Student Achievement and Support Committee: January 16, 2020

By Lynda Rubin

The Student Achievement and Support Committee this month addressed a number of issues, including the problem of having too many teachers with emergency certifications and how the District supports hard-to-staff schools. Updates were given on the status of the School Progress Report (SPR) and school climate issues, if and how the number of special ed classes in any school affects a school’s status, and  how to include teacher contributions into the report process. The Charter School Office pointed out the time sensitive submission of written testimony on the two new applications: HS2L (Health and Science Leadership Charter School) and String Theory’s Joan Myers Brown Academy (JMB/ST). The Board’s notice about timing and method of submitting written testimony is included in this report. The Board has given conflicting information about whether previous testimony given at public Action or Committee meetings will be included as testimony about the two applications,  so it is advised that even if testimony was given at a previous meeting, it should be resubmitted per the information below.

Present: Co-Chairs Chris McGinley and Angela McGiver, Committee members Maria McColan, Mallory Fix Lopez. Pres. Joyce Wilkerson sat in.

Minutes from 12/12/19 Meeting were approved.

Staff Presentations and Updates

Chief of Academic Support Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks answered questions raised by Committee members at the December meeting.  One concerned which strategies the District is implementing to reduce the number of teachers on emergency certifications and what resources the District provides to help teachers with subject area exams. Brooks responded that the reasons for emergency certifications are so broad that the goal is not to decrease the number of emergency certifications, but to see whether it is hiring people with the necessary content knowledge and expertise. She said the District will review its screening processes for areas of improvement and obtain feedback from principals.  Regarding the question of how the District supports hard to staff schools with vacancies due to extended medical leave and other reasons, Brooks quoted substitute staffing policy, not the intent of the question asked.

There is often a disconnect between District staff who believe their primary responsibility to parents, students, teachers and even the Board is to explain their management techniques of a very large district, rather than working as a team to discuss how to solve problems that may exist for individual or small groups of people.

APPS understands that the need for teachers with emergency certifications is, to a great extent, due to the inability of the District to attract and keep qualified and experienced staff. If the problem is so broad, then the District needs to give a hard look at why qualified teachers are not encouraged to sign up and stay with the District and address that. Board Committee members frequently ask staff questions to clarify their understanding of all possible dimensions of a  problem. APPS has observed that whenever Board members ask District staff specific questions to further their ability to be informed about what is occurring and what may be prohibiting a better solution, that staff frequently quotes policy and does not assist the Committee in exploring underlying problems.

Tonya Wolford, Chief of Evaluation, Research and Accountability, gave an update on the School Progress Report (SPR). All power-point presentations have been added to the  January 16, 2020 Student Achievement Committee meeting materials which can be found at Wolford announced that the  2018-19 SPR scores for all public and charter schools will be posted on the District website on January 31, 2020.

McIver asked about school climate issues and whether attendance, suspension and remaining in the school over time are the only factors included; Wolford responded that they were. McIver also noted that schools have been asking for some time about giving more weight to Progress than just Achievement. She asked whether student and teacher survey responses are used in the calculations, especially in climate, emphasizing that when teachers and students feel supported in schools, scores on achievement and progress could become higher. Wolford replied that some student responses have been used and that including teacher survey responses is a “good idea.” Both Wilkerson and McColgan asked whether schools with more students with severe disabilities, such as autism, was a factor in the scores. Wolford said there’s no rating for that.

McGinley pointed out that a more severe disability such as autism may actually have higher performing academic students and that a disability category is not in itself a factor. Wilkerson agreed but also asked for assurances that special disability students who are entitled to are able to take an alternative assessment. Wolford said they just factor those scores in as they would with PSSAs. McGinley raised the concern that some schools have voiced about the possibility that their higher number of special education classes or ELL students who may not do as well on tests may have on SPR data. Wolford said that these are not included in the accountability in the framework, but “it is something to consider.”  It is hard to believe that the District has been unaware of this major flaw in using standardized test scores to rate teachers and schools, as this has been an issue since the implementation of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind mandates almost 20 years ago. Are Hite administration officials saying they have not been aware of these issues?

New Charter Applications 

Charter Schools Office Executive Director Peng Chao updated the Committee on the two new charter applications submitted in November 2019: String Theory’s Joan Myers Brown Academy in West Philadelphia and the High School for Health Sciences Leadership Charter School in Logan.The first hearing was held on Friday, December 20th where public testimony was allowed. The second hearing will be held on Wednesday, January 22; the public may attend, but no public testimony is allowed.  President Wilkerson said “…but I believe we’ve said that when individuals have commented at the Board [Action] or Committee meetings that’s taken into the record.” Chao responded that that is something the Board will have to decide; however, as the public notice on the website states the CSO is expecting all public testimony to be written and submitted in accordance with the website notice especially with the name of the school application the testimony is about and name, address, etc of the writer. President Wilkerson said “…that is something the Board will have to clarify.” Even with all good intentions, the Board will not meet again until January 30th and any possible changes will have to be made on the District’s website.

