Eyes on the Board of Education:  September 23, 2021

by Karel Kilimnik

“There’s a tremendous gap between public opinion and public policy.”

Noam Chomsky

The rapid spread of the Covid Delta variant,  with a large part of the population still un-vaccinated,  has resulted in rising hospitalizations and deaths once again. Philadelphia schools have opened with mask requirements, some Covid student testing, and a soon to be implemented vaccination requirement for school staff. Last April, the District issued a press release to announce the launching of “a new COVID-19 dashboard, providing the latest information on confirmed positive cases in our schools”. Dr Hite said,  “We understand that having access to real-time information about COVID positivity rates in our schools is important for our families and community, and we are happy to provide this new tool.” 

But like many items on the District website, it is not easy to find. The District should post it on its homepage.  

Presently there is a banner stating,  “Only staff data are available;data on student tests and cases are forthcoming ”. The failure to provide accurate information simply illustrates the District’s overall lack of preparedness for the return of in-person learning. This administration had months in which to get ready for the return of school staff and students and yet all we have seen is a breakdown in systems from staffing to removing asbestos. The leadership is Missing In Action with no one holding the superintendent accountable for this failure–not the Mayor, City Council or the Board of Education.

The start of school in September should have been a celebration for students and families who had been away for so long, Instead they were met with chaos on many fronts: a notification that schools would start late sent to parents at 8:48 AM–after they had already navigated toxic flood waters;  trash piled in schoolyards; buses showing up late or not all; ongoing asbestos removal.  Parents were already dealing with an incomprehensible bell schedule that had high schoolers coming as early as 7:30 and elementary schools with first bells as late as 9 AM.  Does this administration ever consider the needs of working parents? The District held “town halls” about the new bell schedule that did not include any public participation–after the new schedule was announced. The Hite administration still fails to include parents in decision making despite all their claims to the contrary. 

West Chester professor  David I Backer documents the revolving door of staff in the Office of Facilities Management & Services, noting the top-ranking staff listed on the District website are actually employed elsewhere. Given Dr. Backer’s findings concerning project management, it is difficult to reconcile that with the assertion in Item 13 (Capital Award for Edmonds, F.S., Sullivan, Pierce, TM, Girl’s High School – Various Vendors $42,561,141)  that “the District design, construction, and project management teams have developed a site specific construction phasing plan in collaboration with principals and contractors for the site improvements. This plan ensures adequate time and sufficient swing space has been identified for the safety of students and staff. The work will be monitored daily by an inspector, project manager and construction manager to ensure the contractors meet the established budget and schedule.” With the Climate Crisis deeply impacting all of us (as witnessed by the recent devastation of Hurricane Ida),  it is encouraging to see the new Peirce school going for LEED certification. This eco-friendly building and construction should be embedded within any new construction project as well as ongoing repair work.

Experienced educators know that the heart of a school library is a Certified Teacher Librarian. Unfortunately, even in this brand new Northeast school, the Hite administration plans to use part-time, untrained and volunteer staff as shown in Item 6 (Donation from the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia) to help pay for seating and a diverse collection of books, partial elements of a school library.

Dr. Barbara Klock has been the District Medical Director for about eighteen months. Item 16 proposes a $300,000 contract for her consulting business, “Dr Klock Talks”. It is unclear whether this amount pays only Dr. Klock or whether she is bringing in additional staff to cover the long list of services.  Item 4 (Acceptance of Donation from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for Licenses to Access the Unique Learning Systems (ULS) and News 2 You (N2Y) Online Intervention Programs and MOU with N2Y LCC for the Provision of These Online Services ($264,000)  raises the question of what limited education funds should cover for  students with special needs. 

Charter Schools are held to a different standard than district-run schools when it comes to renewal or closure. Tech Freire Charter School (24 Renewal of Charter – TECH Freire Charter School) seeks a five year renewal that would cost the District over $37 million.

What If….parents and teachers had a seat at the decision making table instead of being held at arm’s length with surveys and Town Halls that allow no discussion? 

