March 31, 2017 7:33 pm

The story of Philadelphia’s John Wister Elementary, a neighborhood school replaced by a charter, and how that replacement tore a community apart.

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The popular rationale for charter schools is that they provide families with “choice.  Competition is good, claim proponents, and neighborhood schools will get better as they compete for students and resources.

Increasing numbers of parents, however, argue that the opposite is happening. They complain that charters take away the choice they want—a public school in their neighborhood in easy walking distance from their home. The playing field is not even, they argue. Charters have more money to spend, and are favored by political forces.

And when a charter chain aggressively lobbies to take over a public school, parents are pitted against each other. Surely that is no one’s choice.

What follows is just such a story– the story of Philadelphia’s John Wister Elementary, a neighborhood school replaced by a charter, and how that replacement tore a community apart.

John Wister Elementary School

John Wister Elementary School had 400 students, nearly all were Black and from low-income families. The school was a part of the Germantown, Philadelphia community since the 1950s.  It was named for a prominent citizen from Revolutionary times whose historic home’s garden gate led to the school’s playground.

In October of 2015, Wister parents learned that their school was to become a charter school. Dr. William Hite, the Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, announced that Wister would be one of three schools placed in the district’s Renaissance charter program. That program, which began under former Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, relinquishes control of struggling public schools to charter operators who apply to take them over and serve neighborhood students.

An understanding of Wister’s story requires background on school governance in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s schools are governed by the School Reform Commission (SRC), a five-member board. Three members are appointed by the governor, and two are appointed by the mayor.   The Governor, therefore, has oversized influence over school governance in the city.  And the previous Governor, Tom Corbett, used that power to financially decimate the public schools.

The year after the majority of SRC members became Governor Corbett’s appointees, the SRC voted to close 23 public schools. In 2014, it voted to cancel the teachers’ contract, a vote that was subsequently deemed to be illegal by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Superintendent William Hite, a graduate of the controversial Broad Academy, was hired by the SRC in 2012.

Wister suffered greatly as its resources were depleted in those years. The announcement that Wister would now be given to a charter operator immediately became controversial. In prior years, parents in struggling schools were allowed to vote on whether their neighborhood school would be turned over to a charter. In 2014, the parents of two schools voted “no.” Ó For example, Steel Elementary School parents voted 121–55 to oppose the Mastery Charter chain’s takeover of their school.

Then the rules changed. The parent vote was taken away and the power to decide was given to Hite and the SRC.

At the time of the announcement, Kenya Nation-Holmes was the mother of a Kindergartener and second-grade student at Wister. Nation-Holmes was furious that parents were no longer the decision makers in whether their school would become a charter. She also believed that a lack of involvement by parents was at the root of Wister’s trouble. And so she decided to get involved and help turn the school around in hopes that the Superintendent would change his mind.

“I organized parents and started a parent council. We began talking regularly with the principal. Things were getting better and we were going to fight to save our school,” Nation told me.

But even as Nation-Holmes and her fellow parents were fighting for Wister, so was the Mastery Charter chain. By mid-November, Mastery Charter High School submitted its proposal to be the turnaround agent to take over the school.

The Campaign to Take Over Wister

The Mastery Charter School chain, known for its tough discipline and no-excuses philosophy, was already running more than ten schools in the city. CEO Scott Gordon’s background was in business. He founded a home health care company and marketed cereal before starting Mastery.

According to Nation-Holmes, “Scott Gordon told the parents that Mastery would give the school money—1.5 million dollars to fix up the school. He said they would paint it and fix the playground. He called me and said, ‘I will let you pick the color of the walls.’”

Karel Kilimnik, a long-time Germantown resident, and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, was appalled by the aggressive tactics of Mastery.

“Mastery waged a marketing campaign that pitted parents against each other. They paid people to canvas and to make phone calls. I spoke with someone at a meeting at Wister who described her position with Mastery as a ‘paid volunteer.’ One parent who initially supported staying with the district, switched sides after getting a job at a Mastery school. Another told us at a meeting of Parents of Wister that, ‘Parents of Wister should be giving out gift cards like Mastery did.’ In my opinion, Mastery poisoned the community in their war to win Wister.”

Germantown resident and former Wister teacher, Robin Lowry, agrees. She had previously taught in a high school that was taken over by a charter. “It was devastating to get the letter that we were a failing school slated to be closed the day after our Back to School night. There is a pattern. Starve the school of resources, it goes downhill, and then the charters swoop in. It happens in the poorest neighborhoods—they pick the people who have been picked on.”

