Foundations withdraws its bid to run King High School

School Advisory Council members Valerie Johnson (left) and Conchevia Washington high-five each other outside King High School yesterday after Foundations, which the council opposed, withdrew.
School Advisory Council members Valerie Johnson (left) and Conchevia Washington high-five each other outside King High School yesterday after Foundations, which the council opposed, withdrew.
Posted: April 22, 2011

IN THE STRUGGLE to determine the fate of Martin Luther King High School, parents and community members locked horns with two political giants.

It's a scene that plays out with many major decisions in the city, where deals are made in back rooms and protests by community groups usually don't mean much.

This time, the parents and community won.

An educational management company backed by state Rep. Dwight Evans on Wednesday withdrew its bid to run King as a charter school in the wake of revelations of a closed-door meeting involving Evans and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie.

The longtime friends allegedly strong-armed Mosaica, the first choice of the school's parent-led advisory council and the SRC, into backing out last month. New Jersey-based Foundations Inc. got the gig instead.

Members of the committee and community members resisted the change, dug in their heels and demanded that the district honor their choice, or take King off the turnaround list for next fall.

A vote during next week's SRC meeting was supposed to seal the deal, but Foundations CEO Rhonda Lauer withdrew the group's bid to run King in a letter to the district Wednesday, ending its eight-year relationship with King.

In the letter sent to Archie and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Lauer said that Foundations' ability to continue running the school wasn't "possible in the climate of unrelenting hostility that has developed."

"Our strong preference would have been to implement the Renaissance plan [to overhaul underperforming schools], but it is clear that a small and vocal minority will make it immensely difficult for us to do so," she wrote.

A phone call to Lauer seeking comment was returned by Emilio Matticoli, Foundations' chief of staff, who declined to comment further.

Khym Lawson, a member of King's alumni association, relished the victory.

"We weren't going to back down," she said. "We may not have been a lot, but when you're persistent, have faith and make your voice as loud as you make it . . . it'll make a difference."

Foundations' announcement comes in the wake of a report this week by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent news service, that Archie discussed the fate of the school - only hours after recusing himself from a vote because of a possible conflict of interest - in a closed-door meeting with Evans and John Porter, head of Mosaica Turnaround Partners.

The SRC voted on March 16 to turn the school over to the school-advisory council's first choice, Mosaica. But the next day, after the closed-door session, the company announced that it wanted to concentrate on Birney Elementary School, the second school it was awarded. Foundations was given the job instead.

At a meeting with members of the SAC the following week, Evans said that he wasn't willing to work with Mosaica to further his vision of a unified network of schools in Northwest Philadelphia. Evans then gloated that he was responsible for Mosaica backing out.

Mosaica's Porter said yesterday that the whole ordeal had taken attention away from the interests of the students.

"I'm saddened for the kids," Porter said. "The kids are the ones that lose. When there's constant fighting with adults, it's not about the children, it was about the adults."

He said that his group will again consider submitting a bid to run King. In the meantime, district officials said that the school will remain under district control with close central-office supervision until the next round of the Renaissance Initiative process begins.

King never met state academic standards in the eight years that Foundations ran the school, although the school has seen a slight improvement in test scores.

Last year, 19.8 percent of students scored proficient in math, while 22.1 percent were proficient in reading, increases from the 4.7 percent and 11.2 percent of students who scored proficient in math and reading in 2004.

"I don't think they'd be good for King," said Valerie Johnson, a SAC member. "They've been here the last seven years and, educationwise, they didn't do a good job then, I don't think they could do it now."

But, according to parent and former SAC member Myisha Dabner, Foundations made up for its shortcomings in other areas.

Since 2003, the school has experienced a gradual decline in violent incidents and assaults, and was recently taken off the state's persistently dangerous list.

Foundations created a job and career center for students that assists them in resumé writing, job-interview coaching and job placement, and established a student-run farm on school grounds for students to grow and sell produce to neighbors.

"They established a great relationship with the students," Dabner said of Foundations. "We're going to experience the same kind of violence we had without Foundations in the school. The children were used to what Foundations was giving them."

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra performs in the auditorium every year and neighbors get to park in the school lot.

"It's sad that Foundations is not giving it another chance," Dabner said. "I don't believe they should give up."

Conchevia Washington, chairwoman of the SAC, said that there's been a lot of tension at the school since Mosaica backed out.

Teachers are anxious about their jobs, parents have felt out of the loop and students are confused about the future of their school, Lawson said.

To add fuel to the fire, Johnson charged that Foundations went about gaining parents' support in a shady fashion.

Johnson, whose son sought a summer job with the school, said that after she refused to write a letter in support of Foundations, the potential job disappeared.

"They're using another tactic of bullying," Johnson said. "I feel like they had their own interest at heart."

Despite the recent events and uncertainty of what comes next, Dabner said that the situation should have taught parents one important lesson - to be involved.

"It has to be up to the parents, not any organization," she said. "If someone doesn't step up now, then the students will be lost."

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