by Diane Payne
Last month’s March 28th Action Meeting ended abruptly when the Board left the room after a hasty vote to recess. Sponsors and students from the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) had disrupted the meeting after the Board voted to pass a policy that mandates metal detectors in all high schools. PSU had testified at Action and Committee meetings over the past the past three months and had met with District administrators to discuss the issue. (See APPS March 28th Ears for that report.) The Board never returned; without notice, they reconvened in another room and voted on the remaining Items there. Thus, many public speakers did not get to give their testimony. The Board had said that those people could go first at the April Meeting, but APPS members asked that they get their three minutes from March in addition to their three in April. Board President Joyce Wilkerson agreed to our request. A total of 78 speakers were listed.
All members of the Board were present for this meeting. Seven members of APPS attended; six testified in defense of public education.
Prior to the start of business, the Board read a tribute to longtime education activist Marciene Mattleman, one of the founders of the After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP), who passed away in March. Students from the various clubs who have participated in local and national competitions came with their trophies. Tributes were read by Board member Angela McIver, the current ASAP director, and Mattleman’s daughters. The importance of these non-athletic activities was later the subject of testimony by those who came to advocate for funding for their various clubs, including Chess, Scrabble, and Debate.
A student from The U School recited her poem, a frank depiction of the sexual minefield young women face in a society which lacks a clear understanding of what is meant by “consent.” This too was mirrored in the testimony of many of the subsequent speakers who advocated for the curriculum to include lessons on what “consent” means and how it must be expressed.
Minutes of the March 28th Action Meeting were approved. All Board meetings can be viewed in their entirety on the SDP website by clicking on the Board of Education page and scrolling down to watch previous Board meetings.
President Wilkerson Addresses March 28 Incident
Although not listed on the agenda, President Wilkerson made two announcements. She informed the audience that the Aspira Stetson Middle School and Olney High School revocation hearings have concluded and that the public comment window is open for 30 days; May 21 is the deadline for submission of written public testimony. (Testimony can be emailed to email@example.com or sent via postal mail to the Board of Education.) APPS members attended all of these seemingly interminable hearings. An APPS report will be added to our website when completed.
Wilkerson’s second announcement was in response to last month’s meeting disruption. She stated that although the Board knows there will be dissent and protest as well as differing views and opinions, the Board will not tolerate a disruption that silences other public speakers or fails to allow the Board to do its business. She noted that the Board has spoken with the parties that caused the disruption and that they look forward to working with those parties in the future. (Policy 903 deals with this issue and is up for review.) Wilkerson did not address the Board’s actions–leaving the meeting without explanation, failing to tell attendees what the Board intended to do, and reconvening in secret.
APPS contends that when the Board reconvened the March 28th meeting in the Board offices and voted in private, that was a clear violation of the PA Sunshine Act which stipulates that Board votes must be taken in public. APPS, which has sued the District in the past over a pattern of violations of the Sunshine Act, disagrees with President Wilkerson’s claim that the live-stream video of their proceedings (which was not even available on the big screens in either the auditorium or the 440 lobby) constituted public participation.
Speakers from March 28th
Six student speakers began this portion of the the speakers list. Three advocated for funding for their various clubs, highlighting the engagement and competitive success each achieved. Two student speakers advocated for African American young women to be allowed the culturally relevant use of head wraps. In many schools, young women have been forced to remove their head wraps and told that wearing them is in violation of the uniform policy. They argued that this was discriminatory to their African heritage and demanded a review of this policy. One student advocated for adequate mental health services in schools. Our student speakers are smart and focused and eloquent.
Following the student speakers were the adults who did not have the chance to deliver their remarks last month. Teacher Kathleen Melville, member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and Caucus of Working Educators (WE), presented the board with a petition that included 3,000 signatures of staff, parents, and community members demanding immediate remediation of toxic school buildings. Melville urged the Board to come out in support of both changing the city’s 10-year tax abatement and Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOTS) for the city’s mega-nonprofits to help fund this demand. Melville pointed out that this is not just a safety issue but a racial justice issue as well. She said questioned why money is found when affluent white people want condos and rooftop bars but not to fix the toxic conditions in schools attended by children of color. Her testimony was supported by the remarks of PFT/WE member Shira Cohen who further described the deplorable building conditions in many schools and demanded that toxic conditions be fixed. She read a list of four demands regarding the toxic school conditions, noted that patience is no longer an option, and ended with “make a plan to fix all schools NOW.”
