Student Achievement and Support Committee: January 10, 2019

by Ilene Poses and Lynda Rubin

Co-chair Dr. Angela McIver called the meeting to order and chaired the proceedings. All Committee members were present: Co-chair Dr. Chris McGinley, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Dr. Maria McColgan. Also present were Board Members Leticia Egea-Hilton, Wayne Walker, Board President Joyce Wilkerson, and Student Representatives Julia Frank and Alfredo Pratico.

The December 6, 2018 Minutes were approved.

Charter Schools Report

Charter Schools Office Interim Director Christina Grant reported that Independence Charter has withdrawn its request for an amendment for a program change but that Independence intends to re-submit this amendment at its renewal hearing next year. She announced the second round of public hearings for three new charter applications will be held on January 22 and 23: People for People Frederick Douglas High School,  Joan Meyers Brown String Theory and Tacony Academy at St. Vincent’s run by American Paradigm. These hearings will be open to the public, but there will be no public testimony. People wishing to weigh in on any of these charters may still write/e-mail their comments to the Board. Ms. Grant said the Charter School Office Evaluation Reports will be completed before the Board’s vote on the three applications in February.

High School Plan

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks gave an extensive report on the new main topic: High School Strategy Planning Process. The areas targeted for improvement are: transition from middle school to high school, rigorous on-level instruction with clear expectations, social/emotional support, graduation rates and post-secondary success, college and career readiness and equity.

Savoy-Brooks stated that the district had partners to help improve in the above areas, including Behavioral Health from the City of Philadelphia, Innovation Network, 9th grade Academy other district and city organizations.

Dr. McIver interrupted to say that the Committee had asked staff presenters to “pare down” their reports for time purposes; therefore, the reports did not fully match the additional slides being shown on the wall. She said these slides can be found on the Committee’s webpage.  McIver and the other board members frequently asked for clarity and specifics from Dr. Savoy-Brooks. The first round of questions concerned college-bound students.

McIver asked, “What does it mean for students to be below grade level specifically?”  In her reply, Savoy-Brooks said that the District would use “instructional rigor and scaffolding of instructional rigor.” McIver also suggested the CAO’s office  needed to define their plans more fully and not rely on such phrases as “differentiated instruction”.

Julia Danzy stated that she was glad to see that there is an understanding of the importance of what occurs in middle school, academically and social-emotional concerns. But she said the report lacked specifics about how to address these factors and how to achieve the goals.

Fix Lopez asked how social promotion figured into this plan. She expressed concerns that students were being promoted without having learned the necessary skills. Savoy-Brook’s replied that students graduating in the near future (grades 10-12) will have specific graduation requirements.

McGinley raised the impact, or lack,  of “instructional rigor”, especially when some teachers are not certified in their content areas. Savoy-Brooks responded that case managers and curriculum specialists would help teachers and that teachers will get additional coaching. McGinley did not initially get an answer to, “What are we doing to ensure fully certified teachers?” When he pressed the point, Savoy-Books reiterated her answer about supports for teachers.

McIver asked, “Why must all students take Algebra 1 in 9th grade when many are not prepared with necessary math skills?” She suggested that it be offered in 10th grade so that students could get remediation in basic Math skills in 9th grade.  Savoy Brooks answered, “As of today there are no options for 9th grade college-bound students. They must all take Algebra I.”

McGinley asked several questions about the “Summer Institute” as a tool for teacher support–does the Institute include teaching social/emotional interventions, what is the teacher competence criteria, and whether attendance is mandatory. Savoy-Brooks said that only content issues would be addressed this summer and that attendance is voluntary.  (The Summer Institute is not voluntary for teachers in the Acceleration Network–formerly the Turnaround Network.)

Student Representative Alfredo Praticò cited examples of the last survey’s report on student responses sent to both students and parents: “I enjoy being in school – 23%. My school is clean – 21%.” He then asked “Where are these issues addressed in the plan?”

Student Board Member Julia Frank asked what would be done to help middle school students make the transition to high school; Savoy-Brooks told her that would be developed in phase two (but she did not specify when that would take place).

Career and Technical Education Program

The CTE high school program was discussed by a different administration representative (her name could not he heard by the audience). She said that CTE programs get both federal money and state money on a per-pupil basis. This was followed by a confusing interchange about how many students the District gets paid for and what did it mean that the District was told it had “plateaued”. Finally, when asked if the District had 100% enrollment it would get more money, she replied, “We could.” Committee members were also asked if there were “CTE schools and non-CTE schools”. The staff member replied there were “neighborhood schools and CTE schools”.

The presentations stated that there are 5,828 students in CTE high schools;  25% of those students graduate on time and 17% have IEPs. Board members again asked for more clarity, but time constraints resulted in most questions being tabled.  One concern was that there is currently only 80% enrollment in some of the CTE high schools which means less than full funding.

Surveys, SPRs, SGS

Staff member Tonya Wolford gave an update on the School Progress Reports (SPR).  She said that clear expectations and needed resources are important. A yearly district-wide survey is about to be given to elementary/middle schools and high schools for completion by both parents and students.  The domain lists: achievement, progress, climate, college/career.

Committee member Danzy asked about obtaining better results from the survey. “Are we going to have more creative ways to reach out to parents and students than sending home written or online surveys, especially in reaching immigrants with language concerns?” Wolford replied that they have met with the Family Engagement office about this. Danzy then asked it there would be a better delineation of data regarding participation? Ms Wolford indicated this year’s survey has been configured using slightly different data. Fix Lopez also pointed out that Philadelphia has a high rate of illiteracy, suggesting that relying on written survey questions and responses would automatically miss such parents.

