Student Achievement and Support Committee: November 8, 2018

by Lynda Rubin

The Student Achievement and Support Committee was called to order by Co-chair Angela McIver.  Also present were Co-chair Chris McGinley and Committee members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix-Lopez, and Maria McColgan. Non-voting Student Board Representatives Julia Frank and Alfredo Praticò sat in.  Members of the public who had not signed up to speak were invited to do so at the beginning of the meeting. The Committee voted to adopt Minutes for the last two meetings, September 13, 2018 and October 11, 2018. (Approved minutes are posted on the District website.) Dr. McIver announced that the next meeting of this Committee will be held December 6, 2018 at 5 PM, one week earlier than previously posted.

Focus Topic: Proposed District-wide Comprehensive Plan  

Chief Schools Officer Shawn Bird presented the District’s Comprehensive Plan, a 3-year plan that will be in effect from 2019 until 2022.  The Plan is posted for public review and feedback. You can access the Plan and the feedback forms here:

Dr. McGinley asked whether district staff was notified of the Plan.  Dr. Bird responded that the district sent letters to all district staff for their review and response; they have 16 responses so far.  Dr. Bird said that the letters went out late so additional time will be given for staff to respond. McIver asked where the feedback is housed.  Bird replied that it is housed on a Google document that is not visible to the public. He said he would send a link to the document to the Board members.

Three district teachers narrated a power-point on “The Curriculum Engine and the Instructional Core” and discussed how to use it to plan instruction.  Teachers can access standards, resources and curriculum maps using the Curriculum Engine.

In response to questions from Committee members, the teacher/presenters said that the data on usage was collected through conversations with teachers. There is a way to track the number of people using the site. While all of the resources in the Engine are available to every teacher online, the printed textbooks are only available to teachers in the schools that purchased them.  Not all of the hyperlinks are tied to text; it depends on the subject area. Core subject areas have text; others have curriculum only. The presenters indicated that it would be easier for teachers if the online interface had a more direct path to the information. The more complicated the program interface, the less the Engine will be used.

In response to questions from Committee members concerning the ideology that drove the use of the terms  “struggling readers and ELL students”, Dr. Bird said that the district has invested in professional development sessions in  “growth mindset” to insure that all staff understands that every student can learn on grade level, and he referred to a “culturally competent teaching strand”. Dr. Bird said that teachers have common planning time in which they can help one another navigate the Curriculum Engine.  Dr. McGinley asked Dr. Bird to include more information about acronyms so that the public is able to understand the program.

Charter School Performance Framework

Interim Director of the Charter Schools Office Christina Grant told the Committee that the core values the CSO will be focusing on this year are Equity, Accountability, Transparency and Community. She said that the CSO’s work is guided by the recently revised Charter School Performance Framework (CSPF),  a rubric used to evaluate charter schools that includes ratings for Academic Performance, Organizational Compliance and Financial Health and Sustainability. Each school receives an Annual Charter Evaluation (ACE) report. (These and other reports about individual charter schools can be found on the District’s webpage. A copy of the presentation slides used at this meeting is posted, but is not easy to find. From Student Achievement Committee page, click on Meeting Materials, then search for the Committee Meeting and date in the grid provided. Agendas and other presentations can be found below the search grid.)

Grant listed the various actions the CSO carries out, including issuing Renewal Reports based on site visits and data, sending Deficiency Reports to schools (not posted on website), writing up charter agreements with or without conditions for new or existing charters (not posted on website), reviewing amendment requests from charters for location change or enrollment expansion. The CSO can make recommendations to the Board about whether to renew a charter at the end of its 5-year term. Until recently, the CSO also made recommendations on approvals of new charter applications, but the SRC changed that practice two years ago without explanation.

New Charter Applications and Charter Renewals

Grant reported that there are twelve schools in this year’s Renewal cohort (in addition to over 20 postponed in the last two years by the SRC) and seven schools seeking amendments to their charters. Amendment requests can be made mid-cycle or as a part of their Renewal application process. The CSO will have the renewal and recommendation reports for the Board completed by March, 2019; the Board will vote on the renewals in May.

APPS members have  monitored all charter school proceedings (application, renewal and revocation hearings), both at public hearings and presentations to the SRC, now the Board.  Grant seemed to be indicating that the Board will continue the SRC practice of adding “conditions” when charters don’t meet their expectations, but we will not know until the recommendations are made–or whether those conditions will be made public at that time.

However, there are an increasing number of existing charter schools that operate well beyond their renewal dates despite not having met or even agreed to these conditions. APPS has testified to the SRC and the Board about this lack of oversight. It remains to be seen whether the Board will enforce the standards the SRC did not.

