Ears on the Board of Education: February 27, 2020

by Diane Payne

Board Rejects Three New Charter Applications

When we organize and fight, we can win.  By unanimous vote, the Board rejected applications from High School of Health Sciences Charter and String Theory/Joan Myers Brown. APPS wrote an analysis of the applications and the forces behind them, after attending all hearings and researching the corporate and political connections behind them. The Kensington Health Sciences Academy–principal, teachers, parents and students–wrote commentaries and showed up at Board meetings to urge the District to support their neighborhood school rather than cripple it with charter competition.

APPS  attends and reports on every meeting conducted by the Board of Education, as we did with the School Reform Commission before it.  Often, APPS members provide the only public eyes and ears witnessing and reporting on decisions and spending that affect our city’s schools.  This month, the outsourcing to unaccredited institutions and corporate edu-vendors continues the policies and practices of the SRC. The Board awarded contracts to Teach for America and Relay Graduate School of Education (not accredited in this state) for teacher recruitment, and the DMG group for administrative consulting.  These edu-vendors maintain a deep connection to charter schools and corporate disruptors of public education. Either blind to or unconcerned about that connection, the Board approved a total expenditure of $2,651,000 for these Items alone. The Board postponed the Action Item allotting $2 million to the edu-vendor SchoolKit.

(Read the reports by the late Ken Derstine, a founding APPS member, on billionaire Eli Broad’s efforts to disrupt and dismantle public education:  Who is Eli Broad? & More on Broad in Philadelphia)

Present

President Joyce Wilkerson and Vice-President Wayne Walker; Board Members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Chris McGinley, Angela McIver, and student reps Doha Ibrahim and Imere Williams. Maria McColgan was absent; Angela McIver left after the Board votes on Action Items.

The Strawberry Mansion High School Choir performed for a delightful beginning to this meeting. Mansion was on the District’s hit list just a few years ago.  Passionate community members, supported by APPS, fought off the Hite administration’s backdoor efforts, and Mansion thrives more each year.

Minutes of the January Action Meeting were approved.

Chris McGinley introduced the CEO of PA School Board Association, Nathan Maines, who bestowed an advocacy award to Joyce Wilkerson from the Allwein Society for  outstanding leadership in public school legislative advocacy efforts. This award was created in 2011; Wilkerson is its 12th recipient. Congratulations to President Wilkerson.

District Counsel Chief Lynn Rauch read the required statement that the Board met in executive session to discuss “quasi-judicial” matters, personnel matters, and pending court cases.  A tragic reminder of the effects of the failures by the District and the SRC to keep staff and students safe was the Board’s approval of the settlement with former teacher Lea DiRusso, the long-time Philadelphia teacher who contracted mesothelioma after working for 30 years in two South Philadelphia schools. The effects of the 2012 and 2013 “Doomsday” budgets were not just austerity; the effects are proving to be lethal.  Shame on our PA elected officials for inflicting this shameful outcome on Philadelphia staff and students.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite’s remarks updated the Board and the public on environmental safety updates, including the vetting of site locations to be used for students in toxic schools who must be moved. Hite also announced the 2nd annual youth summit (this year on gun violence) and the kindergarten open house.  He encouraged families to explore Read Across America activities at neighborhood schools. Hite noted various literacy initiatives to promote early literacy but still fails to acknowledge the importance of school libraries staffed by Certified Teaching Librarians (CTL). Only six schools in the District have CTLs in functioning school libraries. Research supports the importance of school libraries staffed with CTLs in teaching reading, yet Hite has rung the death knell for this valuable resource and the Board shows no intention of reversing it.

( Hite’s entire report can be viewed on the SDP website by going to the BOE page and clicking on “watch previous board meeting.”)

Hite’s remarks were routine and checked off calendar events.  In light of the many questions and concerns raised by public testimony on the CSPR process, the corporate ties to Action Items, and McClure school staff compelled to work over their spring break, Hite’s remarks should have been more substantive.

