Priority Schools Report: Penn Treaty Middle/High School

Penn Treaty

by Lisa Haver

Initial Meeting: October 4, 2017

Penn Treaty is a middle/high school with 550 students in grades 6 though 12 in the Fishtown section of the city. PT became a receiving school for many students from Douglass and Carroll high schools after those schools were closed in 2013.

The first of three scheduled meetings was held in the school’s auditorium which was filled with over 100 parents, community, current and former PT teachers, alumni, students, and members of Friends of Penn Treaty. There were also representatives from the offices of Councilwoman Helen Gym and Council President Darrell Clarke.

The district had said that none of the schools named would be closed and none of the schools will become a Renaissance Charter as a part of this year’s process.  School Quality Reviews and community feedback will be used to “inform priorities and focus for that work.”

Assistant Superintendent Sonya Harrison read from the Power-Point presentation displayed on the screen onstage.  She said that “despite investments” made by the district, the school had failed to perform adequately.  The basis for that statement was the district’s School Performance Rating (SPR)  which reflects PSSA and Keystone test scores along with attendance and climate. Dr. Harrison told attendees that the district wanted to hear “your high-impact ideas”. She said that “school quality reviews and community feedback would inform district priorities”. Principal Sam Howell also spoke about the SPR, in particular the school’s achievement and growth data. He also referred to “ISA” but did not explain what that was.

The four options were read from the Power-Point but not explained in any detail.  Dr. Harrison told people that any questions they had would be answered in the breakout groups immediately following the presentation.  That did not satisfy the audience, who repeatedly asked for answers to questions about the future of the school.  After several attempts to ask questions, someone stood up and said that no one would go into the breakout groups until they got some concrete information from the district.

At that point, several representatives from ISA (Institute for Student Achievement) were introduced. One woman who identified herself as a “program manager” for ISA spoke about the company: that it had 27 years experience in “supporting” high schools, that they would use their expertise in the classroom by “partnering” with teachers, that students would be “challenged” after they made classrooms “more interesting”. She said that ISA was currently partnering with four Philadelphia schools. Neither she nor any district official explained how or if ISA would also be installed in the middle school grades at PT or if there would be a separate plan for those grades. A man stood up and said that ISA was actually a subsidiary of ETS (the Educational Testing Service); he asked why that was not mentioned. The ISA representative confirmed his statement. (The district has increased its business with ETS since Hite’s decision to administer the PSAT to all high school students.) There was no mention of having ISA come into Penn Treaty as one of the four options in the original presentation, nor did any district representative say that that decision had already been made by Dr. Hite.  In fact, the September 19 press release sent out by the district states: “Last year, the District launched a high school improvement cohort supported by a high-performing high school support organization – the Institute for Student Achievement. Penn Treaty will be joining this cohort of high schools, alongside Overbrook, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Fels.”

Those three schools were all included in the 2016-17 Priority Schools cohort. The SRC passed a resolution at its June 15 2017 meeting to enter into a $900,000 contract with ETS/ISA to pay for their work at the three high schools.

This calls into question why the district is paying both Cambridge Education and Temple to do outreach, breakout groups and focus groups with parents and students.

Three breakout groups were held in separate classrooms.  A graduate student from Temple named Monica served as facilitator in the group I attended, asking questions about how people felt about the school but not discussing the possible options.  In fact, she gave no information despite Dr. Harrison’s reassurances that people would get answers in the breakout groups.  She did not give any information on ISA.

There were about five parents and grandparents, four PT teachers, one current student, one former student and four community members in the group. Two parents said that they were impressed that the principal and the teachers knew the names of all students and that they felt that the school’s door was always open to them. Both students spoke emotionally about how the teachers supported them when they had academic or emotional issues.  The current student said she had gone to a magnet school but then transferred back to PT because she felt the teachers were more caring at PT.  There was consensus that it would not benefit the school to have the principal or the teachers forced out.

Findings and Feedback: November 15, 2017

The third and final System of Great Schools/Priority meeting was held on Wednesday November 15 in the school’s auditorium. Network 3 District Superintendent Sonya Harrison facilitated the meeting; Penn Treaty Principal Sam Howell spoke briefly. Present (although not introduced) were District Chief Academic Officer Cheryl Logan, Evelyn Sample-Oats from the District’s Office of External Affairs, and Chris Davies, Senior Program Manager of the SGS Office (for past three months, had previously served as Director of Operations at Blaine & Kelley schools). Will Jordan represented Temple; Adrian Mimms represented Cambridge. Also in attendance were two Penn Treaty teachers, approximately six students and six parents, and about fifteen community members.

