Student Achievement and Support Committee Report: May 16, 2019

by Diane Payne

It is tedious to have to begin every report with the same lament about the Board’s failure to adequately engage the public. Little information was provided prior to this meeting. There were four staff presentations; none of that information was available prior to the meeting. It is impossible to adequately prepare to speak when you have no detailed information. It wasn’t until arriving at the meeting that the public knew which charter school topics were on the agenda.

Again, no documents were provided except for an outline of the topics and the names (no text) of upcoming Action Items. In order to understand the votes which involve spending millions of tax dollars, you must go to the District website, and via multiple clicks, access descriptions of the Action Items online. APPS has repeatedly cited the lack of transparency in a process in which information is only available to members of the public who bring their computers to the meeting–there is no way to read the documents on a phone– and is difficult even then. Crucial information is not provided at the committee meetings nor at the action meetings. It is a roadblock to full public participation. When will the Board fix this?

The meeting began with a statement that there were 39 registered speakers–half from Tech Friere Charter–but the committee had a hard end time of 7:30. Speakers would have to be cut off by that end time. When 7:30 came, a number of speakers, including some APPS members, were in fact not permitted to deliver their prepared remarks. Parent Advocate Cecelia Thompson, who did not get to speak, was the only person slated to speak on the Special Education Presentation; she should have been moved up to the front of the line.  Despite the number of speakers and attendees, this meeting was held in the Board committee room; the atrium was used for overflow. No explanation was given as to why the meeting could not be held in the auditorium. How engaged can members of the public feel sitting outside watching on a screen instead of being in the room?

Present: Co-chairs Angela McIver and Chris McGinley, Committee members Maria McColgan, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Julia Danzy.  President Joyce Wilkerson, Board members Leticia Egea-Hinton and Julia Dany, and Student Representatives Alfredo Pratico and Julia Frank were in attendance.

Minutes of the April 11, 2019 meeting were approved.

District staff gave four presentations: Strawberry Mansion High School (SMHS) Update, Special Education Programs and Initiatives, CSI and ATSI School Improvement Plans, and Charter Schools update. (You can view the entire video of this meeting as well as access the agenda and PowerPoint presentations by going to the Board of Education page of the District website.)

Brian McCracken, finishing his first year as Strawberry Mansion principal, gave his report. Sixty-four students selected SMHS for the incoming freshman class, compared to only four last year.  At the time, the school’s future was in doubt, which certainly affected new enrollment. Due to the District’s disruption of this school’s enrollment, there is a gap resulting in no sophomore class. Next year, the school will house the incoming freshman, plus the juniors and seniors, for a total enrollment of 156 students. The community fought hard for this school to remain a neighborhood high school, not a space for edu-vendors.  We hope the District will continue to support this effort and look forward to seeing enrollment grow.

The Special Education Report was delivered by Chief Academic Officer Malika Savoy-Brooks and Deputy of Specialized Services Natalie Hess. Two important areas were transition services for 18 to 21 year olds and the Extended School Year (ESY). There was a video and discussion about the transition services, but it wasn’t until Board Members Fix Lopez and McIver asked direct questions about the numbers of students being served that it was clear that the total number was 18 students in two different programs. When asked how many potential students there were, Hess said she would have to get back to the Board with that information.  Question: when staff sends that information to the Board members, when is it made public?

McIver asked how the office chooses programs such as the Applied Behavior Analysis Program referred to in the presentation. Hess stated that this program was chosen because it is a national research-based program. No further information was given about this program.

When Danzy asked how many partners are involved in this transition program, only one partner was mentioned, PHL Airport, with a caveat that they are always looking for more.

Finally, when questions came up from Board members about staffing, Savoy-Brooks stated that schools with a longstanding vacancy were given priority attention in the hiring process. What was not addressed:  does the Office of Specialized Services look into WHY there are longstanding vacancies in some schools or networks? Are these vacancies because of the disconnect between 440 PowerPoints and what is happening on the ground?

The Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI) and the Additional Targeted Support Improvement (ATSI) presentation was delivered by Tanya Wolford, Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability. She stated that schools are in the middle of this process. All School Improvement plans can be found online; no link was provided. Actually, hard copies of the Improvement Plans are provided in each school building for anyone who wants one. Yet no hard copies of the details of the millions spent each month by the District are available. Even the SRC provided hard copies with details of each item.

Director Christina Grant gave an “update” on charter matters that omitted most of the information about the performance of charters up for renewal. In addition to the renewals, two schools submitted revised applications after being denied in February on their initial application: Joan Myers Brown Academy: A String Theory School and Tacony Academy Charter School at St. Vincent: An American Paradigm School. The Board will vote on Tacony at the May 30th Action Meeting (Action Item 79). McIver announced that the Board will be voting on the JMB/String Theory School revised application at a special meeting on June 13th at 10:00 a.m.  As of May 28, 12 days later, there is no notice of this special meeting, or the change in voting date (originally June 27) for this charter, anywhere on the District website.

