by Lynda Rubin
Third Time’s the Charm For Catapult Inc. as Lawyers and Advocates Push Back on SRC Deal
The speeding train delivering a multi-million contract to yet another education vendor was temporarily halted, and eventually significantly scaled down, by parents and community members who had not been informed or consulted about this deal with the for-profit Catapult Learning, Inc. The Coalition of Special Education Advocates, comprised of over fifteen organizations including APPS and represented by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP) and the Education Law Center (ELC,) demanded to meet with district staff to discuss the possible segregation of special needs children and how that would violate federal law, among other issues. Members of City Council, including Helen Gym and Derek Green, also sent a letter to the district addressing their concerns about IU-7.
The original IU-7 resolution, posted just three days before the June 15 SRC meeting, called for an initial 3-year expenditure of $36,073,350, with a possible increase to a 5-year contract through June 2022 at a total cost of $54, 473, 350. No staff presentation had been given previously, nor was any placed on the June 15 agenda. PILCOP and ELC attorneys immediately contacted district officials. The resolution proposed a separate facility for students with various special needs, including a program for autistic students. Attorneys and advocates were alarmed that the Hite administration was planning to segregate these students, in violation of the long-standing Least Restrictive Environment federal law. Because of this public pressure, the SRC withdrew the resolution just before the meeting. However, Dr. Hite did address some of the issues raised about the resolution. His explanation was that the district needed a facility to serve the approximately 100 students who had been at Wordsworth, whose contract with the district was cancelled in October 2016 after a student died in a struggle with staffer which was ruled a homicide.
However, rather than make this public and reach out to special education advocates, educators and parents for a discussion of how to best plan for these students, the SRC (which also functions also as the Intermediary Unit #26 board – covering the Philadelphia district only) and the District, with as little notice as possible, began the process of creating a new IU program, also to become a future training facility, under the contract and direction of Catapult Learning, Inc. The plan was to incorporate a total of 200 students, not just the Wordsworth students but other special needs students to start in September, 2017, with an expansion to 600 students by June 2022. Eventually, the resolution was scaled down to a 3-year, $10 million contract with Catapult limited to the returning Wordsworth students.
Notable here is that the program was obviously not just in response to the need presented by returning Wordsworth, but was seen as an opportunity for more privatization of public school students at public expense. No explanation was ever given about why that $54 million had to paid to outsource services for special needs students rather than by experienced district teachers in public school facilities.
Notification, Lack Thereof – Why the Rush?
When Maura McInerney, staff attorney for the Education Law Center, wrote the first letter (June 14, 2017) on behalf of the Coalition to the SRC, she noted, “Despite our efforts, the only information we have obtained derives from a RFP [Request For Proposal] updated on the District’s website on June 8, 2017.” In the 8-page letter, she outlined the concerns – legal, educational, cost, timing and transparency – of the Coalition and urged the SRC and Superintendent Hite to deny approval of the contract.
The SRC had posted the original IU-7 resolution just three days before its expected vote at the June 15 SRC meeting. At the start of the meeting, Chair Wilkerson announced that they were “holding” the resolution. When Hite arrived at 6:10 pm, he stated that the delay was so the “…resolution could more clearly reflect what we are trying to do.” Confusion reigned initially over when that would be, when it was suddenly announced at the close of the Thursday, June 15th meeting, that the vote would be on Tuesday, June 20th at 2:00 pm, or in 5 calendar (2.5 business) days. A slightly amended version was posted on Monday, June 19—less than 24 hours before the meeting. Parents and others at the June 15 meeting were told they would be able to speak on IU-7 at the June 20 meeting and could sign up at the start of the meeting.
However, some advocates found out that the resolution had been withdrawn again just before the June 20 meeting. Parents who were on their way to speak at the meeting discovered upon arrival that not only would IU-7 not be voted on or discussed by the SRC, but that the SRC would not allow anyone to even speak on it in open testimony. The disregard shown by the SRC to the parents who traveled to the 11 AM meeting, some of whom took off from work, including one parent who walks with the assistance of a cane, is appalling.
It turns out that the only issue discussed and voted on at the June 20th meeting was the PFT contract ratified the night before. The IU-7 resolution, apparently, was meant to be an unannounced placeholder for this vote. (Under the law, the SRC has to publish notification of all meetings in a newspaper giving at least 24 hours’ notice which would have delayed the SRC contract vote to Wednesday, June 21.) So the SRC chose their own game plan even if it caused inconvenience and disruption to the lives of parents who came to speak. At least one parent of a special needs student who came to speak on IU-7 at both the June 15 and June 20 meetings was not able to return a third time on July 6. Commissioner Bill Green took the opportunity to speak against approving the contract, calling it “fiscally irresponsible”.
