Board of Education Hears Demands from Educators and Community: March 18, 2021

by Lynda Rubin

The fact that one hundred thirty-three speakers signed up to speak at this special meeting shows the need for parents, teachers, principals, parents, and community members to be heard by the Board every month. The Board has arbitrarily, without public vote or notice, decided to cap the speaker list at all action meetings to ten students and thirty adults–whether there are thirty action items or sixty. The Board will choose who makes the cut and who is barred,  and President Wilkerson has actually threatened to cut off the mic of anyone whose testimony she deems “irrelevant”. With only two minutes to testify, most speakers have been cut off mid-sentence. 

All Board members and Dr. Hite were present for this remote meeting. Because the Board gutted its official speaker policy, deciding before each meeting who they wish to hear from, they imposed no cap at this special hearing and all speakers were allotted three minutes. Many of those testifying demanded that the Board restore the previous speaker policy. Last week, APPS and UrbEd, represented by the ACLU,  filed a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas, asking that the Board’s violations of the PA Sunshine Act be reversed before the March 25 action meeting.

Parents, students, principals and school staff spoke on the many unresolved issues around the reopening of school buildings.  Students testified about missing their friends and the desire to return to “normal”.  One Asian-American student spoke of her stress after being bullied both at school and in her neighborhood; she asked for more support staff to protect students. 

Of the 22 student speakers who signed up, at least a dozen were not on the line when called on because of tech problems apparently at the Board’s end.  Some were found and able to call in later.  The problems offered a window into the kind of tech problems many students have experienced this year, with out of date equipment and lack of district support. 

Over twenty principals, under the leadership of CASA President Dr. Robin Cooper, came with a unified message to the Board: fund basic resources at every school. Dr. Cooper testified that CASA wants the District to pay for every school to have an Assistant Principal, Literacy Lead Teacher and Lead Math Teacher (both fully released from classrooms), Climate Manager, and Special Education Manager. Several principals identified the “Guardrail” that pertained to their various suggestions. Overbrook High School Principal Kahlila Lee advocated for a counselor for every 100 students, especially in light of the trauma her students have experienced after the murder this year of three Overbrook students, whose names Lee read aloud.  

Several principals reminded the Board of the drastic budget cuts begun in 2013 that eliminated many support staff including non-teaching assistants, classroom aides, counselors, and assistant principals. Powel Elementary Principal Kim Ellerbee called the current cuts “a losing strategy”; she pointed out that Powel was actually assigned two of the requested positions this year,  yielding “measurable results.” Why not all schools? Ellerbee asked. 

The principals’ unified message, and their willingness to stand up for their students, signifies a recognition that the administration’s “principal autonomy” approach has meant fewer resources for students. When principals have to choose between crucial positions and services, there is no way to win. This is why fewer than ten district schools have a functioning library staffed with a Certified Teacher Librarian. 

Some parents expressed anger that not all school buildings are open.  Others decried the lack of accurate information about both the safety and health conditions of the buildings and the lack transparency around these issues.  “If no information is shared by the District, especially about building safety, we can only assume the worst,” one parent testified.

Mayfair Elementary teacher John Stuetz, opened with, “Yes, that Mayfair…”–that is, the one in that day’s news story that the City Health Department ordered the school closed due to a COVID outbreak. Mayfair had reopened just ten days before. The lack of any District dashboard updating Covid 19 information only further erodes trust between the District and the community, and actually holds up building reopenings. Fortunately, members of Parents United for Public Education and the Caucus of Working Educators set up their own dashboard

Parents Alecia Burke (children at Comely and Masterman) and Shai Ben-Yaacov (child at Masterman) raised similar issues after being kept in the dark about environmental conditions at their children’s schools. Ben-Yaacov said, in an understatement, that “trust has not been earned” stating that the District had told questioning parents that there were no problems at Masterman, only to find out in 2019 that the school had “imminent hazards”. 

Teacher and parent Zoe Rooney told the Board that she was a bit distracted as she was in mourning for her Strawberry Mansion High colleague who had just died from COVID. She also called on the Board to provide up-to-date dashboard information. 

“The level of risk is abstract for some, but very real for others,” Rooney said. She reminded the Board that people who have been exposed are still at work throughout the District. She also said staff have been threatened against speaking out about school conditions.

APPS members Lisa Haver and Diane Payne called on the Board to share accurate information with parents. Haver asked why the Board is “actively protecting” substandard charters by holding up the non-renewal proceedings of Renaissance charters, some on hold for over six months, with no explanation from the Board. Haver urged the Board to place their Goals & Guardrails data analysis at the end of the action meeting agenda, so that the public does not have to wait two hours to testify and hear the testimony of others. Payne testified that Goals & Guardrails must include ongoing plans for actual reforms in classrooms.

Seventh-grade Math teacher Kristyn McCrohan was one of many who assailed the emphasis on testing, especially when students need to heal together by sharing and working to understand their feelings.  This year especially, test scores will be even less reliable and test preparation even more draconian increasing stress. Board member McIver declared that she would support parents and educators in calling for tests to be cancelled this year. 

Parent and University professor Gili Ronen encouraged the Board to lessen concentration on academics in the new school year and focus on behavior skills. “Kids who are more competent in social-emotional skills do better academically.” This pandemic, and its isolation, has been more stressful on children than we think and has diminished students’ ability to cope with difficulty, personal loss and everyday stressors. 

Although billed as a special hearing to listen to the concerns of District stakeholders, there were few responses to those concerns from Board members.