Included in the Board’s reasons for denying the two applications in February were: 1) both organizations have charters in the system which are failing to achieve academic standards and 2) both have failed to sign new charters on their existing schools. The big business of charter schools means a relentless quest for more, no matter the harm to public school students and no matter their lackluster performance. Money and power are the driving force, not providing a quality education to Philadelphia’s children.

Action Item 75, Ad Prima: the CSO has recommended for a 5 year renewal. Ad Prima’s 2016/17 SPR is at 32% for Academic Achievement, placing them in the Watch category. It is becoming increasingly clear that contrary to the claims at the onset of the charter school movement, they are far from being academic saviors.

Action Item 76, Belmont Charter School Renewal is on this list for a vote, but there is no Belmont information in the CSO PowerPoint presentation. At the Finance and Facilities Committee meeting on the same day, it was disclosed that Belmont wants to buy the building it occupies.

In 1998, the District, under Superintendent David Hornbeck,  gave control of Belmont Elementary School to the politically connected real estate developer Michael Karp.  Three years later, CEO Paul Vallas gave Karp control of another West Philadelphia school. If you weren’t at the F&F meeting you wouldn’t know that this is being proposed. Again, no community outreach, no public debate, and no inclusion on this PowerPoint.

Belmont Elementary Charter has been operating with an unsigned charter since 2017 when the CSO recommended a 5-year renewal with conditions. Belmont CEO Karp told the SRC that he would not be signing the new charter and would not accept any of the conditions the CSO had included, even though Belmont had failed to meet basic academic standards. These conditions were not additional requirements, simply a means for Belmont to address their many deficiencies. Belmont’s 2016/17 Academic Achievement score of 10% places them in Intervene; their 16% Overall score also places them in Intervene.  Now the CSO is recommending a 5-year renewal–what happened to the conditions?

Now that Karp and Belmont’s board want the building, they are ready to sign the charter. How is this beneficial to the District and to the public? Is Karp just expanding his real estate holdings? Why are we supporting a real estate developer’s quest for more property? And why is the Board renewing a school with achievement scores in the Intervene category?

Action Item 77, Esperanza Charter School: CSO recommends a 5-year renewal. Their 2016/17 Academic SPR is 5% for the middle school and 10% for the high school placing both in the Intervene category. Again, not an academic savior.

Action Item 78, Mariana Bracetti Charter School: CSO recommends a 5-year renewal. Their 2016/17 SPR is 16% for the elementary school placing them in Intervene; 27% for the high school placing them in Watch. This school is also asking for an enrollment increase. Why are Charter Schools renewed if they are not in the Reinforce or Model category, and why would ANY enrollment increase be granted?   Not on the agenda, at least not yet, is the Amendment for enrollment expansion that Bracetti submitted and has been recommended for approval by the CSO–one year after Bracetti got an enrollment expansion from the SRC.

Despite receiving a “Does Not Meet” academic rating, the CSO recommends a 1-year renewal for TECH Freire. The CSO says that there is enough data to make a prudent recommendation on a 5-year renewal. TECH supporters at the meeting argued that they should be granted a 5-year renewal immediately no matter the current facts and data.

In addition, TECH Freire has submitted a Multiple Charter School Organization (MCSO) request. This is untried and untested new obstacle, straight out of Harrisburg, would allow the charter organization to  combine their schools into a single entity. For all intents and purposes, charters would be creating their own districts within the public school system. Harrisburg pols will not adequately fund our schools, yet they continually burden Districts with more and more Charter School demands.  This will be voted on at a special meeting on June 13th.

Universal Audenried, which has been in limbo since the SRC voted to table its renewal in 2016,  is recommended for a 5-year “retroactive” renewal with a surrender clause if the school fails to perform.  The SRC gave control of Audenried to Kenny Gamble’s Universal schools in 2011 as part of its Renaissance charter program. By 2016 it was clear that Universal had failed to turn this high school around; it failed to meet standards in all categories of the renewal evaluation. The SRC ignored the CSO’s recommendation for non-renewal and tabled the vote indefinitely. Universal Charters was investigated and cited for several financial improprieties by the City Controller’s office in 2016, and federal officials confiscated documents from Universal CEO Rahim Islam in 2017.

Three years later, with no updated evaluation, the Board is now moving to renew Universal’s charter at Audenried. Why? No reasons were given, and none of the Board members asked for any.  So the students in this failing school are failed by all the adults around them. The Board had Audenried agree to a “surrender clause” after 2 years if the school fails to achieve. But that surrender clause has never been tested. APPS  will not be surprised if Universal (or Memphis Street Charter or Richard Allen charter or Vare charter, all granted surrender-clause renewals) decides not to honor the agreement and files an appeal.

(Although Audenried appears in the CSO report, it does not appear on the Board’s  May 30th Action Item agenda. Has it disappeared again?)