Student Achievement and Support Committee: March 14, 2019

by 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, Dr. Maria McColgan. Board President Joyce Wilkerson and Student Representatives Julia Frank and Alfredo Pratico were also present.

Dr. McIver announced that the focus of the Committee meeting would be on Multi-Lingual Curriculum and Programs. Several public speakers had signed up prior to the meeting, most on the subject of EL policies and practices. She suggested that prospective speakers could sign up to speak at the Board’s Action meeting. She also noted that written testimony can be submitted at any time for Committee attention and to become part of the record by emailing it to:

The February 2, 2019 minutes were approved and will be posted on the website.

Multi-Lingual Curriculum and Programs Presentation

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Malika Savoy Brown, along with Deputy Chief of MultiLingual  Curriculum and Programs Allison Still and Director Patricia Ryan, gave the presentation and answered questions.

Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks stated that the Multi-Lingual Curriculum and Programs Office is part of the Academic Supports Office. She noted three main goals: 1) ensuring that all students have access to grade level instruction, 2) supporting students through rigorous coursework and compelling programs, and 3) ensuring that teachers and leaders are equipped with the knowledge they need to ensure effective teaching and learning in the classroom. Savoy-Brooks said that there has been a shift in the programs to support schools and fill gaps with comprehensive efforts in the high school multi-lingual program as well.

Still noted that the EL program is based on the belief that diverse languages and cultures are assets for a diverse school system. There are 114 languages, 52% Spanish, many of whom (50%) were born in the US but where another language is spoken at home. She also stated that the District must grapple with how to provide sufficient services in schools that have a low number of EL students.

Board member Mallory Fix Lopez pointed out that there are also cultural behaviors, e.g. difficulty in asking for help,  that teachers and district personnel need to be aware of in order to best serve that population. Savoy-Brooks noted that the District has formed an advisory team to help with such cultural inclusive frameworks. Fix Lopez asked if the targeted staff include all content teachers and not just those in EL. Savoy-Brooks that said it is.

Still explained that the ACCESS test given all EL students  each year measures how the different levels service EL students and PA State targets are met. Fix Lopez questioned how and whether the District tracks progress of those who have exited EL programs in order to make sure they’re college and career ready. She stated that in her experience (as part of the faculty) many students do not enter Community College ready for college. Savoy-Brooks replied that the District is revamping the high school process (e.g. “a grade of D is not college/career ready”), that the District is now getting data for one year after graduating from the District for evidence of effectiveness of District programs. She further stated that the District is shifting toward collaboration between EL and classroom content (including the content teacher).

Several committee members asked for details regarding how regular staff and EL staff would collaborate, provide instruction and coordinate teaching to individual students and at what grade and/or language levels this would apply. Director Patricia Ryan stated that professional development is given three times a year to “focus or target” schools with high EL populations, have common planning times in their schedules to be able to work/plan with classroom teachers, and create a model for other schools to use. A Multi-Lingual manager will oversee this effort. Still noted that their office staff is small, so they want to create a more shared responsibility in order to build the capacity of other District leadership. Savoy-Brooks added that teacher coaches and other staff, who provide guidance and support in schools in general, should also be well-versed in this in order to meet classroom needs. Other District leadership need to gain capacity to support and evaluate EL programs at every school.

Fix Lopez spoke about the “learning curve” time she and other EL instructors needed to grasp the full needs of and gain a better understanding of how to better approach EL students.

Still noted that the program make-up looks very different in high schools and elementary/middle schools. She also pointed out that teachers may place too much emphasis on an EL student’s verbal skills and that this does not necessarily reflect their ability to understand and use academic language and concepts. Still spoke about professional development (PD) initiatives including a collaboration with Community College of Philadelphia and District staff creating a dual enrollment program for senior EL students, a summer PD for middle school teachers, use of QTel instructional practices to develop better performance, and a partnership with Temple to increase parent/family engagement. Still noted that Anchor Goal 2 employs the pilot program “Together Is Better” at three elementary schools, partially funded by the William Penn Foundation, to facilitate “co-teaching” practices and strategies.

Fix Lopez asked how the District planned to move forward once these partnerships are over. Savoy-Brooks mentioned “connecting current teachers”, then cited a new partnership with Drexel University to promote EL certified teachers in which 20 interested students would receive a 40-50% discount at Drexel to take the courses. Her difficulty was in figuring out who would cover the remaining course costs. Savoy-Brooks noted that the District is having trouble finding a sufficient number of certified teachers who have passed the Praxis test, leading to teachers with emergency certifications, and how to increase the certified teacher pool. She also mentioned the ability to work with existing teachers to help them feel supported and wanting to stay with the District as well as enlisting colleges for help by directing student teachers to the District.

