APPS News: November 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik

 Unofficial SRC Watchdogs Going Nowhere
For the past five years, APPS has acted as the unofficial watchdog of the School Reform Commission. Our members have attended every Action Meeting, as well as Policy Committee meetings and the Strategy, Policy, and Priorities (SPP) meetings (until they were abruptly discontinued without explanation two years ago). Our first edition of Eyes on the SRC debuted August 2015, and Ears on the SRC appeared in November 2015. We have written articles about many of the vendors hired by the district, including Relay Graduate School of Education, Cambridge Education, The New Teacher Project, and now Jounce Partners. We have questioned the SRC’s propensity to hastily approve contracts, with no public deliberation, including: a $10 million contract with Catapult Schools to take over the troubled Wordsworth Academy students; contracting out the highly valued Nutrition Educators who were PFT members, also given to Catapult; almost $1 million to Educational Testing Services for teacher training at the Priority/SGS Schools; the $8 million and counting to outside legal firms. This list is but a snapshot of how the District, with SRC oversight, spends its limited funds.

As a member of the Our Cities Our Schools Coalition, we joined forces with labor unions, faith-based groups and other public education advocates to lobby Mayor Kenney and Governor Wolf to return our School District to local control.

The research and writing posted on our website as observed, recorded, and analyzed decisions by the SRC proved to be invaluable in crafting our message. How did the people of the city know how destructive state control under the SRC has been? By hearing the testimonies of APPS members at SRC meetings, by reading our commentaries in the local media, by talking to our members at countless community forum first-person accounts on our website. This return to local control is a huge victory, but we will continue to fight to end the disenfranchisement of the people of Philadelphia until we have the right to vote for an elected school board—as all other Pennsylvanians do.

 Victory for Philadelphia: SRC Votes to Dissolve

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APPS News: October 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik

Six More Schools Targeted for Possible Turnaround

 The 2017-18 school year started with a bang as Superintendent William Hite announced his second cohort of Priority Schools: Steele, Rhoads and Gideon elementary schools; Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences (FSAS) and Wagner middle schools; and Penn Treaty Middle/High School. Just as Kensington Health and Science Academy was targeted last year even after it had been designated a Community School by the City, so has Gideon this year. Following last year’s $200,000 payment to Cambridge Education, the SRC has paid the company an additional $100,000 to perform a “School Quality Review” at the six schools now designated part of the district’s “System of Great Schools (SGS)”. The SRC passed a resolution authorizing Cambridge Education, for $100,000 this year, “…to retain a consultant to conduct objective third party school quality reviews in a number of schools that have been identified as under- performing through the District’s SGS process. The consultant’s purpose will be to conduct an onsite review of school performance and to document and communicate the primary factors supporting and impeding learning at the school…”

APPS review of Cambridge’s 2016 report showed that it was so lacking in substantive data and anecdotal reporting that it could not be used to decide the fate of the eleven schools.

In the district’s September 19 press release, Dr. Hite stated that the Institute of Student Achievement (ISA), a subsidiary of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has already been hired to perform coaching and professional development at Penn Treaty:

“Last year, the District launched a high school improvement cohort supported by a high-performing high school support organization – the Institute for Student Achievement. Penn Treaty will be joining this cohort of high schools, alongside Overbrook, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Fels. School Quality Reviews and community feedback will be used to inform priorities and focus for that work.”

Why has this decision been made before hearing from the Penn Treaty community? Why does the district have to hire one company to tell another company what to do?

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APPS News: August 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik
August 31, 2017

It’s been a busy summer for education activists. APPS members have:

  • Responded to the challenges posed by the new District website
  • Appealed the District’s response to our Right To Know request for information about the secret meetings held between District staff and charter school operators over a 6-month period this year
  • Produced our regular editions of Eyes and Ears on SRC meetings
  • Worked with members of the Strawberry Mansion High community to get information about a possible co-location of an outsourced program at the school

Disappearing Documents

On August 1, without any prior public notification, the District posted a new website. The previous site was taken down, and information about charter evaluations, individual schools and SRC history were nowhere to be found. Minutes and Resolutions from SRC meetings from 2001 to 2016 were gone. The entire page on Dr Hite’s prized System of Great Schools disappeared. We were unable to contact the Director and Assistant Director of the Communications Office as they were both on vacation the week the new website made its debut. We were able to speak off the record with some SRC staff members, but no one could give us a definite answer on when—or if—that information would be restored. First we were told October, then January 2018. Dr. Hite, in his first remarks on the subject at the August 17 SRC meeting, said that all information would be restored by “Spring 2018”. Is this the SRC’s idea of transparency and community engagement?

Several APPS members raised concerns about the disappearance of public information by a government agency at the August 17 SRC meeting. Dr Hite actually responded to Lisa Haver’s question by stating that the “district was interested in restoring information and would appreciate feedback about what is missing, how users’ experiences can be improved and what is not working well.” Email him at hite@philasd.org.

Because of the pressure from APPS members, we have seen much of the information about SRC history restored. We will continue to monitor the website.

