by Lynda Rubin
The recently amended Philadelphia Home Rule Charter mandates that the Board of Education hold at least two public hearings each school year for the sole purpose of giving parents, students, teachers, and community members the right and opportunity to address the Board with concerns, suggestions, complaints and questions. One purpose of making these hearings part of the City Charter was to underline that the Board is a public body that needs to engage with and be responsive to the public will. The Board may not always agree with members of the public, but they do have to consider the wishes of the people as they make decisions about spending tax dollars and formulating educational policy. The city’s populace successfully fought to have the School Reform Commission replaced with a Board precisely because the SRC ignored the people’s interests and inclusion in the process of running public schools for our city’s children. That this Board is appointed by the mayor and not elected by voters in no way diminishes the fact that its members are expected to be working on behalf of the public–that is, their constituents.
In light of that, it is inexplicable that the Board did not publicized this meeting commensurate with its importance, resulting in a disappointingly under-attended meeting. Board members were informed by staff that robo-calls were made to parents, and that notice was posted on the District’s website. But this notice required a more descriptive and inviting name than the two-word “Public Hearing” in a small box in the Board calendar, which requires several page clicks to find. As community activist Mama Gail Clouden pointed out in her testimony, students’ home and cell phone numbers are changed too often to be a reliable means of contact. At the very least, a banner with the meeting information should have been prominently placed on the Home Page of the District’s website where anyone who goes to the website for any reason will see it. The Board should explore such ideas as using PSAs (Public Service Announcements) on TV and radio stations which are often provided free as a service to public schools.
Seven Board members were present: President Joyce Wilkerson, Dr. Chris McGinley, Lee Huang, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Dr. Maria McColgan, and Dr. Angela McGiver. Board Vice-President Wayne Walker and member Leticia Egea-Hinton were absent. Superintendent Hite was not present.
Wilkerson opened the meeting by welcoming attendees and listing the four key principles the Board has chosen to focus on this year: 1) Student Achievement, 2) Transparency and Accessibility, 3) One System of Quality Schools, and 4) Financial Stability. The Board has verbally committed itself to increasing both the number of participants and the scope of the discussions. To that end, the Board has completed its appointments to the Parent/Community Advisory Council, also mandated by the City Charter, members of which were invited to the Board to be introduced and to testify about their mission.
This Public Hearing was conducted mostly as an extension of the District Partnerships and Community Engagement Committee. Since Mallory Fix Lopez and Julia Danzy are Co-Chairs of this committee, they each introduced two staff presentations. Between the presentations on the survey and the introductions of the Council members, fifty-five minutes of the meeting went by before the public speakers were called up.
Update on District-wide Survey Data
Mallory Fix Lopez asked Dr. Tonya Wolford. Chief of Evaluation, Research and Accountability, to report on the findings of the recent Parent, Student, Teacher, and Principal Survey. Wolford referred to the power-point presentation. She stated that there were 130,000 responses from both District and Charter schools. In response to a question from Dr. McGinley about whether there was equal participation from District and Charter schools, Wolford replied that District replies far outweighed those from Charter schools. Overall, parent responses rose from 6% last year to 23%; student responses increased from 41% to 71%; teacher responses rose from 59% to 67%, and principal responses were essentially the same 68% last year to 67% this year.
Wolford also noted were that the majority of students in grades 3-12 said that they felt welcome in their schools.
Fix Lopez then asked Karen Lynch, Chief of Student Support Services, to discuss how the results are being used. Lynch stated that the results are “used to inform decisions at the school level and District-wide”. She also said the District will be piloting a new survey for other school staff this year. She noted that parents have voiced concerns about the confidentiality of their child’s information because there is an ID number used. Lynch said this was not the individual student’s ID, but one tied to the school. She announced that detailed information about the survey can be found at www.philasd.org/dws
Fix Lopez expressed concern that the District let people know how the survey data is used. She also asked if the survey is printed in multiple languages; Wolford replied that it is.
Parent and Community Advisory Council Committee
Julia Danzy presided over the introduction to the newly appointed members of the Parent/Community Advisory Council. Eight of the thirteen Council members attended.
