It Could Happen Here: PUBLIC -v- CHARTER


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**UPDATE:  WISTER WINS!!**  Philadelphia’s School District announced last week that Wister Elementary will remain public** 

Wister’s been granted a reprieve. District Superintendents met with staff at dismissal to give us the good news. Is it because parents’ voices were heard or because parent and community pressure caught the District in data lies?  We may never know, but if Choice is a platform of Ed Reform, then we need a roadmap for what that looks like because Parents were given a genuine voice in this.

This has been an emotional roller coaster.  That would be ok if we felt that we were treated with respect throughout and that we were really discussing how our students can learn and be engaged best.  But that hasn’t been part of the story.  It has been a battle of sound bites.

Stay tuned for the hoops the district will put up for Wister. Could look more like a Promise Academy.  Longer day/year/ etc. but nothing innovative.  That would be almost a greater tragedy.    — RL

Neighboring Germantown parents and teachers mobilize against School District plans for a charter takeover of Wister Elementary. Local educator Robin Lowry’s passionate blog brings us to the “front line” of one school’s fight to continue to serve its neighborhood as a public school.

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ED NOTE:  When it comes to School District tactics, Robin Lowry’s seen ’em all in her 22 years in the Philadelphia School system. Including in 2011 when Mastery Charter Schools angled for and “won” Simon Gratz Public High School in North Philly, causing mixed feelings in the community.

For instance, a recent NPR report featured Simon Gratz as a shining example of how a city’s most violent & underachieving school can blossom with just the kinda innovative, outside-the-box efforts charter schools are known for.  Sounds great so far…

But the report also revealed for every “turn-around” school like Simon Gratz (whose improvements depended on independent donations, btw), there are scores of “dumpster” schools where under-achieving students founder in mediocrity while bleeding our tax dollars to the private sector.

No one is arguing that charter schools can’t work — but the current charter school model creates an unfair, publicly-funded system that too often fleeces neighborhood resources for corporate profits.  So suggested the NPR report, and so echo calls from educators, advocates, parents, and news sources citing surveys, studies, legislation…  Not just in Philadelphia, but all over the US.

Robin’s commentary seeks to provide readers her personal viewpoints along with links to articles and websites for further illumination. As a teacher, she sees her struggles at Wister as an opportunity to educate as many people as possible about important issues being discussed and voted on today.

What’s happening in Germantown could happen here in East Falls, where Mifflin faces its own performance challenges.  Robin shares her story in the hopes of getting public school kids & teachers the support they need to build the best possible future for all of us.

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SURPRISE! YOU’RE NOW A CHARTER SCHOOL!  A blog begins, by Robin Lowry:

“Your child deserves to have a great public school close to home…” stated a letter from the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) handed to Wister Elementary’s  K-5 parents at dismissal on October 1st.

Wister, it seems, was being turned over to a charter school provider.

The staff found out from principal Donna Smith earlier that morning, the morning after our Back to School Night and after the summer of planning, hiring, and preparing classrooms.  Two other schools, Huey in West Philly and Cooke in Olney were in the same boat.

Did the District just decide this, or has this been the plan since last school year? Or five years ago?

“A great public school close to home?”   The School District has closed 50+ schools using the Boston Consulting Groups (BCG) plan to shrink the number of public schools and increase the number of charter schools in the District.

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This is too ironic to believe.  Germantown has lost its high school and Fitler Elementary, students from which now travel further to go to Wister. Meanwhile Wister has been systematically starved of resources and supports, and churned by the revolving doors of curriculum, staffing, and “reforms,” the m.o. of the SDP. In this same letter to parents Wister was said to have “ongoing challenges” to be solved by this “Renaissance Turnaround” the District’s fancy term for it’s strategy of giving up on public schools and giving them over to charters companies.

I experienced this same strategy at Simon Gratz HS 6 years ago:  a struggling urban school, 100% low SES, under-served youth, crumbling facilities, lack of supports & resources, (purposefully?) weak administrators.  Mastery was brought in to save the school. The community’s push-back resulted in only the “win” to keep school colors the same — Cherry and White, not Mastery Blue. Hooray for the home team, I guess.

Three years ago when the SDP tried to turn Steele and Marin Muniz schools into charters parents were given the chance to vote Public or Charter.  Parents at both schools chose Public. This time around the SDP has a new strategy -only 5 Wister parents get to vote and only on which charter is given the contract. Clever!

Does the SDP even want community input? The 5 lucky parents chosen were literally names pulled from a hat  — yes, it happened, I was there checking to be certain that we even knew the five parents or if they were Mastery “plants.”  (we had reason to be suspicious btw.)

