Eyes on the SRC: January 18, 2018

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by Karel Kilimnik
January 15, 2018

Change is in the wind this month as we look forward to the end of the SRC, await the pronouncement of the fate of the six Priority Schools, and see how many of the nine applicants for new charters will hit the taxpayer lottery. Both Dr. Hite and Mayor Kenney have said that the district will need to close more neighborhood schools every year for at least the next five years in order to balance the budget.

APPS members who testified last month at the first round of hearings for new charter applicants reminded the district that it cannot ignore the financial health of the district when considering new charters. District CFO Uri Monson has testified at the SRC and in City Council that charters are the single biggest item in the District’s budget. Philadelphia is fast approaching the 50/50 tipping point of district to charter schools.

Is the SRC deliberately pushing the District toward the New Orleans Model, which Commissioner Green has often lauded despite evidence that it has been a disaster for that city’s students and teachers?

Approving any new charter comes with the understanding that no matter how well or poorly that school may perform, the city is stuck with it for a long time. The five-year charter term has become meaningless. On the rare occasion that the SRC votes not to renew a charter, a long and expensive hearing process must take place, followed by a possible legal appeal. This can take years—while the school continues to operate. But when Dr. Hite targets public schools for closure, there is no appeal. In fact, there is not even a legal requirement for a hearing.

Despite the fact that the SRC agreed in a court-ordered settlement to post resolutions two weeks before action meetings, after APPS sued them for a pattern of violations of the PA Sunshine Act, the SRC just posted two new resolutions last Friday. Two concern renewal resolutions: the Memphis Street Academy resolution has been tabled since April 2017, the Universal Vare resolution since April 2016. Both were recommended for non-renewal by the district Charter School Office. APPS has asked at every meeting when the SRC would be deciding on these renewals; of course, we never got an answer.

In the face of predictions of more financial problems for the district, the SRC continues to sell school buildings at prices far below market value. This month, Resolution A-24 proposes the sale of the former Ada B. Lewis Middle School to an unknown out-of-state buyer. This raises questions about the effect of closing public schools, not just on the students but on the community as a whole, and about how little the community gets to say about it. Lewis was closed over ten years ago despite strong opposition from parents, teachers, students and community members. The district allowed the building, once home to the largest middle school in the city, to become an eyesore. In 2013, the District closed Smith Elementary in the rapidly gentrifying Point Breeze area. Many of the same community members who fought to keep Smith open formed the Save Smith School Committee to stop the sale of the building. Their long legal battle was lost when a judge ruled in favor of the district, thus enabling an out-of-state real estate investor to purchase the building, who quickly flipped the property to a local developer of high-priced housing.

Last month, the SRC approved the sale of the Beeber Wynnefield Annex. Neighbors had attempted to buy the building to convert it to a community center when the district closed it in 2002, but the District’s asking price of $300,000 was beyond their means. The building stood as an eyesore for almost twenty years, when Iron Stone Capital Partners bought it last month for $140,000—less than the original asking price.

 Is this what the people of Philadelphia want—for the District to shut down schools, then sell the buildings to satisfy the financial interests of developers and investors? The SRC offered little opportunity for the community to express its own needs, neither in Point Breeze nor in Wynnefield. Hite shut down Bok even though it was a thriving high school in a beautiful building; now that building is lost to the community. The SRC should consider the wishes of the community before it votes, not just the bottom line of developers and real estate investors.

Dr Hite’s pronouncement on the fates of this year’s cohort of Priority Schools may be made this month. He announced in a September press release that Penn Treaty will be “partnered” with the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA)—even before Cambridge Education and Temple University started to do their “School Quality Review”. The District told members of the six school communities that they would not be closed or charterized, but only for the next two years. Parents have repeatedly demanded a seat at the table where the future of their school is being decided, but have only gotten the usual dog-and-pony show of District-run meetings where no real decisions are made.

