by Diane Payne
The Board set the tone for this remote Action Meeting by imposing more undemocratic, punitive measures on the defenders of public education. Disenfranchisement was carried out in a number of ways, all decided in secret. The Board, for the first time in District history, cut every speaker’s time from three minutes to two, and they limited the total number of speakers. In addition, the deadline for submitting written testimony went from 24 to 48 hours before the meeting. Violating not only the trust of the public but its own by-laws and the PA Sunshine Act, the Board amended an official policy without a public vote. Thus, when Dr. Hite called a press conference on Wednesday to announce his latest reopening plan, parents, teachers, students and principals had no chance to voice their opposition. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had been warning against the still unsafe conditions of school buildings, but the Board made sure that neither they nor the public would hear about them. The Board is taking advantage of a public health crisis to shut the public out even more.
The Board continued its punishment by subjecting the public to hours of verbosity camouflaged as action, topped off with another round of self-congratulation. It is disheartening to witness the hustle the Board perpetuates in addressing student achievement. With the passage of Item One, the Board implemented its alliterative Goals and Guardrails (G&G) campaign. How can Board members be so deaf to the actual needs of students and educators, expressed month after month in public testimony? G&G’s color-coded boxes bury issues in charts, graphs, education jargon, and interventions. Their own education experts–the teachers and staff of the District–entreat the Board month after month to be heard. Our city’s children have had countless “plans” imposed on them, year after year, in this administration alone.
All members of the Board including the two student representatives attended. Board Member Maria McColgan’s technical difficulties resulted in her being heard but not seen, and Lee Huang’s audio was not fully functioning.
Board President Endorses Hite Reopening Plan
Board President Joyce Wilkerson reminded the public of the Board’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in the first week of Black History Month. She gave her blessing to Superintendent Hite’s hybrid reopening plan, announced just the day before. Wilkerson announced that applications for the Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC) and the two student representative positions for the next school year can be found on the Board’s website.
Many Unanswered Questions About Hite Reopening Plan
Hite began his remarks praising the efforts of those who participated in the Martin Luther King Day of Service. History shows, however, that Dr. King did not preach about service or volunteerism. He organized political action against the unjust systems that oppress so many people. Should Dr. Hite be encouraging our students, staff, and families to provide docile service or should he encourage them to organize for collective action against a system of unequal public education? Hite then presented a brief picture of the imminent hybrid reopening for pre-kindergarten, Kindergarten, first and second graders. Staff will return on February 8th, students on February 23. Hite’s plan will be implemented based on the family surveys filled out last November: ⅓ of the families indicated in-person hybrid, ⅓ fully remote, and ⅓ failed to respond at all, automatically placing them in the fully remote group. Hite assured the Board that all building spaces will have safety “clearances” for occupancy, but no Board member asked whether the District or an outside agency would rate room and building safety. Spaces not meeting safety criteria will be taken off-line and not used in any capacity. Hite then promised to install fans in rooms with ventilation shortcomings. He described these fans as being superior to those found at any hardware store as these fans will have gauges that measure the necessary information to assure healthy air flow. No Board member asked how the special fans measure air flow. Hite said that the District will administer random monthly screenings, presumably temperature checks; any individual with symptoms will receive an immediate COVID test. District Chief of Operations Reggie McNeil, who had presented updates on these issues at now defunct committee meetings, was not called up by the Board to give a detailed report on building readiness or ventilation status.
Board members then took turns thanking Hite and endorsing his reopening plan. Only Angela McIver dissented. McIver objected to bringing children and adults into buildings while infections and death rates soar, new strains of the virus spread, and communities run out of hospital space. McIver declared that she would be voting “No” on the reopening plan, only to be reminded by an amused Wilkerson that there would be no vote. The Board had approved Hite’s plan months ago. The Hite administration failed to ensure safe building conditions prior to the pandemic. Hite withheld information from the Board and community about asbestos, lead, and mold in school buildings. One District teacher, now dying from mesothelioma, contracted the disease by cleaning up “white dust” every day in her classroom that no one told her was actually asbestos. How can we possibly believe in Hite’s reopening plan or trust him with the health and safety of our students and staff in the middle of a raging and ever-mutating pandemic? How many grandparents and extended family members living in the same household will catch the virus from asymptomatic children?
As a result of the District’s move toward a deregulated system of citywide school choice and charter schools, and a shift away from strong neighborhood schools, our students are bused all over the city. (We need to hold a conversation, soon, about how these policies affect climate change.) The Board did not ask about how many students would be riding buses to school and the additional COVID risk there.