Hite concluded his remarks with congratulations to school nurse Eileen Duffey Berndt for receiving the School Nurse Excellence award for the Southeast region.  This peer-nominated Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) award represents professional recognition and honor.  Duffey’s commitment to Philadelphia students has spanned 25 years. Many know her as one of the organizers of “Occupy 440” that led the long fight against the District’s layoff of 50 school nurses on December 23, 2011. For twenty-two weeks, the nurses rallied on the steps of 440 every Wednesday to protest this appalling disregard of both staff and student safety.  Duffy did not miss a single Wednesday, no matter the weather. It is estimated that the district lost about 100 school nurses by the end of that school year with attrition compounding the pink slips; leaving our students and staff in grave jeopardy. In addition, Duffy and fellow nurses continue the fight to maintain their professional authority in the face of non-medical 440 personnel making decisions outside of their expertise. That practice compromises the health and safety of students and the effectiveness and integrity of the nurses.  The students and families of the District have a fierce advocate in Nurse Duffy. Congratulations to Eileen Duffy Berndt on an award well deserved!

Committee Reports

Co-chair Leticia Egea-Hinton presented the Finance and Facilities Committee report.   She said that the Environmental Advisory Board has not yet been formed but confirmed that environmental information will be updated on the District website as quickly as possible. The Committee discussed  Action Item 25 that proposed a $4,027,575 expenditure for furniture as part of the classroom modernization efforts. At the committee meeting, Fix Lopez questioned the wisdom of continuing the classroom modernization efforts in light of the ongoing environmental crisis. She questioned the District’s capacity to address unforeseen environmental issues that may crop up. She also questioned if “data” supports an increase in literacy scores tied to classroom modernization. Fix Lopez advocated tabling the remodeling expenditure.

Co-chair McIver presented the Student Achievement Committee report.   McIver had Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks come to the mic to address questions about Action Item 45: Contract with Various Vendors – Professional Learning Support ($2,000,000).  In answer to Board questions, Brooks stated that the $2 million would pay for a one-time Professional Development initiative, including payment to District staff attending. Turnaround training would continue after this initial training.  However, when it came time for the vote and McGinley again questioned Brooks about how this $2 million would be spent, she then admitted that the entire expenditure was for SchoolKit and the materials they provide (no description or accounting of the materials) and that none of it would pay District staff.  After these contradictory statements, the Action Item was withdrawn by staff. Hopefully, honest answers will be forthcoming at the March Student Achievement Committee meeting. APPS members have raised objections to the Board about this expenditure. Karel Kilimnik included this analysis in her February 27, 2020 Eyes on the Board of Education:

APPS Analysis: SchoolKit epitomizes corporate education. Their website  offers business-like phrases with no specific information: “We help you manage organizational change to improve student outcomes. Together, we set data-driven goals, build stakeholder buy-in, and monitor progress.”  It is difficult to find any indication of knowledge of pedagogy behind promises of improvement. Of eleven Team Members, two have TFA connections and four worked for charter schools. Their partners include the Philadelphia School Partnership, a Brooklyn charter school, and Independence Mission Schools. Why is SchoolKit being offered a contract for professional development? What criteria were used?  How many turnaround trainings and building capacity of current staff needs to happen? There are already offices at 440 whose mission is to provide professional development. Is this administration saying their staff is not capable of doing this? Compare SchoolKit’s website with that of American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and there is a huge chasm. ACTFL presents concrete evidence of their Professional Development. They note specific services along with demonstrated understanding of pedagogy. Their website does not espouse lofty goals nor throw around catchy phrases as SchoolKit’s website does. Pedagogy is the underpinning they base their work on not trying to sell a product.

Policy Committee co-chair Joyce Wilkerson listed the policies to be considered by the Committee at its meeting scheduled for the following week.

Mallory Fix Lopez, co-chair of the District Partnerships and Community Engagement Committee, introduced this month’s Parent Advisory Committee representative. The speaker, Tony Rocco, represented Kensington and North Philadelphia.  As usual, no information about this speaker was included on the official Agenda. This failure to include the speaker’s name, region, and position is disrespectful to both the speaker and the audience. Mr. Rocco noted the concerns parents voiced about what is happening with the Aspira school closing, environmental issues, and the  opioid crisis.

