Unjustly silencing critics is backward move from Philly school board

A Philly school board meeting on March 18, 2021. Kristen A. Graham

The following commentary was written by APPS co-founder Lisa Haver and published by The Inquirer on April 12, 2021.

In February 2015, School Reform Commission (SRC) chair William Green made a unilateral decision, with no public vote or notification, to have police search the bags and confiscate the signs of parents and community members who came to be heard on the issue of impending charter expansion. Several members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a grassroots education group that I cofounded, refused to submit to searches and were detained and had their signs confiscated.

It wasn’t the first time the SRC tried to silence members of the public, and it wouldn’t be the last. Members of grassroots organizations including APPS often found themselves placed at the end of the speaker list despite having signed up first. But the SRC never barred me or other APPS members from speaking.

Things have changed under the current school board. Before the March 25 meeting, three APPS members were notified that although they signed up on time, they would not be placed on the speaker list.

Over the past three months, the board has rolled out several changes in official board policy designed to silence regular critics of district leadership, including an arbitrary cap of 10 students and 30 adults. Speakers who signed up to speak at the Dec. 6 charter hearing saw that the notice now said two minutes, instead of the usual three. When APPS members asked when the board voted on these changes, we were told that these were not policy changes — they were procedural changes — so the board didn’t have to hold a public vote or give public notification.

Even if it were true that decades of precedence could be ignored, what does it say about the board that secrecy is the best policy? Are they turning decades-long policy and precedent on its head to shield themselves and the Hite administration from criticism?

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Addressing the needs of English learners during the pandemic

The following commentary was written by APPS member Cheri Micheau and published by The Notebook on April 15, 2020.

During the coronavirus crisis, staff and administration in the Philadelphia School District have been understandably concerned about equitable access to online/virtual instruction for all students, including those with special needs. I am sure that the public applauds its plan, in this rapidly changing and unpredictable situation, to buy and distribute Chromebooks, work with service providers to ensure that all students have internet connections, and produce educational packets and online resources.

Instructional approaches will inevitably evolve, and the outbreak provides an opportunity to consider how, and how well, the District has been addressing the learning needs of English learners (ELs) and how it will meet their instructional requirements online. This attention could pay off in more appropriate instructional approaches and policies, both now and in the long term.

I have long advocated, from both inside and outside the District, for high-quality, thoughtful English learner education. It has been clear to me that the needs of English learners have been poorly understood and only superficially addressed by the District for decades.

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How many lawyers does it take to shut down a failing charter school? | Opinion

How many lawyers does it take to shut down a failing charter school? | Opinion

When the School District of Philadelphia targeted Germantown High School for closure just one year before its 100th anniversary, there was no legal recourse for students or families. No law required the district to conduct an inquiry or call witnesses in order to hear testimony from those fighting to save the school. While the administration of Superintendent William Hite did hold an informal meeting at the school, the community’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Germantown High, along with 23 other neighborhood schools that had served generations of Philadelphians, was closed by vote of the School Reform Commission in a matter of months.

Closing a charter school is a very different story. The Pennsylvania Charter Law mandates a lengthy legal process, beginning with weeks of hearings at the district level. Thousands of pages of documents are entered into evidence. Should the hearing examiner rule in the district’s favor, the charter school can appeal to the state’s Charter Appeal Board in the hope that the six-person board of political appointees, most of whom have ties to the charter sector, will overrule the decision of the local board. Should that fail, the school can appeal to Commonwealth Court.

A recent story by Inquirer reporter Maddie Hanna detailed the costs involved in current efforts to shut down two city charters.

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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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