Student Achievement and Support Committee Meeting September 3, 2020

by Lynda Rubin

The crucial question raised again at the Board of Education’s Joint Committee Meeting:  Will all buildings be safe for children to return to by the District’s targeted November reopening date? Hite administration officials reported on the ongoing preparation, including deep cleaning, preparing the HVAC ventilation system to be at full capacity, and making sure all windows can open.

[Slide presentations and descriptions of upcoming Action Items for both committees can be accessed through links on this agenda.]

Minutes for the Joint Committee meeting of August 13, 2020 were approved.

Dr. Angela McIver chaired the first part of this remote meeting.  Committee members Mallory Fix Lopez, Maria McColgan and Julia Danzy attended. Board members  President Joyce Wilkerson, Leticia Egea-Hinton and Lee Huang also attended. 

Learning Implementation Pathway Update:  Alicia Prince, Acting Chief of Facilities Management and Capital Programs. This covered the readiness of buildings, staff, and school operational readiness information to date. McIver stated that the District is still planning to move to hybrid model on November 17, as long as the health guidelines so indicate. The information presented by Prince  (pp 9-18) seemed to indicate that the District has no serious impediments and is almost set to return to in-school use. Coded colors show status of readiness:  Green (on track), Yellow (slightly off track) and Red (needs focus). Only Staff Coverage (academic and cleaning) was listed as Yellow. Building Readiness (slide p15) is listed as Green, but of 224 buildings in process of becoming Covid-ready, none has achieved full readiness.  Board members asked for specifics about some of the glossed-over deficiencies. Noting that 72% of students have been issued Chromebooks, Egea-Hinton asked  about the 28% who have not. Prince said the District is reaching out to them. Egea-Hinton also questioned the low levels of progress on Hand Sanitizing Stations (11% completed), Partitions (0% completed)  and Air Ventilator Capacity tests (25 completed, 199 in progress) and whether the remaining jobs will be completed and on schedule. Prince again referred to expected completion dates on the slides:  She reported that 85,726 students have received computers, 40,255 students have not.  [The Reopening Readiness Report, including School by School Operational Readiness Checklists, and future updates can be found here.]

Danzy questioned the lack of progress in providing Internet Access to All. “If everyone’s been sent a key (code to login), why are parents saying they don’t have it? Is it a Comcast delay or parents being late in obtaining it?” Danzy questioned Prince, “I thought you said they (parents) were all sent a key.” Prince replied that parents have to call 211 to get the code (login). However, unlike last year, the District will now provide every student with a District Chromebook even if the family already has a computer.

Fix Lopez  questioned the lack of specific information for Special Ed and ELL student needs as well as no translation of special education information for parents. Fix Lopez stated that this should be “the norm at large meetings, as use of sign language is now.” Fix Lopez pointed out that Zoom meetings can be overwhelming to these and other parents.  (Other than the deaf/hearing translation, are there translation services for Board meetings?)

 Wilkerson voiced concern about PHL Connect, the program to ensure wifi connectivity for students. She said she had expected the City to facilitate personal assistance in setting up in-home equipment connections. Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks responded that the City has increased its 211 phone line support.  Wilkerson replied that “more urgency is needed” on this. 

 McIver questioned whether the 25 schools that have been fully certified for adequate ventilation refers to every room in the building, or are certain rooms being closed off? Prince said ventilation capacity remains to be determined and stated that “more airflow is always good.” She referred to the School by School slide for information on each school. (In order to access information about a specific school, however, you have to scroll through the slides of all the schools.)  

McIver began to speak about her doubts that the District could reopen buildings in November, citing Temple University’s recent flip from in-person to remote due to increased Covid cases, but was interrupted by Wilkerson. Wilkerson said she had just spoken with Dr. Hite and that the November date is arbitrary, pending other considerations.  More updates will be issued  next week. McIver continued that the District could be doing everything right but we don’t want to be in the same position as Temple. She noted that right now the District is dividing its efforts between hybrid and digital plans, but at some point will have to choose one and concentrate all of its energy on that one.

Presentation: Student Outcomes and Lessons Learned from Summer, Tonya Wolford, Chief of Evaluation, Research and Accountability. Wolford reviewed summer programs SOAR, ELL Program for  Newcomer Students and Extended School Year (ESY). Program  Information can be found on Slides pp. 4-7.

Presentation: New Charter Schools Application.  CSO Chief Christina Grant  reviewed the 2021-21 New Charter Application process (slides pp 20 – 24), including deadlines mandated by the state. Applications are due November 16, 2020. Letters of Intent, not mandatory, are due October 15,2020.

Action Items Review

Of the Action Items to be voted on at the Board meeting on September 17, Item #26 – Ratification of Contract with Vetri Community Partnership for a program at Steel School for $1,845, garnered the most deliberation. The controversy around this Item is that pre-approval is needed through an LCA (Limited Contract Approval). The Board has in the past year or two had to approve several programs after the fact because some principals have continued to approve contracts that must be approved by the Board. Going forward, the District will be implementing a tracking program to intercept programs without LCA’s before they’re implemented without Board approval.

APPS member Lynda Rubin, the only public speaker, testified about Item #24 – $44,000 Contract with Center for Urban and Racial Equality (CURE), out of Washington, DC,  for racial equity assessment and training at McClure Elementary. At the last meeting the District’s attempt to contract with the  out-of-town consulting firm KJR for this type of training, rather than continue with the training already provided by experienced District staff, brought public outcry and the Board’s rejection of that contract.  Although this $44,000.00 contract costs less than KJR’S $250,000, Rubin inquired whether the District was trying to add such training to its list of accomplishments despite the trainers’ lack of appropriateness for our students and staff. She further asked why this one particular school, McClure Elementary, was selected when its own 2020-2021 Title School Plan made no mention of this endeavor and whether this was to provide a foot in the door for this or other non-local company trainers for bigger contracts in the future. 

At the conclusion of the public testimony, Board members raised questions about Item #24 and its funding. Chief of Schools Dr. Evelyn Nunez told the Board that McClure was using its own discretionary funds, not new District monies.  Fix Lopez asked for clarification about the use of discretionary funds. In a disconcerting reply, Nunez applauded McClure Elementary, saying that they “heard the call from Dr. Hite” about the District’s intentions on racial equity pursuits. Nunez further stated this was done on their own and not by District administration. Wilkerson asked Nunez why an individual school would be allowed to contract with its own vendor outside of the District’s overall plan. Nunez replied that “some schools feel comfortable” taking the lead. Wilkerson replied that this “doesn’t answer her concern” and stated “they could just as easily have brought in a corporation from Boston.” Wilkerson then said that she will probably support this item. The discussion ended with someone stating that this was just a “recap discussion” in preparation of the Action Committee Meeting on September 17, 2020  and that no decisions were being made at this meeting.