Wister fiasco is why SRC has to go

Parents rally against turning Wister Elementary School in Germantown over to a charter operator on Feb. 17, 2016.

THE SCHOOL REFORM Commission has to go. It has to go because, no matter how much we respect the commissioners who serve this body, the fate of the schools should be decided by elected officials accountable to the people and the communities they serve. It has to go, because it has clearly failed to deliver the financial stability that justified its creation 15 years ago (an impossible task to begin with but one the SRC has accepted as its charge, nevertheless).

It has to go because, as John Wister Elementary School shows, it is ripping apart some of the very communities on whose behalf the commissioners are supposed to make their decisions.

Granted, the overt conflict between Wister parents who want the school to become Mastery and those who want it to remain in the district might not have been intentional. No commissioner could have possibly wished to see or to hear the bitter words uttered at the March 17 SRC meeting. Still, the SRC has been, at best, indefensibly passive in the unfolding and handling of a conflict of its own making and, at worst, morally responsible for one of the most disheartening scenes in education in our city: working-class, African American parents fighting among themselves for a better future for their kids.

The events that led to this conflict are well known. On Oct. 1, 2015, Dr. William Hite communicated to Wister parents that the School District of Philadelphia was recommending the school to become a Renaissance Charter School. Weekly meetings were set for parents to discuss this transformation with the district. On Jan. 11, and supposedly based on the new School Progress Report, Hite reversed his own decision and recommended that the school remain under district control. Only a few days later, at the Jan. 21 SRC meeting, commissioner Sylvia Simms introduced a motion to create a resolution overriding Hite's decision. Wister parents, she argued, had pleaded with her to take this action. With neither public notice nor public discussion, the motion passed, 3-1, (with one abstention) and Wister was matched to Mastery.

This chain of events has seriously harmed the SRC's credibility. How are we supposed to believe that decisions are carefully considered when they can be so easily reversed without public deliberation? It has also exposed the SRC's failure to serve as the catalyst for positive change it prides itself on being. Regardless of what happens to the school at the April 28 SRC meeting, the day of the final vote to turn Wister to Mastery, the Wister community is emerging from this process deeply divided and with scars difficult to heal.

Some of the tensions between parents in this process of deciding about the future of the school may have been unavoidable. But the escalation of these tensions into the current heart-wrenching conflict was avoidable. It was the SRC's responsibility to make sure that this process helped the Wister community to grow stronger, and not to become split and damaged.

John Wister is not only one more reason why the SRC has to go; it is the reason why it has to go right now.

Encarna Rodriguez works at Saint Joseph's University. Amy Brown works at the University of Pennsylvania. The original letter was signed by 20 professionals from higher education and represents the views of the individuals, not their institutions.