It is amazing what you learn from speakers. Parent Stephanie King of Kearny School in Northern Liberties called the District out for allowing willful segregation in our schools. She identified three methods used by white parents to cherry-pick schools which create a predominately white student body in schools of choice: the school selection process, voluntary transfers, and back-door “Friends of” group lobbying. She made three demands of the District: collect and analyze the demographic data of transfers (the SDP alleges they don’t track this information…?), convene a commission to make recommendations about segregated schools in the 2019/20 school year, and make a plan to desegregate the Northern Liberties schools. King encouraged those affected by this segregation to come forward and testify. Board Member McGinley questioned Dr. Hite on this issue and said that he shares this concern regarding some charter schools, so it is something that the District must address.
Three more District teachers/staff laid out for public view the repercussions of staggering caseloads that related service providers must juggle. Related service providers include psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech pathologists. It is safe to say that what these professionals described falls into the same category highlighted by Melville; that is, not just safety issues but racial justice issues. It is the poor schools serving communities of color that have these staggering workloads. There is no way these professionals can adequately do their jobs with what they described as “crisis mode” working conditions. Listening to the descriptions of what these professionals were expected to execute left one wondering how much the well-being of our children matters to those in charge.
District staff member Erica Darken advocated for increased dual-language programs to serve multi-language students. Board Member Fix-Lopez asked Hite how schools are chosen for dual-language program. Hite said the District was going to be looking at that and would like to include Darken in the the conversation. He made reference to a committee exploring this need, but no such committee can be found on the District’s website.
APPS member Cheri Micheau decried the District’s lack of engagement with the many speakers who came in the past few months to advocate for the needs of ELL students. These speakers spoke repeatedly, not only to highlight shortcomings and problems but to offer solutions and collaboration. Still, no one from the administration has made any effort to engage these dedicated community members nor to actually go into school buildings to get a first-hand picture of what they are talking about.
APPS co-founder Lisa Haver presented the Board with a picture of the countless boxes and binders of legal documents that were part of the 16-day Aspira Olney and Stetson revocation hearings. The paperwork was staggering. Yet at Board meetings, public documents are limited to those in the three binders in the back of the room–which bear a warning that the public cannot remove them. There are only cryptic descriptions of the official Action Items the Board will vote on (as it spends millions of taxpayer dollars). She asked again why this board cannot make these documents available to the public. The public has no easy access to see where or how money is spent nor any details about the Action Items on the agenda. This Board has also reversed the SRC’s practice of providing full descriptions of each item to be voted on, instead directing the public to review them on their smartphones or computers. This is a flagrant lack of transparency and a roadblock to public participation–which the Board claims to practice.
The bulk of Haver’s testimony concerned the Board’s continuation of the SRC’s practice of treating charter schools like “partners” (as Charter Schools Director referred to one at the last Student Achievement Committee meeting) or “clients”. They are not. The Board is the authorizer and needs to take a critical look at the financial and societal impact charter expansion has on the District. She asked the Board to discontinue the District’s practice of holding private negotiations with charter operators regarding amendments, renewal conditions, and other. Charters claim to be public schools, Haver said, thus all decisions and deliberations about them should be public and allow for public participation.
Haver reported that Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School applied for and received an enrollment increase last year and is back again this year for more…why? And why was this information not shared by CSO Director Christina Grant in her presentation to the Student Achievement Committee on April 11? Haver further noted that Laboratory Charter School is applying for a location change from three locations across the city to 3300 Henry Avenue in East Falls, where two charter schools, Eastern University (EU) and Hebrew Charter, are already in residence. Two years ago, the SRC voted non to renew EU; they have appealed to the state Charter Appeal Board. Are they really in a position to move? Hebrew Charter school is scheduled to open at this site in September. Will this site be a Charter Mega-Mall with all the accompanying traffic and congestion? When charters apply they claim to want to serve a specific community. That seems to have gone by the wayside once again.