Catapult Learning reappears this month in two resolutions that propose lucrative contracts for the company. Since 2015 the company has shared in contracts totaling over $60 million for programs for high-needs students. In 2017, the District proposed awarding Catapult a $54million contract to run a stand-alone school for former Wordsworth Academy students; the District had to withdraw students from Wordsworth after the murder of a student at the facility. After strong pushback from The Coalition of Special Education Advocates, which is comprised of over fifteen organizations including APPS and represented by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP) and the Education Law Center (ELC), the proposal was cut back to $10 million to provide for the 100 returning Wordsworth students. [See Lynda Rubin’s summary of the July 6, 2017 meeting for more details.]

Even after the SRC approved that Catapult contract, there were still concerns about Catapult’s record, about the fact that no contract has been made available to the public, and the exclusion of parents, teachers, and advocates from the process. Dr. Hite attempted to reassure Coalition members by having Chief Academic Officer Cheryl Logan address those concerns. Logan said that the District would be carefully monitoring Catapult’s new schools, beginning with weekly visits. To date, neither Dr. Hite nor Dr. Logan has provided any account of visits or any type of oversight of Catapult.

What If…

…instead of spending $490,000 on some kind of undefined direct marketing campaign, and another $68,600 to a vendor for professional development, that half million plus went directly into classrooms? Students could have necessary supplies like paper, pencils, and crayons—as students in suburban districts do—and teachers would not have to beg for funds online.

Next SRC meeting: Thursday January 18 at 4:30 PM. To register to speak, call 215-400-4180 before 3:30 PM Wednesday January 17.

Click here to read the APPS analysis of SRC resolutions.

Eyes on the SRC: December 14, 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik

Alert: The SRC posted its resolution lists and summaries on Monday December 4. On Friday afternoon, they added three additional items: renewal votes on Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson, and a vote on the revocation of Khepera Charter. These items are not formal resolutions, as they provide nothing other than the topic of the resolution—they do not state exactly what the SRC will be voting on. That is a clear violation of the PA Sunshine Act. After having postponed renewal votes on Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson for a year and a half, the SRC is now poised to take a vote of some kind on these schools. The SRC’s Charter School Office, citing failure to meet academic, organizational and financial standards, recommended non-renewal for Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson in April 2016. Stetson’s charter expired in June 2015, Olney’s in June 2016. APPS has asked the SRC several times in the past nineteen months for an update on these renewals; the SRC has refused to tell APPS or the public what its intentions were. We don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Aspira Inc. submitted applications for two new charters last month. Given the SRC’s history, we expect the SRC to rush through the votes on these schools without any explanation or deliberation. In fact, we fear that the SRC will be doing this on many issues in the six months before its official dissolution. It is crucial that parents, community members and elected officials keep a close watch on the SRC between now and July.

Last month we celebrated the beginning of the end of the 16-year reign of the state-appointed School Reform Commission. This month we continue to work with the communities of the six Priority Schools as Dr. Hite is expected to announce his decision on their fates in January or February. Both Mayor Kenney and Dr. Hite have said the district intends to close even more neighborhood schools. At the same time, nine charter companies, including Aspira and Mastery, have submitted applications to open new charters or expand existing campuses. Will these announcements occur during the busy holiday season?

The march of the Edu-vendors continues as more “partners” market their professional development and data collection wares. The board of the Philadelphia School Partnership has chosen to give more money to an SLA school; no question the SRC will approve without discussion of why private organizations have the power to decide which schools receive additional funding. Dr. Hite is making good on his 2013 promise to outsource Head Start services to private vendors. The district is proposing to sell the Beeber Wynnefield Annex for a song twenty years after its closure.

While keeping an eye on all of these issues, we await Dr. Hite’s announcement of which schools will be closed this year or next. Elementary schools Sheppard and EM Stanton were slated for closure in 2012 but remain open today. Why? Strong and sustained organizing of parents, students, community, and the school partners who showed that it is possible to fight back and win. Kenderton parents did not give up fighting for their school after Renaissance provider Young Scholars abandoned them. They came to the SRC, met with the superintendent and other administrators, and refused to stop fighting for their children and their school. This year Kenderton has additional faculty and staff, a veteran principal, and lower class size in k to 3rd grade. The district didn’t try to sell the idea—as they are to communities of this year’s Priority schools— that all the school needed was (yet another) outside company, like Jounce Partners or ISA, to “turn around” the school.

What If…?