In violation of the Board’s by-laws, the Community Engagement Committee has not had a public meeting since last year. The Parent and Community Advisory Council, in violation of the PA Sunshine Act, does not hold public meetings. As a sub-committee of the Board, the Council is required to post the dates and times of all meetings, along with an agenda, and to post Minutes. Having one parent or community member give a report of parent comments once a month does not fulfill the “Authorities and Responsibilities” of the Committee, which include, per the District website:

  • Meet quarterly during the school year;
  • Establish the Parent and Community Advisory Council, as outlined in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter;
  • Hold at least two public hearings each school year for the specific purpose of considering all school issues or school problems of public interest; and
  • Meet with community partners in various neighborhoods across the school district to discuss new and established partnerships that benefit students and schools.

Why are there no Committee meetings? Why is the name of the speaker not included in the agenda?  What happens to concerns, questions, and suggestions?

(All information from the committee meetings including videos, agendas, and powerpoints can be viewed on the Board of Education tab on the District website.)

Speakers on Action Items

Five members of APPS spoke in defense of Public Education.  All again requested the Board deny the two substandard Charter applications of High School for Health Sciences Leadership (HS2L) and Joan Myers Brown: A String Theory School (JMB).  APPS member Deb Grill reported on the generous Charter School CEO salaries and questioned what they actually do for these steep salaries. APPS co-founder Kilimnik reported on the influence of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) in the District decision making despite the dishonest practices discovered in the HS2L application.  PSP had infiltrated a neighborhood public high school (Kensington Health Sciences Academy) to glean information in preparation for the new HS2L application. This PSP-supported application also listed partner affiliations with a number of organizations, including the Local 1199C Training Fund and St. Christopher’s Hospital, that both the Charter Schools Office and APPS researchers found to be false.  APPS co-founder Lisa Haver also noted the diversion of public money into private pockets with each charter school expansion. Haver also stressed the need to cut ties with TFA, a substandard program that infuses the District with meagerly trained and all too frequently short-lived teaching staff. APPS member Zoe Rooney noted that equity is a word used by the district that rarely translates into District action.

Members of the McClure Elementary staff urged the Board not to approve last-minute changes in the District calendar that would have only their school open over Spring Break. Teachers spoke persuasively against forcing them to cancel trips and family celebrations planned long in advance, and pointed out that they did everything they could during that time to keep their students learning. (Note the irony of this kind of treatment of teachers even as the Hite administration pushes for more funding of recruitment and retention programs.) KHSA  staff spoke on the need to support their neighborhood school and not take resources away by allowing HS2L charter to open.

Both TFA and Relay Graduate School of Education had promoters speak about why they should continue partnering with the District.  As McGinley reminded the Board, Relay is “not a real graduate school of education.” Unfortunately, most of the other Board members ignored McGinley’s pre-vote statement on why the Board should not vote for another TFA contract.   Apparently these Board members have not heard or heeded the adage that you get what you pay for. In this case, you get newly hired staff members lacking a solid basis in education pedagogy. Instead, they are cursorily trained and may be all too willing to buy into a business model of teaching.  This is not the kind of foundation our District should want. Not to mention, retention is an issue with these hiring models.

Action Item Votes

Action Item 1:  no vote, for review only.

Block vote on Action Items 2, 4, 7-11, 17-44, 46, 47, 49-51: All passed. Wilkerson, Wayne, McGinley abstained on Item 10; Fix Lopez voted No on Item 25; Hinton abstained on Item 18.

Action Item 3: passed unanimously.

Action Items 12-14:  passed unanimously.

Action Item 15: passed 5-3, McGinley, Fix Lopez, Egea-Hinton dissenting. McGinley thanked the teachers and speakers supporting this item, but noted that this is not a rigorous course of study, it is a model supported by wealthy funders interested in privatization. McGinley went on to say that it is time to end the District’s relationship with TFA and urged his fellow Board members to vote No on this item.  McGinley has a lifetime of service in public education as both teacher and administrator. No other Board member has the breadth of public education experience that McGinley holds. Unfortunately, five Board members ignored McGinley’s information and request. (See McGinley’s full statement at the end of this report.)