SRC Forced to Back Off IU-7, Substitutes Scaled-Down IU-1
The Coalition, in its follow-up letter on July 5, 2017 stated, “However, the revised Resolution still falls short of ensuring that Catapult Learning, Inc. [‘Catapult’] will provide students with low-incident disabilities a high-quality individualized educational program in the least restrictive environment. Moreover, the proposal fails to ensure full and fair notice to parents, and lacks safeguards to limit potential expansion. Accordingly, we continue to urge the Commission to reject former Resolution IU-7, unless further modified.”
The Coalition letter further noted that the SRC has not been compliant with its legally required mandate of “two weeks advanced notice to the public of any proposed Resolution” under the District’s legal settlement agreement with APPS of October 2016 filed after a pattern of violations against the PA Sunshine Act.
The SRC, however, passed unanimously the IU-1 version of this resolution without further modification.
An important omission is that the actual contract terms with Catapult were not offered for review. Shouldn’t the contract specifications, especially for a program which garnered so much concern and reaction, be available to the same public and read into the official record?
Serious Concerns About Both IU-7 and IU-1
Above all else, the primary objection is the choice of outsourcing this program to Catapult, a for-profit company, that relies on “housing” students through heavy use of computer time (up to 70% of the day according to Education Week) and the fact that other states are closing their “Catapult Academies” for lack of success. Its CEO Jeff Cohen has no education background.
According to the resolution, Catapult was simultaneously tasked to provide instruction to and meet the IEP needs for the K-12 students AND “to train Philadelphia staff to fully operate the program” AND “transition it to the IU…staffed by School District Personnel,” within 3 years. However lofty the stated expectations are, the resolution was silent as to how those would be accomplished. The expansion of the program seemed more for the benefit of Catapult and not based on student needs.
IU#26 (the Intermediary Unit which oversees special education program compliance for Philadelphia) exactly overlaps Philadelphia district and county, the only PA IU to do so. (Others in the state encompass multiple school districts). Therefore, we question why the resolution called for this program to become “…a model special education program for the Delaware Valley region.” Question: If IU#26 only encompasses Philadelphia, how does the program become a model for the “Delaware Valley region” and what financial benefit going forward will Catapult be given to that end on Philadelphia’s dime?
As APPS co-founder, Karel Kilimnik testified, “The Hite Administration has known of problems with Wordsworth Academy over the past several years with accusations of rape and sexual assaults documented in the media. When [the student] was murdered last October… It would have been a good time to sit down with parents, advocates, and teachers to work out a plan for meeting these students’ needs. Instead resolution IU7 pops up days before the June 15th SRC meeting with a sketchy description designed to send up to $54 million to Catapult Learning.”
APPS member Deb Grill testified, “Catapult … has acquired and merged with 5 different companies since 2010. As Catapult’s CEO Jeffrey Cohen explained, ‘…the investors in Catapult don’t make a profit until the company grows and get sold.’ I suspect that Catapult needs to polish its brand and expand into managing their own specialized schools to ensure its sale to a larger company in order to pay its investors.”
IU-1 still does not address how the district, through the management of Catapult, Inc., will meet the needs of these most vulnerable students.
Advocates Address District Suspension Practices
Several city and state legislators joined local advocates in protesting the increasing number of suspensions, especially in elementary schools, citing data about the harm done, especially to students of color not only by their missing school instruction, but by being “tagged” as disciplinary problems that follows them affecting future life choices and opportunities.
ELC attorney Yvelisse Pelotte testified that studies, even the School District’s own May 2017 report found that: 1) suspended students are more likely to struggle academically, repeat a grade or drop out, 2) African Americans are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, 3) African Americans are, on average, suspended for longer periods than their white peers for similar infractions, yet 4) African Americans are not more disposed to misbehave than white peers, but are disciplined in a racially biased rate. Ms Pelotte further testified to the difficulty she had obtaining this information from the District and with their continued disputing her data, even numbers provided by the district itself.
Pa. Rep. Morgan Cephus, Pa. Rep. Jordan Harris, and Julian Thompson, a staff member from the office of City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and former district staffer, spoke about how K-5 suspensions are applied discriminatorily, feed the school to prison pipeline and should be reserved for only the most serious offenses. State Rep. Cephus suggested that other in-school or diversionary programs be engaged.
Julian Terell, lead organizer for the Philadelphia Student Union, joined Ms. Pelotte in directly asking Supt. Hite to respond to their previous requests to meet with community organizations about disciplinary options. A speaker from One PA, a psychiatric nurse and parent of a previously problematic child, described his “silliness and acting out as children do” and her fight against suspensions for him. Her child has grown to be a successful student at the Academy at Palumbo High School.
