APPS News: October 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik

Six More Schools Targeted for Possible Turnaround

 The 2017-18 school year started with a bang as Superintendent William Hite announced his second cohort of Priority Schools: Steele, Rhoads and Gideon elementary schools; Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences (FSAS) and Wagner middle schools; and Penn Treaty Middle/High School. Just as Kensington Health and Science Academy was targeted last year even after it had been designated a Community School by the City, so has Gideon this year. Following last year’s $200,000 payment to Cambridge Education, the SRC has paid the company an additional $100,000 to perform a “School Quality Review” at the six schools now designated part of the district’s “System of Great Schools (SGS)”. The SRC passed a resolution authorizing Cambridge Education, for $100,000 this year, “…to retain a consultant to conduct objective third party school quality reviews in a number of schools that have been identified as under- performing through the District’s SGS process. The consultant’s purpose will be to conduct an onsite review of school performance and to document and communicate the primary factors supporting and impeding learning at the school…”

APPS review of Cambridge’s 2016 report showed that it was so lacking in substantive data and anecdotal reporting that it could not be used to decide the fate of the eleven schools.

In the district’s September 19 press release, Dr. Hite stated that the Institute of Student Achievement (ISA), a subsidiary of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has already been hired to perform coaching and professional development at Penn Treaty:

“Last year, the District launched a high school improvement cohort supported by a high-performing high school support organization – the Institute for Student Achievement. Penn Treaty will be joining this cohort of high schools, alongside Overbrook, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Fels. School Quality Reviews and community feedback will be used to inform priorities and focus for that work.”

Why has this decision been made before hearing from the Penn Treaty community? Why does the district have to hire one company to tell another company what to do?

The SRC has also contracted with Temple University for $70,000 to “facilitate multiple community engagement sessions in a number of schools that have been identified as under-performing through the District’s SGS process for the 2017-18 school year. As part of the SGS process, the consultant will meet with school stakeholders – including students, family members, staff, and community.” Those of us attending these community meetings groups have taken issue with both their methodology as well as their facilitation skills. We have seen meetings at some schools spiraling out of control, making it impossible for all participants to be heard. Temple has been adamant that they are recording everything (with only a small handheld recording device) and that information will be coded and become part of their report. APPS has been pushing for the Temple reports to be made public, but we have received conflicting answers about this at different meetings.

APPS members have attended community meetings at all six schools and have issued reports on four so far. These meetings continue through November so our website will be updated. Dr. Hite will be announcing his decision on the SGS schools in January or February 2018. Although communities at this year’s SGS schools have been told they will not be closed this year, we must keep in mind that Dr. Hite has said he intends to close three schools each year for the next five years. Stay tuned.

APPS Wins Right to Know Appeal

 From September 2016 through April 2017, high-ranking district officials including Dr. Hite, SRC Chief of Staff Claire Landau and district Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt met in secret with several charter investors and supporters including Philadelphia School Partnership CEO Mark Gleason. Although the district stated that the purpose of these meetings was to draft new legislation on charters, there was no proof that other matters were not discussed. Why, we asked, were no members of the community or district stakeholders invited to participate? Why were they kept secret until after the meetings ended? Why did Dr. Hite never mention these discussions in his remarks to the SRC during those six months?

APPS filed a Right to Know request in July for all communications and records from those meetings. Except for a few minor documents, the district’s Office of General Counsel denied access to most of the public records. We asked for minutes and notes from the meetings and were told that none existed. We asked for all emails and received 119 pages with many redactions. We asked for all documents drafted or presented at the meetings. The district’s response to our appeal was that they were not required to release “internal” documents. How, we asked in our appeal, could business conducted with parties external to the district be considered internal? The state agreed with us, and we prevailed. The district finally sent us the public information we originally requested. We are now in possession of an enormous amount of material pertaining to the efforts of district administrators and charter operators collaborating to change the Pennsylvania Charter School Law. Expect more reporting on this issue as we take a closer look. (In February 2018 the district will be considering new charter school applications.)

APPS Works with Our City, Our Schools to Abolish SRC

 APPS, as part of the Our City, Our Schools coalition, has been working to abolish the School Reform Commission and return governance of the city’s public schools to local control.

The coalition held its initial press conference in October 2016, and City Council members Helen Gym, Derek Green, and Jannie Blackwell wrote an editorial published in the Philadelphia Inquirer supporting the abolishment of the SRC. APPS members, along with OCOS organizers, have met with Mayor Kenney and several Council members and their staff. Many testified at SRC meetings throughout the year, demanding that the SRC introduce a resolution to dissolve itself. All of that organizing has paid off—we now find ourselves on the cusp of a return to local control. The question is: what will that look like? Will the district’s stakeholders finally have a say about the future of our schools, or will we just shift power to another unelected, unaccountable board? The present City Charter allows for full Mayoral control. When the SRC votes to dissolve and after that is approved by the state’s Secretary of Education, the Mayor could set up an interim board while the people of the city are afforded the time and space to decide how to achieve a truly democratic system. APPS believes that the people of Philadelphia should no longer be disenfranchised, that we should have the same right to self-governance as those in every other school district in the state. We know that the Mayor and some members of Council have been meeting to discuss what comes after the SRC. However, there have been no public meetings scheduled by these elected officials.

We celebrate this victory—that after 16 years of state control and state budget cuts, we are seeing the end of the devastation brought by the SRC and its unquestioning allegiance to the forces of corporate reform. But we need to make sure that we don’t miss this opportunity to give a voice to those whose voices have been silenced for too long.

Eyes on SRC Spending Priorities and Patterns

 The Hite administration continues its financial support of outside vendors marketing their products, whether for professional development, curriculum materials, data analysis or more assessments. This reflects an attitude that private companies know more about our students than district teachers and staff, and it undermines the effectiveness of our educators. Recently, we have seen local universities “donating” services as well as garnering consulting contracts such as Temple’s to facilitate the SGS meetings. In addition, our schools continue to be positioned as charities to be supported by non-profits, universities, and foundations. Neighboring school districts fund school libraries (with Certified Teacher Librarians), robust Art and Music Programs, and extra-curricular activities. In Philadelphia, schools are often forced to beg for these services from community “partners” or the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia. The SRC needs to stop spending money on unnecessary and redundant professional development, on unproven programs like blended learning, and on fees to outside law firms for endless appeals. Student needs must come first.

Ears on October 19 SRC Meeting

Commissioner Bill Green’s chair sat empty for the entire meeting. No explanation for his absence was given; he didn’t even call in from an undisclosed location as he did at two other meetings this year.   Green has been absent for all or most of four meetings in 2017.

Criticism from district parent and teacher George Bezanis provoked an outburst from Commissioner Farah Jimenez in which she personally attacked and insulted him, in obvious violation of SRC protocol.

There were numerous calls from public speakers to introduce a resolution for the dissolution of the SRC.

Upcoming Events

  • Thursday, November 2, 10:30 AM: OCOS Rally at City Hall
  • Thursday, November 2, 10:30 AM: SRC Policy Committee Meeting, 440 N. Broad Street
  • Thursday, November 16, 4:30 PM: SRC Action Meeting
  • Monday, December 4, 6-8 PM: Temple Professor Barbara Ferman, editor of the new book The Fight for Americas Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education, will appear along with local activists for a discussion on how we can build coalitions from Pre-K thru PhD in the fight to save public education. Discussion will be followed by a book signing. Location: Temple University, Ritter Hall Annex, Kiva Auditorium, 13th and Montgomery Sts.