3 schools are given to charters; 4th wins a reprieve

Chairman Pedro Ramos (center) at the School Reform Commission meeting. He stressed that the renewal votes were merely the first steps in a lengthy process. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Chairman Pedro Ramos (center) at the School Reform Commission meeting. He stressed that the renewal votes were merely the first steps in a lengthy process. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 20, 2012

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to hand three schools over to charter providers, but gave one school a reprieve - for now.

The SRC unanimously agreed to give Cleveland Elementary in Tioga to Mastery Charter Schools Inc.; H.R. Edmunds Elementary in Frankford to String Theory Schools; and Jones Middle School in Port Richmond to American Paradigm Schools. The charters will take over in the fall.

It's the third year in a row the district has given traditional public schools to charters, part of a "Renaissance" strategy with a goal of shifting 50,000 seats in low-performing city schools to seats in schools that work well. Officials say they are encouraged by the growth of the first round of Renaissance schools.

But Thomas Creighton, a K-8 school in Crescentville, put up a spirited fight, with parents, teachers, and students rallying to keep their school out of charter hands. The Creighton community acknowledges it needs change but says it wants a school run by a council of teachers and community members.

Philadelphia School District officials had recommended turning Creighton over to Universal Cos., which infuriated some. Those who oppose the charter plan say they believe Creighton was selected because of politics, not academics.

"It seems like you had already made the decision and we were just pawns in a chess game," said Delores Brown-Waters, president of the school's Home and School Association. "It is appalling and offensive to me, the staff, the students, and the community."

Creighton student Diamond Waters, 5, didn't address politics. But she said she wanted the men and women at the big long table in front of her to know she didn't want her school to change.

"I have been waiting to go to my sister's school for a long time," Diamond said, swinging her legs as she read the words in front of her in a loud, clear voice.

Teacher Regina Feighan-Drach helped organize the teacher-led turnaround proposal, which was the first choice of the school advisory committee charged with deciding how to overhaul Creighton.

She said she envisioned a school where no scripted curriculum was used, where children read novels and art and music were incorporated. Creighton has struggled because of mandates handed down by the district, Feighan-Drach said. It has not been given enough support, she said. "We want to teach our children, but our hands are tied," she said.

Cocoa Lee, a parent of two boys at Creighton, urged the SRC to take the teachers' plan seriously. "Our teachers know what works and what doesn't," Lee said. "That is the issue here. Our teachers have come up with a brilliant plan."

One Creighton grandparent who addressed the SRC said that she supported the school's teachers but that she was realistic about their shot at being given the school.

Universal, Lillian Hentz said, "impressed us." Hentz is a member of the Creighton school advisory council.

Still, Commissioner Feather Houstoun said she was "torn" about the Creighton decision.

"My sense is there's a lot of human capital in Thomas Creighton that hasn't been well-directed," she said, but, "I'm not entirely convinced that a council-led school is as easy a lift as the enthusiasm of the faculty and parents believe."

Houstoun said she believed committee-led institutions were hard to manage.

But she and the three other commissioners in attendance - Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky was ill - said they wanted more time to study the Creighton teachers' plan and have Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon examine it, too.

There was no timetable for how long the SRC and Nixon might take to consider the Creighton teachers' plan.

The SRC's decision to postpone for now a Creighton decision earned cheers from the school's supporters.

"Creighton school will not be sold!" they shouted after they left the SRC meeting.

Feighan-Drach said she was impressed that the SRC listened to the community.

"They want to hear us out," she said.

Those who spoke out about Cleveland and Jones said they welcomed charter turnarounds.

Cleveland parent Lisa Perry said that school's advisory council voted overwhelmingly to accept Mastery, which already operates several district turnarounds.

"We want Mastery," Perry said. "We need Mastery to take over our school so we can put our school back on the map as a top educational school."

Most of the Edmunds speakers said they wanted String Theory to run their school.

But parent Malik Abdullah said he wasn't convinced.

"Charter-school success stories are illusions at best," Abdullah said, because charters have much more freedom to get rid of problem students.

At the Cleveland, Edmunds, and Jones schools, the current staff can choose to apply for jobs with charter companies or, because they are School District employees, seek positions at other schools in the district.


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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