Do Communities Truly Have A Say in the Future of Priority Schools?

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by Lisa Haver

In mid-September, just weeks after the start of the new school year, Superintendent William Hite announced this year’s list of schools targeted for some type of turnaround through his “System of Great Schools”: Rhoads Elementary, Steel Elementary, Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, Penn Treaty Middle/High School, Gideon Elementary, and Wagner Middle School. This is the second year the district has engaged in a months-long process of data collection, choice of schools, community hearings, in-school focus groups, and determination of the fate of these schools. The district has again contracted with Cambridge Education for consulting services, this year for $100,000, to conduct focus groups with teachers and students. Temple University has been hired for $70,000 to conduct the public outreach and facilitate meetings.

Last year, eleven schools were designated Priority Schools. After the hearing and focus group period, three schools forced out principals and most faculty after being placed in the district Turnaround Network. Two other schools developed internal turnaround plans which mandated that teachers reapply for their jobs.

Some schools, including Harding Middle, have put into place an all-blended learning curriculum in which students spend a significant amount of time learning on the computer rather than interacting with the teacher and other students. The district hired ISA (Institute for Student Achievement) to be embedded year-round for intensive professional development and teacher coaching at Fels, Overbrook, and Kensington Health Sciences Academy high schools. [The resolution approves a contract with Education Testing Service (ETS) as ISA is now a subsidiary of ETS.]

The district also contracted with Jounce Partners (see Resolution B23) for similar intervention at McDaniel Elementary.

The plans implemented at many schools ignored the stated wishes of the parents who attended the community meetings. At both Blankenburg and KHSA, principals were removed over the objection of the parents and educators. At none of the hearings we attended did parents call for the reconstitution of faculty. No district representative mentioned the contracting of outside consulting companies.

Community members who attended last year’s meetings are experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu at this year’s meetings. The district is using the same Power Point presentation, with the same disclaimer that the schools are not performing “despite investments” made in them. Again, the district does not explain what the options involve unless specifically asked by community members. The district has attempted to place the onus on the public to give them information without any explanation of what could happen to the school.

One difference between this year and last is the haste in getting public participants into separate “breakout” rooms—even before any real information is provided. People at several meetings refused to move into those rooms until questions were answered by the district. At the second round of meetings, there was no general auditorium meeting; people were directed immediately into separate rooms. It seemed to be a deliberate strategy to keep educators, parents and community members from forming alliances. There were reports that teachers at three of the schools were told by principals not to attend community meetings.

As defenders of public education, APPS members are attending community meetings and posting reports from each school.

We will be updating information on the Priority Schools as the meetings continue and when Dr. Hite makes his decision.

APPS reports on Priority School meetings (in progress)

Gideon Elementary School

Penn Treaty Middle/High School

Rhoads Elementary School

Wagner Middle School