by Deborah Grill
December 22, 2016
Focus Group 1
Benjamin Franklin High School’s first focus group was held at 6 p.m. on November 2nd, the second day of the SEPTA strike. Chris Finn of Cambridge Education provided pizza and conducted the meeting, When I arrived there were five people, including Principal Abdul-Mubdi Muhammad, in the conference room across from the main office. Introductions had already taken place. There were two district representatives, one taking notes. Also in attendance: a woman from Ardent Credit Union, a nearby business; Dawn Lynn Kacer, Director of the district’s Charter School Office and a resident of the community; and parent Tonya Bah. There were no Ben Franklin parents.
Mr. Finn asked what we though the school’s strengths and challenges were and what we would recommend to improve the school. Strengths given by attendees included the CTE program and the partnership with Community College. Kacer said that she tutored students from Franklin in her home. She said they had many different needs and that she felt the school had no robust system of meeting their needs. Kacer also said the students she tutored had a close relationship to their teachers, but felt less connected to other students. While community members thought the school looked good from the outside, she said they didn’t feel the school is welcoming. She opined that charters did a better job of making the community feel welcomed.
I recommended that the district restore all of the programs, resources and staff that had been eliminated over the past five to ten years, including non-teaching assistants and libraries staffed with certified school librarians. Tonya said that the district needed to give teachers more than two days of training on a curriculum that wasn’t introduced until August. When Mr. Finn tried to summarize that statement as just “needs more professional development”, Tonya corrected him and made clear that she meant that the district should have introduced the curriculum in a timely manner and given teachers the appropriate time to master it. Tonya also talked about the disadvantage of turning neighborhood schools into charters that are able to pick and choose students. Kacer said that Renaissance charters must accept all students from the neighborhood. I pointed out that a study released by the office of Councilwoman Helen Gym found that the number of neighborhood students attending the Renaissance charters has decreased. Kacer attributed that to students moving out of the neighborhood, but I responded that that was not necessarily the case and gave the example of Wister Elementary School parents who have chosen to send their children to another pubic school rather than Mastery Wister Renaissance Charter.
It was announced that there was another focus group earlier in the day to which only parents from the Home and School Association were invited.
Focus Group 2
Karel Kilimnik and I attended this meeting on November 10, held in the same conference room at 6 PM. No Ben Franklin parents were present. One representative from Educators4Excellence (subcontracted by Cambridge) and one representative from the district’s office of Family and Community Engagement attended. Chris Finn of Cambridge conducted the meeting. He asked for input as to what the school needed. Karel and I suggested restoring the cuts in staffing and resources that had occurred during the past several years, providing adequate counselors and support staff to address student trauma, and restoring the librarian position.
Focus Group 3
No APPS members attended this meeting on November 21. It was scheduled to allow input from people who could not attend Focus Group 2 because of the SEPTA strike.
Feedback and Findings Meeting: Presentation of Cambridge SQR
In attendance at this meeting, held December 13 at 6 PM, were Principal Abdul-Mubdi Muhammad; Sonia Harrison, Network 3 Superintendent; one representative from FACE; Naomi Wyatt, District Chief of Staff; Cambridge representative Trevor Yates; two parents; Karel Kilimnik and I.
Mr. Yates presented a power-point of Cambridge’s findings. An attendance rating of 11% was startling; however, Mr. Yates explained that 11% of Franklins students attended school 90% of the time or more. He did not give percentages for those attending 80%, 70%, etc. of the time, so someone viewing the presentation has no way of knowing the exact severity of the problem.
Unfortunately, Yates’ report invoked the same clichés heard about what limits learning—teachers who are not very good at teaching. That is, not enough differentiation of lessons, not enough rigor, too much reliance on worksheets, not enough interaction with students. There was no discussion of the effect of student attendance on these findings.
Yates stated that Cambridge observers spent a total of two days observing classrooms—for 15 minutes each. To determine the extent of student learning, they asked them three questions:
What are you learning?
Why are you learning it?
How will you know that you have learned it?
In addition to the classroom visits, Cambridge conducted three focus groups each of students and staff, along with four focus groups of parents. They also conducted an online survey. When asked to provide numbers of parent, student, and teacher survey responses, Yates declined to do so.
Nor would Yates reveal the number of classes observed or the number of students surveyed when asked. He said those numbers were in a more detailed report that will be posted in the future. Although a general report has been posted, none of the specific information requested has been included. Without those numbers, it is difficult to determine how reliable Cambridge’s findings are. The report did include our recommendations to restore the full-time supports that were taken away and to restore a full time librarian.
Yates explained that this session was to present the findings and elicit suggestions from us on how to improve the school now that we have see the findings. I suggested smaller class size would go a long way in allowing teachers to meet each student’s needs. No one argued with me on that.
Karel requested that the five choices for restructuring the school be presented so that those who had not attended the first meeting could understand what the district was considering. Neither Yates nor Mr. Harrison would explain the options to those present. They said that principals at the 11 Priority Schools have been “invited to give their opinions on how to improve their school”. No mention of a principal recommendation had been made at any of the previous meetings. It is not clear how that will be weighted against the findings presented in the community meetings. Principal reports are to include what kind of change they prefer along with evidence that it would be effective. Deadline for principal reports was December 16.
The report indicated that the teachers at Ben Franklin must administer weekly common grade-level tests in each class and updating the online grade book so students and parents can be made aware of their progress. I observed that if students were not reading on level, as many are not, the tests results cannot accurately measure what they have learned in subject area classes. Yates agreed and asked what could be done. When I replied that it would take nearly one-to-one tutoring, he suggested students who read below grade level can be tutored by their peers as he had seen it done at another school.