by Diane Payne
Present at this second meeting of the Student Achievement and Support were Board Co-chairs Chris McGinley and Angela McIver, along with Committee members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix-Lopez, and Maria McColgan. Three APPS members attended, two testified. Lisa Haver asked about the indefinite postponement of charter renewals which result in de facto contract extensions without public scrutiny. Cheri Micheau addressed the lack of equity in the school selection process for English Language Learners and students with special needs. There were three staff presentations: The High School Selection Process/District-wide Comprehensive Plan, New Charter Application timeline, and Multiple Charter School Organizations (MCSO) revised timeline.
The PowerPoint presentations are available at https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/wp-content/uploads/sites/892/2018/10/10_11_18-Presentations.pdf and video of all BOE meetings are posted at https://videoplayer.telvue.com/player/0bfLByeZXfZHVlpy5BHT5v2arkggCWuH/videos?autostart=true&showtabssearch=true
High School Selection Process
A recent Pew study has examined the continuing inequity in the school selection process. Those adversely affected include: African American, Hispanic, ELL, and special education students. District Chief of Student Support Services (CSSS) Karyn Lynch led the presentation, outlining actions the District is taking to address the PEW study shortcomings, including various outreach strategies, targeting charter school families, and marketing a “find your fit” campaign.
Student Board member Alfredo Practico stated that more counselors are needed to ensure that students get the help and access they need in the school selection process. Lynch responded that it is also the responsibility of homeroom teachers and English teachers to assist students through this process, although she did not explain how. One Board member questioned why students of color with high PSSA scores are often rejected from special admit schools. Another noted that not all students are good test takers and that this often results in bright students not able to gain access to special-admit and citywide admit middle and high schools.
Other speakers on this topic included: Christina Moon from the Education Law Center (ELC); education activist Debra Weiner; Michele Schmidt from the PEW Foundation; Cecelia Thompson, activist and parent of special needs student; and retired District teacher and APPS member Cheri Micheau. (Although APPS requested at this and previous Committee meetings that a speakers list be made available, none was. We apologize for any errors in spelling names.) Moon noted that hundreds of parents have contacted the ELC office about their problems with the selection process. Thompson and Micheau both noted that the LeGare Consent Decree, designed to protect the rights of Special Education and ELL students in this selection process, is complicated and that parents need more support from the district. (There was no mention of LeGare in the District presentation.) Weiner told the Board she found it unacceptable that there are so many empty seats in some citywide-admit schools. Also noted by the speakers was the error-prone process of “walking” all of the paperwork through the various steps in the selection process. “Walking” in this context means that all of the paperwork cannot be electronically submitted, that a parent or guardian needs to hand-deliver packets. This has resulted in lost documents and missed deadlines.
District-Wide Comprehensive List 2019-2022
Pennsylvania requires that every local education agency (LEA) revise its District-wide Comprehensive Plan plan every three years. Chief of Academic Support Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks presented the District’s proposed revision. The District has listed three focus areas for this plan: Standards-aligned curricula, interventions based on student need, and highly qualified teachers. (Go to the BOE website to see the strategies and implementation steps for each of these three areas.) Board members asked extensive and probing questions after the presentation.
Committee Co-chair Chris McGinley observed that this plan was a “top-down document” which district staff is required to implement. He stated that buy-in is more likely to occur when the staff is able to have involvement in its creation. The District is now facing a deadline, so there was little to be done at this juncture, but McGinley strongly advised a more engaged process in the future. Mallory Fix-Lopez (a former teacher) noted similar concerns about the professional development outlined in the plan. She said that if teachers aren’t engaged, the PD is not as effective.
Maria McColgan asked whether programs currently recommended for schools are “evidence-based”. Chief Schools Officer Shawn Bird responded that all programs selected are evidence-based. Angela McIver requested that in the future, when district staff are including programs on the Board’s Action List for a vote, staff include what the programs are and how staff came to the decision to select them. McGinley added that having this information would give more attention to “justification” rather than simply the description currently found in the narrative of the Action Items.
Listening to all the district-created language on this Comprehensive Plan, as well as the Board members’ comments, raises some important questions about how administrators at 440 formulate and hand down these plans: What is the nature and length of their classroom experience? How long has it been since these individuals worked in real classrooms? How often do they visit classrooms when composing these documents? The apparent disconnect between administrators at 440 and classroom teachers was raised by speaker Andrew Saltz.
