Steel parents face daunting decision: Go charter or stay with District?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Parents of the Edward T. Steel School face a choice: Stay with the District or become a charter?

For Lamaine Robinson, a Steel graduate and now a high school sophomore at Mastery’s Gratz campus, the answer is clear: The District shouldn’t mess with what he considers success.

“Gratz is cool, but I want to support Steel. This is my home school, where I first started,” Robinson said, as he stood outside the K-8 school in Northwest Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood. He recalled Steel as a safe and friendly place that prepared him well for high school.

“This is where my classic memories are at, where all my friends are at,” Robinson said. “Everything was just fun about Steel.”

Steel is one of two schools that could be transferred to charter operators as part of the District’s Renaissance initiative. On Wednesday night, it hosted the first of two meetings that will take place before May 1, when parents will vote on its future.

On the sidewalk, a small cluster of red-shirted teachers and union supporters chanted and held up signs in favor of keeping the school under District control. Nearby, Mastery staff and supporters made their own case to parents and reporters.

Inside, District staff and charter operators presented their competing visions for the school in a boisterous and emotional meeting. The passionate crowd included a number of riled-up Steel teachers.

Most attendees appeared to favor retaining the school’s District status.

“Come on – all teachers are created equal,” said Kevin Wingfield, a Steel parent and School Advisory Council member. “You want to kick these ones out and bring in some new ones that don’t even know your kids? My dad sent me here. I have 11 brothers and sisters and we all got a good education. My kids go here, my grandkids go here.

“It’s a community. The teachers will walk around to your house.”

Levette Parish, a teacher at Steel, called the school a “family.”

“These children know us. They are comfortable with us. They come to us for everything,” Parish said. “This isn’t just a normal school.”

But other parents were less certain about the school’s capacity to improve, particularly in light of the District’s dire financial situation.

“I don’t think you really can do that well, not having enough resources for the children,” said Vaniece Young, whose daughter is in pre-K.

“I really don’t know what you guys offer me – and I’m not thoroughly impressed with what I’ve seen,” said another neighborhood mother, Sherika McLean.

To charter or not to charter: ‘A big decision in a short time’

No one denies that the question of the Steel’s future has been fast-tracked. Parents and Steel staff have had only a few weeks to prepare for the coming Renaissance vote.

“This is very awkward,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon as he began his presentation. “You have a very big decision to make in a very short time.”

District officials told the audience that their goal was to halt Steel’s recent academic slide. The school made adequate yearly progress (AYP) until several years ago, when it expanded from K-5 to K-8; since then, its test scores have been sinking at about the same rate as the District as a whole.

“We feel an incredible urgency as we see what’s happening with the students in the schools here,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn. He assured the crowd that “Mastery has been successful” improving similar schools.

Mastery officials promised that teachers, students and parents alike would receive a significant boost in support under Mastery. Flanked by a dozen Mastery staff and supporters, Gordon told parents that if Mastery wins the Steel charter, the school will remain a neighborhood school open to all.

“Mastery does not kick kids out,” said Gordon, adding that the charter operator has cut the number of students departing Gratz in half since taking over the school. “That is true across Mastery schools. … More children from the neighborhood stay in the school,” he said.

He also sought to dispel the notion that Mastery is in it for the money. “We’re a public school. We’re not a private school. I’m driving a 2007 Prius. We are not making money on each additional school,” Gordon said.

Gordon and the Mastery team went on to describe a plan to boost the school’s resources and performance.

“We like to educate the whole child,” said Jovan Weaver, an administrator at Mastery’s Hardy Willliams charter school in Southwest Philadelphia, who would come to Steel if Mastery wins its charter. “Art. Music. Science. Gym. Anger management. Conflict resolution. Clubs. Sports. You name it, we have it.”

A particular focus was on intense support for teachers: coaching, professional development, classroom assistants and more.

“There’s great teachers at District schools and great teachers in charter schools,” said Weaver. “What’s different is the amount of support we give to our teachers.”

A passionate defense

Steel’s principal, Mary Bonner, presented her own vision for the school, fiercely defending its record in the face of budget cuts and the K-8 expansion.

“We can take a little bit and make a lot happen,” said Bonner, who has been at the school for eight years. “We were on a mission long before Mastery showed up at our door.”

Bonner’s plan involves creating individualized plans for each student and connecting them with appropriate academic supports.

“We had exactly 13 days to get prepared for this, while we were doing our PSSAs,” she said. “If we have it ready in 13 days, we must be doing something right.”

The school’s foundation is solid, she said: It relies on the state curriculum, has a strong base of community and parental support, and made AYP for three years straight from 2006 to 2008.

Since then the school has added grades and lost staff – unwelcome moves driven by District policies, she said.

“If Steel is struggling somewhere, Steel will not take the blame for that ourselves,” she said to a loud round of applause. “We are a public school.”

Bonner said she and the faculty have been working on an improvement plan since September, looking at data to evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses. Among her goals is to have a “personalized education plan” for each student that connects them to the academic supports they need. She named some computer-based commercial and test-prep curricula, including First in Math, Study Island. Achieve 3000, and Learning A-Z.

She rattled off long lists of community partnerships and dreams – she hopes, for example, to get laptops for all 3rd graders and parent volunteers in every classroom – and stressed the school’s personal touch.

“Our teachers never leave. They retire. And they come back. Am I right, Steel?” she asked, to a rousing cheer.

But she also admitted that, unlike Mastery, she can’t promise an influx of new staff and resources, or even a new paint job.

“Do you as the principal admit you need help?” asked one parent.

“Definitely,” Bonner answered. “Limited resources do have an impact on our school. … We’d love to have a librarian. But our children are still going to read. Our charge is to find a way for our children.”

An emotional debate

Parents said the accelerated Renaissance selection process has created a charged atmosphere.

Robert Stewart, a Steel alum and parent of a 1st grader, said he’s been approached by Mastery supporters every morning for weeks. “Every day I get the same piece of paper – they ask, ‘Are you a parent?’ Are you a parent?’” he said with a laugh. “You get to where you don’t want to look them in the eye so they won’t ask you.”

Stewart praised the school and its staff; one dedicated teacher turned his struggling son into a star student, he said. “The teachers here really care. That’s why I’m here,” he said, pledging to vote to retain District control.

But others aren’t so sure. Parent Jenia Jolley said that no matter what the principal promises, the record shows a decline, and no improvement plan can work without finances to back it up.

“What if the School District doesn’t support that plan? If it stays Steel, how are they going to support it to make the school better?” she asked.

Jolley said the boisterous atmosphere around the Renaissance debate has turned her and other parents off. She nodded in approval as a fellow parent, McLean, told Bonner that she was “totally appalled” by the loud cheers of the teachers during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The teachers were not shushed while people were talking,” McLean said. “Your teachers’ actions have not made me say, ‘I want to send my child here.’”

Bonner defended her staff, who learned of the Renaissance selection just two weeks ago, in the midst of the annual PSSA testing process.

“If you see them acting and reacting in a passionate way, it’s because they are fighting – fighting for their school, fighting for their jobs,” she said. “They’re in a very special place. I’ll apologize to you if you were offended … but I assure you, they are professional people.”

Jolley said later that, as a supporter of the now-closed Germantown High, she understood why parents and staff were trying to save the school they’ve come to know over many years.

But at the same time, she said she’s confident that Mastery can deliver a better product. Asked if she’d vote for Mastery, Jolley said simply, “Heck, yeah.”