Priority School Report: Steel Elementary

Steel school

by Karel Kilimnik

Second Community Meeting: October 24, 2017

Edward T. Steel Elementary School at 4301 Wayne Avenue in Nicetown serves 592 students in grades pre-K through 8. Mr. Jamal Dennis has been principal for three years.

Several faculty members and about ten Steel parents attended, including Kendra Brooks from Parents United for Public Education. Also in attendance: Kristin Luebbert (WE/PFT); Steve Paul and Charlene Samuels (office of Councilwoman Helen Gym); Gissele and David (SDP office of Family and Community Engagement); Principal Dennis; SDP Deputy Communications Director Lee Whack; PFT staffer Wendy Coleman; Ed Fergus and Robin-Renee Allbritton (Temple University). The public participants were not asked to introduce themselves.

The Temple facilitators said that their role is to be a “partner” and gather information. They assured those present that their report, along with Cambridge’s, will be “coming back to you”. I asked how others not present are going to be able to respond to the questions handed out. Dr. Fergus said that there would be another meeting tomorrow; Ms. Allbritton said the survey is on the SDP website. I asked about people who don’t have access to a computer; the only answer was that people could attend the following day’s meeting. A handout of the original district Power-Point was distributed without explanation, along with a sheet listing the following categories:

  • Safety before & after school
  • Safety within the school building
  • Discipline and how children are treated
  • Parental Involvement
  • Support for students who are struggling-either with behavior or academics
  • Facilities
  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Needs of ELL students and families
  • Attendance
  • Other areas

Parents expressed concerns about an ongoing infestation of bedbugs and fleas at the school. A staff member reported being bitten, and a parent spoke of spending $1100 to rid his house of bedbugs. There was conflicting information about whether the district had addressed these concerns before these meetings. The SAC president suggested that the principal alert parents when the district comes out to inspect. This issue drew out tensions between some parents and the principal over lack of communication. As the discussion escalated the facilitator lost control of the meeting. (This is not the only SGS school meeting where the facilitator has been unable to keep the group focused.) With the help of some of the parents, the meeting came back on track.

Steel has an ES (Emotional Support) class on the third floor that appears to have severe management issues resulting in disruptive behaviors affecting the entire school. Parents noted the high percentage of Special Needs students at Steel. The school’s ES program seems unable to handle the students’ needs. There was agreement that the district needs to provide more support. One Steel teacher spoke to the need for more mental health support. Steel has many children in foster care as well as children with obvious needs who are still awaiting evaluation. One parent raised the issue of how the behaviors of a small number of students affect the rest of the children. Another parent who has been active at Steel for years stated she has never seen so many out-of-control children in the building.

Parents discussed whether the curriculum is appropriate for Black and Brown students. The lack of historical context and exclusion of culture were cited. A parent raised concerns that Steel is not meeting the needs of Latino families moving into the neighborhood. The children may know some English, but their parents speak Spanish, and the school does not have any Spanish-speaking translators available.

Several parents cited the lack of adequate support staff and the school’s failure to inform them of significant events (like fights or in-school suspensions). Several parents noted their dissatisfaction with the principal and said he needs help getting the school under control. One father was distressed at seeing what Steel is lacking compared to what other schools have, including schools that are not performing as well as Steel.  He attributed some of this to the district’s reaction to the parents voting to defeat the takeover of Steel by Mastery Charters three years ago. Parents reminded the district that three years ago they developed a plan that has yet to be implemented. They demanded that the district put that plan into action NOW. One parent laid it out in stark terms: “We are being punished for fighting back.” Another summed it up this way: “The people making these decisions do not have to deal with awful school facilities and lack of services as their children do not go through any of this.”

 November 20, 2017: Feedback and Findings Meeting

Present were Principal Jamal Dennis; Amelia Coleman-Brown (not the Network 4 Assistant Superintendent but works in an Assistant Superintendent’s office in some capacity);David and Gissele from FACE; Chris Davies, Senior SGS Program Manager (and former Director of Operations at Blaine & Kelley schools after their “transformations”); Joe Antonio, appointed just days before to a position in the Superintendent’s Office; Temple representatives Dr. Ed Fergus and graduate student Robin-Renee Allbriton; Renee M. Perdue from Cambridge Education; Kendra Brooks, Steel parent and

PUPE leader); five more Steele parents including the SAC president; David Hensel, PFT/WE; Wendy Coleman, PFT staffer; Kristin Campbell, PUPE; Charlene Samuels, Councilwoman Gym’s office.

Ms. Coleman-Brown opened with introductions of herself and the Temple and Cambridge representatives. She did not ask community participants to introduce themselves. Some Steel teachers had met earlier in the day; when asked how many participated, the only response was that Principal Dennis had that attendance sheet. He was not in the room so the question went unanswered. It was noted that parent conferences were in session until 6 PM. Principal Dennis welcomed us and read from a script. There was the usual Power-Point explaining why Steel was placed in this category. Coleman-Brown read what was visible on the screen. Charlene Samuels interrupted to state her concern that as of right then, there was only one parent present. She wanted to know what had been done to reach out to parents. Principal Dennis responded that there were robo-calls, use of classroom DOJO, flyers sent home in book-bags, and that he had just come from visiting the neighboring Boys & Girls Club to remind parents. Every district person read from a script. They clearly wanted to move the meeting along but were forced to stop as questions poured forth from the small group assembled.