Action Items of Note

Find the full List of Action Items here

Special Ed Students Need More Support Staff, Not Online Programs 

Action Item  4: Acceptance of Donation from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for Licenses to Access the Unique Learning Systems (ULS) and News 2 You (N2Y) Online Intervention Programs and MOU with N2Y LCC for the Provision of These Online Services ($264,000)

District Description: PDE, through the Bureau of Special Education (BSE), vetted, recommended and approved the N2Y LLC online computer software programs ULS and N2Y as highly effective online educational interventions for students with MDS (Multiple Disabilities Support), AS (Autistic Support) and LSS (Life Skills Support). ULS and N2Y are research-based student special education intervention programs. PDE agreed to pay N2Y LLC directly for up to 500 licenses for District teachers and students to register online and use the ULS and N2Y programs.  Why is this contract needed?  The ULS and N2Y software programs directly address the unique learning needs of students with complex needs in grades K-12. These online programs empower students receiving Multiple Disabilities Support,  Autistic Support and Life Skills Support to access the general education curriculum through high-interest, differentiated, and standard-aligned instructional content. The ULS and N2Y programs cover core academic areas focusing on literacy, math, social studies, and transition. The programs are designed to develop individual student benchmarks and learning profiles based on assessment results and student educational needs. Individualized lessons are created to meet the unique academic, transition, and social/emotional needs of each student. Students who regularly participate in this program with fidelity are expected to improve their academic skills. This programming dovetails with the recently approved supplemental online adaptive programming which is vital to reaching the Board Goals and Leading Indicators towards achievement for all students. By supporting students with complex instructional needs to access the general education curriculum through the N2Y LLC online intervention programs, students will graduate better prepared for college and career.  

The online programs have built-in assessment and data gathering tools designed to determine student instructional levels and monitor student progress. Reports are generated that establish student benchmarks, academic goals, tasks completed, and that monitor student progress and growth.  The Office of Specialized Services Administrators will meet each month with the N2Y LLC customer success advocate team to develop and implement student educational plans, review program usage and access student academic data.

PDE researched and vetted the ULS and N2Y intervention programs and recommended them to Pennsylvania school districts as highly effective instructional tools for students with complex learning needs.

APPS Analysis: After 18 months of virtual learning, clearly these  MDS (Multiple Disabilities Support), AS (Autistic Support) and LSS (Life Skills Support)students would be better served with smaller class size and increasing specialized staff to support students face to face instead of more computer based interventions.  Buying software programs is simply a less expensive, but inadequate, way to deal with students’ needs. 

Board Should Make District Funding Decisions, Not Private Charities

Action Item 5: Acceptance of Donation from The Fund for The School District of Philadelphia ($142,500)

Justification of Donation: After 18 months of remote or hybrid learning for students, the School District of Philadelphia committed to a full return to in-person learning five days a week for all students for the 2021-2022 school year. The Communications Team developed a back-to-school campaign that builds confidence, trust and excitement for a full return to in-person learning by engaging with students and families where they are, leveraging new tactics to break through and authentically connect, and partnering with trusted Philly-based organizations to make the safe return to in-person learning an equitable opportunity for all of the students we serve. This aligns with Guardrail 3: Partnering with Parents/Family Members. A foundational component of the campaign was a Back-to-School Bus Tour that brings the critical information and services that our students and families need to prepare for a successful return to in-person learning 5-days a week right into their neighborhoods. Two advertising-wrapped school buses with Street Team Ambassadors traveled across Philly, Mondays though Fridays, August 9-27, 2021, creating 31 pop up events where key services and information are offered such as:

required immunizations (at select sites)

BTS checklists and other info shared and questions answered

Prek-12 registration     

Parent Portal account registration

PHL ConnectED information

free backpack, school supplies and other giveaways

Tour stops included select Brown’s ShopRite locations, neighborhood parks, city rec centers, select schools, key city events and other sites where large groups convene.

The donation from Independence Blue Cross was processed through The Fund for The School District of Philadelphia.

Description: This donation will be used to off-set a portion of the costs related to the Back to School marketing campaign for the 2021-2022 school year.