Deadlines for submission of new applications is November 15, 2018. The District’s website shows that eight  “Letters of Intent” have been sent so far. Incredibly, two of the letters were sent by Aspira, Inc., despite the fact that the SRC voted not to renew two Aspira Renaissance charter schools, Olney and Stetson, for  academic and financial deficiencies.

The SRC postponed action on the two schools for over three years; both are still open and funded by taxpayers. PA Attorney General Eugene DePasquale released a report last spring about the financial mismanagement of Aspira, Inc.

Dr. McGinley asked about the Letter of Intent submitted by an individual seeking to convert Edward T. Steele Elementary School to a charter. Grant said the author of the Letter of Intent is not the school’s principal or any District staff member; she said that to her knowledge no members of the school’s staff have supported this move. The CSO will update the Committee after all applications have been received on November 15. APPS members will continue to testify that charter schools that have failed to meet standards in all areas, especially academic, should not be allowed to remain open for years.

Grant informed the Committee that Math, Civics, Sciences Charter School was in the 2017-18 renewal cohort but not acted on because the state performance data had not yet come in. Now that it has, the CSO will recommended that MCSCS be renewed “with conditions”; the Board will be voting on the matter in December 2018 or January 2019. Dr. McGinley sought assurance MCSC renewal would be for the remaining four years only; Grant responded that the renewal was retroactive.  Grant also reported that Independence Charter has submitted a mid-cycle program change Amendment request to be considered in December that the CSO is evaluating now.

Committee member Julia Danzy asked Grant whether Charter Amendment requests for student enrollment meant increasing the size of the school’s overall enrollment. Ms Grant responded that it did.

The MaST Charter organization has withdrawn its application, sent in July 2018, to become a MCSO; the extension will give MaST more time to further study the law and consider alternative structures.

The District has negotiated a settlement in which CHAD (Architectural and Design Charter School), which brought a civil complaint against the District last year, will pay $258,000 to settle payment disputes from the 2015-16 school year and will drop its legal action against the District.  Approval of this settlement will be voted on at the November Board Action Meeting.

Education activist Deb Weiner asked the Committee whether the Academic, Financial and Organizational components have equal weight in charter renewals. Ms Grant said they do not but did not give specific information on the renewal criteria. Ms Weiner also asked what percentage of conditions placed on charters are met and what does the District do when the charter fails to meet them. Ms Grant said she would have to look that up.

Khepera Charter School to Close in June

Grant announced that the State Charter Appeal Board (CAB) has upheld the District’s decision to close Khepera Charter School, although CAB has not yet issued its written report.  Khepera will close on June 30, 2019. McGinley questioned why the District is waiting so long to actually close the school when repatriating Khepera students to District or other charter schools would be easier in January and could prevent additional turmoil for Khepera’s students and teachers. Grant responded that the CSO and District offices will be reaching out to parents and offer them options to transfer their children immediately to District schools or to transfer them back for next school year and apprise the parents of charter application process for 2019-2020. She stated that since the students could affect 89  schools (public and charter), the CSO is allowing them to finish out the year; she did not explain how she came to that figure or how the schools would be affected. Dr. McGinley noted that if all 89 schools were affected, doing the transfers sooner would result in only a handful of students per school. Grant said the District, through the CSO, had asked to close the school sooner if conditions deem necessary and is awaiting CAB’s full written decision.

November 15 Action Meeting Items

Chief of Schools Shawn Bird spoke about the November 15 Action Item on the the lease agreement to increase of space for Sayre Health Center, a federally funded health center housed in Sayre School. He said the school and health center have informally begun to coordinate more services to the students at the school for CTE programs and use of the clinic for referrals of Sayre students by the school nurse; he does not believe that the lease agreement will adversely affect the school.

Another Action Item would approve a contract with Project Based Learning, Inc.  to support the Workshop School. Project Based Learning Inc. was instrumental in opening the school three years ago.  Dr. Bird addressed the question about the Workshop School getting additional funds not available to other schools. He said that the funding was in line with additional funds made available by non-profits to other schools.

(For more information and APPS analysis of the November 15 Action Items, see APPS’ Eyes on the BOE)

Public Speakers

Temple University Law Professor Susan DeJarnatt, who has written and testified extensively on charters, submitted written testimony on the subject of “Authorization of Charter Schools”.

