Avery D. Harrington Elementary Focus Group 1: October 10, 2018
by Lisa Haver
There were no signs to direct participants to the first SGS focus meeting at Avery Harrington Elementary held at 8:45 AM. There was no District rep from the Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) rep at the front door. I asked the School Police Officer; she told me it was in the library and pointed me in the right direction. I had to ask one more person for directions, as there is no sign outside the library. When I arrived at 8:45 there were four people in the room. I was told by a woman who did not introduce herself that there would be 2 focus groups; later she introduced herself as a representative from the District FACE office. Because there were so few participants, there was only one focus group.
When the meeting began, there were two parents present, including Harrington’s SAC president and one grandparent who identified herself as head of Cobbs Creek Neighbors. Two young women introduced themselves as Amber and Marissa. When I asked where they were from, they said they were graduate students from Temple. Also present: Temple education professor Will Jordan, one of the school’s counselors, and another FACE rep. Two more parents came in during the meeting. None of the members of the Board of Education was present.
The Temple students said that they were there to “hear everyone’s voices”; they told us that they would be recording the meeting but that no one would be identified by name in their report to the District. Jordan said that Temple was there as “an honest broker” but did not explain Temple’s role in the SGS process other than talking to parents about their impressions of the school.
While trying to be positive, parents did express many concerns about the school. There was a consensus that Principal Joe Dixon, in his second year at Harrington, was doing a good job and was more strict than the previous principal. One called him “our Joe Clark”. There were some serious concerns, however, about his enforcement of the uniform rule. One grandparent said that young children out of uniform were barred from entering and being sent home unsupervised or with the crossing guard. She said that because children did not have access to the bathroom they were having accidents and soiling their uniforms.
In answer to my question, the counselor said that there were two teacher vacancies. Last year there was no permanent 7th grade teacher; there was a series of substitutes. The SAC president said that meant that those students were playing “catch-up” in 8th grade. One parent said that he felt that there was too much testing.
The SAC president said that communication from the school was good and that parents received robo-calls on a regular basis, but that the school had to make sure parent contact information was updated regularly. She said that if parents don’t get messages through social media or other technology, “they don’t see it”.
The school’s upper-grades Counselor joined the meeting. She said she had just come to Harrington this year and was working on getting to know families. She is also working with the local United Methodist Church to set up a food pantry.
In response to a question from the Temple students, all of the parents said that there was good communication from teachers. They liked the use of Class Dojo. One described the school community as a “family”. Some said they were worried about some of the teachers, who had been there for many years, possibly retiring in the next couple of years.
At that point, I asked about how they felt about one of the two possible options for the school as part of the SGS program in which the school, after being placed in the Acceleration Network, would require that all teachers reapply for their present positions at Harrington. None of the parents was aware of the fact that the school would replace at least 20% of the teachers, possibly up to 80%. One parent asked who would decide that and whether the decision would be made based on the teachers’ “skills”.
At that point, one of the Temple students interrupted and said that we weren’t there to talk about that. I pointed to the section of the District handout (which was not distributed to parents; I just happened to see it on one of the tables) about the two options for the SGS schools and said that in fact, that was exactly what we were there to talk about. Dr. Jordan reiterated that that topic was not on the agenda, that we were there to talk to parents about how they felt about the school. One of the Temple students then told me that if we wanted to discuss the options, we could do that after the meeting.
As in previous years, the purpose of the parent/community SGS focus meetings is to get opinions from parents, not for the district to give any information to the parents or work with parents and community on what steps could be taken now to improve the schools.
At that point, SGS Director Chris Davies arrived and introduced himself to the group. I asked him who would determine which teachers would be permitted to stay at Harrington. He responded that it would be the Site Selection Committee, but he did not explain to parents what that was. I asked him when parents would be allowed to discuss the options for the school at any of the next three scheduled focus group meetings; he said that these meetings were only to get input from parents about how they felt about the school. I asked how the parents could make an informed decision about the future of the school if they weren’t told what was involved. If we weren’t allowed to discuss it today, then at which of the three focus meetings would it be on the agenda. Davies said that it wasn’t on the agenda at any of the meetings.
What Harrington parents want:
- Nutritionist/nutrition education
- Uniform drive for students who can’t afford them
- Reading specialists
- Air conditioning
- No children sent home because of uniform violations
- Access to bathrooms during school day
- School librarian
- New climate manager
- Less testing
Harrington Focus Group 2: October 16, 2018
by Lisa Haver
Dinner—a variety of wraps, salad, dessert and beverages—was served at this 5 PM meeting.
