by Karel Kilimnik
General Louis Wagner Middle School is located at 1701 Chelten Avenue in West Oak Lane and serves 527 students in grades 6 through 8. Ms. Maya Johnstone has been Principal for about 7 years.
Kick-Off Meeting: October 4, 2017
The front door was locked when community members arrived, and there was a lot of confusion as to where this introductory meeting was going to be held. Despite the auditorium being on the first floor directly across from the front door, we were sent to various rooms on the second floor before one room was selected. SDP staff included: Randi Klein-Davila, Assistant Superintendent, Network 7; Ryan Stewart , Executive Director Office of School Improvement and Innovation; Kevin Geary, Chief of External Relations; Janelle and Melanie from the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) Office; Principal Johnstone; five Wagner teachers. Chris Finn from Cambridge was present; Temple staff included Professor Lori Shorr, Sharon Jackson, Ebony Welch, and Cory Oliver. Both Cambridge and Temple are being paid by the district to conduct meetings and focus groups and gather data during the Priority Schools process this year. Also present were Steve Paul from Councilwoman Helen Gym’s Office; Jessica Way (WE/PFT); Kelley Collings (FSAS/WE-PFT); Eileen Duffey (WE/PFT); Kendra Brooks and Kristin Campbell (Parents United for Public Education–PUPE); PFT staffer LeShawna Coleman; two community members including Sherrie Cohen; and about ten parents. Councilwoman Cindy Bass attended at the request of Wagner SAC President Tonya Bah.
Assistant Superintendent Klein-Davila narrated most of the SDP Power-Point about the district’s purpose in creating this new round of Priority Schools. The principal went over the data in the SPR section. A Wagner parent asked how they were going to contact parents who are not electronically based to share information with them. This seemed like a new concept to them, so there was no meaningful answer. Klein-Davila cited Muniz-Marin Elementary in North Philadelphia as a “successful” Turnaround school and Hartranft Elementary in North Philadelphia as a successful “plan” school. I had to explain what placement in the Turnaround Network means: that after three years the school is removed from this program and has to find its own funding for resources. I also raised the issue of the district already knowing what they plan to do with Wagner and cited Penn Treaty as an example of their community being told before this process even began who their corporate partner would be. Klein-Davila insisted that “there has been no predetermination for this school.” This illustrates the necessity of the community attending these meetings to add context to what the district, Temple, and Cambridge are telling people.
Chris Finn of Cambridge said that two of his colleagues will be at Wagner for two days the following week to conduct its School Quality Review. Principal Johnstone will assemble a parent focus group. Cambridge will provide a “triangulated” form of data (including data, focus groups, and observations). I pointed out the inadequate job Cambridge did last year, considering that the district paid them $200,000; they actually collected data from an extraordinarily small group of participants. Dr. Shorr said that only “parents know this school intimately”. What about teachers and other school staff? Alumni?
Our focus group had three Wagner teachers, two parents, one student, TBah, Kelley, Councilwoman Bass, and Kevin Geary (sitting behind our circle). TBah turned to Geary and said, “ I don’t think you should be here as some people may not feel comfortable speaking. “ He responded by saying people should feel free to say whatever they want, although he did leave midway through. The Temple facilitator made no introductions before reading these questions from the paper in front of her:
- How does the school feel to you? Does your child feel safe here? Does your child feel respected?
- Do you feel safe and welcome in school?
- How would you describe students’ behavior here?
- Is discipline effective enough? Is there a behavior plan the school follows?
- What improvements to the building are needed?
- How is the lunchroom?
- Are the children getting a good education here?
- Is the curriculum challenging?
- Do you see any writing? What needs to be done?
- Is parent engagement important in this process?
- What are your hopes and fears for this process?
Answers reflected ongoing neglect by the district: food is awful, overcrowded classes especially in 6th grade, lack of resources, need for a therapist not simply a counselor, teachers forced to teach to the test, overwhelming need to help children deal with trauma, teacher vacancies, neglected building, water fountains that don’t work, and the need for classroom assistants. Before the meeting ended, Principal Johnstone pulled the three Wagner teachers from the room. They did not return. (There have been reports of principals at other Priority school meetings doing the same.)
Question 11 concerning hopes and fears drew a strong reaction from TBah who said, “The SGS Program needs to stop destabilizing our schools. We can’t lose 80% of the experienced teachers. We need the teachers to stay. We need support. There are teachers who have been here for 20 years. They see the trauma and poverty. If they had assistance, they would stay.”
Councilwoman Bass said schools are underfunded and that parents view Priority Schools as simply change but not necessarily for the best. She said that the school didn’t worked for some parents, so how can they expect it to work for their own children? She cited lack of parental literacy skills as well as the struggle to survive all directly affecting what is happening at Wagner. Bass spoke of her frustration with the district’s “dysfunctional spending”.
Community Ideas Meeting: October 18, 2017
The front door was locked again when I arrived, and there is no visible doorbell. Present were Lori Shorr and Ebony from Temple; Chris Davies, Senior Program Manager of district SGS office; Janelle and Melanie from the district’s FACE office; Kelley Collings from PFT/WE; three parents including SAC President and APPS member Tonya Bah; one student; Steve Paul from Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office; and I. Kevin Geary (PSD Chief of External Relations) came by as the session ended. We met in a classroom on the second floor far from the front door.
Dr. Shorr started the meeting by attempting to describe the four options. She could not remember all of them and turned to Chris Davies for help. He listed: 1) enter Turnaround Network, 2) be matched with support service/contract, 3) school creates its own plan, or 4) restart the school.
