2 Philly schools may become charters, if parents agree

Posted: April 03, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Two public elementary schools in North Philadelphia singled out for their struggling academics are on track to become charter schools in the fall.

Muñoz Marín could be taken over by ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, and Steel Elementary School could become a part of the Mastery Charter organization.

The Philadelphia School District designated both as "Renaissance" schools on Tuesday, meaning that it wants charter schools to turn the schools around beginning in September. It would be the fifth straight year that the district has deliberately shed some of its toughest schools.

But in a new wrinkle, Muñoz Marín and Steel parents will have the final say over whether the schools become charter schools or remain part of the public school system.

That creates a tough choice for families: The district would spend an extra $3,000 to $4,000 next year per student if the schools become charter schools. But if parents vote to remain in traditional public schools, there would likely be no additional investment, officials said.

At Muñoz Marín, on North Third Street, 33 percent of students met state standards in math and reading last year. At Steel, on Wayne Avenue, 34 percent of students met benchmarks in math and 32 percent in reading. Both schools also lag in student academic growth, officials said.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said the two K-8 schools "have a history of underperformance" in academics and climate measures. But they were also chosen in part because they fit the profiles ASPIRA and Mastery were looking to work with.

"We see these charter providers as our partners," Kihn said. "We wanted to ensure that the charter operators who are doing the conversions were comfortable with the kinds of schools they felt they could be successful with."

ASPIRA and Mastery already run Renaissance schools, as well as free-standing charters. ASPIRA runs two schools, Mastery seven. They were among three organizations bidding to get this year's schools.

Renaissance schools run by both organizations have posted significant gains in test scores and school-climate measures such as attendance and suspensions.

ASPIRA has made headlines in recent months for alleged labor violations and attempts to keep teachers from unionizing. Kihn said he was aware of the allegations, but "we did not take that into account."

Kihn said officials had conversations with ASPIRA leaders, and "we certainly understood from the school operator itself that there was another side to that particular story." And if any issues with school management were to arise, the charter agreement would allow the district to intervene immediately, he said.

Kihn stressed that the Renaissance process was restructured to better include parents' voices.

Should they opt to forgo charter conversion, he said, the school communities would have the option to present their own transformation plan.

But "given our very limited resources, we have a high bar on the evidence that's required in order for us to make any investments," Kihn said.

If the schools remain in the district and have no new transformation plan approved, they would keep their current leadership and move forward with the improvement plan being formulated by sitting principals, Kihn said.

Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, said the new structure of the Renaissance process presents "an impossible situation" for Muñoz Marín and Steel parents, who have two choices: Stay in their current underfunded state, or take a chance on a charter organization.

"It feels like the district is basically giving up on itself," Gym said. "They don't see themselves as a viable option."

Parents at both schools will vote on whether to pair with the charter-school operators on May 1, and the School Reform Commission could sign off on the matches at its May meeting.

Twenty district schools, educating about 15,000 students, have been turned over to charter-school operators since 2010.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/

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