Opinion: All schools and all students need libraries

 Children at the ceremonial opening of Bache-Martin’s new library. Photo from the website of the Bache-Martin Home and School Association

The opening of a new library this month at Bache-Martin Elementary in Fairmount has been reported as a feel-good story – one about a community pulling together to fund and build something that most students in Philadelphia haven’t seen in years. The occasion was considered so momentous that Mayor Kenney, City Council President Darrell Clarke, and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans were there to celebrate what theInquirer headline proclaimed to be a “miracle.”

But there is nothing miraculous about communities having to fend for themselves in providing the necessary resources for Philadelphia students. A true miracle would be the District making a commitment to bringing back libraries and librarians in all schools.

A “Hunger Games” mentality has seeped into our collective consciousness.  Teachers create GoFundMe accounts for supplies and school trips. Elementary students write letters to local politicians to plead for new playground equipment. High school seniors reach out to community donors to put books and furniture in an underused classroom to create a school library.

Movie and sports stars select schools to receive new playgrounds, local politicians and District officials show up for the ribbon-cutting, and the news stories celebrate yet another charitable event, as we witness the continual underfunding of the city’s public schools.

Equity is a stated goal of Superintendent William Hite’s Action Plan. But how can equity be achieved when children have to be in the right place at the right time – where parents have the time and skills to write grants, community members have enough free time to volunteer, and elected officials respond to their letters pleading for resources?

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Commentary: To make big impact, new Philly school board must break with the past

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The following commentary by Lisa Haver was published by The Inquirer on September 11, 2018.

July 9 was a great day for the people of Philadelphia. The first meeting of the newly appointed Board of Education signaled the end of our long school governance nightmare.
The new nine-member board has made symbolic gestures toward breaking with the infamous past of the School Reform Commission, such as opening public spaces at district headquarters and refurbishing with some of the artwork confiscated from district schools and offices over 15 years ago.
The board has also begun to institute meaningful reforms, including establishing committees so that those with a stake in the district can engage in more meaningful participation beyond their allotted three-minute testimony, maybe even engage in dialogue with board members. The board even discussed resolutions before voting on them, a sight rarely seen during the 17-year reign of the SRC. 
But a true “break with the past,” as promised by former SRC chair and now board president Joyce Wilkerson at that first meeting, means a thorough rejection of the devastating agenda carried out by the SRC.
The SRC was imposed on the city for the purpose of carrying out the corporate, free-market agenda, the same privatization plan carried out in cities across the country: Close neighborhood public schools; expand charters, then make them almost impossible to close when they fail; and  force children to take standardized tests every year, then use those test scores to label them and their schools failing in order to justify charter-izing or closing them. Many decisions rubber-stamped by the SRC were made in the boardrooms of private foundations and nonprofits.  As it became increasingly clear that this “reform” did little more than destabilize the city’s public schools and neighborhoods, Philadelphians voted by a 2-1 margin for a nonbinding resolution to dissolve the SRC. 
The board must abandon the destructive spending priorities of the SRC and implement time-tested reforms.
In addition to lowering class size from 33 students, the district, now enjoying some semblance of financial stability, should bring back the remaining support staff laid off four years ago—reading specialists, non-teaching assistants, counselors, classroom aides for students with special needs. This board could signal its intention to improve the lives of our students by bringing back fully functioning school libraries. It’s a disgrace that there are fewer than 10 certified librarians in a district of more than 200 schools.
The board must bring back an equitable system.  A first step would be to abolish the district’s philanthropic Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, whose board meets in private to “help set funding priorities.” Schoolchildren should not be placed in the role of charity recipients. 
All funding decisions should be made in public, by the duly appointed Board of Education.  We should not maintain an undemocratic structure in which unknown individuals or corporations can decide which schools will be lucky enough to receive money for basic resources.
One of the biggest challenges the district faces is lack of funding from Harrisburg. The board should join with the Pennsylvania School Board Association to become more vocal advocates for fair funding. But we have to make sure that the dollars we get are spent on improving every classroom in every school. Outsourcing millions every year to consulting firms for teacher-training programs of questionable quality do nothing to improve education for our students. 
The board must invest in neighborhood schools and stop approving new charter schools. The district cannot afford them. Don’t renew charters that do not meet standards. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on schools that promised to educate children better than district schools but now want standards lowered when they have clearly failed to do so.
What local control will look like is up to the board members themselves.  They must be accountable, above all, to their constituents—the students, parents, educators, and community.  

Commentary: Board of Education must hold charters accountable

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The following commentary by Lisa Haver and Deborah Grill was published by the Notebook on July 11, 2018

Philadelphia charter school operators and advocates have long maintained that if they were freed from the bureaucracy and regulations imposed on public schools, charters would be able to quickly and consistently raise student achievement. The School Reform Commission bought into that argument, approving new charters in almost every year of its 17-year reign.

The SRC also turned over control of more than 20 neighborhood schools to charter operators through its Renaissance initiative, whose provisions include“stringent academic requirements” that would be used “as a basis for a decision to renew, not renew or revoke a Renaissance school at the end of its [five-year] term.”

