Eyes on the Board of Education: May 28, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

For years, APPS members urged the SRC to take a more public role in advocating for Philadelphia’s public school students. We told them we would help fill the buses for any trip they organized to Harrisburg.  Unfortunately, to no avail.   We are happy to say that the Board of Education has stepped up to become vocal advocates for the students and families they have been entrusted to represent.  The Board has created a prominent “Fund Our Schools” page on its website.The website provides guidance in ten languages for contacting elected officials, including a template for letters. The message: We cannot repeat the devastation caused by the massive budget cuts of the past from which we have still not recovered. We cannot carry out the layoffs and elimination of necessary resources which will cause untold harm to our students. It will take a village to keep our District whole as the economic crisis unfolds.

Countries across the globe struggle to deal with the coronavirus. Unemployment soars as businesses fail. Tax revenue supporting our schools has declined, for example, the liquor-by-the-drink tax. But, as Councilmember Helen Gym reminded fellow Councilmembers and District officials during last week’s hearings on the City budget, “Austerity is a choice.”  City and District officials must work to find more revenue sources before talking about cutting educational and recreational services necessary for the well-being of our children. Collection of the city’s tax on unearned income has been inconsistent. Nonprofits must pay PILOTS. Real estate abatements must be phased out.  APPS reiterates our long-held position that the Board must end the renewal of substandard charters, many operated by CEOs making exorbitant salaries. The District cannot afford any more charter expansion. Nor can it afford the outsourcing of services, which often ends up costing, not saving, money. The Board has rejected new charter applications for two consecutive years, but we need a moratorium on new charter schools. The District closed 23 neighborhood schools in 2013 with the promise of saving $22 million, but we never saw proof of savings, particularly after relocation and moving costs. We should not allow any crisis to be the justification for the loss of more neighborhood schools.

Board members have made a point of acknowledging the work of teachers, staff, and community volunteers who have gone above and beyond during this crisis. The Board must include those people in all decisions during this crisis. The District should commit to genuine community engagement in mitigating the glaring inequities laid bare by this pandemic. This moment should be used to actively engage people, not simply tell them what is being done to them. Item 5 (Amendment of Grant Agreement with Drexel – Powel School) illustrates this inequity in accepting funding from Drexel University to pay for a staff position at a school Drexel has already had a great deal of influence over, including changes in location and grade structure. Does this latest gift from Drexel advance the equity upon which Dr. Hite’s Action Plan is built?

The District has struggled to provide resources for students and their families. Is outsourcing grief counseling– Item 33, MOU with Uplift Center for Grieving Children–the solution?  Were counselors asked what they needed to do their jobs providing support for students?  Does this Item foreshadow the reliance on outsourcing resources instead of building District staff?  Today’s generation of school students has not only witnessed mass school shootings but have had their lives turned upside down by a worldwide health and economic crisis. They should be able to speak to the counselors in their own schools, counselors who are part of the school community and who know the students and their families.

Many people believe that there are two school systems, public schools and charter schools. The fact is that every charter school is its own district with its own set of administrators. That is the most expensive way imaginable to run any city’s schools. Charter schools, whether stand-alone or Renaissance charters,  are funded with tax dollars, but charter laws allow for much less scrutiny about how those tax dollars are spent.  District-managed schools must meet certain criteria or be forced into some kind of disruptive turnaround, often with the loss of experienced faculty members; many have been closed, despite strong community efforts to save them. By contrast, substandard charter schools are regularly renewed by the Board. Some have “conditions” attached, but as then-SRC member Chris McGinley pointed out years ago, the District imposes no consequences for failing to meet those conditions. On the very rare occasions when the Board votes for non-renewal, that represents only the beginning of an expensive, years-long legal process, the outcome of which can then be nullified by the State Charter Appeal Board. This month’s  agenda contains two charter renewals. Despite repeated requests from APPS , the Board does not disclose the costs of charter renewals. Therefore, we calculate those costs, based on data from the current District budget. Renewals for Mastery Frederick Douglass (Item 38) and Russell Byers (39), will cost the District approximately $100 million over five years.

