by Karel Kilimnik
November’s meeting is the first to be chaired by Joyce Wilkerson, sworn in by Mayor Kenney on November 3 and appointed as Chair by Governor Wolf. Ms. Wilkerson was Chief of Staff for Mayor John Street and has extensive experience in government. She stated publicly that she favors or a return to local control.
The resolutions for November embody recurring themes, fully supported by the SRC, of Superintendent William Hite’s administration. One is the issue of the resolutions that have been appearing and disappearing since last April. Resolutions for renewals of Mastery Clymer, Mastery Shoemaker, and Mastery Gratz are posted—as they have been every month since April. The SRC has tabled, postponed or withdrawn these resolutions, without explanation, for seven months.
At September’s meeting, the SRC approved the reopening of Vaux High School, which had been closed in 2013, as a “contract school” to be operated by Big Picture Philadelphia. The proposed school would serve up to 500 students through 2022. Just before October’s meeting, the SRC withdrew Resolution B-10 which would have approved a six-year, $23 million contract with the education vendor to manage the school. That resolution also stipulated an option for a five-year renewal through 2017. There was never any staff presentation to explain what that program entailed or why it cost $23 million. Once again, we ask: What is happening behind the scenes that resulted in the resolution to be withdrawn? Where is this money to operate one small high school coming from?
On October 11, Dr. Hite announced that eleven schools have been designated “Priority Schools”. Details about the initiative have been sketchy. There is a list of five options for some type of turnaround, at least three of which would include major staff overhauls. One of the options is “restarting the schools”, which would imply that the school would be closed. Dr. Hite has repeatedly said that no schools would be closed this year. How do you restart a school if you haven’t closed it? In September, the SRC approved a $200,000 contract with “The Cambridge Team”, an education vendor based in Massachusetts, to conduct “school quality reviews” over a period of three weeks. Cambridge will hold three community meetings at each school and conduct two days of site visits. The contract resolution stated that part of the SQR process will be “to identify strengths at these schools which can be built upon, and will provide additional, on-the-ground data to inform which strategic investments would be most likely to drive sustained school improvement.” Of course, it is the teachers and principals who have been developing these strengths—in spite of lack of resources, teacher vacancies, the substitute debacle last year, and cutbacks in support staff. If the district observed good pedagogy, those teachers and principals would remain in these schools while the district replaced the services which have been cut by the Hite administration over the past four years. APPS has attended and written reports on many of these meeting.
Dr. Hite will announce his recommendation for all eleven schools in January 2017. Perhaps at the time he will also tell us how much the Priority School initiative will cost.
One set of Resolutions raises the issue of what happens to the buildings of shuttered schools. In 2013, there was a massive closing of 24 schools. Several of these properties are located in gentrifying neighborhoods. Bok High School, the only Philadelphia school building financed and constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1938, and included on the National Register of Historic Places, has gone from providing “a core academic curriculum where students have been able to study accounting, bookkeeping, carpentry, health/medical assisting services, commercial/advertising art, computer systems networking and communications, engineering technologies, and culinary arts” into a space filled with a private preschool program, a range of small non-profits, working space for artists and craftspeople, as well as a summer rooftop bar. These programs may fill a need, but so did Bok High School—as a vibrant educational institution that provided opportunities for our young people. There are many other vacant buildings that would provide space for non-profits and artists, such as the Budd building in Nicetown. The neighborhood surrounding Bok is gentrifying and the services lodged within the building reflect that reality. How many more shuttered buildings are part of this gentrification of our city? Our neighborhood schools have served generations of families who expected that their children and grandchildren would be able to continue that tradition. How many of these closed schools are slated to become mixed-use buildings with market-value residences replacing residents who can no afford the rent? The SEPTA strike has shown us the value of having a neighborhood school within walking distance. What happens to a community stripped of its school?
This month, we see the continued use of non-profits to replace school staff. Partners are invaluable but should be supplemental, not primary. Volunteers are wonderful, generous people, but our students need educated and experienced staff who at the school every day. Our students need school librarians, counselors, nurses, reading specialists, art and music teachers. They deserve the best, and we should do everything we can to ensure that they receive it. Rather than close or charterize or turnaround our schools, the Hite administration needs to institute real reforms, beginning with putting back so many of the resources which have been taken out:
- A full time school nurse to help in assessing any health issues (such as vision and auditory screenings)
- Classroom aides to provide support in the classroom
- Reduced class size that enables classroom teachers to support every child
- Reading Specialists who can diagnose and remediate reading issues
- Reading Recovery teachers in elementary schools
- A flourishing ESOL program to support our English Language Learners
- Small class size and supports for Special Needs students
Please note that November’s SRC Action Meeting is Tuesday (not Thursday) November 15th at 4:30 PM.
Click here to read selected resolutions relating to the ongoing expansion of charter schools, real estate interests purchases of closed Philadelphia public schools, contracting out of custodial services in violation of the SEIU contract, and more.