…that $800,00 from PSP were used to restore extracurricular activities in schools? Is the Hite administration ever going to bring back the after-school activities, the interesting and innovative electives, the drama/journalism/art/photography clubs?

Next SRC meeting: Thursday December 14 at 4:30 PM. Please call 215-400-4180 before 3:30 PM Wednesday December 13 to register to speak.

Resolutions of Note

Click here to read the entire post.

Eyes on the SRC: November 16, 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik

 We Did It!

 On Thursday, November 2, Mayor James Kenney gave an address in City Council chambers in which he asked Council to support his decision to call for an end to the SRC. The response was overwhelming approval. Council Education Committee Chair Jannie Blackwell introduced a bill to place a referendum on the May 2018 ballot to amend the City Charter so that, for the first time, Council would have approval power over the Mayor’s choices for a 9-member school board.

APPS members have attended every School Reform Commission meeting for the last five years, including special meetings, emergency meetings and Policy Committee meetings. Some of us have attended since the first meeting of the state-imposed board in 2001. No one is happier than we are to witness the dissolution of the SRC and a return to local control. But let’s keep our eyes on the ball and examine the realities behind it.

APPS has documented the devastation wrought by the unelected, unaccountable SRC for the past five years: the rampant privatization of services and staffing; the attempted cancellation of the PFT contract; the outsourcing of Professional Development, transportation services, and Special Ed programs; the forcing out of teachers in schools deemed to be “underperforming”; the annual charter expansion while evidence of that model’s failure mounts; the permanent closure of almost thirty neighborhood schools. We have called out more than one Commissioner for conflicts of interest. The list goes on.

One year ago, several community groups and unions including APPS, POWER, NAACP, Parents United for Public Education, Reclaim Philadelphia, the WE caucus of the PFT, the 215 People’s Alliance, Media Mobilizing Project and a number of local unions formed the Our Cities, Our Schools Coalition (OCOS), calling for a return to local control. OCOS organized several rallies at City Hall and district headquarters at which City Council members and community leaders spoke. OCOS held a public forum to discuss the issue (all SRC commissioners were invited; none attended). OCOS collected thousands of signatures online calling for an end to the SRC.

Mayor Kenney campaigned two years ago on a promise to return the district to local control, but flipped after he took office. He said repeatedly that it wasn’t the right time, and claimed that the district would lose funding from Harrisburg if we gave up state control. OCOS kept up the pressure on the Mayor for a year—calling his office, challenging him at neighborhood town halls, and writing commentaries in local newspapers. Contrary to the story line in recent articles and editorials in the local media, the Mayor did not wake up one day and decide to end the SRC. Resolution SRC-3 is the culmination of strong grass-roots organizing. It is the first step on the path to creating an elected school board in Philadelphia. We applaud Mayor Kenney’s decision to accede to the will of the people. But the battle for true community control is far from over.

Click here to read the full Resolution Summary for the November 16th SRC meeting.

Local Universities Enable SRC Agenda

November’s resolutions reflect the growing influence of local universities in district business. Resolution B-5 accepts “the donation of services and resources” from Temple University for “Transforming School L.I.F.E. (Leadership, Instruction, and Family Engagement) for English Learners” resurfaces . This $2.7 million grant from the federal government appeared in the October Resolution List for approval, but had to be postponed due to the absence of Commissioner Bill Green. Commissioners McGinley and Wilkerson had to abstain as they are both employed by Temple. Will Commissioner Green be absent again (as he has been for all or most of five meetings this year) and delay the vote again? If this grant went directly to the district, this problem would not exist.

Drexel University’s role continues to expand with Resolutions A-12 Categorical/Grant Fund: $250,000 Ratification of Grant Acceptance from the Promise of Strong Partnership for Education Reform; and Resolutions B-3 and B-4 for the newest SLA addition –SLAMS. Last year, Drexel was authorized to administer a $6 million federal grant in the Mantua Empowerment Zone. This Zone seems to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone created by Geoffrey Canada in NYC. At one point, the fifth grade scores in his charter school were so low that Canada simply removed the entire fifth grade class. When outside organizations, even universities, become “partners”, they make these kinds of decisions, not district stakeholders.