The battle between the grassroots group, Parents of Wister, and Mastery and its advocates continued throughout the fall and early winter of 2015, with pro and anti Mastery parents picketing and testifying at meetings of the SRC.

The charter chain had considerably more resources than Parents of Wister. Mastery Charter High School hired Cecilia Shickel, a media consultant, to produce videos designed to encourage parents to support the conversion of Wister to Mastery.

Mastery’s actions would later catch the attention of the city’s Board of Ethics. According to the Board of Ethics of the City of Philadelphia, Mastery “retained several individuals to organize parents of students at Wister Elementary. These individuals were not employees of MCHS. The work done for MCHS by these individuals included encouraging parents to fill out “pre-enrollment” forms for a Wister Elementary charter school; staffing information sessions with parents to encourage them to support the Wister conversion; encouraging parents to contact SRC officials by email and telephone in support of the Wister conversion, and organizing parents to meet with SRC officials in support of the Wister conversion.”

Members of Parents of Wister also continued to organize and provide testimony to the SRC defending Wister Elementary. And then something remarkable occurred. A community member showed that the district had been using the wrong enrollment data to make its case for why Wister should be closed. Then the school progress report came out, which showed that even though Wister scores were still very low, the school had made academic progress, achieving model growth in mathematics.

Superintendent Hite changed his recommendation. Although Wister would still require intervention, takeover by Mastery was taken off the table.

Kenya Nation Holmes was elated. But Mastery advocates were not. They continued to lobby the SRC. The Philadelphia School Partnership, a pro-charter, multi-million dollar non-profit that gave $1, 269,000 to Mastery Charter High School for charter start-up and growth in 2014, was engaging in a behind the scenes email exchange with SRC member, Bill Green, in order to persuade him to vote to overturn the decision of the superintendent.

The pressure worked. Green joined two other SRC Board members whose votes had already been secured, and voted for a surprise “walk on resolution” that turned the school over to Mastery. Few Wister parents were present, believing that the issue had been resolved. The room was filled, however, with pro-Mastery parents who cheered.

SRC member, Sylvia Simms, who put forth the resolution immediately found herself in the middle of a controversy. Simms’s sister, Quibila Divine, works for a consulting group that had Mastery as a client and has close ties with the Philadelphia School Partnership that emailed Green. Divine had also attended a parent meeting at Wister, telling parents to support the takeover.

Despite cries of conflict of interest, the lack of notice to the public, and even objections by the mayor of Philadelphia, on April 28 the SRC gave its final approval to turn Wister over to Mastery Charter Schools.

The reverberations over what occurred, however, continued.

The Aftermath

In April of 2016, City Councilwoman, Helen Gym, called for moratorium on Renaissance Charters. Gym presented her research findings that demonstrated that significantly fewer neighborhood students were attending Renaissance charters, which were designed to serve neighborhood children. In the case of two Mastery charter schools, neighborhood children comprised only about half of the enrollees. Because funding follows the student, Gym estimated that the cost to the district of the six charter schools that were up for renewal was more than $15 million per year.

“In choosing to pursue Renaissance charters, it is clear then that the District is making a choice to choose to invest in some students at the expense of others,” Gym told the SRC. Gym argued that far more study was needed to judge the effectiveness of the program before continuing it.

In November of 2016, the conflict of interest complaint against Simms was dismissed at the state level due to “lack of evidence.” That same month, however, Mastery Charter High School settled with the Board of Ethics, paying a fine for violating the lobbying law when it campaigned to takeover Wister.

This year, the former flood of charter applications in the city are dramatically down, due in part because the SRC has decided to not expand its Renaissance charter program.

Robin Lowry now teaches in a district high school. From time to time she sees her former students that attend the charter school. “They tell me that Mastery is going to get them into Harvard and that everything is perfect there. Their responses seem automatic and cult-like to me. I worry for them,” she told me.

Meanwhile, Kenya Nation Holmes was able to find a district public school that would take her two children. “My son is spirited and creative. I like that about him. Mastery would have taken that away with their strict discipline. I don’t hate Mastery. It’s just not for my kids. I do not, however, like how everything happened.”

Nation-Holmes told me that from time to time parents who stayed at Wister after Mastery took over, contact her and complain that there are problems. They say that they are afraid to speak up. “I tell them there is nothing that I can do,” she said. “I tried to warn them.”