Temple professor Will Jordan told the group that the Temple staff—he and the two graduate students—were there to help parents “in deciding going forward” what they want for their children’s school. Others in attendance: two parents including the SAC president, two community members. SGS Director Chris Davies attended briefly. Later, three Harrington students joined the group. Three people sat at a nearby table but did not introduce themselves until Davies asked them to; they were from the District’s Family and Community Engagement (FACE) office. They did not take part in the discussion and said nothing during the meeting. None of the members of the Board of Education attended.
Davies distributed a flyer about the possible options and told the group that the District will be conducting a “school quality review” in early November; the Principal and Assistant Superintendent will oversee that review. Davies did tell the group at this meeting that Dr. Hite will be making the final decision. He mentioned that the school would keep “up to” 80% of the schools’ current teaches. I suggested that since there are only three schools in the SGS cohort this year, Dr. Hite should come to one of the remaining meetings to speak to parents and community directly.
One community member asked how much the District will be adding to the school’s budget. Davis answered between $750,000 and $850,000, depending on what kind of resources the school wants. He gave examples of what previous SGS schools have received: STEM programs, more teacher professional development, more after-school programs, additional staff, new furniture. The SAC president repeated what she said at the first meeting: that air conditioning should be the first priority; the other parent agreed, especially if school was going to start in August next year.
The questions asked by Temple staff were the same ones asked at the October 11 meeting. Professor Jordan asked what participants saw as the school’s strengths. The SAC president said Harrington’s new principal and the addition of a second counselor. The other parent, whose daughter is an 8th grade student, agreed that the new principal was a positive change. She also said that the teachers were the school’s biggest strength, that teachers are taking more time with students before and after school. The SAC president said that the school had quite a few teachers who had been there for many years and that is the reason she considers the school “a family”. She mentioned again that the lack of a permanent 7th grade Math teacher last year was a big problem but that the 8th grade Math teacher was doing a good job catching the students up. The other parent agreed, and was upset that the rotation of substitutes had resulted in a drop in PSSA scores for many 7th graders.
Jordan then asked what the school needed most and why they felt that SPR was so low. Parents again said the lack of permanent 7th grade Math teacher in addition to a number of other teachers who did not stay the entire year because of the lack of discipline and “chaotic” climate. Parents said that a number of problem students were transferred out, some to discipline schools.
At that point, the children of the two parents came in, both 8th graders, who introduced themselves as the President and Vice-President of the school. Most of the remaining questions were directed to them. They both said they felt respected and that discipline was fair. One student said that any school can have “drama” but that Harrington had a better climate this year. She said that she felt the school was more of a family. Jordan asked how the school could be better. One student said that Harrington is a nice school, but that it could be “brighter” and have more artwork displayed.
Jordan asked them what they felt were the best and worst things about the school. Both students felt that they were getting a good education at Harrington. Both mentioned the problem of not having a permanent 7th grade Math teacher, in particular the drop in standardized test scores. (I spoke to one of the students after the meeting about where she might go to high school. She told me that she had to communicate to the principals of her high school choices about why her PSSA Math score was low that one year.) One said that the teachers listen and that they give up their time before and after school and during lunch to help students who didn’t understand the lesson. She described one as “a good teacher, a counselor and a mentor”.
Jordan asked parents how they know how their kids are doing in school. Parents cited class dojo, interim reports, other communications from teachers.
When Jordan said that the meeting was almost over and asked whether there were other questions or comments, I asked when details about the two options would be explained to the parents and community members. I noted that there was no mention of the possible removal of the principal under the Acceleration option even though that had happened at many of the SGS schools in the past two years. If Dr. Hite decided that the school should develop its own Academic Improvement Plan (AIP), would the parents be able to contribute to that? If Dr. Hite decided to place the school in the Acceleration Network, who would decide, and by what criteria, which teachers would be forced out?
Jordan said that there was no one there from the District who could answer my questions, even though there were three representatives of the FACE office sitting at a nearby table. They offered no information, and none of my questions were answered.
Harrington Focus Group 3: October 18, 2018
by Lisa Haver
Present: Will Jordan and two Temple graduate students, Joe Antonio from the Superintendent’s Office, Rashida Hancock from the District FACE office, a Harrington Counselor, four Harrington parents/grandparents including the SAC president, two community members. None of the members of the Board of Education attended.
Jordan opened the meeting by saying “we don’t have to rehash” or get into “a whole lot of details”. He said that Temple was contracted by the District as a “friend of the community” to run the SGS focus groups.
When asked by Jordan what the “positives” of Harrington are, parents said that the teachers stay involved with their students even after they move on to the upper grades. One grandparent (also a retired District teacher) of a student who is in the Autistic Support class said that she has found the faculty and staff to be “caring and responsive”. She also said that her grandson was receiving good Special Education services. Another described the faculty as very engaging and said she loved the changes in the school. One parent said she was glad she decided to keep her daughter at Harrington. Another pointed out that teachers spend a lot of their own money buying supplies.