This year, charter schools are collecting additional funding through the commonwealth’s share of COVID-19 relief funding for schools in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act(CARES) Act.  As PA Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera explains, this money is Pennsylvania’s share of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund authorized by the CARES Act.

The state U S Department of Education report shows that Mastery Charter is collecting $512,421 for Frederick Douglass Mastery, one of its fourteen Philadelphia charter schools (Mastery also operates charters in Camden, NJ).  Russell Byers receives $501,116. Each charter school is its own Local Education Agency (LEA), and most have applied for the CARES funds as such. Fifteen Mastery Schools will receive grants ranging from $391,850 (Mastery Mann) to $1,041,714 (Mastery Gratz) while the District’s  share for its 214 schools is $116,528,467. Will the charter operators volunteer to subtract these amounts from their District’s allotment next year?

What If…

…the District committed to hiring more school counselors, reinstating Non-Teaching Assistants, and bringing back school-based Home School Coordinators to help students deal with the trauma of COVID-19? 

June Board of Education Action Meeting: Thursday June 25, 5 PM via Zoom. Check the Board website for updated information on how to sign up to testify and how public testimony will be presented during the remote meeting.

Action Items of Note   

The full Action Item Summary can be found at Meeting Materials – Board of Education

Action Item 5:  Amendment of Grant Agreement with Drexel – Powel School $ 136,800

Description: The Math Lead Teacher currently supports math achievement at Powel School by providing daily job embedded professional development for teachers. This includes leading grade team meetings to analyze student work and assessment data, understand standards, and anticipate student needs to plan for instruction. In addition, the Math Lead Teacher supports a caseload of teachers providing daily support through co-teaching, modeling and demonstrating best practices in math and providing training workshops. Finally, the Math Lead Teacher develops curricular resources to support instruction and assessments which are used to determine mastery of content, as well as groupings for instruction.

Over the past two years the Math Lead Teacher has helped Powel School to make significant academic gains of 8 and 12% in the percentage of students that score Proficient or Advanced on their Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Mathematics scores. This amendment will extend the current grant from Drexel to continue to fund the Math Lead Teacher position and related materials at Powel School during the 2020-2021 Academic Year.

APPS Analysis: Drexel has been underwriting costs for both Powel and SLA-MS, mostly via grants from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), since 2013.  PSP remains a major player in the systematic privatization of public education in Philadelphia. Their corporate fundraising has shifted decision-making about school funding from the public arena to their private boardroom. 

Is the Board’s role to rubber-stamp decisions made by the private boards of foundations and universities? Where is the equity in providing one school with a Math Lead Teacher and not others?  Are Powel students having more difficulty in Math than those in neighboring West Philadelphia schools? When a private entity determines which school gets  a grant to add more staff it only serves to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. With the looming economic disaster the District has to ensure that every school gets what it needs and not a select few. Every school should have a Math Lead Teacher.

Action Item 33:  Ratification of Memorandum of Understanding with Uplift Center for Grieving Children

Description: With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to distance learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, it is necessary to take steps that support students and their families during this difficult time. The School District of Philadelphia and Uplift Center for Grieving Children, a non-profit organization that has served the Philadelphia region for twenty years, seek to collaborate and provide additional mental health services during this closure and over the summer for District students and parents/guardians. The goal of this support would be to reduce isolation; increase the availability of mental health supports for children and parents; and address new issues related to the pandemic.

