What Is the District’s Plan for Priority Schools?

by Lisa Haver
November 3, 2016

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Renaissance Schools, Transformation Schools, Redesign Schools. Autonomy Network, Innovation Network, Turnaround Network.  Internal turnarounds, evidence-based turnarounds.  There may be a lack of classroom teachers, supplies, and support staff, but the Hite administration never wants for new slots in which to insert schools while creating the illusion of community involvement.

This year’s model:  Priority Schools.   Eleven schools have been chosen to be overhauled in one of five ways, most of which would involve forced transfer of faculties. The options include:

  • Entering the school into the District’s Turnaround Network
  • Merging the school with a nearby high-quality school
  • Engaging a contract partner
  • Initiating an evidence-based plan for academic improvement
  • Restarting the school

For such a big initiative, there is little information about it on the school district website.  There is no banner, only a small notice among a list of others under “What’s New” for which you have to scroll down; that is, either you stumbled upon it looking for something else, or you had to be told exactly where to find it. The link takes you to a district press release that gives few details on what this initiative involves for the eleven targeted schools.  There was never any staff presentation at an SRC meeting.

The schedule of community meetings originally listed only the initial meeting but had no times for the two focus group meetings. Dates for focus meetings have been changed more than once.  Dates for the final meeting, in which the findings of the consultants will be discussed, still have not been posted. Dr. Hite said he will announce his decision about the fates of all eleven schools in January.  Those eleven schools are: John Marshall, Blankenburg, McDaniel, Heston and Hartranft elementary schools; Harding Middle School; Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Fels, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Overbrook high schools.

The district has cited low SPR numbers from years 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 as the reason for choosing these schools.  No data is available for 2015-16.

Questions have been raised about the sincerity of the statements from Dr. Hite and his staff that they want parents and the community to contribute to the decisions about the future of the schools. Parents at the eleven schools were notified that their schools had been targeted for some type of major overhaul just after Dr. Hite’s public announcement on October 11.  That gave parents at some of the schools less than one week’s notice about the first meeting.  Three of the schools’ kick-off meetings were before noon; Harding Middle School’s began at 8:30 AM.  Fewer than half had start times at 5 or after.  Thirteen of the twenty-two focus group meetings will be held before 5PM.

Although the same basic presentation has been made at all eleven schools, information about the public process has been inconsistent.  Before the focus group times were posted, the only way to know that there were focus groups, or when they would meet, was to attend the first meeting.  At Blankenburg and Harding, it seemed that most of the parent outreach was done by the principal through flyers sent home with students and  by robo-calls. At other schools, people were told that the Cambridge Team was doing that.

What is Cambridge’s role in this? The district’s press release says that it will use “objective third-party reviews to highlight school strengths and weaknesses”.  It does not identify the third party as Cambridge, whom the district hired at a cost of $200,000 for canvassing and site visits.  Although not mentioned in the October 2016 resolution approved by the SRC which approved the Cambridge contract, the company is sub-contracting with Educators for Excellence (E4E) on the School Quality Reviews and the parent outreach. Click here and here for information about who is funding E4E.  (We have requested a copy of the Cambridge contract from the SRC office.)

APPS members have attended community meetings at Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Bartram high schools; Harding Middle School; and Blankenburg and Hartranft elementary schools. With the exception of the 4PM meeting at KHSA, there were no more than 8 parents at any of those meetings.  Parents at many of the meetings described themselves as “involved” or “regular volunteers”.  They were hopeful that the district would put back some of the many resources which had been stripped from the schools over the past four years, through the “Bare-bones” and “Doomsday” budgets, which have established a new normal of austerity across the district.  Community members challenged Dr. Hite’s public statement that “despite investments” made in the schools, they have failed to perform.  Blankenburg, for example, had no counselor for the previous two years. They have not had a full-time nurse or a library.  They have been a receiving school more than once in the past three years, but received no additional resources.  Very few substitutes were sent last year, and there were four unfilled teacher vacancies for the entire 2015-16 school year.

Few details about the menu of options were given.  Most of the information came in answers to questions from APPS members.  There is no explanation of what a “contract school” is except to say that the district can contract with a company with special programs not available at any district school.  Power-point presentations were made, but only at Bertram, Harding and Ben Franklin were audience members given any written material or copies of the page listing the five options.

