Group fighting to preserve district for Steel

Helen Gym: The district is so lost in its charter takeover mentality, that it cant even recognize the assets and resources it has.
Helen Gym: The district is so lost in its charter takeover mentality, that it cant even recognize the assets and resources it has.
Posted: April 21, 2014

KENDRA BROOKS says Steel Elementary is the last public school in Nicetown. And if she has a say, it will stay that way.

Brooks, president of the Steel Student Advisory Council, has been working nonstop - printing flyers, going door-to-door and organizing folks - in an effort to galvanize the community for the May 1 vote on the future of the school.

She said she's making sure Steel parents are informed of their rights and choices regarding the vote, which will determine whether Steel, on Wayne Avenue near Rowan Street, remains a district-run school or is handed over to Mastery Charter Schools. Mastery already runs the neighborhood middle and high schools.

"I really feel the district wants Mastery to take over Steel," said Brooks, who works 12 hours a day for the council, including weekends. "I don't think they thought there would be opposition or that parents would rally."

Parents will hear 30-minute presentations from both the district and Mastery at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, and again on Tuesday, April 29. Then, on May 1, the Student Advisory Council members and school parents will vote to determine whether Steel will remain a district-run school.

But Brooks and other community members say they're up against a behemoth with Mastery, which has the knowledge, the staff and the resources to canvass the neighborhood, target parents and students, and sell the Mastery approach.

Mastery "has this huge army," said Charisma Presley, the founder of the Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown. "I mean this is their career and so they have more resources, teachers, parents and students who are aggressively campaigning" in Nicetown. Mastery spokeswoman Sheila Ballen said in an email that no one from the school was available yesterday to discuss the matter.

When asked if the district favored Mastery over itself, spokesman Fernando Gallard said "the district is in favor of the best public education that can be provided in Philadelphia. It does not matter whether that public education is being provided by a public charter school or the district."

According to community members, Mastery representatives have been out in full force since the vote was announced earlier this month. Sometimes there will be 30 people from Mastery outside of Steel, visiting before and after school, Brooks said. They also go door-to-door to try to speak to parents in the neighborhood, she said.

It's unclear why Steel may be turned into a charter.

But residents say it is a good school that has had three principals in the last four decades. Brooks said the current head, Mary Bonner, has been principal for 8 years. "It's unheard of" to have a principal at a school this long, Brooks said.

Public school advocate Helen Gym, founder of Parents United Parents United for Public Education, said many Steel teachers have taught there for more than 25 years and have seen students graduate kindergarten through eighth grade.

"You don't find stability like that anymore. But the district is so lost in its charter takeover mentality, that it can't even recognize the assets and resources it has," Gym said.

Brooks, Gym and others also criticized the district's handling of the announcement of the charter conversion vote.

"The way they did it was very poor," Brooks said. The announcement came during PSSA testing and a month before the vote. It also came after parents could apply for a voluntary transfer to another district school, she said.

"That's not fair to the parents."


On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

Online: ph.ly/DNEducation

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