Ears on the SRC: November 15, 2016

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by Diane Payne
November 29, 2016

Joyce Wilkerson made her first appearance after being sworn in by Mayor Kenney and appointed Chair by Governor Wolf.

Wilkerson, currently an administrator at Temple University, has a long history of public service; she served as Chief of Staff for Mayor John Street. We are hopeful that she will steer this commission toward more transparency, accountability, and democratic values. We also hope that she will actively engage with those advocating for stronger public education.

Superintendent’s Remarks
Dr. Hite’s addressed the following topics: Priority Schools; the reintroduction of the school TV station; gratitude for Office Depot’s support of Student and Teacher of the Month; announcing the first Middle College High School at Parkway Center City; and the ongoing support of the Cole and Heidi Hamels Foundation for W B Saul High School.

 Few Answers to Concerns about Priority Schools
At October’s SRC meeting, APPS member Diane Payne asked Dr. Hite about his plan to designate eleven struggling schools “Priority Schools”, thus targeting them for some type of turnaround: You stated in the October 10, 2016 Public School Notebook article that these schools were not performing “despite investments we have made” in them. What are the specific investments you made to support these struggling schools? And please define merging, managing on a contractual basis, and restarting with significant staff shifts?

Dr. Hite responded that those questions would be answered at the November SRC meeting when he would give a full presentation about these schools, but no answers were provided by Dr. Hite at this meeting. Payne again pressed Hite to identify the resources provided to those schools. His one example was a new dental lab at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. He didn’t explain how a dental lab would raise test scores in Math or Reading for all or most of the school’s students.

It is important that the public understand the district’s failure to make the necessary investments into these struggling neighborhood schools. We read these types of statements by Dr. Hite in the press, but often there is no perspective from the teachers and students trying to teach and learn under the “Doomsday Budget” passed by the SRC year after year.

Not one of the eleven “Priority” schools has a fully stocked, usable library with a full-time certified librarian. Significantly oversized classes, up to and beyond leveling, have been reported at several community meetings.  Reduction of class size is never even mentioned as a strategy. There was no revelation of whether nursing and counselor ratios equal the level of pre-doomsday budget.  Questionable metrics were used when, as in the case of KHSA, the CTE scores were not even considered.  And two months after Dr. Hite’s announcement, there are  still few details about any of the possible interventions – merging, managing on a contractual basis, or restarting with significant staff shifts. Several community members, at both school focus group meetings and the SRC meeting, have asked why the Hite administration chose to spend $200,000 to hire an outside company to gather basic information about the schools. Several have asked how that information will be used to determine the fate of these struggling schools. There were no answers to either question. The lack of transparency, and the resulting path of churn and disruption, continues. 

Another question: Dr. Hite’s $300,000 yearly contract was recently renewed by the SRC. Isn’t part of his job to communicate with the public? Vague, unsubstantiated statements made to the press validating his latest intervention method don’t cut it. Parents and community members want real answers to why the churn and disruption of our public schools never seems to end.

This Year’s (High School) Model
The announcement of the latest high school choice, Parkway Center City Middle College High School, again raises questions about the ever-changing priorities of the SRC and the Hite administration. Dr. Hite did not specify how much it would cost, or from where or whom funding would come; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in similar projects in other cities.

Dr. Hite gave little information on the nuts and bolts of this operation. Information describing the Middle High School concept, includes the following features: location close to or on a college campus, small enrollment, four to five-year graduation plan.  Dr. Hite didn’t elaborate on whether Parkway CCMHS would follow this model.  The web page on the district website didn’t include this information either.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Hite attempted to validate this initiative by claiming that it is “evidence based”.  It is important to listen to the language of education reformers, including Dr. Hite, in order to separate truth from spin. Without full disclosure about the specific evidence involved, this could be more smoke and mirrors. Russ Walsh, a noted college educator/blogger, provides a clear understanding of how this term can be co-opted by those with hidden agendas. He points out there is a distinction between research based and research. It is important to understand this distinction when deciding what is worth spending time and money on for our students.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent in the School District of Philadelphia
The ongoing saga of this19-year school district veteran teacher is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around.  A false accusation made to DHS has forced a beloved elementary teacher to fight for her position and her reputation. She has had to hire a lawyer to defend herself, even though she has never been formally charged. The district has initiated proceedings to dismiss her without any due process hearing or investigation. In fact, they refuse to consider written testimony from several witnesses, including the principal, that she did nothing to harm the child. In America, is one still not innocent until proven guilty?   It seems that for Philadelphia’s teachers, the district’s policy is now: First the execution, then the trial. Is this part of the Hite administration’s teacher retention efforts? After passionate testimony and overwhelming support from her school staff and several APPS members, the SRC voted to withdrew her name from the resolution—but only for one month. This teacher has had to endure this stress, heartache and humiliation since July because the district to whom she has dedicated herself for almost twenty years has decided that she is expendable and not worth defending against the irresponsible actions of an outside agency. No guarantee what December will bring.

The Disappearing, Reappearing Charter Renewal Resolutions
After seven months of postponements, there is no longer even a pretense of fairness or transparency in the SRC’s clear efforts to keep failing charter schools open in this district.  Since April 2016, the renewals of Universal Audenried, Universal Vare, Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson have been in limbo, despite the strong recommendation for non-renewal made by the SRC’s Charter School Office. The CSO cited numerous fiscal, managerial, and academic reasons for all of the schools in question. More shockingly, the SRC continues to allow Aspira, Inc. to manage district schools even after news that CEO Alredo Calderon settled a $300,000 sexual harassment suit.

The SRC has used every trick in the book to delay these votes: abstention, postponement, failure to second the motion, and withdrawal of the motions just prior to the meeting. This month, they just didn’t post them—with no explanation of whether they would appear next month. In spite of failing the students and the community, in spite of the CSO’s clear recommendation, the SRC does not do its most basic and important job and take care of the people’s business!

In addition, Mastery Clymer, Mastery Shoemaker, and Mastery Gratz have been placed on the resolution list for seven months—only to be withdrawn every time.  A November NewsWorks story by Avi-Wolfman Arent questioned the hype around Mastery schools, considering their plummeting test scores.

The School District website says: Through the (Renaissance Charter) initiative, neighborhood schools with long-term academic and climate challenges are transformed under the leadership of a charter school team that is experienced with successfully turning around low-performing schools. 

 Is Mastery, apparently trying to create its own district, now too big to fail?

Democracy in Action
To view the SRC testimony given by APPS members and other community members who advocate for pubic education, a foundation upon which democracy is built, go to the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools website.

Next SRC meeting: December 15, 4:30 p.m. in the 2nd floor auditorium of 440 N. Broad Street.  In order to speak at an upcoming SRC meeting, you must register no later than 4:30 the day preceding the meeting. Call 215-400-4180.