APPS Analysis: The District’s description celebrates its own communications team “that  developed a back-to-school campaign that builds confidence, trust and excitement for a full return to in-person learning by engaging with students and families..” Was a representative from the Philadelphia Home and School Council on the bus? Did the Street Team Ambassadors have information to be shared about the Home and School Council on their travels? The Board cites Guardrail 3: Partnering with Parents/Family Members.  This administration’s investing in public relations cannot offset the reality of what people see in the news every day: trash in schoolyards, buses leaving children stranded, and asbestos not removed from schools.  The Board should be investing in  improving conditions for students by reducing class size, ensuring that every school has adequate ventilation, hiring additional staff to deal with increased trauma, and seeing that trash is removed from schoolyards before students started the new school year. This District campaign also serves to boost the public profile of Shop Rite owner Jeff Brown, who has said he is considering a run for mayor in 2023.

As APPS has noted numerous times, the Fund is an independent non-profit raising millions and having Board meetings closed to the public. The Fund should be abolished. All decisions about District funding should be made by the Board of Education at public meetings. 

Action Item 6:  Acceptance of Donation from The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia – Stephen Girard School ($114,904)

Description: Stephen Girard Elementary is a K-4 school in the West Passyunk section of South Philadelphia. Our school is racially and ethnically diverse and serves approximately 400 students. We have a pressing need to modernize our current library which does not meet the needs of our students. The shortcomings include:

A lack of comfortable reading areas

A collection with many outdated or culturally insensitive books

A lack of high interest texts

Signing out books by hand and tracking materials with paper and pencil

This donation, in alignment with Board of Education reading goals, will help bring our vision for a modernized library to fruition by providing:

Flexible seating for students with added child sized tables and chairs

A comfortable reading nook for students to lounge and read

Carpeting or rugs that add color and brightness and make the space welcoming

A diverse collection of books where students see positive representations of themselves and others which align with our anti-racism work 

A computer and software for cataloging and checking out books which will add speed and efficiency to students’ library experience and create time for more children to make use of the space 

In school, children need a variety of materials that present positive images of children and adults who look like them, especially materials that are also written and illustrated by people of color. When a child reads a book in which they see themselves mirrored as the main character, along with their family and community members, they can begin to feel that reading is for them. Such affirmation of self and the everyday heroes in their lives can be a powerful force.

APPS Analysis:  The Board wants better carpeting but not a Certified Teacher Librarian? Classroom libraries and school libraries staffed by volunteers have replaced actual librarians, to the detriment of student learning. The Board’s Goals & Guardrails proclaim their commitment to student achievement but nowhere do they mention the fact that a full time school librarian makes a critical difference in boosting student achievement. 

What Will $330,000 Pay For? 

Action Item 16: Contract with Dr. Klock Talks, LLC – School Physician ($330,000)

Description: Pursuant to the Pennsylvania Public School Code, public school entities must hire/contract with school physicians. Independent contractors may be appointed as school physicians by school districts. The Pennsylvania Department of Health requires a written agreement when such a relationship is established.

Ensuring the health and welfare of all students is consistent with the Board’s goals and guardrails. To this end, Dr. Klock Talks, LLC will work in conjunction with the Office of Student Health Services to optimize the health and well-being of students within the District by serving as school physician, at a minimum, providing the following: establish standing orders to be followed by school nurses to administer specific over-the-counter medications; provide medical authority over District CLIA waiver for student COVID-19 testing program; serve as the collaborative physician for certified registered nurse practitioners (CRNPs) who administer various District initiatives; to include, but not limited to, medical authorization sign-off for the school-based ACCESS program and the Clinic at Gideon; consultation on the development and implementation of school district policies, procedures and protocols related to health, safety and medical emergencies; develop and conduct professional development on health-related topics; serve as a liaison with stakeholders invested in the health care needs of children; conduct student physical examinations, as needed; and support the implementation and maintenance of health initiatives put forth by the Office of School Health Services, to include, but not limited to: vaccination clinics, health fairs, mass screening events, and Philly Teen Vaxx Ambassador program and, advancing the implementation of the telemedicine initiative as described in the CHOP study. Performs other duties within the scope of certification and contractual agreement. The services under this contract are vital for the District to maintain the continuity and consistency of its comprehensive school health program for students, pursuant to the school code and other school health services guidelines.