Ms. Perdue said Cambridge visited 19 classrooms during their two-day visit. When pressed for details, she said that visits lasted from 8 to 20 minutes with the average time of 12 minutes. There was no time during any visit that Cambridge observed the beginning, middle, and end of a lesson, but she still talked about whether teachers “followed through” on concepts throughout the class. She went over their usual “triangulation” of hard data (written records), observation, and conversations.

Dr. Fergus said that “there were different opportunities for parents to give feedback”. However, Temple conducted only three “focus groups” in which only 37 parents/family/students, 10 staff members and 28 community members participated—out of a school serving almost 600 students. When the SAC president asked where the numerical data was, he was told that it would be in the public report. After the meeting, I asked Dr. Fergus when that report would be made public. He said that Temple is sending their data to the district and that it will be published on the SGS website. APPS members at this and other SGS meetings pushed to get this report out to the public after the district initially said it would not be.

Cambridge and Temple presented the “Strengths and Challenges” that are increasingly repetitive both from last year as well as this year.

Again, the report does not specify how many responses were made on any of the topics.

Strengths listed:

• Long standing Middle School Staff (grades 5,6,7)

• Parents regularly volunteer and have developed an informal system of ensuring they are present during particularly difficult times

• Teachers are invested in this community

• Presence of a Community Partnerships Coordinator


  • “Current culture is reaction driven by unsafe and inappropriate behaviors” (Cambridge)
  • Parents identified specific safety concerns such as admission and dismissal times as well as hallway behaviors
  • Bedbug, flea , and rodent infestations along with mold and air quality all of which has had an impact on parents’ homes
  • Lack of follow-through (Cambridge)
  • Teachers said they are not receiving instructional resources (Cambridge)
  • Communication is inconsistent (Cambridge)
  • No afterschool activities (Cambridge)
  • Inconsistent homework policy (Cambridge)

Parents and community members pushed back hard, reminding the representatives from the district, Cambridge, and Temple that there was a Steel School Plan crafted in 2014 when the school fought off Mastery’s efforts to turn Steel into a Renaissance Charter School. The parents have been told that the district “lost” their copy of this report. Chris Davies read the Power-Point stating that Steel would not be closed or turned into a charter. Kendra Brooks asked for specifics over what could happen. Davies mentioned having a partner organization to provide additional support, having Steel placed in the Turnaround Network with “contract supported services”, or the School Restart Model whereby the school would be contracted with a provider. Ms. Brooks pressed for more details. She wanted to know what these investments and support would be. She asked whether there is a certain amount of money budgeted and whether the school community could create its own model. Davies replied that the district does not yet have a partner in mind. When the district vets possible vendors they work collaboratively. Parents kept pushing back and raising the issue of already having developed a Plan in 2014. Those representing the district, Temple, and Cambridge seemed puzzled by this constant reference to an already existing plan. This is not a surprise, unfortunately, to those who have seen the rapid turnover of employees at 440.

Parents asked about next steps, but again got only the non-specific timeline routinely displayed at every Findings & Feedback Meeting. Once again Coleman-Brown read from a script as the Power-Point laid out the dateless timeline. In December Dr Hite will meet with administrators from all six Priority/SGS schools to determine their fates. He will announce his decision in January or February. No dates have been given. APPS members have asked, at several SGS school meetings, whether there is an appeals process and been told there is not. Ms. Brooks stated that parents already distrust the district based on experience from 2014 when they fought to remain a public school. Steel lost 70% of its teaching staff and they do not want to see this happen again. She asked what the district is doing to stabilize this situation: “What are you doing to make our teachers want to stay? Are we going to be back here in three years?” Steel parents expressed support for the staff; they do not want another mass displacement. The SAC president noted that there are a lot of educated and well-informed parents in Nicetown who care about what happens in the neighborhood schools. He went on to say how insulting it is to not have a place at the decision-making table. Ms. Samuels, referring to the 2014 Steel School Plan, again noted that both Temple and Cambridge are being paid to gather information that has already been communicated to the district. She went on to state that Ms. Brooks has been a parent at Steel for 26 years and that she deserves to have a seat at all decision-making tables.

The parents and community members said again and again that Steel parents need to be full participants in all parts of this process. There was clear distrust stemming from the fact that Dr Hite and other district staff have come to Steel asking for parents for feedback while denying the same parents a true voice in the school’s future. Ms. Coleman-Brown responded with “I hear you saying you want a specific dateline and you want parents included in the decision making. With your help and support we can take Steel to the next level.” Talk about non-commital! She said she would take this to the Chief of Schools. That would be Shawn Bird, a recent transplant from California, who has been in this position for a little over a year. The meeting ended as parents described this as a drawn-out process for a decision that seems to have been made already.