Attorney Reynelle Staley of the Philadelphia Education Law Center (ELC), spoke about ELC’s concerns about discriminatory enrollment and expulsion practices at many charters. She reported, as she had at a previous Board meeting, that ELC receives numerous calls from frustrated parents whose children have been denied admission or forced out without due process. She cited research showing that charter schools have fewer students with disabilities, that those admitted have less severe disabilities,  and that “counseling out” of students with disabilities and students of students of color is a common practice. She referred to the public story of the African-American student with special needs who was denied admission at Franklin Towne Charter.

Dr. McColgan asked Grant to come up and explain how such complaints are handled. Grant alluded to the general process but admitted that, for the most part, this kind of serious concern would not be dealt with until the Renewal process. Ms. Danzy added that she has heard “a lot” about students with disabilities being “counseled out” and asked what the District can do. Grant responded that it is difficult to track these students; Danzy did not appear to be satisfied with that answer. McIver asked Staley whether the Ed Law Center currently could prepare a report of their knowledge of such incidents and patterns for the Board. Staley said that the ELC would do so.

APPS member Cheri Micheau expressed her concern that there were no members of English Learners on the committee that formulated the District-wide Comprehensive Plan and pointed out that English learners (ELL) also have different types of disabilities. Cheri, who worked with ELL students in the District,  testified that it appears the District is not paying sufficient attention to this growing group of students and not providing teachers with curriculum support for these actual special needs. Committee member Mallory Fix Lopez agreed with Cheri’s concerns and said that the District has a history of shifting priorities and changing programs without enough consideration of the long-term effects. Leticia Egea-Hinton also expressed her concern about this.

APPS members Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin both spoke about the history of privatization in the District as part of their testimonies on new charter applications.  Lisa affirmed that the information given by ELC’s Ms. Staley is reflected in the District’s own Renewal Evaluations. Lisa then spoke about the collateral damage being done to the school children of Philadelphia with every new charter school that is approved. She also pointed out that many charter schools that have been around for fifteen and twenty years are not meeting academic standards. She said that the District’s Charter Office has a staff of twelve employees to oversee 87 schools (more than in the entire Pittsburgh school district). Lisa told the Committee that APPS members attended all of the SGS Focus Meetings in October and that parents at all of those schools have consistently stated that they are not looking to compete with more charters: they want to keep their teachers and principals, and they want their schools to remain open and be provided with the resources needed, including librarians, counselors, air conditioning and healthy buildings.

By approving new charters, the Board is essentially telling these parents that their goals for their schools are not as important as funding charter operators. Both Lisa and Lynda told the Committee that the District is actually helping new charter schools with their applications by telling them which zip codes and which grade levels would more likely be approved. This crosses the line from general support in filing applications to giving inside information to out-of-town charter operators looking to game the system.

Lynda noted that the ever-increasing requests for enrollment expansion by existing charters also decreases the amount of money that the District has available to spend on public schools whose shrinking budgets have already forced them to lose staff and programs. Lynda also asked why charters are increasingly able to completely move to different neighborhoods than the one they applied for, pointing out that charters make decisions based on what’s good for the charter operator as opposed to what’s good for the students they are supposed to serve.

Mary Doherty of CORA Services addressed the Committee concerning the difficulty some non-profits including CORA have had in providing no-cost services–such as drug and alcohol, truancy and others–because of the District’s failure to use the State PAYS Survey Collection. Director of Student Services Karen Lynch stated that the survey the District does use is a federal survey, YRBS, that yields millions of federal dollars to the District. Board members asked why the District wasn’t using both surveys and why the organizations aren’t using both surveys as well. Dr. McGinley said that he, Dr. McIver and Dr. McColgan are already looking into various health related service issues and invited Ms. Doherty to send him an email in order to follow-up.

Community member Horace Clouden expressed concerns about the Sayre Health Center’s effect on Sayre School. Dr. McGinley told him that there is no plan to close Sayre School. Dr. Bird stated that the principal has stated that the larger footprint by the Health Center would not interfere with the academic program.

Committee Recommendations on November 15 Action Items

Dr. McGinley said that the CHAD legal issue will be presented to the Board for discussion. He also recommended that the Committee be ready to address the full Board about nursing coverage, especially in light of a potential Action Item for a contract for private duty nurses.  In light of a grant acceptance item from Children’s Hospital on treating asthma in West Philadelphia, the Committee had asked the District to identify how this is being treated in other parts of the city and how the District plans to make equitable services elsewhere in the city.

Ms. Egea-Hinton spoke about her interest to do a deeper dive into English Learners’ needs and instruction in the 3-year plan and the PAYS survey effect on getting services to the District. She noted that the Board needs to have a more extensive conversation about Franklin Towne Charter and concerns about discrimination and counseling out students.