The Advisory Council members present were invited to introduce themselves and to say something about their backgrounds, their interests and why they wanted to participate. The Council members present were: Catherine Blunt / West Philadelphia/Strawberry Mansion: Tonayia Coffer / Northeast; Shereda Cromwell / North Philadelphia; Ginny McGill / West Philadelphia; Joellene Sicinski / Northeast; Tony Rocco / Kensington (both a teacher and parent); Reverend Chandra Williams / Brewerytown; Bishop Ethan Thorton / South Philadelphia; Cecelia Thompson / West Philadelphia. Not in attendance were: Maritza Guridy /North Philadelphia; Amina Malik / Northeast; Marisa Shaaban / Center City; and Ty Thomas / North Philadelphia.
A brief description of the Parent/Community Advisory Council and bios of the members can be found here. From the mission statement: “Council members are expected to identify at least 5 meetings in their community to attend over the course of the 2019-2020 school year. They will gather feedback from parents, caregivers and community members, specific to the Board’s Priorities: Student Achievement, Transparency and Accessibility, One System of Quality Schools and Financial Stability.”
Fourteen people signed up to speak at the meeting. Of those ten actually appeared to speak.
Mikayla Brown, a student and member of Youth United for Change, spoke first; about eight YUC members stood in support. Mikayla spoke about repeated efforts to meet with District staff about mental health information and more support for students in need and about the frustration of having promises made but not kept. She cited a chronology of meetings and emails that, at the time, seemed productive, only to be followed by silence and unanswered emailed questions about follow-through. President Wilkerson thanked Mikayla for speaking up and asked Karen Lynch to meet with her that evening to arrange for District follow-through. It is not uncommon to hear the same refrain about lack of administrative follow-through, from parents and students, during testimony at the Board’s Action Meetings.
Mama Gail Clouden called out the Board for their “pitiful” efforts to publicize and promote this meeting. She cited the poor showing as embarrassing for the Board. She complained that District staff were being paid to plan for this public meeting and that they need to make more effort and implement more effective forms of outreach. Clouden chided them for relying on robo-calls to cell phones when users today frequently change their numbers.
APPS co-founder Lisa Haver spoke about community engagement and transparency. She cited the Board’s recent unanimous charter renewal votes, in particular those for Mastery charters, despite documented lack of academic performance. Haver pointed out again that the Board “does not put a price tag” on these renewals even though they amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. This money could be spent on the mental health care that students need, or to make toxic buildings safer. Haver cited a recent Philadelphia Inquirer story about student absences and told the Board that the District needs to bring back NTAs if they are serious about getting students into class and out of hallways.
APPS co-founder Karek Kilimnik testified about the Board’s stated commitment to “Transparency and Accessibility”. She reiterated her ongoing request for the Board to answer questions asked during Action Meetings. Kilimnik reminded the Board that at the September 19 Action Meeting, one Board member stated that questions are answered at Committee Meetings; however, this response did not answer the question. Kilimnik pointed out that not every Board member attends all Committee meetings and that speakers can go unheard due to the length of District Staff Presentations as well as multiple speakers on one topic. She stated again that one way of fixing this issue would be to provide a paper with both question and answer at the following Action Meeting.
Lynda Rubin, APPS member and retired District counselor, spoke about the importance of longevity of teachers, principals and support staff in schools. Stability is needed if schools are to function as supportive communities, and having long-term relationships between staff and community must be part of that. Principals need to be genuinely supportive of teachers and staff for teacher retention. Rubin advised the Board that improving a school’s atmosphere requires the hiring of more support staff such as non-teaching assistants (NTAs) and making room for relationship building. Hiring school-based attendance workers to personally follow up with students and families about missed classes and school days, and then consult with nurses and counselors to coordinate attendance plans, is a more cost-effective and successful method than relying on programmed phone calls and letters sent home.
APPS member Deborah Grill also laid out best practices for attendance and the need for a stable staff to build relationships with students. She testified that the class attendance problems featured described in the Inquirer were the result of the District corporate ed policies and practices that have brought churn and testing for 20 years when the District should have been building caring learning communities. Grill urged the District to refocus on adequately staffing schools rather than spending funds on glitzy new online programs or outside consultants.
The response from some Board members was encouraging. McGinley said that the Board should heed the recommendations of the speakers, citing the need for NTAs in particular. He also stated that at one time school staff remained in their buildings for many years, thus enabling the development of more cohesive working relationships for the benefit of both staff and students. Fix Lopez spoke about the difference that staff contributions can bring to a school as opposed to online and outside managed programs.