Haver noted that Laboratory Charter School has a checkered past, including the indictment of their CEO for embezzlement of school funds. Lab was recommended for non-renewal two years ago, but the SRC postponed, then went into private negotiations with the school to keep it open.
Incredibly, this amendment also include a request for enrollment expansion. If they have barely been able to function, Haver asked, why would the Board allow them to recruit new students? The CSO recommended approval of the amendment despite the fact that their own report stated that Laboratory failed to reach out to the East Falls community. Families of Mifflin School, closest to this Henry Avenue location, found out through a random Facebook post made by an attendee of the Student Achievement Committee meeting just 2 weeks ago. (They managed to organize and show up to testify at this meeting.)
Haver’s testimony was supported by APPS members Lynda Rubin and Ilene Poses. All of these testimonies can be seen on the video posted on the Board page of the District website.
Superintendent Hite’s Remarks and Committee Reports
Hite’s remarks addressed general topics. He commented on: being reflective, kindergarten registration, college signing day, new web page, completing the district survey, the vote on metal detectors, and clarifying why there are Action Items on educating students outside the District due to complying with placement needs. In reference to the vote on metal detectors, Hite stated the goal was student safety and not to create a hostile environment. With that in mind, Hite said the District has engaged third-party vendors to develop plans and implement training to insure that correct protocols are instituted when students enter buildings.
Each of the four committees gave a report. (The APPS website has our report on each of the committee meetings and can be viewed at APPSPhilly.net.) The only new information from these reports is that the Community Engagement Committee will structure their meetings like the other committees. That means they will be scheduled for the Board meeting room on the first floor at 440 rather than at various community venues.
Speakers on April Action Items
President Wilkerson noted that the Board received a petition against Action Item 3 with 600 signatures. Four speakers were opposed to Action Item 3, the amendment request from Laboratory Charter School to relocate to 3300 Henry Avenue with a possible enrollment increase. APPS members Haver and Rubin raised an unsettling question: the Charter School Office (CSO) has indicated the need to address Charter School’s amendment requests yet the Charter School law specifically states that the CSO is not required to consider these requests but can do so at their discretion. Considering the lackluster academic performance, the financial and operational problems, the growing list of charter schools that refuse to sign contracts and accept recommended conditions, and the huge drain on the public school budget….why does the CSO and the Board entertain any of these amendment requests?
Two parents from Mifflin School spoke about Laboratory Charter’s request for relocation. They pointed out there was no community outreach and no information on how the traffic and congestion would be handled in an already busy corridor. They contended that the lack of community outreach had to be intentional. Both parents pointed out the questionable behavior of Lab Charter School and the negative impact on the East Falls community. They do not want to have to go through the same difficulties that families in East Mount Airy did when the SRC approved Ad Prima Charter’s move there–again, with no outreach to that community.
APPS member Deb Grill and teacher Kristin Luebbert both testified on Action Item 58, Contract with Relay Graduate School of Education for Principal and Instructional Coach professional development training. APPS has researched and testified on numerous occasions about the fly-by-night operation run by Relay. Grill referred to Relay as “the McDonald’s of education training”. Luebbert pointed out that principals do not need generic training but rather a targeted training that provides them with expertise in the areas they specifically need. In-house targeted PD is the best way to provide principals with the training they need.
Action Item 1: for review only – no vote.
Action Item 2: Unanimous approval.
Action Item 3: Lab Charter – After President Wilkerson acknowledged the many questions and concerns around this amendment request, Wayne Walker moved to postpone the vote indefinitely; the motion passed unanimously. For now, a neighborhood has received relief from a poorly thought out Charter School request.
Action Item 4: Unanimous approval.
Action Item 5: Passed 8-1; Fix Lopez voted No.