The PA Department of Educations (PDE) website offers three categories for back-to-school guidance: low, moderate, substantial. Any county listed in the “substantial” category is recommended for fully remote learning. Philadelphia’s “substantial” rating places it in fully remote. Are Board members not familiar with the state’s recommendations? Or do they think that Philadelphia’s infection rates will inexplicably plummet, moving down to “moderate” in just one week? Hite did not mention, nor did any Board member ask about, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding a safe reopening signed by the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) last fall. Hite made a reference to “our labor partners” but did not report on the letter sent by PFT President Jerry Jordan expressing grave concerns about sending students and staff back into buildings.
Many observers expected the Board to ask for a presentation from Jerry Roseman. Roseman has worked as an environmental expert with the PFT for many years. From his website: “ Jerry A. Roseman, M.Sc.I.H. is the Director of Environmental Science and Occupational Safety and Health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund & Union and a Technical Environmental Science Advisor-Consultant to the American Federation of Teachers Department of Health, Safety & Well-Being. He has more than 35 years of site inspection, evaluation and assessment experience and has worked with the Division of Epidemiology and Disease Control for the NJ Dept. of Health, and in the conduct of NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluations. Jerry has conducted hundreds of training programs, worked on projects with the City of Philadelphia and the US CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and, on the development of a number of joint Indoor Environmental Quality [IEQ] programs and projects with the School District of Philadelphia.” Roseman knows the environmental state of the District’s buildings well. Did Hite provide the Board with Roseman’s assessment of the reopening plan? No, nor did the Board ask for it.
Hite noted that school nurses and staff at the regional sites have been vaccinated. There is no timeline for vaccinating teachers, though, in large part due to botched vaccine rollouts at both the federal and city levels. Still, Hite told the media that the lack of staff vaccinations was not reason enough to postpone reopening. No Board member asked whether administrative staff would be returning to 440 when school buildings reopen. President Wilkerson made no announcement of a Board return to in-person meetings.
Those disproportionately affected by death and severe COVID symptoms are the economically struggling communities of color. Hite and the Board are playing with people’s lives. Everyone agrees remote learning is not the ideal learning venue–but isn’t death worse? The one question no one had the courage to ask: What is the acceptable level of infection and death of the District’s children and adults?
Hite’s subsequent remarks on the Equity Coalition being open to all, and his support for Black History Month, rang hollow in the face of his reckless reopening plan
“Goals and Guardrails” Go Off The Rails
This part of the meeting–the first presentation of the Board’s Goals and Guardrails–almost defies description. Goals and Guardrails (G&G) is a complex data analysis system set up by the Board to affect student achievement “outcomes”. The presentation was interminable and confusing, a private conversation taking place in public with little consideration of public comprehension. For years, public school supporters have endured the implementation of new and improved plans to “turn around” the schools with each new administration. The hallmark of those plans, and the Goals and Guardrails, is the dearth of substance, resources, reliance on peer reviewed research, or engagement of the experts and advocates in their school communities. What we see again is an unwieldy document full of deadlines, charts, jargon, and percentage goals seemingly taken from the air.
The Board again touted its community engagement in formulating the G&G, but actually there was no widespread involvement of District stakeholders. According to Wilkerson, the Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC), whose members are appointed by the Board itself, met with the Board to discuss G&G in the planning phase. Wilkerson had said at previous Board meetings that “the public” was invited to meetings during the two-year formulation of the G&G. But she told members of City Council at a January 21st public meeting that an invitation was extended to PCAC members to invite additional community members to a follow-up meeting. Turns out that the “public” Wilkerson was referring to included few people beyond those appointed by them to serve on their subcommittee. Where can the public see the results of these meetings? Why were they not publicly posted? Who attended? Wilkerson also claimed that staff and students were consulted on the G&G. The only known forums were a student town hall in November 2020 and a staff town hall in December 2020. The Board voted to adopt G&G at its December meeting. The document had to be in the final edit phase, if not complete, by the November and December town halls. It is hard to imagine that the students and staff of the District endorsed this color-coded data collection system.
One unadvertised outcome of the G&G is the restructuring of the Action Meetings so that the Board hears itself more and the public less. The agenda will devote an extended portion of the beginning of each meeting toward dissecting and analyzing one of the Goals. For over two hours, the Board analyzed just one goal for Reading. The Board pored over charts of off-track, near-track, and on-track data in a seemingly unending conversation that had little basis in real kids and real actions. The unasked question: why has Hite been retained for eight years and paid $311,000/year while student achievement has diminished? Hite responded to some questions by saying we have to figure out why some schools have a teacher retention problem, that housing insecurity affects achievement, and a number of other factors. Except a failure of leadership–that didn’t come up as one of the reasons.