APPS: We don’t question the quality of Dr Klock’s work as the Medical Officer for the District, but the wording of this Item.  Her duties are described in the text. This is an expensive contract for one year of services. Is this $330,000 contract to cover her salary as well as other services provided by her Dr. Klock Talks LLC business? According to her website she provides workshops for parents, private parenting parties, as well as corporate parties. Are these services included as part of this contract? 

All Capital Projects Should Include Environment Components

Action Item 13: Capital Award for Edmonds, F.S., Sullivan, Peirce, TM, Girl’s High School – Various Vendors ($42,561,141)

Description: The Office of Capital Programs has identified various capital projects at multiple school locations based on the capital budget call and the facilities assessment report. The projects recommended for contract award were identified in the approved FY22 capital budget. The projects were publicly advertised and the lowest responsible bidders are recommended for contract award. The District design, construction, and project management teams have developed a site specific construction phasing plan in collaboration with principals and contractors for the site improvements. This plan ensures adequate time and sufficient swing space has been identified for the safety of students and staff. The work will be monitored daily by an inspector, project manager and construction manager to ensure the contractors meet the established budget and schedule. This work is in support of the Operations Division goal of providing a safe and healthy learning environment for all students.

APPS Analysis: According to the District website, Peirce School is being demolished and replaced by a building designed for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Ten years ago, Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts was officially LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Control. According to Starnews: “The school uses geothermal heat and also has a timed lighting system that shuts off automatically when there is no motion censored in a room after a certain amount of time.” According to the principal, the light-filled building improved students’ mental health. A teacher commented that the energy budget is about half of what it used to be. Excellent reasons for ensuring that every new building is LEED-certified, improving student mental health and economic savings. Given the climate crisis we now face, this is a step in cutting back on the use of fossil fuels and creating a more environmentally friendly world. Hopefully this would include geothermal heating and air conditioning instead of systems using fossil fuels. 

Again this Description lacks details. Nowhere on either this Description or on the District’s website are details provided on what is entailed in becoming a LEED certified school. Does this include green roofs, geothermal heating and cooling, water conservation?

Board Set to Renew Another Charter with No Public Hearing 

Action Item  24: Renewal of Charter – TECH Freire Charter School (Added 9.15.21)

Renewal Term:  July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2024

Description:  TECH Freire Charter School originally applied for renewal of its charter in the 2018-19 school year and was recommended for a one-year renewal; however, no action was taken by the Board of Education. TECH Freire then applied for renewal of its charter in the 2020-21 school year. A renewal evaluation of this charter school was completed by the Charter Schools Office in 2020-21, and the latest Annual Charter Evaluation with renewal recommendation was completed in 2021 (ACE-R — Renewal Recommendation). The CSO has recommended a five-year renewal, effective July 1, 2019. The renewal does not include any school-specific conditions. The Board of Education will consider this application for charter renewal.

APPS Analysis:  The new charter that the Board will be voting on is not included in this Item, thus the Board will be voting to spend approximately $37.9 million over five years without disclosing how–a violation of the PA Sunshine Act. There are no links to any District Evaluation of Tech Freire available in this Description. The school’s Initial charter was granted in 2016. From APPS’ June 2021 report on Charter School Renewals:  “TECH Freire began in 2016 with a stated mission to become a college prep school with emphasis in computer science.   The percentage of students attending 95% of days or more was below district school Attendance in every year of the term.  Chronic absenteeism was 41%. The school did not show evidence of strategic groupings, teacher schedules highlighting supports or tiered options for students who are struggling academically or behaviorally.  The school has a low ESL population (2.14%students) with few supports for ESL students and their parents.  Although a college prep school 0% of the students were enrolled in IB courses or AP courses.  Only 1% of the students registered to take SATs or ACTs.  The average teacher tenure in this school is 1.3 years while the average teacher tenure in district schools is 13.2  years.   Suspension rates were 28%, far above District averages. The projected cost to the District over 5 years: $37, 952, 659.