Dr. Shawn Bird gave an update on the System of Great Schools (SGS) process.  This year’s focus schools are: Harrington, Lamberton and Locke. Bird said that there the number of options has been reduced to two criteria: SPR score or 15 or below and no major intervention has been in progress at the school. He cited that there has been improvement at Harrington due to new leadership in the school. Issues that have “limited school progress” include staff turnover and high staff absences. (It is curious that the district would enforce a new intervention of staff turnover when they list that as a problem to student learning in the past.) Bird said Lamberton has high neighborhood participation but in past years had a rash of staff vacancies and absences, which he linked to changes in leadership which, again, seems contradictory to imposing new interventions of more staff changes. The reference to staff absences and turnover to poor past principal leadership begs the question of why staff would then have to reapply for their jobs. Bird then said that Locke, which has become a community school (this designation is not viewed as by the district as an intervention) has a strong staff and an experienced principal, but that high expectations were not always held. How can a staff described as strong not have high expectations for students?

The questioning continued about requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs if the Acceleration Model was imposed and why any staff should be transferred out. Bird stated that teacher turnover and attendance are important and that just replacing staff does not fully address the problem.

Fix Lopez pursued this contradiction: “So there’s no set number of staff that has to leave?” Bird replied no, but then said he’d have to ask about the 80% figure. Fix Lopez continued to ask about the requirement for teachers to leave the school. Bird said that teachers had to reapply so that the District could know whether they were willing to attend the additional summer and monthly PD.  Fix Lopez countered with: If 100% of the teachers in a school said they would attend the PD, then 100% could stay–correct? Bird appeared bewildered, replying that he hadn’t been asked that before and that he would have to check on that.  Shawn Bird is Chief of Schools. He oversees the SGS program and attended many of the meetings. Who would he be checking with?

Actually, it is not true that the only reason teachers have to reapply is to commit to additional hours and weeks of PD–that could be accomplished with a simple questionnaire. Unfortunately, none of the Committee members pointed this out. (Of the 16 community meetings at the three SGS schools,  only one was attended by a Board member.)

Danzy then said that that she was familiar with the Locke School and the neighborhood. “If they don’t get a lot more social/emotional supports, none of what you’re offering will matter. There’s just too much trauma.”  McGinley pointed out that Locke’s principal and staff have experienced upheaval in recent years, which was a direct contradiction of what Bird had previously stated about Locke.

APPS members have attended all but one of the sixteen SGS school/parent meetings this year. We have attended SGS meetings over the past three years. We have testified at both Board Action meetings and Committee meetings that what we hear at the community meetings is not what is being reported to the Board.  We have told the Board that the district is not being honest and forthcoming to parents and the community about what the SGS procedure means, how the decisions will be made and by whom, or what the ramifications for the school will be.

Action Items

The proposed $400,000 contract with Magnum Integrated Marketing was discussed. This is a contract renewal, yet no one had information about the effectiveness of this company. McGinley asked for information about Magnum’s success rate, in particular the number of certified teachers hired. Bird did not give a clear answer. McIver proposed having the Item withdrawn from the upcoming Action Meeting agenda for at least one month so that this Committee could get more detailed information about the company.

Fix Lopez had questions about the effectiveness of QTEL, a program for ELL teachers; the contract for the company which provides it, West Ed, was on the agenda for the Action Meeting.  Teachers and other experts in ELL education have previously testified before this Committee about how effective QTEL has been for both ELL teachers and regular content teachers trained in and using its strategies with ELL students, and did today again as well. Since the Board members did not have data to support the program’s effectiveness, it was recommended that this action item be withdrawn from the agenda of the next Action Meeting.

A proposed $17 million contract renewal with Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) is on the Action Meeting agenda. CLI has been working in grades K-3; this would place CLI coaches in Reading classes through grade 12. Questions about the effectiveness and satisfaction by teachers of today’s version of CLI have been raised repeatedly by educators to the Committee and the Board. However, despite the fact that CLI’s effectiveness was also not evaluated, it was not removed from the Action Meeting agenda.

The calendar for the 2020-21 school year was presented.  Concerns have been raised by parents and community that in addition to other hardships to families about a full two week break, many children in Philadelphia are dependent on the meals that they get in school. Therefore, it was requested that the full two week break (a first in the district calendar) be shortened. Only thirteen schools have a Backpack Program which sends home food staples. It should be stressed that every school year has 180 days, thus children would not be spending more days out of school that year than any other.

Public Speakers

Michael Bly from Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, a charter advocacy organization, said that PCE is happy that Christina Grant is now in charge of the Charter Schools Office and grateful for the continual support she gives to charter schools.

Both APPS member Cheri Micheau and another advocate (Ms. McIlhenny)  spoke about the problems experienced by English Language Learners and how the LeGare Law has not been followed.  They requested a meeting with District staff to discuss this and other ELL issues, including the effectiveness of QTEL strategies for use by teachers working with ELL students.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver testified that the Board should not approve any new charters this year for a number of reasons, including the District’s inability to pay for them, the lack of oversight of current charters, and the harm to neighborhood schools. She noted that the District has continually renewed charters that fail to meet academic, financial, and organizational standards. Lisa also expressed concern about all of the money being spent on professional development, as if the only reason for lack of improvement is teacher ineffectiveness, not  toxic schools or other issues.

(Update): At this Student Achievement Committee meeting, the Board members agreed to remove from the Action Committee agenda the Action Item about Magnum Integrated Marketing for hiring new teachers. However, at the Action Meeting on January, 17, 2019, the Action Item was voted on and passed by the Board. It was clear at the Board meeting that Superintendent Hite was really pushing for this item to be approved.

APPS has questions about the purpose and use of the Board’s Committee meetings to investigate the benefits and/or costs of contracts and curricula decisions, if the Committee’s decisions, even to postpone a vote in order to get more information, are ignored by the Board.