APPS suggests that anyone who thinks a former testimony made will be included should resubmit said testimony in writing according to the District guidelines:

To submit testimony on the new charter applications, you must be a Philadelphia resident and must submit your testimony in writing before January 24, 2020 at 5:00pm EST. Testimony may be submitted in writing or via email to If submitted by mail, written testimony must be postmarked by January 24, 2020 and addressed to:

Board of Education                                                                                                                                The School District of Philadelphia 440 North Broad Street, Suite 101                                                                                        Philadelphia, PA 19130

Written testimony should include the full name and address of the sender, and should indicate the specific new charter application(s) to which the testimony refers. All written testimony received by the Board of Education will be made part of the public record for the respective new charter application hearing.

Fix Lopez endorsed Item 47 – Contract with District Council 1199C (Heath Workers union) to participate with CTE programs in Philadelphia District schools. She stated that 1199C has a great reputation of high quality work with their partners. Fix Lopez raised the question about how does the District know that other partners have ELL capability. McIver questioned Item 45 – Ratification of Memorandum of Understanding with Philadelphia  Family Court and City Department of Human Services re sharing educational records. She asked how the District ensures the privacy of such records. McIver asked, in reference to Item 49– Ratification of Amendments of Contracts with Various Qualified Vendors – Preschool Programs, how a school is determined to be a high quality Pre-K. Diane Castelbuono, Deputy Chief of Early Childhood Education, described the process of licensing and their history and meeting requirements, including on-site visits.

Chao stated that at  the January 30, 2020 Action Meeting the Board will be voting on whether to renew Independence Charter School for another 5 years, effective July 1, 2020. The Board will also consider an amendment to allow Independence to change its Educational Program from dual instructional models (one majority Spanish, one majority English) to one majority Spanish instructional model beginning September 2020. The CSO is recommending the 5-year renewal with the following conditions: 1) revision of Code of Conduct to articulate all due process rights, and 2) ensure statements of financial interest are submitted by all Board members on an annual basis. McGinley stated that dropping the majority English program could make it difficult for disability students with those students opting out. Chao said that would be up to the school. McGinley asked for assurances that every child currently enrolled in the school will get exactly what they signed up for throughout their expected grade level advancement. Chao said that the new Spanish majority program will be phased in one grade a year, so any students already enrolled will have access to the English majority program. Fix Lopez noted that some Independence Charter School teachers may not be bi-lingual, and will therefore have to transfer. Again this shift will be gradual. As with all other charter renewals, the terms have been negotiated in private meetings with the charter operator, and there have been no public hearings.

Green Woods Charter will also be considered for a 5-year renewal. Since their current term began in 2017-18 this renewal will last until 2021-22. CSO recommends renewal with the following conditions: 1 )Revise Language Instructional Education Program to ensure clear notification to families, 2) Ensure statements of financial interest are submitted by all Board Members on an annual basis and 3) Ensure adherence to Sunshine Act.

Action Item # 8, Ratification of Acceptance grant from Drexel University to fund a Math Lead  Teacher at Powel Elementary from 8/1/19 to 7/31/20. In reply to public concerns, this will pay for a current School District employee rather than outsource the position.

Public Speakers 

Zoe Rooney,  District parent, teacher, and activist  (member of both APPS and Parents United for Public Education), spoke on CSPR  (Comprehensive School Planning Review). She reported that, having just checked the website, CSPR public meeting  dates for Cycle 1 that were supposed to start in January are not yet posted and meeting dates’ links on website are not working. Some materials are online but not the most recent set in December. Rooney also told the Committee that she has had to submit numerous Right To Know (RTK) requests as per law, on a variety of issues. She asked why so many RTK requests have to be submitted for information that is public and should be posted on the District website as such.  She reported that every RTK request evokes the response from the District  that it will take at least 30 days to send the requested information. After that month’s wait, she generally receives less than what she asked for,  necessitating another request and another month’s wait. McIver asked Rooney for an example, which she readily gave. APPS has had similar difficulty receiving complete data requested in a timely fashion and have made many complaints about the use of RTK process as delay tactics especially for information that should be available without such requests. Rooney also raised the question of increasing mandates of A/B scheduling in neighborhood high schools and that this mandate does not take into account the differences in schools, whether by total enrollment (and thus the number of staff assigned to the school to fulfill those mandates) or what would work best for student progress in those schools. She stated for students with IEPs, 90 minutes is too long for one subject. Additionally, at Strawberry Mansion she has received a new student each day this week who has been kicked out, or counseled out, of charter schools. Rooney noted that Mansion could benefit from additional support personnel to assist students who are affected by a myriad of trauma issues.  She emphasized that the problem is not the students and their issues, but the District’s lack of providing sufficient support personnel for these students. McIver thanked Rooney putting the Extended School Year (ESY) on their radar and thanked her for her advocacy. McGinley asked Savoy-Brooks about some of these issues, noting that a small high school of 250 looks different than a larger high school of 100 students.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver raised several issues. She asked about SPR scores where Achievement is at 0% but Growth shows a much higher result, citing the recently renewed Audenried Universal Renaissance Charter as one example.  Savoy-Brooks offered an explanation that higher scores in one category like Basic can result in an overall Growth increase when the District calculates the SPR. Haver responded that this would be a good time for the Board to re-examine the overuse of standardized tests and the No Child Left Behind data-driven model as they affect students’ academic success and their self-esteem. Haver also urged the Board to deny the HS2L Charter School application and said that more support, financial and otherwise, should be given to the current CTE programs in neighborhood schools throughout the City. Haver again requested that the public be able to review signed agreements with charter schools. She notes that APPS has legal opinions that say applying “quasi-judicial” status to charter schools is not valid. President Wilkerson asked Haver to share such legal opinions with the Board.

