished view of Gratz High School appears less dazzling when one looks at the school’s rating in the Great Philly Schools database, where Gratz scored an overall 3 out of 10 for all Philadelphia high schools, with a “1” in Math, and a “3” in reading. Although I am certain that a number of Gratz students like Jerome and Terrell make it to college, those colleges will need to provide a lot of help to bring them up to the level of proficiency that they should have gotten in high school.

Joining the usual refrain of corporate reformers, Mr. Cetel contends that more resources will make no difference in providing a quality education at Wister.  He fails to explain why that same standard does not apply to Mastery, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the policies which continue to starve public schools while feeding more and more to charters.  Tamara Anderson explains the result in her latest article in the Examiner:  The Mystique of Mastery Charter.