Politicians, union leaders, and teachers blast school turnaround plans

Randi Weingarten (second from left), president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Katie McGinty (second from right), candidate in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, were among those who toured E.W. Rhodes Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Katie McGinty, candidate in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, joined local union and political leaders Wednesday in opposing a turnaround plan for an elementary school in North Philadelphia.

"If you didn't know the school was slated for essentially a destabilizing turnaround, you would never have known that by walking through the school," Weingarten said after an hour-long tour of E.W. Rhodes Elementary School. "In fact, you would have said: 'Wait a minute. This is a place where parents want to send their kids, where educators want to work, where the kids are engaged.' "

Rhodes, at 2900 W. Clearfield St., is one of four elementary schools Superintendent William R. Hite has targeted for district-run academic makeovers. Under the approach he outlined last month, staff will be required to reapply for their jobs; no more than half could remain.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and others have criticized the approach, saying drastic staff turnover is disruptive for students and the school community.

Officials said Rhodes is an example of a school making strides to become a community school - a model the PFT, the mayor, and others say will benefit students and neighborhoods.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard declined comment.

At a briefing outside Rhodes, PFT president Jerry Jordan said he had encouraged Weingarten - who was in town for the AFL-CIO convention - to visit the school.

He noted that Rhodes was converted from a high school to an elementary school three years ago. He said principal Andrea Coleman-Hill and her staff had worked hard to develop ties with community groups to provide services and improve academic performance.

"With very limited resources, this principal and this staff have worked very, very hard to turn this school around," Jordan said. "It doesn't need to be turned around again."

Weingarten agreed, saying the district should find resources to help Rhodes become a sustainable community school.

"You make sure you nurture it," Weingarten said. "You don't blow it up from its roots."

City Councilwoman Helen Gym said: "All of us around the table have been pushing not against something, but for something: for community schools. A real investment in the neighborhoods, communities, support services and resources. ..."

Teacher Rasheed Clark, the PFT building representative, said that under Coleman-Hill's leadership, teachers had come to Rhodes from across the city to become a close-knit staff.

"We want the opportunity to continue what we started."

McGinty, who has been endorsed by the PFT, called the visit to Rhodes "an absolute inspiration." She said she had talked to a third grader who was disappointed she could no longer visit the school library every day because there was no one to staff it.

"The school does not have the resources for a librarian," McGinty said. "Maybe that's where we should start."

The other schools Hite has recommended for district-run turnovers in the fall are Roosevelt Elementary, East Germantown; Munoz-Marin, North Philadelphia; and Mitchell, Kingsessing.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789@marwooda