by Karel Kilimnik
Community Engagement or Community Exclusion?
We have heard a lot about the importance of community involvement from Superintendent William Hite and his staff. Dr. Hite has expanded the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) Office, spoken of the need for “customer relations” (meaning parents, who are not customers but stakeholders), and created “Focus Groups” for his Priority Schools Initiative In fact, Dr. Hite wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer lastweek beseeching the community to “come together” to solve the problem of crumbling, moldy buildings that the district has ignored for years. Yet Dr. Hite continues to pursue his corporate reform-driven plans behind closed doors.
In the struggle to save Strawberry Mansion High School, the district’s two-faced dealings with the public has reached a new low. The district’s hollow claims of community involvement have been exposed by a group of people determined to thwart plans to close the comprehensive high school and replace educators with vendors. Parents, students, alumni and community members have shown up to speak out at SRC meetings, attended the City’s Listening Tour for new school board members, and contacted City Council members. A commentary on the subject by APPS member Ken Derstine was published in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
In late March, Dr. Hite sent Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoats to SMHS to lead a community meeting, which was well attended despite poor outreach from the district. In answer to a question from the audience, Becoats admitted that the district’s plans had already moved into the “implementation stage”, thus skipping any planning stage in which stakeholders could add their own perspectives or objections. This meeting’s resolutions draw attention to changes in the mission and future of Strawberry Mansion—at the same time raising even more questions. Resolution B-15 sends money to one vendor for an alternative education program, while the (B-17) Culinary grant includes Mansion despite the fact that the district has left the Culinary Arts teacher position vacant this year. Dr Hite claims that under-enrollment at SMHS accounts for his closing the comprehensive high school (without actually admitting that this is a school closure). If there are so few young people in the neighborhood, why has the district opened a new high school?
Note that nearby Robert Vaux High School was closed by the SRC in 2013 due to under-enrollment, then reopened in 2017 as a contract school under the management of Big Picture. A flyer appeared on the SMHS website announcing future plans for the school. No 9thgraders will be admitted, although “…current students can continue and graduate from Strawberry Mansion High School”. For unexplained reasons, enrollment of 9thgraders will resume in 2019 for a project-based high school.
The district selected a small group of SMHS community members to visit The Workshop School in West Philadelphia in an attempt to persuade them to endorse the district plan. The Workshop School has 240 students (less than SMHS), and despite Great School Philly’s projection of an enrollment of 500 by 2015/16, that school is under no threat of closure due to under-enrollment. There has been a systematic erosion of services, staff, and resources in district comprehensive high schools. Feeder schools have been shuttered, thus forcing displacement of students across the city or into charter schools. Bok, Germantown High School, Carroll, University High School, Vaux, Stephen A. Douglas High School, and Lamberton High School were among the twenty-four schools closed by the SRC in 2013. This policy of closing schools comes directly out of the 2012 Boston Consulting Group Report, paid for with private money and kept secret from the public.
Spring is rerun season for TV viewers—and favored school district vendors. Both The New Teacher Project (TNTP) (Resolution B-8) and Jounce Partners(B-13) return to feed at the public trough. No matter that the district has yet to provide data showing that either program has benefitted students.
The district is awarding a $20 million contract to the Chester County Intermediate Unity to oversee the Philadelphia Virtual Academy (B-3) over the next three years. Why does a virtual school—without the same costs as a brick-and-mortar school—need an additional $6.6 million every year? Enrollment is currently at 462 students, there are no SPRs, no data. Will Dr. Hite explain why the virtual school has suddenly become so expensive—and why the district has to outsource to another district to manage it?
The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) continues its financial support of schools of its choosing, this time with a $116, 000 grant to Science Leadership Academy Middle for two more teachers. Multi-million dollar renovations slated for both Motivation High School and Roosevelt ES (A19) both raise questions about the co-location of Motivation with the KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory CS and will hopefully provide some relief for the beleaguered Roosevelt School community. There is an ongoing issue of Our Schools Are Not Charities as staff is hired at Parkway West (B1) and money allocated to the Fund for the SDP for a staff position (A9).
For this meeting, there are 53 Resolutions which send $34,381,750 to vendors and contractors including TNTP, Jounce, One Bright Ray, and the Chester County Intermediate Unit.