Cheri Micheau, APPS member and acknowledged expert on ELL education, spoke about preparing ELL students and students from non-English speaking families for college success. Having taught freshman composition at West Chester University,  she is particularly concerned about the lack of writing skills, including revision and editing, lack of solid grammar and difficulty writing under pressure. Most colleges assign students to remedial courses in writing and math. There are issues in both the District and the colleges that need attention. She cited an excellent secondary ESOL textbook series, Edge, that includes well designed writing projects in each unit. Reviewing the breadth of the District’s ESOL program offerings should be done. Also teachers have a tendency to avoid teaching writing due to lack of training  or time pressures. A focus on writing instruction and writing curriculum more broadly with policy makers and administrators spending time to see which writing skills are being taught and how they are taught in language classrooms, will benefit all students with aspirations of earning college degrees. Fix Lopez, head of the ESOL program at Community College, stated that writing is not adequately taught to teachers, ELL or Regular, but did not say how she came to this conclusion. She also stated that students should not have to stay longer in high schools to increase language and writing knowledge. Savoy-Brown stated that the District does have information on five schools where writing is the highest problem. All agreed this is a subject that deserves more attention. Teachers know that emphasizing test scores is a roadblock to encouraging creative writing.

APPS co-founder Karel Kilimnik  testified that she is thrilled with Item 47, Contract with District Council 1199C to support CTE programs. The District should continue to support District schools with CTE programs, as this does. Regarding CSPR, she’s been attending planning meetings (APPS members have attended even though these are not public meetings). Kilimnik  noted that there are very few parents at some of the meetings considering the number of schools represented. She asked what protocols are being used in every school community in this process to disseminate information to parents in schools, on-line, in neighborhood, and in languages of the community. She reminded the Committee that this is a multi-year process and is concerned about the lack of information being disseminated by the District. McGinley and Fix Lopez noted that interpreters were present at all meetings. Kilimnik said that students should also be represented in this process. She asked how these meetings could reflect the feelings of the entire community when parents were selected by school principals to attend these planning meetings? Kilimnik noted that there are meetings in three different communities and that South Philadelphia was the most attended. She is concerned about the other two communities. Fix Lopez asked that Kilimnik give all of her “very valid” questions to the Board.

APPS member Lynda Rubin also urged the Board to approve  Item 47, Contract with 1199C. Quoting from the description of Item 47, she stated that 4000 students are trained yearly. Considering that this contract is for one year, she asked whether our students have been included in past years, and if not, why not? She also encouraged the District to engage such cooperation and partnerships with unions, trades, etc. to expand supports for CTE programs of more than just health issues. Rubin noted that information from the principal, students and community of Kensington Health Sciences Academy have spoken about how the school has become a hub for the community and is providing students with a sense of self and ability. She stressed that investing in programs for neighborhood schools does more to help a neighborhood feel positive about itself and its children. She, too, spoke against the new charter application for HS2L as being adversely competitive with our District schools.

Four current and past students of KHSA–Francis Felix, Abdel Mansera, Joyce Gonzalez and Nayisber Colon–spoke passionately about how much KHSA has given to them academically and personally. Felix said she had attended two previous schools and that KHSA “felt like home” and all students are accepted as they are. She also noted that because it is a neighborhood school, she never had a transportation problem. Mansera spoke proudly of the skills he’s learned including CPR and other health support skills. He also stated that he learned about the importance of being professional, being punctual and possessing public speaking skills. Working in a hospital setting with kids was a valuable experience for him. Mansera said “I’m somebody. I want to help others.” Gonzales, a senior, said she intends to attend Temple or Penn State next year, to applause from the Board members and the public.

The next meeting of the Student Achievement/Support Committee will be on Thursday, February 20 at 5:00pm.