 APPS Files Right to Know on Secret Meetings with Charter Supporters

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APPS News: July 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik
July 5, 2017

SRC’s Tsunami of Resolutions

The SRC loaded over 140 resolutions onto its June 15 Action Meeting agenda. Commissioner Green voted No on the new PFT contract at the June 20 SRC meeting because he deemed it “fiscally irresponsible”, but he did not raise that concern about any of the programs or contracts, many to private businesses, which totaled over $200 million in one sitting. Familiar corporate education vendors Mindset Works, back selling more “leadership kits” (A-82); Catapault Inc., possible recipient of a 5-year, $54 million contract for a controversial facility for special-needs students (B-8 ); along with Teach for America, Relay Graduate training, and Foundations, Inc and Jounce Partners (B23) continue feeding at the trough of education dollars. The District’s overdrive to outsource jobs and services races along with far too many resolutions to list here. As usual, the SRC provides scant information, leaving out descriptions altogether for many items, then vote the resolutions in blocks of twenty or thirty at the meeting’s end with no discussion or questions raised. APPS continues to point out that the SRC prioritizes charter operators at closed door meetings.

The district continues to funnel money to private law firms—this time another $8.5 million (Resolution A-71, which passed 4-1, Estelle Richman voting against). The SRC spent millions with these private law firms to fight the PFT after illegally cancelling that contract, appealing at every opportunity. The district has its own Office of General Counsel with twenty-one attorneys plus support staff. How many librarians, art teachers, and music teachers could that $8.5 million buy?

Solution for Special Needs Students—or Bonanza for Private Company?

 Resolution IU-7 was posted just three days before the June 15 meeting, then was “withdrawn by staff” at the last minute. This original resolution proposed entering into a 3-year, $36 million with the for-profit Catapault Learning Company to create a segregated K to 12 school for special needs students due to open in September 2017 (with a possible extension to a 5-year, $54 million contract). Barely two months to find a location, hire staff, and have an operational school for 100 students in kindergarten through twelfth grades. This resolution came as a surprise to parents of special-needs children and the community; as a result, there has been tremendous pushback, including letters from the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center on behalf of a coalition of advocacy organizations including APPS. IU-7 has a twisted tale of resurrection as Diane Payne documents in the June 15 Ears on the SRC. At the City Council meeting held earlier that same day Councilman Derek Green introduced a resolution for the SRC to reject I-U7. It passed unaminously.

Although he did not address the issues of the secrecy and hurriedness of his actions around IU-7, Dr. Hite’s explanation was that the district needed to find 100 placements for former Wordsworth Academy students. After the homicide of a student at Wordsworth last October, the District was pressured to terminate its contract. There have been persistent complaints of physical and sexual abuse of children placed at Wordsworth’s residential treatment center since it opened. However, the resolution also included space for special needs students who were not residents of Wordsworth. Rather than use the better part of a year planning how best to serve this vulnerable student population, the Hite administration is attempting to present a fait accompli to parents who should not be rushed into making this kind of decisions about their children’s futures.

Requiem for Closed Philly Schools Vigil

We have listened to Dr Hite repeatedly state that he wants to close three schools a year over the next five years. We attended the neighborhood meetings in 2012 to allow public comment. We heard the anguish of students, parents, teachers, and community members as they desperately tried to save their schools from closure. We sat through numerous SRC meetings and listened to similar groups plead for their schools to remain open. Having heard the heartbreak of school closures and witnessed the devastation wrought upon those neighborhoods, we decided it was time to honor the closed schools as well as draw attention to Dr. Hite’s intentionsAPPS’ Requiem for Philly’s Closed Schools presented a beautiful yet mournful presence in the 29 tombstones created for each of the schools closed since 2011. We created three additional tombstones with a question mark as to who is next on the chopping block. Along with this video of the event there is an Action Sheet with ideas to help school communities organize.

Defenders of Public Education

 There were over 50 speakers on the June 15 list; several people whose names did not appear were allowed, without explanation, to speak during the meeting. One man, who did sign up to speak in advance, was omitted from the list. He sat through hours of testimony, then approached district and SRC staff requesting that they correct their admitted mistake and allow him to speak. Two APPS members approached both District and SRC staff requesting that he be allowed to speak. He even rose after the last speaker to request his turn only to be refused by Chair Wilkerson. The SRC’s capricious speakers policy was on full display at this meeting as some people were added to the list and others excluded.

The Our Cities Our Schools organization has developed a timeline that shows why the present commissioners must vote soon in order to return local control of the district to the people of Philadelphia. Several OCOS members spoke on this issue.

Also see:
SRC to vote Thursday on downsized proposal for new special education program | The Notebook – July 5. 2017

New, $10M special-ed school for Philly kids draws fire | Philadelphia Inquirer = July 5, 2017

Over objections, SRC authorizes$10M new special ed program for Philly kids | Inquirer – Juyly 6, 2017

School Reform Commission approves new in-house special education program | The Notebook – July 6, 2017