Board holds Student Achievement and Support Committee Meeting

by Diane Payne

The Board of Education’s Committee on Student Achievement and Support held its first meeting on Thursday September 13. Eight members of APPS attended this meeting; seven testified. There were several presentations by district officials: Superintendent William Hite, Head of Schools Shawn Bird, Director of Academic Support Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks, Director of Early Education Diane Castlebuono, and Interim Director of the Charters Schools Office Christina Grant. (You can view all BOE committee meeting presentation materials at the SDP website.)

Angela McIver and Chris McGinley serve as co-chairs; Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Maria McColgan are members of the Committee. Also present for most of the meeting was BOE President Joyce Wilkerson.

The meeting was scheduled for an hour and a half, but adjourned after two hours due to the number and length of staff presentations. At meeting’s end, the Co-chairs acknowledged that the number and length of presentations will have to be reconsidered in an effort to be respectful of time and to allow for public discussion. The 3-minute speaker rule was invoked due to time constraints, and although some went over, no speaker’s mic was shut off.

Staff presentation topics included: Read by 4th literacy initiative, teacher recruitment and retention, System of Great Schools (SGS) procedure and public hearings, and multiple charter school organizations (MCSO). (As noted above, all power points can be viewed on the SDP website.) During the presentation, Committee members asked thoughtful questions that challenged the status quo. For example, in response to Shawn Bird’s presentation on SGS, McGinley told him that “there are elements of the model that I vehemently disagree with.” McGinley added that the Committee would be following up for more information as the hearings on the year’s cohort of targeted schools proceed. The SGS schools this year are all in West Philadelphia–Harrington, Lamberton, and Locke. In response to another presentation, Fix-Lopez asked what other indicators were used besides standardized tests to determine whether graduating seniors were “career and college ready.” McColgan, Fix-Lopez, and Wilkerson expressed concerns around equity in the administration of grants and donations.

After staff presentations, the Committee members discussed specific Action Items on the September 20th list. They questioned Dr. Bird about Item B-6, which would approve a $300,000 contract with C. B. Community School – Alternative Education Support Services. This school enrolls students with specific needs, mostly overage students who have been in foster care. Committee members asked how the students are identified for enrollment, the specifics of the curriculum, the quality of the program, and who determines whether is a successful model. The Committee could not get satisfactory answer to why the SD should fund a private school and expressed dissatisfaction with Dr. Birds’s responses. They voted to recommend non-passage to the Board at its September 20 Action Meeting.

In her testimony, APPS co-founder Karel Kilimnik provided some facts and history about CB school. Roberta Trombetta was the founder and school leader of Arise Charter, which was closed three years ago by the SRC due to failure to meet financial and academic standards. The following year, Trombetta founded CB, an independent private school. Soon after, the school submitted an application to be approved as a new charter, but withdrew the application before any hearings began. CB’s tuition is $20,000 per student, but most of that is raised by Trombetta and other school officials. On its website, the school cites “trauma-informed practice” as part of its curriculum. However, Kilimnik pointed out, trauma-informed practice is not a curriculum.

The Committee also discussed Action Item A-11, Categorical/Grant Fund: $1,500,000 Acceptance of $1, 500,000 Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – AIDS Risk Reduction through Education and Staff Training (ARREST); they questioned who would be imparting this information and how they will be trained.

Committee members, in particular Fix Lopez, asked how the district could make a better commitment to equity. She pointed out that schools with more active parents in “Friends Of” and others groups were more likely to receive outside funding. Bird stated that BOE members can see an analysis from the District to see how grants are allocated.

Other APPS speakers raised a number of important points for Board consideration. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver informed the Committee that the Fund for the School District’s website states that “…we help set funding priorities…”.  Haver stressed that setting funding priorities should only be the function of the BOE, with public stakeholder input, NOT the function of a charity whose board meet in private. Teacher Kristin Lubbert spoke about the district’s use of expensive online credit recovery programs that do not serve the needs of our high school students. She noted that at future committee meetings, speakers would be providing the BOE with information and alternatives to the costly and ineffective current online program. Deb Grill and Lynda Rubin urged the Committee to reject the MaST Charter application for an MCSO. They pointed out the very real possibility that the MCSO process sets the stage for racially and economically segregated stand-alone charter districts that will result in even less accountability and transparency. MCSO approvals could mean more taxpayer dollars syphoned into non-public schools with little public oversight.

It was refreshing and encouraging to see questions, dialogue, and public participation at this Committee meeting. The next BOE Action Meeting is scheduled for September 20, 2018 at 5:00 p.m.