I pointed out that almost all of these options require teachers to reapply for their positions, thereby severing valuable relationships and causing instability at the school. Parents nodded their heads. Davies pushed back saying that the “schools decided they wanted new teachers”. (In none of the meetings APPS members attended last year did we hear parents call for the forcing out of teachers.) He also said that some of these plans required summer professional development sessions and that is why teachers had to reapply. I did not get a chance to ask him why teachers could not simply be asked if they agreed to these changes instead of forcing them to reapply.
Because the front door was still locked and no one was in the lobby , TBah texted me to get in. Were other parents and/or community members locked out with no one to text or call and simply left?
Dr.Shorr facilitated the session after Mr. Davies finished describing the four options on the table for Wagner. With only two parents present the meeting went quickly. One parent had enrolled his child only a month ago. Issues raised included safety and discipline within the school (one parent said the police are at the school every day). When I raised the issue of lack of school staff, Dr. Shorr responded, “We’re not trying to feed people these kind of ideas.” The other parent was interested in having more out-of-school experiences like field trips and afterschool clubs. One parent was very adamant on the need for children needing to do more than just sit in a classroom. Once again I raised the issue of a lack of adequate school staff. Both agreed that most homework was Math and that they would like to see more challenging homework. When asked about opportunities for parent involvement such as a SAC, neither parent knew of such activities. Both agreed that the school felt “welcoming” but the school “needs to be under more control”. The question of teachers having to reapply for their jobs prompted one parent to speak about his daughter’s strong relationships with teachers at her previous school.
Parents said they would ask Superintendent Hite for better lunches and more parent involvement. In answer to “What would you do to change the school”, responses included: a curriculum that works for students; IEPS that are carried out effectively; smaller class size, “because that make a difference”; classroom assistants; behavioral health needs addressed; and the elimination of standardized testing. Their fears and hopes for this process drew this answer: “Nothing will change even with this process.”
SAC President Bah thanked the parents and commented on the lack of resources, teachers forced to teach to the test instead of critical thinking skills, lack of access to technology both in school and at home. She said that she does not want to see technology brought in to replace teachers.
Feedback and Findings Meeting: November 15, 2017
Present were Randi Klein-Davila, Assistant Superintendent, Network 7; Ryan Stewart, Executive Director, Office of School Improvement and Innovation; two FACE staff members; Principal Johnstone; three parents and two students; Dr. Lori Shorr, Temple University; Renee M. Purdue, Cambridge Education; Karla, teacher from another Priority school; Tonayia Coffer, Parents United for Public Education; Kelley Collings & Eileen Duffey from WE/PFT; Sherrie Cohen, community member; Steve Paul, office of Councilwoman Helen Gym; APPS represented by me.
No Wagner staff were present for this meeting. Prior to the evening session there was a separate meeting for Wagner staff.
Principal Johnstone welcomed everyone to this meeting where results and findings would be shared. Assistant Superintendent Klein-Davila then introduced Dr. Shorr and Ms. Purdue. There was no attempt to have participants identify themselves or state their relationship to Wagner. It took about five minutes to get the Power-Point going. That would have been a good time for us to introduce ourselves. Johnstone repeated the district line heard at most of the Priority meetings: “We want to build on strengths currently in the school and address the challenges.” I asked if there were written copies of what she was showing us. She said yes but they had to wait for Stewart to return because he had them. Johnstone said that Wagner will not be closed or turned into a charter; she repeated the district’s criteria for placement in the Priority category:
*The school has been in Intervene status for three years.
*There have been no major interventions.
*The average score is 15 or below.
Klein-Davila went on to say that the “school is doing tremendous work trying to get up to 95% attendance”. Shorr and Perdue tag-teamed as they reviewed their respective findings. Keep in mind that Cambridge spent two days at Wagner just after the beginning of the school year in September. They said that they “triangulate” perception/soft data (i.e., conversations) with document review and experiential review as they look for “threads” within these areas. Shorr reported that 23 parents, students, and/or family members, along with 28 community members and 2 staff members took part in Temple’s focus groups. There are 527 students at Wagner. Perdue said that Cambridge spent from 8 to 17 minutes in each of the classrooms they observed.
Cambridge and Temple gave the following summary:
*School leaders and staff members are committed to school improvement.
*School climate is improving and becoming more conducive to learning.
*School leaders are very visible in the school.
*Staff members communicate regularly with families.
- The school does not have a school-wide behavior management system. (Cambridge)
- *Student safety is a significant concern for families, both inside and outside of the school. (Temple)
- Teachers and families are concerned about staff vacancies. (Cambridge)
- Teachers and families believe that there are inadequate supports for addressing students’ behavior/mental health issues. (Cambridge)
- There is an overall lack of challenging instruction in all subjects and in all grades.
I pointed out to the Wagner parents that the district has taken extraordinary steps to improve Kenderton Elementary after that school was abandoned by Young Scholars, the company which the district hired as a Renaissance provider. Kenderton now has a vice principal, two counselors, four classroom assistants, six climate staff, a school police officer, a student support assistant, school psychologist, and reduced class size in the lower grades. The district did not hire any outside company as a partner at Kenderton. Stewart immediately challenged my facts (which were reported in the local media) and noted that Hartranft (a Priority School from last year) has been provided with additional staff. He said that the Turnaround Network does provide additional staffing. I responded that the Turnaround Network only provides additional staffing for three years, then the school has to find its own funding for these positions. Stewart said they will look at any progress at the school after that time period but he did not dispute what I said.
The timeline presented showed that Dr. Hite will be announcing his decision about the fate of the SGS/Priority schools sometime in January or February. I asked if there is an Appeal Process. Stewart stated that “there is no formal appeal process but no stopping of the conversation. We are intimately involved with the process and will continue to work with the parents here.” There were three parents present. Stewart did not say whether the district would be working to include more parents and community members in future discussions at Wagner.