Saltz is a Philadelphia high school teacher, parent of a district kindergarten student, and member of the PFT’s Caucus of Working Educators. He spoke passionately and eloquently on the very topic of top-down dictates, and he gave examples of the administration’s lack of respect for teachers and their diminishing autonomy. Saltz challenged the Board to investigate and correct this culture of fear before more highly qualified teachers leave the district. Those teachers who stay, he said, must be allowed to use their own professional knowledge and experience to achieve the District’s stated goals.
After hearing the questions of Lopez and McGinley and the testimony of Saltz, it is clear that a pressing goal for the Board must be to restore teacher respect, autonomy, and professionalism. That will require a balance between achieving curricular goals and teacher expertise. Demanding strict adherence to daily scripted, non-negotiable, curricular demands is far different than setting benchmarks for marking periods that allow for teachers’ professional judgement and autonomy yet still require standard goals be achieved. The former treats children as widgets and teachers as robots. The latter treats children as young students and teachers as professionals. The former creates cultures of fear; the latter creates a culture of collegial collaboration.
Charter School Office Reports
Interim Chief of the Charter Schools Office (CSO) Christina Grant gave an oral presentation (without PowerPoint or public materials) on the timeline for new charter school applications. Charter applicants’ letters of intent are due October 15, 2018. The CSO will subsequently post its evaluation of all applications on the SDP website. (The CSO no longer makes recommendations about whether the applications should be approved.) Public hearings will be held in December and January, and the Board will vote on the applications at a special February 2019 meeting. As of now, one application, from Philadelphia Montessori School, has been received.
Grant then spoke about the Multiple Charter School Application (MCSO) submitted by MaST Charter School. The District has requested and received an extension from MaST; this application will now come up for a vote at the November Board meeting. Grant noted that the CSO has been researching MCSOs in other jurisdictions.
APPS has reported that the MCSO represents a new item in the toolkit of those enabling the expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania’s public school systems. The MCSO was inserted into the latest amending of the PA Charter School Law (CSL) in 2017. The legislation was snuck into the Omnibus Education Act of 2017, Act 55; in fact, it was added at the bottom as an addition to Section 17-1729 of the Charter School Law. (Its official citation is 24 P.S. § 17-17291-A.) As yet, there are no MCSOs in the state, so the ramifications are unclear, but the fact remains that the PA Charter School Law is considered one of the worst charter school laws. This amendment does not make it any better, just the opposite. Many fear that this is opening the door for Charter School Districts both within districts and across district lines.
None of the Board members questioned Grant about either of the Charter School issues. Is that an indication that the Board members lack enough understanding of the issues to formulate a question? Their understanding of this new law is important to both the fiscal solvency of the district and protection of taxpayer money. District stakeholders and taxpayers need to know how the Board will deal with this threat.
In her testimony, APPS co-founder Lisa Haver asked the Board members when they will take action on charter renewals that the SRC postponed indefinitely since 2016. This amounts to defacto extensions of Charter School contracts, including some that the CSO recommended for non-renewal. Navigating the SDP website to try and glean information about the status of renewal applications, the district’s recommendations, and reasons for a delays is an exercise in frustration. Nothing about the presentation of the information on the website is clear, concise, or user-friendly. Yet as Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson has pointed out on numerous occasions, charter school are the district’s single biggest budget item–one that comes at a great cost to actual public schools. Any taxpayer should be able to go on the District website and understand exactly what is happening with charter renewals, new applications, and charter amendments–whether current or past.
Ten Action Items were listed by title only on the reverse side of the agenda, thus it was impossible for attendees to understand anything regarding these items. After her testimony, Lisa Haver told the Committee members that public engagement is not possible when no member of the public knew what they were talking about. McGinley responded that it would mean copying all of the Action Items. Haver said that the Board’s first consideration can’t be how much paper is being used but making sure that the people could see what was being discussed and voted on. She suggested that at minimum, the Committee could project the Action Items in question as it did with the staff presentations. At the conclusion of the public speakers portion, Chair McGinley asked if there was any discussion on those ten items. There was no further discussion and the Board voted to move all items forward for the next BOE Action Meeting.