We have asked at every meeting we attended whether reports from each meeting would be posted for the benefit of those who can’t come to the meetings.  We were told that no information will be posted.

Two years ago, two schools were designated Renaissance schools, but parents voted overwhelmingly to stay with the district. Last year, the district chose three neighborhood schools to be placed in the Renaissance program; parents were given no choice in the matter.  That same year, four schools had internal turnarounds imposed upon them which resulted  in the loss of most of the faculty; at two schools, principals were forced out. Community meetings were held, but the community had no say in the district’s decisions.

Below are our reports from the initial community meetings. (Meeting are listed in the calendar order they were held.)

Blankenburg Elementary School
Blankenburg Focus Group 1

Benjamin Franklin High School
Benjamin Franklin: Focus Group 1

Bartram High School

Kensington Health Sciences Academy
Kensington: Focus Group 1

Hartranft Elementary School

Harding Middle School

Look at this article to see who is funding Educators4Excellence
Educators4Excellence because teachers NEED their own education reform front group | Wait What?

Commentary: Charters not really a good choice for parents and kids

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The following Commentary by APPS co-founder Lisa Haver was published by the Philadelphia Daily News on October 3, 2016. Read the comments.

School choice is one of many issues that illustrate the stark difference between the two major candidates for president. While Hillary Clinton, supported by teachers’ unions, has expressed support for charters within a robust public system, Donald Trump promises to use the power of the presidency to promote school choice policies and replace “the failed tenure system” with merit pay for teachers. Trump recently proposed a massive voucher system in which over $20 billion in federal funds would be distributed to states so that parents could choose among “public, private, charter or magnet” schools.

While the promise of “choice” – placing education in an unregulated free-market system of winners and losers – has been sold by reformers as the answer to the underfunding of public schools for over a decade, the power of those in struggling districts to make decisions about their public schools has been stripped from them as a result of “interventions” imposed by governors and legislatures across the country. An analysis by News21 found that lawmakers in at least 20 states have either eliminated locally-elected school boards or stripped them of their power. African Americans make up 43 percent, and Hispanics 20 percent, of those disenfranchised by these takeovers. Philadelphia lost control of its school district when Harrisburg imposed the appointed and unaccountable School Reform Commission on the city in 2001.

School choice has been sold as a way to give opportunities to those painted as trapped in “failing” urban public schools. But a recent brief by the National Education Policy Center has found “an unsettling degree of segregation – particularly in charter schools – by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.” And studies continue to show that charters do not, even with additional resources, outperform public schools.

The truth is that when school districts under state control decide to privatize public schools, parents end up with fewer choices – or none. As a result of the SRC’s surprise vote last January to allow Mastery Charters to take control of John Wister Elementary School as part of the districts “Renaissance” program, families in that East Germantown catchment area no longer have access to a truly public school. Wister students feed into Pickett Middle/High School, which was taken over by Mastery nine years ago. Unless given special dispensation by district officials, their children must attend a charter school, with its rigid “no-excuses” discipline policy, from kindergarten through senior year of high school. The same dilemna faces those in the Mastery Cleveland Elementary catchment area, where students feed into Mastery Gratz Middle/High School. The only other option is to move, although some parents who have done that found themselves in the same position when their new school was targeted for takeover.

This is a precarious position for families to be forced into. Charters can and have unexpectedly shut down midyear, as Walter D. Palmer Charter did two years ago. Young Scholars Charters has walked away from two North Philadelphia elementary schools, Kenderton and Douglass, in the past two years, forcing the district into a hasty decision to take back management or find another provider. Kenderton parents organized an emergency meeting, but soon realized that they had no say in that decision.

Two years ago, Superintendent William Hite allowed parents at two North Philadelphia schools to vote on whether to allow a charter company of the district’s choosing to take control of the schools. Parents at both schools voted overwhelmingly to remain public. Thus, in 2015, parents and students at three more district schools were given no vote, but simply informed that their schools were to be placed in the Renaissance program. The choice had been made for them.

Education reformers continue to argue that opening more charters at the expense of public schools means increased “choice” for parents. Is this really a choice for parents – to send your children to a charter school or pull up stakes? Parents don’t want to go school shopping any more than consumers wanted to pick an electric company. They want districts to distribute resources equitably, so that children in every neighborhood have access to safe and stable schools.