by Deborah Grill
Edward Gideon Elementary is a K-8 school in North Philadelphia with an enrollment of 228 students. Two of three scheduled parent-community meetings were held on October 4 and October 11.
On October 4, there was a general meeting in the auditorium followed by three “breakout” groups led by Temple graduate students and one professor. District representatives present included: John Topponce, Assistant Superintendent for Network 4; Shawn Bird, Chief Schools Officer; Evelyn Sample-Oates , Chief of Family and Community Engagement; Lee Whack, Communications Officer; Gideon Principal Shauneille Taylor. Temple University facilitators Maia Cucchiara, Julie McIntyre and Tahara Tyrell were introduced; a Cambridge Education representative was present but not introduced.
Also present were two representatives from the office of City Council President Darrell Clarke. Approximately 50 members of the public attended, including three APPS members, Parents United for Public Education members, and PFT/WE members.
The power-point presentation in the auditorium given by Bird and Topponce was fast and shallow with almost no opportunity for discussion. In response to the one question allowed concerning the turnaround network and the requirement that principals and teacher reapply for their positions, Dr. Bird said the principal could keep up to 80% of her staff, but he didn’t think Gideon would go into the Turnaround Network. He said stability in leadership was important, and that the school plan showed promise, but that Dr. Hite will make the final decision.
There were five parents in Breakout Group 1, eight in Group 2 and ten in Group 3. There was one Gideon teacher in the first group. My focus group was lead by Julie McIntyre who introduced herself as a Temple doctoral student and former teacher. Two of the facilitators said that they were grad students at Temple and former teachers. Each group conversation was tape-recorded.
According to reports from those who attended other breakout groups, not all of the moderators made it through the scripted questions:
How does the school feel? How does the school welcome/respect you and how safe do you and the students feel? How does discipline feel? What do classrooms look and feel like?
Parents in all three groups made comments that went to the heart of what the district has done. Parents decried the cuts that have left Gideon with insufficient staff, significant safety concerns and an unhealthy building. They raised concerns about the lack of communication between school and parents and teachers and parents and the lack of training for staff to handle severe behavior issues. They want to see NTAs back in the building, more teachers (7th and 8th grades were overcrowded with 37 and 42 students), and more recess time and extra-curricular activities for their children. Parents voiced the need for more volunteers and parent involvement and support of families during the day; they stressed that they wanted more people on the payroll who can do this work. They emphasized the need for behavioral health supports. Parents in one group thought discipline was fair and effective. One parent was aware of the Title 1 money and voiced concerns about using it for the wrong kinds of things. They were aware of teacher turnover as a problem and commented that the children need people who know them well. Parents in all three groups were very supportive of their teachers, but the parents in two of the groups felt that the principal was not welcoming to them. She had only met with the SAC twice during the last school year.
Gideon Second Meeting: October 11, 2017
There was no whole group meeting on October 11. All attendees were directed to one of two breakout groups: one for those who has been to the first meeting, another for those who had not. Danielle and Cory from Temple led one group and Maia led the newcomer group. Thirteen parents, two Gideon teachers, one PFT/WE member, Ashley from PUPE (Parents United for Public Education) and I were in the group of those who had been to the first meeting. The group of newcomers was composed of five parents, three teachers, a gentleman who identified as SDP employee, Kristin Campbell and Tomika Anglin from PUPE, and a representative from Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office. SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson, who did not attend the October 4 meeting, took part in the second group. FACE Director Evelyn Sample-Oates visited each group at the beginning, but did not stay in either group.
Danielle began with a review of what was said at the last meeting and followed with the following questions:
- What do kids need?
- What are your main concerns?
- How are students treated by their teachers?
- What is your vision of the ideal school?
- What is the one thing you would tell the district that you want for your school?
Parents elaborated on what was said at the last meeting—that the school needs NTAs and security staff, smaller class size, staff to deal with student trauma, an AP to help the principal, extra-curricular activities, a progressive discipline program and the time and staff to implement it. They want more support from the district. They want the district to reinstate supplemental programs for low performers and gifted students. Some thought the principal needed training in how to handle parents with anger management problems. They wanted more parent outreach. Some parents thought the principal was not welcoming, some thought she was.
Academics, safety and climate were at the top of the list of concerns. Parents voice concerns about how Title I funds and petty cash money were spent. They complained that support services like speech therapy and IT are contracted out and those providers often don’t show up. There was concern that the RTII (Response to Instruction and Intervention) model is in place, but need more support from district to implement interventions.There is no longer an intervention room for students experiencing behavior problems or trauma who need a place to go.
Parents said that teachers treated students with warmth, love and respect. They were clear that they liked their teachers. They were concerned about teacher turnover due to stressful conditions in the school.
Their ideal school would have a welcoming atmosphere, physically attractive classrooms, teachers who were open to the culture of their students, smaller class size, and sanctuary spaces for teachers and students who are stressed out.
There are so many things Gideon needs that participants could not narrow their response to the last question to just one thing. They need more teachers and support staff, security, more parent involvement; time built into the schedule for staff training and planning–maybe two half days per month.
The second breakout group reiterated what was said in last week’s focus groups and what was said in today’s other focus group. Maia Cucciara, the Temple facilitator, had the same type of questions that were presented at the other focus group meetings:
- What does school need but is not getting?
- How does school feel both inside and outside? Do you feel safe?
- How would you describe student behaviors?
- Is discipline fair and effective?
- Are there enough activities?
- Do you feel your child is getting a good education?
- Besides the report card, how do you know how your child is doing?
- How do you feel about your child’s relationship with teachers?
- What would make academic progress stronger?
- What are school leadership strengths? Weaknesses?
- What would help or encourage more parental involvement?
Several times, Maia voiced her unease that the parents would not feel safe to honestly say what they felt in front of the teachers. The parents assured her they were in fact perfectly comfortable and not worried about the teachers being there. Some things parents noted: City Years had been helpful but was no longer there. Teachers are easy to communicate with but not the principal. The school needs more teachers, more classroom assistants, a parent liaison, increased resources for Special Needs children and families. There is not enough support for struggling students. Gideon did make AYP when it had student supports like Power Hour and other after-school programs and when there were was more support staff in addition to classroom teachers. Teacher turnover makes it hard because new teachers don’t yet know school and its students.
Near the end, one teacher spoke up and noted that in her 29 years in the building she has seen many resources taken away including: reduced counselor services, temporarily reduced nurse services, a non-functioning library, fewer support staff, school safety officer and much more. She said that students struggle because they do not have resources to support their needs.
APPS member Diane Payne asked SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson to come back to the room used for her breakout group. There were dirty tables with some kind of sticky coating on them and a sink with a drain filled with gunk. When Diane turned the water on, bugs flew out of the drain. She was told by a staff person that the room was used for children to eat breakfast. Diane asked Wilkerson to take note of the conditions that parents were talking about. Wilkerson did not comment on the conditions, but did take a picture of the sink.
It was clear from these meeting that parents wanted the district to restore all of the staffing and resources that it stripped away from this school over the past decade. It is becoming clear that the district set these schools up to fail so that it could then implement whatever “reforms” and “innovations” it chooses.