By Vivian Rodriguez
What is it like to fight a charter takeover? Below is the story of life inside the school for the past two months, from a longtime volunteer.
On April 1st, our school was hit with a sledgehammer: The district proposal to turn Luis Munoz Marin into a Renaissance Charter, operated by ASPIRA of PA.
Most emphasis has been placed to our community of parents, and understandably so, because their children are the ones who stand to lose the most. But little has been mentioned about how the proposal is affecting our staff.
The timing of the vote is not a coincidence. Site Selection started in the middle of April and ended on May 30th. Because of the possibility that Munoz Marin would not be a public school next year, teachers were considered forced transfers and were expected to select a new school.
The staff was heartbroken! Theoretically, they needed to go through with the process of applying for a new school, but by doing so, it felt like they were giving up on Marin. Like the PFT said, this is the kind of turmoil that the District was trying to create.
From day one, we knew that this would be an uphill battle against ASPIRA and the District Charter School Office. After a few days of emergency meetings, we began to put together our own Parent Proposal for the next school year.
The First Presentation
On April 15th, Dr. Hite came to kick off the meeting. His presentation was remarkably simple without visuals. Our parents were not convinced. They asked questions and made comments in favor of keeping Munoz Marin a SDP public school.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn went next, and presented a PowerPoint with all sort of graphs showing why Marin was selected for this potential turnover. A highly subjective and out of context presentation, of course. I would have rather seen a graph with all the schools that were considered before the selection took place and a photograph of Mr. Calderon selecting Munoz Marin out of that group of schools.
Our presentation was next, and it went well. The whole School Leadership Team presented and a well-written plan mostly based on our actual school improvement plan for the year 2014-15.
Next came ASPIRA.
ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon came into the Auditorium with his entourage and security guards that look like bouncers. ASPIRA presentation with 10+ graphs and tables showing their “improvements” and our “failures.”
The SDP Charter School Office was supposed to check all these graphs and verify their accuracy before allowing ASPIRA to present their manipulated data to our parents. But that did not happen. ASPIRA’s plan for Marin was essentially to paint the school, buy new furniture, put more cameras, etc. Their plan did not include specifics about how they were planning to improve our PSSA scores.
Throughout the meeting, the parents in the audience were highly critical of ASPIRA and their attempted takeover. Had the vote happened that day, I know how it would have gone.
So why did the vote get moved?
On April 22nd, Mr. Calderon, from ASPIRA, was interviewed by Univision. The interview was in Spanish.
In that interview, Calderon said was that he was already working on a delay of our voting day. That was six days before our administration and SAC Team were informed of the switch.
On April 28th, the day of our 2nd Parents Meeting and 3 days before the vote, our principal received a call from Mr. Peng Chao, our contact person from the Charter School Office. She was informed that the voting day was changed and that Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez was coming to address the reason for the change.
Our school did not welcome the councilwoman. Most of our parents didn’t even know who she was. Her recommendation was to delay the vote because parents had called her telling her that the process was rushed, and parents needed more time.
She was attacked left and right.
How many parents called? How can you verify that these were LMM parents? How are you related to ASPIRA?
Quinones-Sanchez answered: even if I one parent called I would have listened. I am a proud “ASPIRAnte”. Both Mr. Kihn and Mr. Chao were present, but didn’t explain the reason for the change. At one point, she denied that this was all political, but she did admit that she was once the director of ASPIRA.
At the very end of her speech, Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez stated that she was sure that Luis Munoz Marin’s parents would see that ASPIRA was a better choice, and openly endorsed ASPIRA in front of all of us.
Our teachers fell apart. They had to accept their positions in the new schools by May 30th, without knowing the fate of Marin.
The Waiting Period
Parents received some kind of communication directly from the CSO about the change of date from May 1st to June 5th. In order to give more information to our parents about the proposals, there was an understanding that a series of meetings were going to happen.
Such official meetings never occurred. Instead, ASPIRA’s staff was outside our doors during admission and dismissal time. The distributed flyers with attacking Marin advertising three meetings at the local recreational center. They sent a bus almost every day to take parents to visit ASPIRA’s schools including their own schools, Pantojas and Hostos.
When our administration called the CSO to complain about ASPIRA’s aggressive tactics, We were told that ASPIRA had the right to be there, and that they would look into the flyers.
It took weeks of harassment and an extremely serious attack on Marin’s Staff on their last flyer to make them stop. That flyer insinuated that Marin’s principal and staff were going to be arrested because they cheated on the PSSA. They were desperate!
Right Before the Vote
So what was ASPIRA’s next move?
One week before the vote, Mr. Chao attended a School Advisory Committee (SAC) meeting and somehow arranged a meeting with the SAC and Mr. Calderon. The meeting was supposed to take place on Monday, June 2nd at the Luis Munoz Marin School.
When the SAC Team president and some of the members realized that this was not a mandated meeting, they cancelled the meeting via voicemail and email. The CSO insisted in having the meeting for any parent interested in speaking to ASPIRA, but no parent showed up.
At this point, Mr. Calderon has filed a grievance, which you can read about here if you like. The truth is that Mr. Chao shouldn’t have attended a SAC meeting to arrange such communications between ASPIRA and our SAC. The SAC shouldn’t meet with Calderon. They were mandated to visit ASPIRA’s schools and attend one of the two Parent’s Presentations, and they did. If any of the members, as parents of LMM, felt that they wanted to speak to Mr. Calderon in person, they could have attended any of the three extra meetings held in the area (although almost none of them did).
The vote is set for Thursday June 4th. The staff awaits the results, hoping that their school will be saved and that they will be able to stay at Luis Munoz Marin.
Vivian Rodriguez is a retired special education teacher with 30 years experience in the School District of Philadelphia and the city’s Latino Community. She has spent the last 5 years as a volunteer at Luis Munoz Marin Elementary.