Ears on the SRC – February 16, 2017

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by Diane Payne
February 25, 2017

Speaking Out for Public Education

All four appointed commissioners were present. The as-yet-to-be-PA Senate-confirmed Estelle Richman attended as a member of the public, as she did at the last meeting. Members of Youth United for Change (YUC) spoke in support of Kensington Health Sciences Academy and against any staff turnover that might occur as a result of being targeted as a Priority School. Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACT) supporters spoke in favor of SRC-7 which approved their application to expand.

Note: in place of a complete resolution, the SRC posted a comment that SRC-7 is a “quasi-judicial” resolution and that more information could be found on the Charter School Office page of the district website. It is a violation of the PA Sunshine Act for any governmental body to vote on any motion or resolution without posting publicly or reading it in its entirety at the meeting—and without giving the public an opportunity to speak on it. In a move that we would consider a possible falsification of the public record, the SRC posted a full resolution, which is NOT the one they voted on, two days AFTER the meeting.

Seven APPS members spoke at this meeting. The actions of the SRC continue to tear at the fabric of our PUBLIC education system through resolutions that are passed each month which give away schools, approves more charters, forces out staff, accepts grants with privatizing conditions, and continues to outsource district jobs. If we believe in public education as a cornerstone of our democracy, then confronting this Commission remains crucial.

Victory for Innocent Teacher!
The case of Marianne Kennedy’s unfounded child abuse allegation, the school district’s efforts to terminate her, the herculean effort of her lawyer and the solidarity of her school colleagues and APPS this week saw the end of a nightmare for this beloved teacher of 20 years. The actions of the Department of Human Services in labeling her a child-abuser, then scheduling a hearing six months later, were reprehensible. She was cleared of all charges and DHS has stated they will not appeal. DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa told the Inquirer: “We support the process and respect the outcome.”

It is hard to understand why the commissioner would support an unfair process that denies a citizen her Constitutional rights to due process and a speedy trial. The School District of Philadelphia was poised to terminate Marianne without conducting its own investigation, even ignoring several witness statements, including one from the school’s principal. Without the excellent defense presented by her lawyer, and the support and solidarity from APPS and her colleagues, Hite and the SRC would have terminated Marianne.

Although Marianne, her family and her school community are thrilled and relieved that this painful and damaging experience has ended for Marianne, the questions still remains: how was this allowed to happen?   Why did the SRC sully her good name by posting it in an SRC resolution for termination? Why she was denied due process? How can one DHS social worker, without a proper investigation, identify anyone as a child abuser?   This story should not fade from memory until all of these questions are answered by Dr. Hite, the SRC, and the Mayor.

Video Interference
For the past three years, APPS’ videographer has recorded all SRC meetings and posted the videos on our website. He stands in a small alcove against the wall near the front of the room, is respectful of his placement, and does not block any staff or speakers. No one has ever said that it was a problem for him to film there. At the February 8th meeting, however, he was ordered to move to the other side of the room—which is actually more crowded and noisy. No reason was given except that it was “too chaotic” for him to be where he always has been. Now, the visual recording is frequently blocked by the movement of people in front of the camera, and increased conversation in that area interferes with the audio. In the mistaken belief that he only had to move for that one meeting, he returned to his original spot at the February 16th meeting, only to be ordered again to the other side of the room.

The question looms large: why, if the SRC is a public body charged with the care of our public schools, do they continually make the public feel like they don’t belong and are not welcome?

Superintendent’s Remarks
Superintendent Hite announced that last week was School Counselors Week and asked for any counselors to stand and be acknowledged. There were a couple of counselors in the audience, but APPS since learned that the counselors were given little advance notice of this recognition, thus did not attend. He did not say when the full contingent of counselors would be returned, if ever, to district schools.

The bulk of Dr. Hite’s remarks centered on his eleven Priority Schools, whose fates he announced in a press release the day before. The SRC had approved a $200,000 contract with Cambridge Education, a consulting company whose home office is in Great Britian, to conduct a “quality review” of the eleven schools and to report on what the members of the school community thought the schools needed in order to improve. APPS’ members attended multiple meetings at six of the eleven schools and reviewed the Cambridge report. (APPS’ own review of this process can be found on the APPS website.) The $200,000 report prepared by Cambridge lacked substance and rigor, and presented no data to justify its conclusions. It seems to be little more than a document that could be used as a rationalization for the district’s original intentions. Hite did not say how the report informed his decision, nor did he explain how the report had any connection to his decision. APPS members did not hear any parent at any of the meetings we attended ask to be placed in the Turnaround Network. We heard only strong support for teachers and principals. Perhaps that is why Hite declined to mention that the staff at three schools—Blankenburg, Heston and John Marshall—are going to have to reapply for their jobs as they are now part of the Turnaround Network. When speakers asked why Hite was transferring the principal of Kensington Health Sciences Academy despite overwhelming community support for him, Hite said it was a “personnel matter” and would not answer.