Action Item 16:  passed 5-3. ( The Board voted unanimously to approve the expenditure as a whole.  They then voted on each of the four institutions separately. APPS had sent a letter last year notifying the Board that members could not legally abstain from certain parts of one Item; there could only be one vote for or against each Item.)  This item allotted a total of $637,500 in FY2021 to four institutions for teacher preparation: Drexel University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Drexel passed 7-1 with Huang abstaining; Temple passed 5-3 with Fix Lopez, McGinley, and Wilkerson abstaining; University of Pennsylvania passed 6-2 with Fix Lopez and Huang abstaining; Relay passed 7-1 with McGinley dissenting.

Action Item 5: Board voted 6-2 to deny the HS2L application; Huang and Wilkerson abstained.  Before casting his vote, McGinley urged local institutions of higher learning to exercise “greater discretion” in considering future requests for partnerships before supporting models they may not fully understand.

Action Item 6: Board voted 8-0 to deny the String Theory/JMB application. Wilkerson reiterated her reasons, including String Theory’s failure to meet financial and academic standards in its current District charters, saying that String Theory’s is “not a model that should be replicated”.  Egea-Hinton agreed that this was not a high quality application and that the city’s children deserved high quality.

Action Item 45: Withdrawn until District staff can answer the Board’s questions about exactly how this $2 million dollars would be spent.

Action Item 48: the Board voted 5-3 to reject the calendar change for five schools affected by environmental school closures.  Of the five schools, only McClure had to make up five days over the entire Spring Break. Walker noted the hardship this would cause. Walker had to insist that he be heard when Wilkerson attempted to cut him off and call the vote.   Wilkerson again tried to call the vote, but McIver interjected in opposition to Walker, stating that she experienced a similar loss of time and had to make it up over break when she was teaching. Again Wilkerson called the vote but Fix Lopez spoke up, saying that this is not fair treatment of teachers.  Again, Wilkerson tried to call the vote, but Danzy commented that this forced time will only result in nothing much happening academically on those days due to the circumstances.  When the vote was finally called it failed 3-5. McIver, Huang, and Wilkerson voted for the calendar changes.   The Administration will now have to figure out another way to make up that time.

The meeting adjourned, and the Board met as the Intermediate Unit briefly.

Statement by Board member Christopher McGinley on TFA:

I want to begin by thanking the teachers and administrators who have dedicated years of service to our children.  I know that there are dedicated teachers who have come to us through this model.  

While I respect your service greatly I do not respect the TFA organization, the model that it uses, or the alliances that the organization has with wealthy funders dedicated to undermining public education, undermining the rights of workers and driving for more and more privatization of public education.  

Teaching is a noble profession that requires a great deal of learning and preparation.  Students who become certified in PA are required to complete a rigorous course of study that requires more than 3000 hours of coursework. These hours include content course, the teaching of literacy, the teaching of math, courses in the sociology of the school and classroom, working with children with disabilities and supporting English language learners

Five weeks of summer workshop is an inadequate substitution.  We need the best prepared teachers to support our children.  Teachers who are ready to deliver from the very first day.  

Over the last five years TFA has been paid $500,000.  For that half million dollars they place 70 people with the school district.  Of that 70, 27 identify as people of color. Given the longevity rate that TFA people have with the district we could expect half of those twenty-seven teachers to be with us for five or more years.  

This is not a cost-effective investment.  

When the SRC was asked to approve the last contract with TFA we were told that this additional contract was needed because the Talent Office was continuing to add staff.  We are and have been fully staffed with 17 full-time recruiters in place working to ensure that we have a qualified and diverse workforce. The people that are recruited by this team are nearly as diverse as those placed through TFA. 

It is time to end our relationship with TFA and I see no justification for this expenditure.  I urge my colleagues on the board to vote against this action item.