Uplift received a donation of $250,000 to provide this service.  The action item is for an in-kind contribution to be quickly provided to reduce the emotional distress and trauma children and family members are experiencing.  The District and Uplift propose to develop a locally-run support helpline for District youth and families who are struggling with the social and emotional impact of COVID-19 and other emotions triggered by isolation and lack of support. The helpline will be staffed by 13 Master’s level clinicians, with four licensed clinicians serving as clinical supervisors. The helpline will operate Monday-Friday from 12pm-9pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 12pm-4pm, with an answering service operating during off hours where messages can be left with a call-back to be placed on the next business day and a crisis number provided in case of emergency. Youth will be able to virtually attend free counseling sessions by phone or video chat with a clinician who is highly skilled in working with young people impacted by grief and trauma, and schedule regular sessions if they choose in order to solidify the connection with their clinician. Sessions will be available in both English and Spanish to increase access for all students. While Uplift will serve many needs through the helpline, there may be youth who would benefit from mental health services beyond the scope of this work.  When that is identified, Uplift clinicians will directly connect youth with the next level of care that may be necessary.

The School District of Philadelphia and Uplift Center for Grieving Children hope this project will serve as a replicable model for other school districts, cities, and towns looking to increase support to youth during the pandemic and during the hours when traditional staff may not be available. This innovative project will be a concrete way to connect with thousands of Philadelphia youth who are in need of many resources right now.  A ratification is requested as there is an urgent need during this pandemic to support the mental health needs of families, and it was important to begin this effort as soon as possible once funding has been secured and the provider ready to support our families.

APPS Analysis: Uplift Center for Grieving Children may provide a valuable service for students. We know that school counselors do. Counselors help students with personal issues, they work with students applying to colleges and other post-graduate programs, they consult on student IEPs. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250:1 ratio. The PFT contract mandates one counselor per school. School enrollments span from under 300 to over 3,000.  Counselors develop relationships with students based on trust built over time. As another budget crisis looms, laying off counselors will not be the answer, nor will hiring vendors or non-profits to replace them. The Board should commit now to hiring more counselors to work with students and their families. Neal Morton reports on counseling kids during the coronavirus and the enormous toll on students and counselors as they struggle to find their way:  “But now, as educators everywhere try to figure out how to do their jobs remotely, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the instability of relying on one counselor, or just a few, to guide hundreds of students through new academic hurdles, prepare them for an uncertain future and triage their mental health crises. ” 

Dr Hite notes that “many districts around the country have chosen to change the grading system to pass/fail for the remainder of the year, an approach that emphasizes that what’s important now is the maintenance of connection and the nurturing of relationships “so that [students] don’t feel lost. For me, that is success.”   Commiting to hiring more counselors as well as reinstating Non Teaching Assistants(NTA) would go a long way in advancing Dr Hite’s commitment to nurturing students.

Action Item  38: Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School – Application for Charter Renewal      (Pending – Added 5.7.20)

Description:  Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School applied for renewal of its charter in the 2019-20 school year. A renewal evaluation of this charter school was completed by the Charter Schools Office in 2019-20 and the latest Annual Charter Evaluation with renewal recommendation was completed in 2020. The CSO has recommended a five-year renewal, effective July 1, 2020. The renewal includes three school-specific conditions related to reductions in out-of-school suspension rates during the charter term for all students, for students with disabilities, and for second grade students. The Board of Education will consider this application for charter renewal.

APPS Analysis:  Approximate cost for the 5-year renewal contract: $45,997,045 ( annual allotment per District FY20 budget is $9,88,409).

Mastery assumed management of this school five years ago from the Young Scholars chain.  In that time, Dougass has failed to meet the basic Academic Standard. Despite that, the CSO recommends extension of Mastery’s contract. In September, the Board approved a blanket approval of 7 Mastery schools, with no Board member dissenting or raising the issue of academic failure in most of them. We expect the Board will do the same here. 

The Board should explain why the Charter Schools Office issued a passing mark in the 2019 Health and Safety section of the Renewal Evaluation: “School complies with applicable water quality requirements of the Pennsylvania Board of Health and the school posted its most recent water quality testing results on its publicly available website.”

Did no one on the Board read the Notebook story on how Mastery knew for years that the water was not safe? Does the brown water in the story look safe for children to drink?