Part of the problem, which APPS members have addressed at several SRC meetings, has been the removal of support staff including Non-Teaching Assistants (NTAs) over the past six years, who were able to talk to angry or stressed-out students and bring them back to the classroom, rather than have them suspended or even arrested. This has also resulted in the disappearance of programs such as time-out rooms which prevented students from being suspended. Sports, art and music programs have long been havens for students who need to succeed, especially those for whom academic success does not come easily and to give them self-esteem and outlets to give them balance—those are now in short supply.
Stripped down schools and classrooms, not to mention excessive testing, take the joy out of learning as well as a feeling of safety and security. It’s that much worse for children experiencing trauma from hunger, poverty and violence. These children are capable of success too, if properly supported.
Parents Ask for Consistent Information During Emergencies
Two parents from the Henry School in Mount Airy spoke about how unprepared the District was in supplying necessary and consistent information and support to the families of students and staff injured in the bus accident during a field trip to Washington, DC. Stephanie Clarke said, “No one can predict an accident, but we can control the actions of what to do next.” Robin Roberts spoke about how in the days and weeks after the accident, parents were not being given consistent information about how to get accident reports, retrieve personal property from the accident site, or how long students would have access to District counseling services. She noted that getting homebound teachers for injured children takes weeks which only adds to their isolation and loss of academic progress. These parents came with reasonable suggestions and acted out of concern for other families, but they were met with the usual stone-faced silence from the SRC. Ms Clarke was unceremoniously cut off when her three minutes were up. Commissioner McGinley, to his credit, addressed their concerns at the end of the meeting and invited them to attend a fall meeting of the Policy Committee that he chairs.
SRC Votes on Contracts, Resolutions
SRC 1 – Authorization of the Issuance and Sale of Tax and Revenue
Anticipation Notes of the School district of Philadelphia FY 2018
As explained by Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, this is an annual
motion to borrow money for those items for which revenue does not
come in until the end of the year and to temporarily cover unexpected
expenses. Monson said that the District received bids from seven banks, reflecting the increased financial stability of the District. PNC
matched the rates and terms of the most favorable bids; the total
estimated interest costs will be $6.4 million, under the $10 to $15
million budgeted for this.
SRC-2 Authorization of Keystone Opportunity Zone
Before the vote could be taken, Bill Green introduced a printed 2-page
amended resolution (with attachments) The resolution passed as
Resolution B-1- Operating Budget: $6,687,500 Contract with Philadelphia OIC –Alternative Education Program
This resolution adds $6.7 million to a resolution passed on April 27, 2017. The April resolution approved contracts with four separate providers for “alternative education” for a total of $145 million. Supt. Hite stated that this program will provide “…a direct connection to four employment certificates over a 4 year term. Year 1 will offer Hospitality and Banking and will be ready by fall… and have 100 students on a wait list.”
“…This resolution with Philadelphia OIC will remain budget neutral from the resolution approved on April 27, 2017; the District will contract with International Education and Community Initiatives, d/b/a One
Bright Ray for 675 seats instead of the 800 seats that were originally approved. This resolution seeks approval to contract with Philadelphia
OIC for the remaining 125 seats.”
Chair Wilkerson announced that the next SRC meeting will be on Thursday, August 17th at 4:30 pm. Commissioner McGinley announced that the next SRC Policy Committee will be held on Thursday, August 10, at 9:00 am.
Musings on SRC Practices
• Miles Shore became Interim Director of the Office of General Counsel in July 2016 after the resignation of Director Michael Davis. Is the SRC in the process of finding a permanent Director?
• The SRC is always respectful to elected city and state officials who come to testify and usually afford them (as they should) extra speaking time to finish their statements. Why can’t that same respect be shown to parents and community members? Why must they sit in stone-faced silence when the microphones are cut-off at the end of the 3 minutes? Henry School parent Stephanie Clark was politely offering reasonable suggestions to District officials so that parents whose children may be involved in an accident in the future would be better served. She should have been allowed to finish her thought, and the SRC should have acknowledged her suggestions.
• An interesting new procedure has suddenly been applied at the last few meetings to school district teachers/employees who have signed up to speak, identifying themselves as a Community Member. Without their knowledge or consent, they are listed on the speakers list as “District Staff” including the name of the school at which they work. Is Chair Wilkerson or Dr. Hite assigning someone in the Office of Family and Community Engagement the task of determining the employment status of every person who calls to get on the list, or cross-reference speakers’ names with District employee lists? Are principals then notified about their staff members’ activities outside of school? It is hard to see this as anything other than a deliberate act of intimidation against District professionals exercising their First Amendment rights.
• The SRC has increased its practice of pulling and adding resolutions at will and with only a few days’ notice. This is in violation of the Court agreement with APPS which clearly stipulates a two-week notification period for resolutions. The June 15 meeting listed over 140 resolutions, some posted just days before the meeting. Dr. Hite and the SRC know that the public must be given reasonable time to read and research the resolutions in order to be able to make informed comments.