Eyes on the Board of Education: July 15, 2021
by Lisa Haver
One year ago, over 100 people signed up to speak at the July 2020 remote Action Meeting in order to urge the Board to vote against the Hite administration’s dangerous proposed reopening plan. After seven hours of testimony from parents, students, principals, educators and community members—during which the Board members hid behind a white screen—the Board (with Angela McIver dissenting) voted not to reject the plan but to table the Item, as requested in a secret communication from Dr. Hite.
Through a Right to Know Request, APPS obtained documents that proved the Board engaged in private discussions about official business, a flagrant violation of the state’s Sunshine Act. In subsequent news articles, Board President Joyce Wilkerson declared that the record number of people who testified at the meeting was actually an indication of how many people did want schools to reopen. Wilkerson invoked this Orwellian rationale to change the Board’s speaker policy, cutting speaker time and effectively banning, at some meetings, those members of the community who consistently challenge the Board’s actions. Now that Wilkerson and the Board have been proven wrong, with over 65% of parents keeping their children home when schools reopened in the final months of the school year, will Wilkerson admit that those who testified did indeed reflect the wishes of the community? Will the Board restore the First Amendment rights of public speakers?
This month’s agenda contains only one Item, Authorization of the Issuance and Sale of Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes of the School District of Philadelphia, Fiscal Year 2022. Its abbreviated description gives no indication of what action the Board will be taking. As usual, the accompanying presentation has not been posted on the District website and won’t be until after the meeting. How is any member of the public supposed to make informed comments on an Item that provides no content?
With just one official Item to vote on, the Board should use this meeting to deal with issues facing school communities in the weeks before schools open, many arising from the ongoing incompetence of the Hite administration. The Board should have addressed this last year when school administrators, through its union, CASA (the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators), issued its statement of “no confidence” in Hite. Some examples:
Parents received letters, after weeks of misinformation and speculation, about the District’s new daily start times. Principals’ union President Robin Cooper told WHYY that her members had been “blindsided” by the announced changes: “The district is unilaterally making this decision and principals are expected to carry it out, and it creates an atmosphere of distrust between communities and those school leaders.” The schedules appear to have been formulated according to bus schedules, which seems to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. As Dr. Cooper pointed out, “Transportation shouldn’t dictate educational decisions. Educational decisions should dictate transportation.” Despite overwhelming research showing that teen students’ days should start later, high school bells will ring at 7:30 AM. Many elementary schools will begin at 9 AM, leaving parents with 9-5 jobs stranded. Parents whose children go to schools whose names begin with letters after “SH” don’t know when they have to show up because the list ended with those letters. One elementary teacher pointed out that older students drop younger siblings off at school, but this schedule makes that impossible. Every teacher and parent knows this–how do 440 administrators not? The Board should answer this question: How is a new schedule finalized when 1) Principals and faculty have not had an opportunity to weigh in 2) The Board has held no public hearings on it 3) The Board has not deliberated on it at any public meeting 4) The list is not complete 5) The Superintendent does not know what his administration is doing?
The Inquirer reported in June on the “rocky” rollout of the Extended School Year (ESY), which the Hite administration had touted as a way to give students more help after a year of remote learning: “Classes started this week with thousands more enrolled than in previous summers, and parents, teachers, and students described a chaotic start, with a shortage of staff, confusing or incorrect schedules, and many schools and classrooms lacking critical materials. One educator charged with teaching math and science told The Inquirer she showed up to discover the supplies she needs to teach students aren’t scheduled to arrive until the end of the summer session.” District spokesperson Monica Lewis characterized this chaos as “bumps” to be expected. Sadly, Lewis has a point: the Board has excused so much incompetence from Dr. Hite and his administration that these kinds of snafus now come as no surprise. What the Board should tell us at this meeting is whether they will ever hold Hite accountable.
A recent study shows that the District has grossly under-identified the number of teens experiencing homelessness: “Based on statistics collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 2‚954 public high school students living homeless in Philadelphia in the spring of 2019, compared with 690 students identified by the School District of Philadelphia.” [bold added] There are approximately four times the number of homeless teens in the city than the District reported. A statement issued by the District said that it recognizes that “there are more students who need to be reached.” The Board must tell us who is responsible and how they will find and educate these young people.
A recent Inquirer commentary by District teacher and member of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee Kristin Luebbert addresses the increasing attacks on educators for teaching an honest version of American history, one that acknowledges the country’s racist history. Luebbert wrote: “It is imperative that teachers, parents, and communities commit to teaching the true history of this nation, acknowledging both its hopeful and oppressive parts.” Will the Board affirm the rights of teachers to teach the truth?
The Board should engage in meaningful deliberation about its imminent vote on twelve charter renewals, not just give its few perfunctory statements minutes before the vote. None of the twelve charters in this year’s cohort meets academic standards, including the nine Renaissance charters, yet the Charter Schools Office recommends renewal for all of them. Why? The Board has given no indication that it will do anything other than its usual rubber-stamping of renewals for charter schools, no matter how poorly they perform. Mastery engaged in a hostile takeover for Wister Elementary four years ago, promising to improve the school, but Mastery Wister now “Does Not Meet” academic standards. Why should the Board continue Mastery’s contract when it actually brought the school’s performance ratings down? Richard Allen Prep Charter “Does Not Meet” academic standards once again, as it has in its past renewal evaluation. Two years ago, the Board allowed Richard Allen Charter to continue to operate after it promised to voluntarily surrender its charter if it did not improve. The school did not improve, actually scoring less than 50% in academics. Will the Board now invoke the surrender clause the charter agreed to?
Will the Board face all of these issues, or will it waste everyone’s time with its pretend accountability known as Goals and Guardrails?