Action Item 39: Russell Byers Charter School – Application for Charter Renewal 

Description:  Russell Byers Charter School applied for renewal of its charter in the 2019-20 school year. A renewal evaluation of this charter school was completed by the Charter Schools Office in 2019-20 and the latest Annual Charter Evaluation with renewal recommendation was completed in 2020 (ACE-R – Renewal Recommendation). The CSO has recommended a five-year renewal, effective July 1, 2020. The renewal does not include any school-specific conditions. The Board of Education will consider this application for charter renewal.

APPS: Approximate cost for this 5-year contract : $43,665,920 (based on present District yearly allotment of $8,737,184).  Russell Byers Charter School opened in 2001. The Charter Schools Office is recommending a five-year renewal free of conditions. The current Annual Charter Report (ACE) indicates that Byers enrolls no English Language Learners. The student body has 48% Economically Disadvantaged students compared to the  District’s  70%. The ACE shows Byers failing to meet standards in both Academics and Organizational Compliance. 

The eight Board of Education members are government officials overseeing a $3 billion dollar budget (the Mayor has not yet replaced Chris McGinley). How will the Board step up to ensure every school has what it needs to educate all students in the aftermath of the current crisis?  The Board has taken the important step of urging the community to send a message to state officials not to cut education spending, but the Board must reassess how it will spend precious dollars, particularly in light of CFO Uri Monson’s prediction of a large deficit.  The Renaissance Charter program, implemented by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in 2010 as part of her “Imagine 2014” initiative, furthered the privatization already begun under CEO Paul Vallas. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook asked at the time: “How will we know if a Renaissance School is succeeding?”

The District’s response: “Each Renaissance School will be required to meet annual targets for accelerating academic achievement and for improving school climate, student retention, promotion rates, parent and student satisfaction, and (for high schools) college readiness and graduation rates. The District says these targets will be made public and will be monitored. If the District determines that annual targets are not being met, the superintendent may replace the turnaround team or return the school to being a regular District school.” This has not come to fruition–not even close.  We now know that Renaissance charters, one of the most expensive initiatives in District history, has resulted in disruption for students, educators and communities. Despite the failure of private managers to effect the “dramatic change” promised in the Renaissance guidelines, only one Renaissance charter, Kenderton elementary, has been returned to the District, but not because of poor performance.  The Young  Schools charter company abruptly pulled out of Kenderton four years ago, claiming that it could not keep up with Special Education costs. 

A far better use of the hundreds of millions spent on this failing program would have been reinforcing staff and resources in the District’s neighborhood schools.  The Office of Restructured Schools (ORS) had been organized in 2001 to provide a District-run alternative to private Education Management Organization (EMOs) then running 46 District schools.  ORS operated from 2002-2005, putting extra resources into schools, including academic coaches, extra professional development, and mental health counselors able to do home visits.  Rand/Research for Action compared results of ORS schools with those of the EMO schools and found “student gains at ORS schools outpaced those in District schools or schools under outside management, especially in math.” 

The Board should return those additional resources to district run schools instead of funding substandard Renaissance Charter Schools. The “Approaching Standard” rating has little meaning–does the school meet the standard or not? If conditions are deemed necessary, who enforces them?  The Board withholds information about charter renewal agreements and conditions from the public until the Action Minutes are posted after the Board approves them. Charters can refuse to sign their contract if the terms are not agreeable to them, and the renewal postponed indefinitely until the CSO and the Board negotiates a settlement more amenable to the charter operators.  District-run schools do not have the luxury of being rated on an Approaches Standard scale. The District never extends such a deal to a district managed school, it is simply shuttered despite pleas from parents, students, school staff, and community members. When Chris McGinley made a motion last month at his last Action meeting to officially end the Renaissance Charter School Program, it was shut down by President Wilkerson, ironically, for Sunshine Act concerns.