Educators know what prohibits student achievement: top-down directives without staff buy-in; shuttered school libraries and the extinction of certified school librarians; oversized classes; insufficient counselors, NTAs, classroom aides; days and days of standardized testing and the test-prep it necessitates; incessant paperwork that serves to fill in the data-collection boxes while depleting teacher time better spent on helping students; trivial directives from autocratic school leaders. We don’t need more plans, more charts, or more labels to help students. We need action not words. We need resources not jargon.
More Public Disenfranchisement
One of the unadvertised outcomes from the new G&G implementation emerged as the meeting went on: the replacement of time for community engagement with time for in-house data analysis. This School Board is the body which governs the public school system, overseeing a $3.2 billion budget and making decisions about the health, safety, and education of our children. Without prior notification or explanation, the Board amended its official public speaker policy by cutting each speaker’s time from three minutes to two and capping student speakers at ten and others at 30. This just months after President Wilkerson warned that speakers who veered from their designated topic would have their mic cut off. Americans are fighting to save our democratic rights after the past four years–do we need our local school board moving toward autocracy? APPS members will fight until the Board reverses these changes. We ask that you join our fight by writing to the Board; to Mayor Kenney, who appoints Board members; and to members of City Council, who now have more control over the Board. Parent activist Stephanie King, in an Inquirer op-ed published the day after the meeting, told the Board that if they don’t want to hear from the people, they should resign.
Speakers Protest New Rules
Three student speakers registered; two spoke. One student speaker apologized for her hesitation; she was clearly nervous. That didn’t stop them from cutting her off when the clock hit the 2-minute mark. Is this the Board’s way of encouraging student voices? The 30-person limit was reached for regular speakers. Speaker registration opens at 5:00 pm the Monday before the Thursday Board meeting and closes at 5:00 pm the day before. No one knows at what point the limit was reached or how many speakers were denied their right to speak; we do know that no one was able to sign up after the reopening plan was unveiled. Seven speakers were no longer on the line when their turn came about three hours into the meeting. Many speakers called out the Board for the regressive speaker changes, for going along with the unsafe Hite reopening plan, for the convoluted and mind-numbing G&G, and for spending on wasteful Action Items. APPS’ and advocates’ remarks can be viewed on the APPS website.
Board Spends Little on Improving Student Achievement
Action Item 17: “withdrawn by staff” prior to meeting.
Action Items 5 through 8: passed unanimously.
Action Item 16, Contract with PBIS Motivatings Systems, for $300,000: The contract covers the cost for about twenty schools; more may apply later. This Item garnered criticism from several speakers who urged rejection, generating some discussion among Board members. Speakers questioned the wisdom of spending $300,000 on “positive behavior” techniques that can easily be formulated by most individuals. Several pointed out the underlying racism built into a system of extrinsic motivation to control behavior, as opposed to encouraging intrinsic motivation. As Board members questioned Superintendent Hite about this expenditure, the emerging reality raised even more red flags. Apparently a number of schools are already using Title One funds to purchase these contracts. With this Item, the District was looking to streamline its purchasing power. Understanding the underlying racism in these reward systems without understanding how to structure schools and classrooms to support all students in their behavior and learning is a goal still just beyond reach. Despite the concerns raised about the cost and the issues of equity, the Board passed this item unanimously.
Action Item 20, Amy Northwest Middle School playground, $250,000: Board members discussed playground equity as they had in previous meetings. Fix Lopez pointed out the inequities of the playground rebuilds. Fix Lopez said that it is unclear how priorities for playground needs are established and carried out. She said the Administration must do more to fully vet and inform the Board of playground projects. The Item passed 4-2, Fix Lopez and McIver dissenting.
Action Item 21, playground upgrades at Lowell Elementary, $250,000: Fix Lopez argued that the Board was given inaccurate information in the original Item presentation. She reported that her Google Earth search revealed that there is no existing playground to make improvements to. Fix Lopez told Hite that he must give accurate information and it should not be incumbent on individual Board members to rely on Google to find the information his administration should provide. The Item passed unanimously.
Action Items 1, 9-15, 18, 19, 22: passed unanimously.
Action Item 4: passed 5-0, with Fix Lopez and Huang abstaining.
The meeting adjourned at 9:38 PM after 4 ½ hours.