Action Items 6 thru 10: Passed 8-1; Egea-Hinton abstained.
Action Items 11 thru 15: Passed 8-1; Egea-Hinton abstained.
Action Items 15 thru 17: Unanimous approval.
Action Items 18 thru 21: Unanimous approval.
Action Items 22 thru 32: Unanimous approval, except for McColgan abstention on A. I. 27
Action Item 22 generated Board discussion. President Wilkerson voted No which prompted McIver to question her about it. Wilkerson explained that this Item related to spending money on capital projects and she was not satisfied that the minority hiring recommendations were to a sufficiently high standard. Hite was asked to provide information; he stated that the RFPs were approved because they met the “current” policy mandates on minority participation. However, there is a new policy drafted with higher standards but it has not been passed yet. Since this work needs to begin in the summer, the administration went ahead with contracts under the “current” policy mandates. After much confusion about what they could and could not do, the Board recessed with the lawyers to discuss how they could proceed. When the Board returned, they motioned and seconded the original Action Item and took the vote. It passed 7-2, with Julia Danzy and Joyce Wilkerson voting No.
The remaining Action Items in this block passed unanimously.
Action Items 33 thru 57:
On #44, Fix Lopez, McGinley, and Wilkerson abstained; passed 6-0.
On #45, McGinley and Wilkerson abstained; passed 7 to 0.
On #47, Egea-Hinton, Fix Lopez, and Huang abstained; passed 6-1.
The remaining Action Items in this block passed unanimously.
Action Item 58, Relay Graduate School: McGinley stated that he would be voting No on the Relay contract “because Relay is not a real graduate school of education”. Chief of Schools Shawn Bird was called to the table to answer questions about it. He stated that this Item was for the last group of principals to be trained. All principals were expected to do turnaround training in their buildings and all future training would be in-house. Board questions about Relays competency and legitimacy were answered by Bird as though Relay was like any other third-party vendor that the district might contract with to give training. He also noted that the original Relay contract was funded through a grant from Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).
This is another example of a private foundation pushing its self-serving and privatizing agenda on the District’s policy and practices. Bird’s response makes clear that every vendor the District contracts should be researched by the Board. Blindly accepting that the staff at 440 have adequately researched and vetted vendors can be an exercise in throwing money down the drain.
Action Item 58 was defeated 5-4; McGinley, Fix Lopez, Egea-Hinton, Danzy and McColgan voted No.
Speakers on General Topics
It was heartening to see the number speakers who stayed until the bitter end to deliver their testimony. Five teachers delivered comments about the crucial need for instituting a “leadership for consent culture” within our schools. They pointed out the lack of adequate dialogue or District support on this issue. The burgeoning Me Too climate has highlighted the pervasiveness of a lack of understanding around “consent”, and these educators were advocating to meet this need head on.
School Nurse Eileen Duffey testified on the danger of having decisions on best practices and policy, specifically on immunization compliance, taken from the medical professionals and made by a 440 administrator with no medical training. Duffey pointed out the dangers and lack of understanding that is inherent in top-down decisions made by administrators without the proper training.
A district educator from Comegys Elementary testified about the top-down decision to remove suspension in grades K through 2 while putting nothing in place to address the traumatic behavior of students who lack the ability to self-regulate. She highlighted the danger this unaddressed problem is to both students and staff. This is happening in schools across the city. The hardship of dealing with children who act out in violent and harmful ways (no doubt due to their own traumas) without support, help, or recourse is faced by educators daily. This too presents a challenge to teacher retention.
Finally, a group of parents and teachers, supported by additional community members who stood throughout their presentation, addressed the overcrowding problem in South Philly schools.They told the Board that families cannot wait any longer for the District to remedy this problem. This group of parents and educators will not wait quietly in the wings.
The meeting concluded with a convening of the Intermediate Unit and the unanimous approval of the eight Action Items on that list. The meeting adjourned just before 10 PM, a full five hours after it began. It was inspiring to see the dedication of those who waited to have their voices heard. This is what community engagement looks like.