More Outsourcing

Resolution A-14 continues the trend of outsourcing services formerly performed by district employees to out-of-state vendors: providing professional development, decreasing truancy, and funding staff positions. Dr Hite is a graduate of the non-accredited Broad Superintendents Academy, which advances an ideology of outsourcing, privatization, and union-busting.

Please keep in mind that both Dr Hite and Mayor Kenney have said they intend to close two neighborhood schools per year for at least the next five years. School closing announcements are usually made around this time in the school year; perhaps the news of the SRC dissolution will push it back a month or two. Dr Hite will also be disclosing his decision on the fate of the six Priority/SGS Schools in February. New charter school applications submitted in the next month will be voted on by the SRC in February 2018. The next few months will be turbulent ones—stay tuned.

What If…?

…the Hite administration took the $522, 582 earmarked here for private vendors and spent it on bring back 20 Parent Ombudsmen? Or NTAs? Parents at Priority schools meetings have said that providing these services would provide an invaluable service to the children at those schools.

Resolutions of Note

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Eyes on the SRC: September 14, 2017

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by Karel Kilimnik
September 10, 2017

As students flock back to school this September we see a more modest list of resolutions. The list may be small but the implications loom large. How does a large district ensure that every school has what it needs? These resolutions illustrate the chasm of inequality among the city’s schools. Some are chosen to benefit from private funders such as the Philadelphia School Partnership while others still lack the basics of a stable workforce of teachers and principals. This is in no small part due to a Broad-graduate led administration that promotes a portfolio of options instead of ensuring every school has what it needs.

Please keep in mind that for the past five years, Dr. Hite has announced his latest transformation/turnaround plan in October. He has stated, at SRC meetings and in City Council, that he wants to close three schools a year over the next five years. A resolution usually pops up in October which indicates in some way, usually not in detail, his plans to close or “transform” a school. Internal turnarounds, however, do not have to be approved by the SRC; those always result in forced transfers of most faculty and often principals. That includes Transformation, Redesign, and others that are placed in the Turnaround Network. Last year Hite targeted eleven schools as “Priority Schools” causing much transition and confusion as teachers and principals were forced out of their school communities. The only resolution put before the SRC was one to approve a $200,000 contract with Cambridge Education for writing a report after holding meetings and performing nominal site visits. The previous year Hite placed three schools into the Renaissance Charter School program over the wishes of parents and community members. Three years ago, parents at Steel Elementary in Nicetown and Munoz-Marin in Fairhill voted down Hite’s move to give their schools over to charter providers. Who is on his hit list for the 2018-19 school year? APPS has prepared a tip sheet for how to protect your school. Start organizing now.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP – A3) continues to feed at the public trough. How much more money is going down this rabbit hole to support a private company using faulty data and flawed research ?

Artwork (B9 ) swiped from district schools over 10 years ago by then-CEO Paul Vallas is now on display at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown through January 12, 2018. This artwork was bought decades ago for the students in this district, and it still belongs to them. The SRC should vote to return it to the district schools as soon as possible.

The Camelot company (A17) gets a really good deal on renting space at the former ES Miller School to operate a program for “over-aged middle school students”. According to community activist Alicia Dorsey, there was an effort to insert Camelot into Strawberry Mansion High School without any notification to the school community. At their request, APPS members attended a meeting called by Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoates at the school in August. Becoates refused to answer a question put to him several times: Is Camelot moving into Strawberry Mansion?

(See the August 17th Ears: Parent(Pseudo)Engagement) Former Strawberry Mansion High School principal Linda Cliatt Wayman, in her August 17 SRC testimony, thanked Dr. Hite for not putting Camelot into her former school. Hite made no response either confirming or denying. The question now: Is the program at ES Miller the one intended for Strawberry Mansion or is it simply a coincidence?

WHAT IF…?

The district stopped giving contracts to TNTP for unnecessary and redundant professional development and turnaround training and instead used that money to restore certified school librarians to the district?

Next SRC Action Meeting: Thursday, September 14, 4:30 PM. To testify, call 215-400-4180 before 3 PM the day before.

Click here to read the entire post.