Dr. Harrison went over the “why we are here” items from the power-point presentation; she said that the purpose of tonight’s meeting was to hear results from the Cambridge “school quality review” and from the Temple focus groups with parents, teachers and students. There were pieces of chart paper taped to the walls with one question written on each one: What did or didn’t surprise you? What else would help students? How do we involve families? Dr. Harrison said that people would be able to add comments to them later. She told the audience that an October 2 letter sent to parents had stated incorrectly that the district was considering four options for the school. Penn Treaty is not being considered for entry into the Turnaround Network, thus teachers will not have to reapply for their positions or face forced transfers. Harrison said that the community response at the Findings and Feedback meeting “will inform” the district’s final decision. She did not address the fact that the district had already decided to hire ISA to conduct teacher training and professional development—even before the public meetings had begun. That fact was revealed in the district’s press release at the outset of the 2017 SGS process.

Dr. Jordan reported that Temple representatives had spoken to parents, teachers, students and community members in a number of focus groups at the school. Cambridge interviewed students as well as observing classrooms. The following summary was presented:


  • Principal has improved climate and culture
  • All stakeholders recognized the improvement
  • Parents and students believe the staff is caring and invested
  • Principal envisions a culture of success
  • Students spoke highly of principal


  • Objectives not posted in all classrooms
  • Objectives posted but not revisited at end of lesson
  • Rigor too low to advance student learning
  • Students do not have enough opportunities to work on projects
  • Teachers in focus groups said that focus on testing inhibits creativity
  • School’s focus on data has not resulted in targeted supports from district
  • There are fewer supports for students in higher grades
  • Inconsistent parent involvement
  • Not enough information given to parents about special needs services

There were several questions about Cambridge’s methodology in conducting its “School Quality Review”. Mr. Mimms said that Cambridge visited twenty-one classrooms at Penn Treaty before coming to its conclusions about strengths and weaknesses. In answer to my question, Mr. Mimms said that Cambridge spent two days at the school. If there are eight periods a day, and Cambridge visited twenty-one classes in two days, then how much time was spent in each classroom? Mimms responded that Cambridge spent 15-20 minutes in each class. I asked how they could come to any conclusion about what did or did not happen in a classroom, such as revisiting objectives, when they were there either at the beginning or the end, but not both. Mimms admitted that some of their “observational data” was not actually observed by Cambridge representatives themselves but was gleaned from subsequent conversations with the principal who may have visited that teacher’s classroom at some other time—not necessarily this school year.

Mimms said that they also got information from the principal about some of the classes he had visited at other times. When parents asked how they could get a true picture of the school in two days, Mimms said that the study was a “snapshot”.

When further pressed by parents about the information they were sending the district about their school, Mr. Mimms said: “This is not a scientific study.”

WE/PFT member Shira Cohen observed that there was not a single positive comment about instruction at Penn Treaty. This is very different from what parents said at all of the meetings. In fact, one parent told district representatives that if teachers were going to be forced out, she wanted to know now so that she could find another school for her Special Needs child. A number of parents expressed the same sentiment.

Venise Whitaker from the district office of City Council President Darrell Clarke asked for more information about the district’s contract with the private company ISA (Institute for Student Achievement, a private teacher training company owned by the Educational Testing Service), as none had been given at any of the three meetings. She said that their Councilman Clarke had received a number of constituent calls about the future of the school. CAO Logan, sitting in a row near the front of the auditorium, turned in her seat and began to answer. I asked if she could please stand up and speak in a louder voice so that everyone could hear her. Unfortunately, we still could not hear most of what she said. I spoke to Ms. Whitaker after the meeting; she said she felt that Dr. Logan did not treat her question seriously. I told Ms. Whitaker that the district has said nothing about getting community input on the ISA plan or about whether the ISA plan would ever be explained to the school community. She told me that she had asked Dr. Logan whether she had data about ISA from any other district school they were operating in; Dr. Logan said there was none available.

Dr. Harrison announced the next steps: in December, Dr. Hite and his team will review the Cambridge and Temple information, then announce his decisions; in February and March, the district will identify “priorities”; ISA will begin work at Penn Treaty in Spring 2018.