So many hoops for the 5 parents chosen, too:  meetings, Q&A’s with charters, tours, discussion, a mysterious rating system…. sounded like a full-time job and it sounded vague, but given the district’s Renaissance Initiative it should be transparent.  But it is not.  Did I mention there were to be six “other” advisors also making recommendations.

Hmmmmm…  Six votes for the district, and five for the community. I wonder if they did this on purpose?

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In parent meetings held weekly after the announcement the SDP used totally wrong info on the chart citing Wister’s “enrollment decline” — turned out school population declined because Wister went from a K-6 school to a K-5.  In fact John B. Kelly also became a K-5 because Mastery Pickett wanted to be a middle/high school.

Wister’s community immediately questioned the district presenters (I mean Teachers KNOW how many kids are in a school each year — I see all 373 every day — and I know their first and last names!), but yet the same chart kept popping up at subsequent meetings. Public testimony was given to publicize this lie, then just before the December SRC meeting, Wister parents received a letter apologizing for the “error.”

The SDP also ignored TVAAS scores (individual student scores showing growth over 3 years) and instead used PSSA scores — a composite of all student scores, including those who show up a month before testing (after having been kicked out of a charter because they wouldn’t score well – anecdotal from many teachers!)

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To add insult to injury, the SDP passed a resolution for electric/mechanical work at Wister.  Curious to see bid proposals . What will these schools be in a few years  — Public, Charter or Closed. This has been happening since Paul Vallas was the Super -fix schools up then sell the buildings to developers or let a charter company use them FREE OF CHARGE.

It seems upgrades are a priority only when a school goes on the auction block — Wister classrooms don’t have 3-prong outlets!

Early December was a busy time for the Wister Fight.  Parents got a flier for a meeting the District was having at Wister with Mastery Charter so we quickly mobilized and held a rally to create a gauntlet for Mastery to pass through.

About 60 staff, union supporters, and community members joined parents to protest the underhandedness of the “Turnaround.”  Parents are most fired up about not having a choice and not being told that Wister was in such dire straits prior to the time it was deemed too late.

Mastery Charter targets NW Philly properties (and Camden and DC) like game pieces, creating a monopoly of our local public school system — forcing themselves on existing schools and communities that are as in Wister’s case, not seeking to have a trusted neighborhood institution destroyed with all the familiar staff turned out.

We at Wister ARE desperately interested in positive changes for children – a robust curriculum, more focus on play less on testing, a safe and pleasant facility, stable staffing, before and after school activities and a full-time nurse.  This list is NOT exhaustive!

If Mastery has such excellent schools parents could “vote with their feet” (slogan used by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman & by Wang in video below) and fill up Mastery’s existing 17 schools. Instead Mastery seems uncertain that they’d get enough feet so they and the SDP are in cahoots to help them Turnaround schools. So much for Parents Voting, guess this ain’t no democracy. And Mastery doesn’t just want a few schools.

When a charter school wants to overhaul your neighborhood public school that’s a huge transition from Public to Private. The community must have a democratic voice.  We need to initiate the discussion and clarify our concerns.

The way the School District is pushing a charter school on Wister is creating a lot of animosity, and deep divisions within the community.  At the last SRC meeting Mastery had 20+ adults wearing “We Support the Wister Turnaround” t-shirts with boxed Panera dinners in hand. The non-charter supporters had food confiscated at the door for a 4+ hour meeting  Is that fair?

The Blue Shirts chanted  “More Charters NOW!” Six of my current Wister students were there –3 on each side — it was awkward.  Speakers included parents and former Wister students saying how awful it is and how terrible the principal is, while supportive parents spoke to ask for a voice in the process and respect. Some parents have shared with me that Mastery has offered them full-time jobs.  Who knows what else has been offered to take up the Mastery side.

Like a canary in a coal mine, the message that Charter Schools are NOT Public schools must be broadcast loud and clear.  To do that effectively the public — you and me– have to first be clear what the differences are.

I leave you with a new entry in the Urban Dictionary:  “Poverty Pimping.”  To hear it in action, push play on the panel discussion above, particularly at 29:00, when Michael Wang of the Philadelphia School Partnership is speaking.

Thanks for following the Fight for Wister.

Robin Lowry lives in Germantown and teaches Health & Physical Education at Wister Elementary.  In her 22 years with the Philly School District teaching all grade levels she has experienced the daily joys and frustrations that teaching in large schools systems can bring. She looks forward to sharing those experiences with all who are interested.  She is also a Certified Iyengar Yoga instructor with a Ph.D. in Kinesiology. 

Follow Robin’s fight for Wister at, and on “Save Wister Elementary,” a Facebook community of 300+ who share pics & info from the latest rallies, plus updates on upcoming votes, meetings, more.  

POST QUESTIONS & COMMENTS FOR ROBIN BELOW, or email her directly for a private response.





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