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Phila. School District to turn Cooke and Huey over to charters

The fate of two Philadelphia public schools seems sealed: Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. Monday recommended that Cooke Elementary in Logan and Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia be given to charter companies to run.

The fate of two Philadelphia public schools seems sealed: Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. Monday recommended that Cooke Elementary in Logan and Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia be given to charter companies to run.

But, in a surprise move, a third elementary Hite had recommended for charter conversion will remain a traditional Philadelphia School District school.

Wister Elementary staved off becoming a charter - thanks not so much to the outcry of the community, Hite said, but to new data that showed signs of growth for the Germantown school.

That leaves Mastery Charter Schools Inc., which had applied to run Wister, out of the equation.

In a statement issued Monday evening, Mastery cited its track record to express disagreement with Hite's decision.

"We urge Dr. Hite and [School Reform Commission] members to meet with the Evaluation Committee and parents to explain their decision and to hear parents' concerns before deciding Wister's Renaissance status," the statement read.

If the School Reform Commission signs off this month, Cooke will be run by the Great Oaks Foundation, a New York-based company that operates charters there and elsewhere on the East Coast. It was the only applicant.

Huey would be run by Global Leadership Academy Charter School, which has a stand-alone charter school in West Philadelphia. The other contender was SABIS Educational Systems, a company with roots in Lebanon that administers public and private schools around the world.

The Huey community made a strong statement for Global Leadership, district officials said.

Hite identified Cooke, Huey, and Wister in October as candidates for the district's "Renaissance" schools program because of their chronic low performance. Under that program, the district has turned over 20 schools to charters in the last five years.

This year's Renaissance process proved especially controversial. Parents, community members, and teachers contended they had little say over the future of their schools, as opposed to last year's process, when school communities had the chance to vote on whether they wanted to become charters.

Huey, Cooke, and Wister all put up fights against the Renaissance process. At recent SRC meetings, vocal anti-charter conversion groups had a significant presence.

But Hite said he heard strong messages from both pro- and anti-charter factions. "In these processes, we were hearing from both sides on this," he said.

Members of the Wister community had said the district based its Renaissance decision on flawed data. But Hite said his decision resulted largely from newly released numbers showing that the school had reversed a decline. The growth, he said, meant Wister no longer was best suited to a charter conversion.

"They've not only shown evidence of strong growth, they've surpassed where they were two years ago," the superintendent said.

Cooke and Huey, on the other hand, did not fare as well in the new data, collected in district-level reports released last week.

Still, Hite said, the fundamentals have not changed: Wister is struggling and needs some sort of intervention.

"While we've seen growth, it is still a school that is not high-performing," Hite said. "Other than becoming a Renaissance charter, everything else is on the table. We have to do something at Wister."

He said that whatever happened at the school, it would move forward with the community engagement built in this process. The school now has a strong advisory council that will be crucial to future decision-making, Hite said.

"We have to leverage that," the superintendent said, "to build on the current momentum.

Peng Chao, the official who oversees turnarounds for the school system, said that while the process was not perfect, he was satisfied with the level of community engagement.

"We're extremely proud of the opportunities that we put forth to all three school communities," Chao said.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said he was disappointed that all three schools did not receive a reprieve.

"Our schools have been starved of resources - both human and financial - and they're being held to a level of accountability for things that are not necessarily under their control," said Jordan.

But, Jordan said, he supported the Wister decision "100 percent - it's really good news."

Mark Gleason, head of the powerful nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership - which raises and distributes millions to charters, private, and district schools - said the Wister decision was wrong, suggesting it was not as simple as improved performance on the school's part.

"Mastery has the best track record of school turnaround in Philadelphia," Gleason said, "and even though four out of five kids at Wister aren't learning to read, the district has said no to accountability for families and yes to special-interest politics."

Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, a statewide organization that backs high-performing charter and other public schools, also blasted the Wister move.

"Today's decision just made it even harder for PennCAN to convince skeptical Republicans that the School District of Philadelphia is serious about using its new revenue to transform its chronically underperforming schools," Cetel said.

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