by Lynda Rubin
December 22, 2016
The final focus group was held on December 8, 2016 at 4 PM in the cafeteria. The new Interim Superintendent, Dr. Jose Lebron, led the meeting and gave the opening statement. Dr. Lebron was a longstanding principal and assistant superintendent before retiring and has only recently been called back to service. George Roesser was the Interim Superintendent at the previous meetings. The room was full, although not as overflowing as at the kick-off meeting. There were at 50-75 people in attendance, including parents, community members, students, and staff. Christopher Flynn represented the Cambridge Team. He noted that Lead Reviewer Simmie Raiford and Team member Miguel Casar had actually done the School Quality Review visits, although they were not present at this meeting. Principal James Williams sat in the audience but said little. Also in attendance were Zack Epps from the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement; Steve Paul, Community Liaison from Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office; other community members and education activists; APPS members Katie Pak and Lynda Rubin.
Dr. LeBron reviewed the general statement about the Priority Schools initiative that has been given at all of the meetings. He also reviewed the School Performance Review scores and other data upon which the District based its inclusion of KHSA in the Priority group. Dr. Lebron stated that KHSA would not be placed in the Turnaround Network, but would be chosen for one of the other four options. At the first meeting, there were many in the audience who asked why KHSA had been targeted as a priority school after it had been designated a Community School and after all the of the recent innovations put in place by the principal and staff. (Note: When APPS member Lisa Haver asked Naomi Wyatt, Chief of Staff to Superintendent Hite, this same question after the October SRC meeting, Wyatt replied that the Community School plan was not deemed an “academic intervention”.)
Mr. Flynn spent much of the time describing their model of “Triangulating the Evidence”, suggesting that it was not simply one factor but a combination of quantitative data, stakeholders’ views and direct observation which informed their findings about student learning. The audiences at all KHSA focus meetings, however, wanted the issue of district cutbacks and lack of supports and resources to be included as important factors.
Mr. Flynn said that Cambridge’s SQR found that the following factors support learning at KHSA:
- A compelling vision where students feel valued and experience success. This was shared by all key stakeholders and is enacted through the academic and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and external supports for students.
- CTE programs where teachers demonstrated mastery of their content areas through lessons aligned with state and industry standards.
- Passionate and respectful leaders, teachers and staff with great emphasis on building students’ “soft skills” (e.g. self-respect, courtesy, thoughtfulness, etc.) as a means of creating a culture of caring and respect throughout the building.
- Networks of support around the health academies, including partnerships with businesses, universities and community organizations, some of whom provide manpower, materials and equipment, volunteers and training for staff.
- Learning experiences that connect directly to the world of work, including programs such as 12-Plus and City Year as enhancements.
Mr. Flynn said factors that limit learning are:
- Closing gaps in student achievement. Many students enter the school significantly below grade level, and the school has not yet effectively managed to significantly reduce achievement gaps.
- Lack of strategic and systematic strategies to ensure that students meet performance standards. He did say that the school is beginning to develop systems such as instructional rounds, collaborative planning and shared discussions around student challenges.
- Data not being used to inform instruction.
- Lack of sharing effective teaching strategies across grade/subject levels. (It should be noted that the stated lack was of a “formalized” structure, and not that teachers weren’t doing this on their own.)
Stakeholder positive feedback from surveys included:
- Committed and competent teachers who are so dedicated that they will do anything it takes to help students succeed. Communication is excellent and teachers know every student by name. The principal is dynamic. Principal and staff have created a student-centered school. Parents are committed to the school. As one parent said: “We are like a family.”
- Great programs in health sciences that prepare students for higher education and careers. KHSA is the only Philadelphia high school that focuses all CTE programs on the healthcare industry, which is the fastest growing occupational area.
Stakeholder survey feedback expressed these concerns:
- As exceptional as the CTE programs are, some indicated that a wider range of CTE programs could also benefit students with other career aspirations who may want to attend KHSA.
- There was a strong expression of lack of trust in:
- The School District – While acknowledging the financial challenges facing the district, parents still did not feel the school has been treated equitably, especially with oversized classes of 45 or more and the ongoing lack of assigned teachers, even as of this date.
- This Consultation Process – Parents still did not trust the district to honor its promise not to close KHSA or turn it over to a charter company. They want the school’s present mission to be carried out.
- Test Scores – Some parents noted that the report card grades and test scores don’t seem to align, and they distrust the accuracy of the test scores.
Stakeholders ideas for improvement expressed on surveys included:
- Continue to build health services academies with focus on student and community wellness, additional internship possibilities and activities that encourage families to become even more engaged.
When Mr. Flynn asked those present if they had more suggestions to improve academic performance, the following were raised (however, a little more than halfway through, Mr. Flynn left the room and did not return):
- Reduced class size without losing teachers who could then provide more intensive supports for those who need it.
- Since the school district knows the data, and on what levels students are functioning, they should plan ahead and provide the necessary supports.
- APPS member Katie Pak pointed out that everything the stakeholders want to change revolve around district actions and non-actions, not about the school itself.
- I pointed out that the district sticks to numbers concerning student/staff ratio, not taking into account the additional needs of ELL students and Special Ed students. Nor do they consider the fact that teachers are being asked to do multiple jobs to make up for decreased staff, especially support staff like counselors and nurses. Teachers have been saddled with increased record keeping that reduces face time with students and planning with other staff—the very thing for which they are being criticized in the report. It is not a lack of desire but a lack of time, given all that is expected of them daily. Students come in with issues related to poverty, homelessness, hunger that affect their behavior and ability to learn “on demand”.
- One parent spoke about parents’ ability to digest all the information being sent home without consideration for their own jobs and time availability.
- KHSA staff members spoke up to ask for less district-driven professional development with “trickle down, cookie cutter models” and more in-house decision-making to address the needs, as those working in the school see them, to improve their performance.
- I asked Dr. Lebron if it was his understanding that the promise that Priority schools would not become Renaissance charters extended to this year only or also to future years. He stated that Priority schools would not become Renaissance schools in the future.
- I asked about how many of the five proposed options would require a staff change. Dr. Lebron said one option does have a staff change which could result in over 50% of the faculty being forced out. I then asked if the district had investigated the number times the staff had been changed in recent years in each of the eleven Priority schools and the effect that had on students’ academic growth. I questioned the efficacy of such widespread staff disruption this year on top of all of the internal and external turnarounds over the past four years. Dr. Lebron, having just returned to the district, said he had no answer to those questions.
- One staff member pointed out that after leveling of class sizes, the school was to receive four new teachers. To date, only two teachers have arrived, with a series of substitutes continuing to cover the remaining classes.
Dr. Lebron ended the meeting citing the rest of the timeline for the Priority schools, with Dr. Hite sharing his report with the SRC in February and decisions on the schools to be announced between March and June. In the initial meeting, we were told that Dr. Hite would make the final decision about which option would be assigned to each school. It was not explained what the SRC would be required to vote on. If the school were assigned to the “contract school” category, the SRC would have to vote on the contract with the company chosen to provide services to the school.