But when the data show many of those schools failing to achieve anything close to the “dramatic gains” promised, the SRC did not hold those charters accountable.

Recently, charter operators have actually lobbied the District to lower the standards by which their schools are evaluated. A June 11 Philadelphia Public School Notebook/WHYY story,“Philadelphia School District nearing new accountability rules for charters,”revealed that secret negotiations had taken place between District and charter officials about changes in the rating system, which “was developed with substantial input from the charter operators themselves.”  This is not the first time charter operators and District officials have met in secret: They conducted closed-door meetings from fall 2016 through spring 2017 to formulate public policy about charters.

Belmont Charter CEO Jennifer Faustman argued that it’s not fair to compare charters who took over poor-performing District schools, saying, “You’re basically being challenged to exceed the District.”

But hasn’t that been the justification for creating and expanding charters — that they would always do better than public schools? Belmont Charter would not sign its 2017 renewal agreement, citing unfairness of conditions, even though Belmont failed to meet standards in all three categories—academic, financial, and organizational.

District officials contend that the new rubric is “fair” to charter operators, but do not explain how it is fair to the students or their parents. Theoretically, a charter school could earn a 45 percent academic grade even with near-zero proficiency rates. That is, a charter could be renewed as long as it showed improved attendance and growth — if not actual academic achievement. Incredibly, the charter coalition finds that expectation too high. They are holding out for a 40 percent passing grade.

Then-SRC Chair Estelle Richman told reporters that the charter “performance framework” has undergone “more than 60 negotiated changes” in the last year and that the “charter agreements incorporate a revised performance framework which provides charter schools with transparent and predictable accountability and ensures charter schools are quality options for students and families.”

Transparency, apparently, should be extended to charter operators but not to the public. If charters are truly public schools, as charter operators contend, then all policy discussions, including changes in the rating system, must be open to the public. Nor did Richman explain why the SRC felt the need to consult those being regulated on how they wished to be regulated.

Last month, in one of its final actions, the SRC approved 10 charter renewals. Four others, including two Mastery charters, were not on the agenda, reportedly because they rejected conditions suggested by the District.

The SRC has failed to take action on seven Mastery renewals, including five Renaissance schools, over the last three years, as Mastery officials have refused to accept proposed conditions. The District does not publicize conditions until after the operator accepts them as part of its new charter; the District does not disclose any conditions that the school has rejected. Despite, or perhaps because of, Mastery’s stonewalling, the company was invited to take part in negotiations regarding the new rating system.

In Mastery’s February 2018 application for a new elementary school to be located in North Philadelphia, it asserted that it has had a successful track record of turning around unsuccessful schools. However, the District’s School Progress Reports (SPR) for the last two years show that 14 of Mastery’s 17 Philadelphia charters (most of them converted District schools) are in the lowest performance tier — Intervene — in the academic categories. The remaining three are in the Watch category, the third lowest of the four performance tiers.  Lenfest Middle and High School, which Mastery has been managing since 2001, has an achievement placement in Intervene and an overall placement in Watch.

Mastery’s application also stated that none of the four District elementary schools in that targeted area (Dunbar, Ludlow, McKinley, and Moffet) ranks in the top quartile citywide on either the SPR or the state’s School Performance Profile (SPP). However, SPP data for the last two years show that none of Mastery’s Philadelphia schools rank in the top quartile. In fact, those four public schools in Mastery’s targeted area have SPP scores comparable to most of Mastery’s schools.

The new Board of Education must hold charter operators accountable. Any adjustments in the rating system — which would be a major policy change — should be deliberated on in a public process, for the purpose of raising standards, not lowering them.  The District cannot afford to subsidize charters that are not adequately educating their students.

Why does Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School only enroll 235 out of 2,267 eligible students?

The following article was published by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
Due to space limitations the Notebook article was limited to 800 words.
Below is the full 1217 word version of the post.

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by Ken Derstine
May 8, 2018

At the School Reform Commission Meeting on April 26th, Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite stated that of 2267 students in its catchment area only 235 students are enrolled in the Strawberry Mansion High School. His theme echoed a flyer the School District has circulated in the Strawberry Mansion community “Envisioning the Future of Strawberry Mansion High School”. The premise is that the Strawberry Mansion community is not supporting the comprehensive High School and therefore it must be phased out and replaced with a yet to be defined “Education Complex”.

The very first paragraph of the flyer is titled “Strawberry Mansion is NOT closing.” Apparently this is to reassure the community that Strawberry Mansion will not become an abandoned building, thereby contributing to a downward spiral like so many seen in so many low-income communities that have lost their community school, but, after it has been emptied of students and community control, it will be replaced with such corporate entities such as what Hite called in his SRC statement the Energy Performance Pilot School. (Note the corporate company Hite keeps to bring this about.)

The next claim is that current students will graduate from Strawberry Mansion. The District has already announced that there will be no ninth grade next year so that is not true for all students since what would have been the ninth graders will not graduate from Strawberry Mansion.

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