YUC member Tianna Rogers protested the churn this process is causing and Hite’s failure to meet with the school community. Hite refused to commit to a meeting but offered others from administration to meet in his place.

We call upon Dr. Hite to share with the community any peer-reviewed, solid research that supports his assertion that the churn of turnarounds is a viable way of advancing school improvement. It is the assertion of APPS that the yearly parade of turnaround models is little more than a continuation of destabilization and inequity and a step towards privatization.

One Example of Turnaround Chaos: Kenderton Elementary School
Kenderton Elementary School parents returned once again to demand that Dr. Hite take action to restore order at the school. Three speakers expressed concerns about lack of academic and climate supports. Kenderton students, staff and parents have been the victims of almost two decades of turnaround half-measures from the school district. The school was turned over to Edison Company in 2000 and returned to the district a few years later. Three years ago, the district gave control of the school to Young Scholars as part of the Renaissance Program. Two years before the end of its five-year contract, Young Scholars, without warning, abandoned the school because it claimed it could not afford to educate the students with Special Needs. The district was unsuccessful in finding another charter operator; control of the school returned to the district—only 90 days before the beginning of the next school year. Is this an example of the success of the Renaissance Program? Hardly.

In October, the district replaced the principal appointed when Young Schools pulled out after numerous parent complaints. A veteran principal and district administrator, Victoria Pressley, took over, but the problems of safety and academics continue. This whole experience raises the red flags of concern about how this district operates. The SRC extended Dr. Hite’s contract even before it expired, citing what they considered to be an excellent record. His more than $300,000 dollar annual salary should be compensation for a job well done. Is Kenderton an example of a job well done?

Smith School’s Cry for Help
Smith Elementary School was one of the 23 schools closed by the district in 2013 as part of its “churn and burn” approach to school reform. Since that time, Point Breeze community members have been fighting to stop the sale of the building and to return it to its original purpose. Dr. Hite gives lip service to the idea that every neighborhood should have a good school. The Smith supporters have testified at several recent SRC meetings—will Dr. Hite support them in their efforts to provide a quality public education to the children of Point Breeze? Will their pleas to the SRC fall on deaf ears?

Money, Money, Money
Charity may be a feel-good way of paying for initiatives and programs in public education, but it is bad public policy. Keeping a close eye on who gives money and where it goes is a must, as this has usually been a vehicle for privatizing agendas. The Philadelphia School Partnership is one education reform group, funded by billionaires including Bill and Melinda Gates, whose mission has been the privatizing of public education through yearly charter expansion. Keeping an eye on where they are spending their money in our district is important.

This month, Resolution A-7 approved an $80,000 grant to Science Leadership Academy Middle School. Resolution A-8 accepts a grant of $1,409,621 from Drexel University for Promise of Strong Partnership for Education Reform. This grant is to support the federally funded Promise Neighborhood in West Philly. There is a lot of worrisome language in this resolution: school-based student consent process, compiling and managing a longitudinal database of academic records, providing the external-evaluator with necessary student and school level data for inclusion in grant-mandated reports, and K-12 reform to name some. These raise serious concerns about student and family privacy, including possible data mining. These are issues that APPS has raised in the past on other resolutions.

Resolution A-23 approves a $500,000 contract with CGI Technologies and Solution for the realignment of various services needed to change the school calendar to a start date before September 1. Was this cost considered before the SRC changed the school calendar? How is spending a half-million dollars on this a wise decision when schools are forced to survive on a bare-bones budget?

Charter School Renewals
Every month SRC observers wait to see whether the charter renewal resolutions, tabled since April 2016, will reappear. Not this month!  Aspira Olney and Stetson, along with Universal Vare and Audenried, are operating without renewals and despite the Charter School Office’s (CSO) serious concerns about finance, academics and management. It is not even on the agenda anymore. Mastery Clymer, Shoemaker, and Gratz have also vanished from the Resolution List. Their renewals appeared last April and have been MIA ever since. Does that matter? Not to the SRC.  Whatever is happening behind closed quasi-judicial doors…no one knows.

Also see:

Philly Announces fate of 11 schools slated for turnaround
Notebook – February 15, 2017