Is converting a long-troubled neighborhood school into a charter school the best chance for students' future success? Or is it an unconstitutional revival of school segregation?
Those were the weighty questions that had about 100 parents and activists shouting and applauding at a rally outside Wister Elementary School in Germantown Wednesday morning.
They gathered to back Superintendent William Hite's recommendation that Wister has improved enough in the past year to remain a district school and get extra support to ensure continued progress.
The school's fate has ping-ponged since Hite last year recommended Wister, Cooke Elementary in Logan and Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia for charter conversion.
He later changed his mind on Wister after reviewing data showing it didn't warrant drastic intervention - but the five-member School Reform Commission last month defied Hite and voted to begin the process of turning Wister over to Mastery Charter. A final SRC vote is set for April.
Today's rally coincided with a "National Day of Action," in which public school supporters rallied in 30 cities to demand an end to state takeovers, privatization and budget cuts.
At Wister, activists said public officials who want to improve schools should fully fund them, rather than put them in private hands.
"We can't fix the problem with an SRC that's stripping the district constantly. You can't cut my legs off and then grade me on how well I run a race," said Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the NAACP's Philadelphia branch. "The NAACP is behind you. We were fighting to end segregated schools in 1954, and in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. And now we're saying, to strip our (schools) of all of the things they need to bring a high-quality education, that should be unconstitutional.
"You should not be able to take my tax dollar and give it to some privateer sitting over in another county because they see they can get million-dollar contracts. They're interested in the contracts. They're not interested in your children."
Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and activist with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, agreed: "They say our public schools are failing, but it's not our public schools. It's a system that puts profits ahead of people. This is a fight for economic and racial justice, and public schools are a big part of that fight."
The crowd responded with chants including: "We're no fools! You can't take our public schools!"
Andrew Ericksen, a fifth-grade teacher at Wister and a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers representative, urged the crowd to pack the SRC's next meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at district headquarters in the 400 block of North Broad Street.
"Our students are not percentage points," Ericksen said. "They need to see what they're doing is wrong."
Germantown resident Graie Barasch-Hagans, 28, said he attended the rally to represent the community.
"The community and parents haven't really had a say in the process," he said. "If charter schools are really about choice, the parents here haven't had any choice."