District’s System of Great Schools Decision Leaves Many Unanswered Questions

by Karel Kilimnik

After holding six community meetings at each of the three schools in the 2018 System of Great Schools (SGS) cohort, the District announced one more at each school during the week of February 4th in which the option for each school would be revealed.  APPS members attended meetings at all three SGS School last Fall. Our reports can be found here.

The two possible options for the schools were either placement in the Acceleration Network (formerly the Turnaround Network) or allowing each school to develop its own Academic Improvement Plan (AIP) . The main feature of the first option is the requirement that teachers and principals reapply for their positions in their school. Chief of Schools Shawn Bird told the Board’s Student Achievement Committee that teachers had to reapply so that the District would know whether they were willing to attend the additional monthly and summer professional development. If this is true, then the District changed its policy; it has not been true for the previous two years of this program. But why not just ask the teachers if they will attend the PD? Why would they have to go through a re-application and re-interview process just to answer one question? When questioned by the Committee about this, Bird said he wasn’t sure and would have to check.  Who would he be asking when he is in charge of the SGS process? Another last-minute policy change: this year, the AIP option could also include a requirement for teachers to reapply. This was not disclosed until the last meeting at Harrington in answer to a question from APPS. The other school communities, as far as we know, have not been informed of this.

Superintendent Hite waited until the 2017/18 SPR scores were reported until making the final decision on whether Harrington, Lamberton, and Locke Schools would enter the Acceleration Network or develop their own Plan. Ultimately, he decided to place all three schools into the AIP Option.  Each school would have a Planning Committee selected by the Principal. No criteria was provided as to how Planning Committee members would be selected, only that the Principal would choose them.

As part of the District’s stated plan to “gather information on school strengths, challenges, and ways to improve”, Temple University was awarded a contract to gather input from parents and community members about the strengths and weaknesses of each school. The “Parent. Family, & Community Input Report” (listed under Download Focus Group Report on the SGS website) noted the extremely limited involvement of families. Given that all three schools list student enrollment at over 400, there was paltry parent attendance at each school. The total for parents/community members for all six meetings came to 29 at Harrington, 23 at Lamberton, and 38 at Locke–fewer than ten at each meeting. Their report does not indicate whether Special Ed and/or English Language learners were part of their sample nor what grades were included.

For the past three years, APPS has witnessed this process of targeting struggling schools and providing little actual community control over their futures. This band-aid approach of providing additional funds for a few years does nothing to ensure continued support for these schools. Three years of funding for extra staff does not fix the underlying issues our schools must contend with every day. When asked how schools will sustain whatever supports they gained, District staff routinely respond  with statements like “We are building capacity to sustain the added supports.” Building capacity in existing staff is not going to fix the problem of under-resourcing. A permanent funding solution is needed so that these schools receive the staffing, resources, and supplies that they need to succeed.  If the Hite Administration truly wants to support these schools, there would be a year-long process involving all stakeholders in discussion, followed by  implementation of their recommendations. This piecemeal, top-down imposition serves no one except the vendors brought in to market their questionable solutions.

Lamberton Elementary:  February 4, 2019

By Karel Kilimnik

Present were  SGS Senior Project Manager Chris Davies, Network 2 Assistant Superintendent Rahshene Davis-Bowie, Lamberton principal Antoinette Powell, two representatives of the Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE), a Network 2 Learning Specialist, another SGS staff member; 4 students; 5 parents,  and approximately 25 community members including representatives from the Overbrook Park Civic Association, Playground/Department of Parks & Recreation, and Friends of the Overbrook Park Library. All of the Lamberton meetings have included a strong contingent of community members.

Davis-Bowie started off with the School Improvement Meeting Power- Point; Why We Are Here, Where We Are in the Process, and the Recommendation. This presentation included two comments that belied what actually  happened during the meetings: “Your feedback and school data help us understand school strengths, challenges, and ways to improve” and “All stakeholders have a perspective that needs to be respected.The work of school improvement is urgent and is a shared responsibility.”

Davis-Bowie stated that Lamberton was selected for the SGS Focus School Program because School Progress Reports (SPR) for the previous  three years scores were below 15%. However, last year’s SPR Overall Score jumped from 9% (2016/17) to 26% (2017/18). Those in attendance were informed that Dr.  Hite chose the Academic Improvement Plan (AIP) option for all three SGS Schools. The AIP will be developed by the principal’s Planning Team with support provided by the Central Office. No details were provided on what kind of support.