One of the Temple grad students asked about the school’s climate. The SAC president said things had improved after the principal was able to “weed out” disruptive students. One parent, who also has a child in a charter school, described the teachers as “phenomenal” and “hands-on”. The grad student asked about communication and whether students struggle with homework. Parents responded that the Class Dojo is helpful and that they thought the schoolwork and homework is challenging. One parent felt that students got too much homework.
Jordan referred to the SGS Power-Point and asked if parents knew why Harrington was in the SGS program. The grandparent said that she knew that the test scores are low but that standardized tests don’t really show what students are learning. She thought that too much focus is on the test and that the tests are too long. She said that she was never a good test-taker. Another said the school should have an aide in every classroom.
I asked for a more detailed explanation of the two SGS options–being placed in the Acceleration Network or creating a school-based improvement plan. Jordan answered that he didn’t have that information and that no one was present from the District who could answer that. (There were two FACE reps present, but they said nothing.) I asked whether the money that would come to Harrington would be spent on the resources the parents wanted. One of the graduate students said that Penn Treaty School spent the money they got last year on a parent conference room and Steel Elementary bought new furniture. I informed her that the District made the decision to spend a large part of the additional funding on a consulting group, ISA, at Penn Treaty; that decision was made before the focus groups began. Steel was placed in the Turnaround Network (now the Acceleration Network) even though most parents said that they did not want teachers forced out. I pointed out that one reason why Math PSSA scores declined last year was the District’s failure to appoint a full-time 7th grade Math teacher, which the SAC president has alluded to several times. Her daughter was a 7th grader last year and was directly affected. I said that the District should ask parents and community members which of the two options they wanted for Harrington.
Parents said they want:
- Smaller class size
- A nutrition teacher
- Aide in every classroom
- Additional teachers and support staff
- New books and materials
- School librarian
- Reliable transportation with bus aides
Harrington Focus Group 4: October 24, 2018
Will Jordan and Julius Brewington from Temple, Joe Antonio from the Superintendent’s office, FACE representative Rashida Hancock, six community members including two who are also teach District teachers, four parents including the SAC president and Harrington’s crossing guard, and four students attended. None of the members of the Board of Education attended. Pizza was served. The power-point SGS plan was distributed.
Professor Jordan read from the same list of questions used at the previous meetings. He asked what people saw as the school’s strengths. The SAC president responded that the principal, the new uniform policy and increased safety. The grandparent/crossing guard said the school’s climate has improved. One student said now that the climate has improved and the teachers can teach, the work is more challenging.
Jordan asked parents and students whether they felt respected. The parents and students who answered said they did. The SAC president said she found all of her 8thgrade child’s teachers to be “excellent”. Another parent described her teachers as “phenomenal”.
I asked the two students who had attended a previous meeting to explain what happened with their 7th grade PSSA Math scores, when Harrington had an unfilled vacancy all year and the school had a series of temporary Math teachers (see October 16 report above). I pointed out that the reason that Harrington was in the SGS program was the low test scores, but that some of the responsibility for that lies with District administration. The school had only one counselor, a problem principal, a lack of support staff, and teacher vacancies.
Jordan asked what Harrington needs now. The grandparent said the school is too dreary and needs a paint job. Another parent said students need to be able to take books home. One student noted the lack of challenging work in her Science class. In answer to my question, she said that the school has no Science lab. The same student expressed her frustration with the “iReady” computer program; it doesn’t really explain anything, it just tells the student she is wrong. She and another student, both 8th graders, said that their only elective this term is the iReady program and that they spend about 90 minutes on that program every day. They do not go to gym or art class. I asked whether they would trade iReady for something else; they both said they would. They would rather have another teacher or a Science lab. Jordan asked what would make learning better. A parent said tutoring and more after-school activities.
Again, I brought up the question of whether the District was going to explain the two options and ask them which they wanted for Harrington. Mr. Antonio said that if central administration decided that the school team were unable to come up with an adequate plan, the second option—placement in the Acceleration Network—would be invoked. He didn’t explain how the District could determine that even before a plan was written.
And then it happened. In the last 5 minutes of the last of the 4 meetings, the parents were asked which option they wanted. One community member explained it this way: Do you want an autocratic, top-down plan imposed on the school by central administration, or do you want a democratic plan written by members of the school community in which you would have a say?
Show of hands showed unanimous support for the school-based plan.
What Parents Want
- Paint school building
- Books to take home
- Science Lab
- After-school activities