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