Correction: The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers were added to the list (PCAPS and Caucus of Working Educators) of organizations helping to organize Steel – Munoz families to vote against the charter school conversions in 2014.
Since the beginning of the state controlled SRC (School Reform Commission) in 2000, Philadelphia residents have witnessed the slow, systematic dismantling of the country’s fifth largest school district with little to no public input. Over that time, the SRC has been responsible for closing dozens of neighborhood public schools, issuing licenses to create charter schools, and then put underfunded public schools up for conversion “to address chronic academic and climate challenges.”
In a press release issued on Thursday, the School District of Philadelphia announced plans to close two schools and convert three “chronically underperforming schools” to Renaissance charter schools. This process will affect 15 schools in total due to students transferring to other schools. Tomorrow afternoon, teachers, community members and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers officials will hold a press conference outside of Jay Cooke Elementary School, one of the schools that will be converted to Renaissance charter school, to protest the district’s announcement, but the Caucus of Working Educators, who is currently challenging leadership for positions on the executive leadership council, see this as an opportunity to organize students, parents, teachers and the surrounding community.
Caucus member Amy Roat told the Raging Chicken Press that “we’re not here for a press conference,” and stated that members from Jay Cooke are getting ready to organize teachers, students, parents and the surrounding community to stop these conversions. Two years ago, the Caucus of Working Educators, Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPs), Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and parents of students at Edward Steel and Luis Marin-Munoz elementary schools were able to reject the two Renaissance conversions through a voting process, but this time around will be a lot more difficult because parents from the three schools will not be able to vote against the charter school conversion. Since the results of the Edward Steel and Louis Marin-Munoz did not go in favor of the School Reform Commission, Superintendent Hite’s Action Plan 3.0 excludes input from parents, teachers and community and hands off the decision to convert these schools to a selected panel.
One of the teachers who is taking part in organizing her co-workers and the community surrounding Jay Cooke Elementary School is 7th and 8th grade math and science teacher Christine Kolenut. Christine has been teaching at Jay Cooke for 8 years, leads the robotics club and coordinates a “college preparation and readiness” program for eighth grade students.
In the School Reform Commission’s press release, Cooke Elementary was labeled “chronically underperforming” and Christine did not waste time explaining what has actually occurred inside the school. The initial reactions among the teachers at Cooke were “shock and anger.” She stated that “for the past several years Cooke was stripped to bare bones, staff and resource wise,” and that the school’s funding problems were so bleak that an “entire first grade went without a teacher for over 5 months because a long term sub was never sent when a teacher left on medical leave” in 2014.
Spending money on teaching supplies isn’t as big as an issue at Jay Cooke as it might be at other schools in the district, but one of her larger complaints is the constant curriculum turnaround in the district. She sees the constant turnaround as an “incredible waste of money” explaining “that every couple of years there is a new initiative and a whole new set of curriculum materials are sent. Those [textbooks] are used for about 2 years and then stuck in an empty classroom and abandoned for new materials.” Christine and her colleagues have spent personal resources making sure students have clean uniforms, functioning athletic and physical education programs and so families can cover the costs of graduating.
Over the weekend, teachers at Jay Cooke held meetings developing an action plan to keep Cooke a public, neighborhood school. Members of the leadership team within the school have already started reaching out to parents and community members. The fight to save Cooke Elementary is going to once again ignite the grassroots organizations who have been at the center of the push back to preserve public education in Philadelphia and is happening at an interesting time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers due to the challenge they are facing from the Caucus of Working Educators.