Fix Lopez asked about the District’s ability to get substitute teachers for EL staff and whether Kelly Service able is to provide them. Savoy-Brooks stated that the District is able to get long-term subs but that getting daily subs is more difficult.

Still updated the committee on the new growth targets set by the State. Current State average equals 36%. The District in 17-18 met 32%. She added that the State is also targeting how close students are to meeting their growth target and that the District had many students close to meeting growth targets.

Board member Julia Danzy asked whether students who exit EL programs are tracked in their continued progress. Still said that the District has just raised its tracking from 2 years to 4 years.

APPS is pleased that the District is addressing the needs of EL students and staff. However, we are concerned about whether the District is including the knowledge and skills of District EL teachers in deciding what works and what is needed to improve the program’s outcomes. Many have testified before the Committee and the Board of Education at Action meetings. Among those with first-hand knowledge and experience is APPS member Cheri Micheau, whom Board member and Co-Chair of the Student Achievement Committee Dr. McGinley has publicly acknowledged as someone with interest and ability in moving the EL field forward. Too often the District relies on studies and “experts” who have not been in a Philadelphia classroom or school. This latter is important because in order to improve the program structure in Philadelphia schools, the knowledge of how schools at different grade levels function is critical to improving our system. It often seems that the administration, even with good intentions, relies on evaluating changes to programs and procedures based on “top-down” priorities and very little “bottom-up” knowledge. It seems that more collaboration between and among administrators and teachers in the schools could be very insightful and productive, not only for improving EL instruction outcomes, but also for retaining valuable current staff and recruiting new staff.  Many of the public speakers raised these issues.

Action Items for March Action Meeting

Discussion about what is now Action Item 36–  Contract with Renaissance Learning Inc. – Universal Screener – Grades 6-12 – Mathematics and English Language Arts  –included Chief Academic Officer Shawn Bird’s report on the Renaissance Star Universal Screener as one designed to enable teachers to better identify where students are and where they need to be in any given subject. McGinley asked whether the Benchmark Assessment yields the same data while also tied to state standards. Savoy-Brooks said Benchmarks are tied to state standards at grade level and provides data re “Quarter at a glance”.  McIver then asked about the difference or similarities between the Renaissance Star Universal Screener and Benchmark tests currently given in the District. Bird said that the Benchmarks align better with PSSA tests.

Board member Maria McColgan asked whether using the Universal Screener will be mandatory and if teachers who have used it like it. Savoy-Brooks didn’t directly answer. She did say that when the District put out Request For Proposal (RFP) for a universal screener “various offices were involved, teachers were involved, asst. superintendents and principals were involved” and when they reviewed all of the proposals, Renaissance Star met the qualifications better than the other ones did.” What she “found most interesting was that schools were already using Star system since we didn’t have anything universal.”  McGiver again tried to get at how the data would be used by the District, but the answer was vague. Fix Lopez followed up with, “What is the difference between the Star System and the Benchmarks?” Bird replied, “This is diagnostic, a Benchmark is checking for understanding over a longer period of time.” Again, Fix Lopez asked Bird how and when this diagnostic would be used. Bird replied that it would be used three times a year. Board member Danzy noted that although it is testing students, it’s also a way to assess a school.

APPS is a bit confused about this process. Board members are interested in doing their jobs and learning from staff about various curricula and programs. They ask insightful questions about them, but often get simplifications that don’t actually answer the question, e.g. “various offices, teachers were involved…”. Which offices, which teachers and how many? How were schools already using the Star system if the District hadn’t purchased it yet and which schools were they?  The Board members are on target in trying to find out the purpose and use of these two testing tools and whether they are duplicative or necessary. First, the more that teachers test students, the less time they’re teaching them, engaging them and inspiring them. Second, we don’t have the money to throw around to buy duplicative tests because administrators like to have “data”. Data may be important for planning and understanding comprehension, but it also narrows the time a teacher has to expand his/her teaching into complementary ideas and subjects. Continual test-taking doesn’t inspire children to learn as does enjoying the process of learning and feeling good about themselves. Children learn best through personal interactions, which can provide them more immediate clues that they’re doing well and/or learning how to discuss ideas which is critical to thinking.