The District’s stated goal is to create a three-year plan on how to improve parent engagement. Davis-Bowie stated that one priority will be hiring teachers to fill all vacancies. She mentioned that the Site Selection process will be moving to a year-round schedule rather than just in the Spring. Since the District hires year-round, it seems that making  new hires go through site selection actually places a roadblock in the process. Davis-Bowie said this Planning Committee would commence meeting the week of Feb 11th. At this point, numerous community people expressed an interest in being involved in the planning process. Part of the AIP is to improve parent engagement. When asked by a participant how parents were notified about this meeting, Davis-Bowie admitted that she had no idea. I raised the issue of teachers being forced to reapply for their positions. She responded that they do not know because the Plan has not been written yet and that the Plan may ask for “things beyond the [PFT] contract terms.” Again, more explanation is needed as the contract will not be renegotiated for another three years. She went on to say that the Plan may require additional professional development hours during the school year as well as a week over the summer. I cited the District Office of Restructured Schools

organized in 2002 to provide a District-run alternative to the Educational Management Corporations (EMO) hired to improve low performing Schools. This effort provided more resources to selected schools without mandating any teacher or principal turnover. Academic performance in those schools bested the EMO schools. Davis-Bowie’s response was “that was before my time” and claimed she was unaware of this successful program. This is what happens when institutional memory is erased. I asked whether teachers could simply be asked whether they commit to attending those sessions instead of forcing them to reapply and creating more instability. I received no reply.

One  community member, expressing an interest in being part of the Planning Committee, said that they want to actively participate in any plans being made for Lamberton. He told Davis-Bowie that he has been asking to see a copy of the School Improvement Plan since August and has yet to see anything. He stated that his community organization has been here for years and they will ”not be excluded”. Another community member pointed out that “we live in this community, this is our neighborhood school”; pointing at the District staff, he said “none of you live here”.  Another speaker asserted that she was present tonight because “I care about what is happening in this community and I want to be involved.” Davis-Bowie’s response was to say “we can’t have 50 people in a room writing a plan. The principal can let people know when you can come in.” Community members answered with, “You can’t say it’s going to be a transparent process if you won’t let us in. A viable school is essential for the survival of our community. How is this going to happen?” Another community member said “we need to be in the room with that Planning Committee”. Getting no response, he added a request that the District put this information on the website dashboard. Principal Powell said that her door “is open to talk about the Plan”. No mention of having community involvement in creating it. Powell told participants that there is not a lot of time “to go back and forth”. At this point, one community member said we need to be in the room with the Planning Process. He wanted to know how to get stakeholders on the Planning Team: “We’re suffering here and we know that information is not coming out to us. Information is behind walls and there is an accountability problem here.”

I noted that funding for SGS Schools ends after three years and asked what happens to funding for additional resources. Davis-Bowie replied that they are working to build the capacity of staff. I said it is not a question of capacity but of actually having people working in the school. A community member then asked how the District will continue to support the SGS Schools. He raised the issue of of last year’s second grade students having substitute teachers and falling behind in their academics. He said the District should pay for tutoring as those students missed an entire year of learning.

When asked if there would be an adviser keeping the Planning Committee on track, Davis-Bowie acknowledged that she and someone from the Superintendent’s office would be carrying out those duties.

Harrington Elementary:  February 6, 2019

by Barbara Dowdall

Present at this meeting: SGS Senior Project Manager Chris Davies; Network 2 Assistant Superintendent Rahshene Davis-Bowie; one FACE staff member; several parents including one who attended Harrington; community member Catherine Blunt; APPS member Barbara Dowdall; and Principal Dixon, who arrived after the meeting began.

Davis-Bowie, noting that attendance was small, possibly due to the weather (heavy rain), waited for a while past the opening time of 5:00 PM. She said that the meeting with faculty and staff had taken place earlier in the day.

Davis-Bowie narrated the Power-Point presentation, enumerating the reasons Dr. Hite had selected Harrington for evaluation (three years of no improvement on SPRs) and why he selected the Academic improvement Plan option. Davis-Bowie said they spent “two straight days” visiting classrooms and held three sessions going deep into data, utilizing a “Root Cause Analysis”. That appears to be a business practice to analyze and prevent problems.

No further description of this RCA was provided. Davis-Bowie said that the Principal would form a Planning Committee to formulate the AIP.  She said that the Harrington Planning Committee had not yet been selected “but anyone can volunteer.” The Committee’s work will be finished sometime next month before budget time. Their vision is to cover three to five years as this is the term for each school in the SGS Focus School Program. David-Bowie said that Harrington Math scores have yet to reach levels nearing proficiency, so more Professional Development for teachers, possibly two weeks in the summer, may be needed. She did not mention that many 7th graders last year had no permanent Math teacher.

