This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.
The older woman wore gloves as she stooped to pick up trash outside Steel Elementary School, tucked into a quiet block of black working-class homes in Philadelphia’s Nicetown section. Apparently, the volunteer had made an impromptu decision to stop by and tidy the place up on her way to wherever she was going.
“This is a community school,” boasts Steel School Advisory Council president Kendra Brooks, a parent of two Steel students, standing next to banners proclaiming We Are Family and We Love Our School. “We have generations and generations of families who have been through Steel School. We have teachers who have been here eighteen, twenty-eight years. So we’ve built a community.”
The school’s tenor—what educators call “climate”—seems positive. Inside, first-grade students are engaged in a reading exercise, while third graders prepare to paint cutouts of butterflies after learning about their life cycle. But the end-of-year calm belies a bruising conflict.
In April, parents and teachers launched a high-profile fight to block a takeover of Steel by a charter-school network after the district, citing the school’s low test scores, declared it in need of an overhaul. Brooks believes that her school—which, like others, has reeled under the budget cuts implemented by Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett—had been set up to fail. Last spring, apart from the principal and a secretary, she says, Steel had “a teacher for each class” and almost “nothing extra.”
The designation of neighborhood schools as “failing” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, has enabled the rapid growth in Philadelphia of networks like Mastery Charter Schools, which had been tapped to take over Steel. Founded in 2001 with 100 ninth graders, Mastery now educates its own district-within-a-district of nearly 10,000 students in fifteen schools and boasts high test scores and a culture of determined optimism. Ten of these schools are “turnarounds”—in recent years dubbed “Renaissance schools”—that were taken over from the district. Charter-school advocates cite Mastery as a golden model of “no excuses” education within a local charter sector that often suffers from mixed test scores and financial corruption. “Give me the opportunity to break myths and assumptions that folks will have about poor communities that turn out to be completely false,” says Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. He likes to say that the district is a “house on fire” and that poor children are trapped inside. Many parents and students love Mastery, crediting its turnarounds with calming chaotic hallways, improving learning and directing children’s attention toward college.