Once again the specter of teachers having to reapply for their positions was raised; the justification given was that the PFT contract does not allow for teachers giving up time during the summer. That is a half-truth at best and does not explain why teachers may be forced out. Since the Academic Improvement Plan has yet to be written, there is no way to know whether this will be part of it or whether teachers will be forced to re-apply for their positions, thus continuing the destabilization at Harrington. Davis-Bowie went on to say that anyone can volunteer for the AIP Planning Committee by letting the principal know they are interested. Community member Catherine Blunt offered to serve on the Planning Committee. Davis-Bowie assured those gathered that school staff, parents and community members “know best.” (Note that this is a distinct difference from what was said at the Lamberton School meeting the night before, where a roomful of community members wanted their voices to be heard but we were not offered this same opportunity.) There was no response when I shared copies of the list of what an earlier gathering of Harrington parents said they wanted at their school, including a librarian. This evening’s meeting was held in the former IMC.

Locke Elementary:  February 11, 2019

By Cheri Micheau

Present were SGS Senior Manager Chris Davies, two FACE staff,  one teacher; two parents and one student, Community Schools Coordinator Pamela Evans, APPS members Cheri Micheau and Karel Kilimnik.

The original meeting had been cancelled due to the fact that no one other than APPS members showed up. This meeting was rescheduled to take place at the same time as Locke’s School Advisory Council (SAC) meeting.

Chris Davies once again presented the SGS Power- Point and answered questions from the audience.

The discussion centered on the undefined aspects of this redesign project.  Kilimnik reminded Davies that the highest priority expressed at community focus group meetings was more staff, both more classroom teachers in order to decrease class size and non-teaching staff to address parents’ serious concerns about school climate, especially in the cafeteria and on the playground before and after school. One parent noted that keeping 10 students focused is much easier than doing the same with 15 or 20 students.  Both Kilimnik and Micheau questioned the ill-defined promise of “additional funding” for Locke, particularly after the first year. Davies asserted that he is not involved in the budget process and is not aware of how much extra money the Locke AIP team will be able to request to make the desired changes, nor whether that funding will continue after the first year and especially, after the three-year process ends. Davies did report that other schools involved in the AIP in prior years have continued receiving funding each year; none has yet exited the SGS Focus Schools Program, so he was unable to describe funding in the fourth year. Micheau asked if there would be limits on the amount of money or other additions to Locke’s programs that the committee could request, but Davies was unable to list items that would be off the table. Micheau reminded Davies that in the budget process, principals must usually make difficult choices for their schools, and after the first three years many of the improvements might have to be sacrificed.  Davies reminded the audience that the SGS support team hopes to “build capacity,” but Kilimnik replied that extra staff cannot be included in an effort to “build capacity.” Locke parents have consistently stressed the need for “more bodies” to address its academic and climate challenges. Davies noted that the three focus schools will receive priority in hiring/staffing for next year. This will include the three AIP principals’ receiving lists of potential candidates who are a good “fit” (identified by the Talent Team), as well as organizing hiring fairs and options for early hiring.

The AIP team is to consist of parents and community members, the school’s leadership team, the Community Schools Coordinator, the PFT building representative, and teachers.  When asked how community members would be invited to join the planning team and what roles they would play on the team, Davies explained that recruitment will be carried out through notices sent home with students, text message blasts (DoJo), and notices at parent meetings, as well as outreach by the Community School coordinator.  Several attendees remarked that it has been historically very challenging to bring Locke parents to school for meetings, as seen in the light turnout at the community meetings held by SGS in the fall; a parent reminded the audience that there are many single parents with children at Locke, and attending school meetings and taking on additional responsibilities, such as participation in the AIP team, could be overwhelming.  (Note: APPS members have met some very impressive Locke parents at the community meetings; though not many parents attended the meetings, the small group of very engaged parents should be involved in the AIP team in ways that work for them.) During the meeting, it was revealed that the Locke leadership team has already met with representatives from the SGS to discuss the contents of the AIP and the required procedures in setting up the team and carrying out the team’s work.  The community will be invited to provide feedback on the draft of Locke’s AIP during review meetings in February, March, and April (according to Davies). Principal Carter will send parents a schedule for the AIP team’s meetings as part of the recruitment effort. While District representatives spoke of ways of recruiting parents and community members for the AIP team, they also said that the draft of the report would be available for review by February, indicating that parents may only be included in providing feedback, not actually formulating the plan.

Because this meeting was combined with the SAC meeting, parents raised other issues:  One parent requested help with Math, both in the form of math sessions to help parents learn how math is taught at Locke so that they can assist with Math homework, as well as after-school activities to reinforce students’ Math skills; a “Math night” for students and their parents (with dinner) and Math homework help were other ideas he and other attendees suggested.  He also asked how Locke could better attract more parents to meetings; he works at night, so is able to make meetings during and right after school, but he noted that most parents are not able to do that. Special events, such as a visit from Mayor Kenney, Motown Night, Movie Night, Game Night, and any performance by the students can attract parents, according to several attendees. Hopefully these suggestions will make it into the actual AIP and provide more resources.