Student Achievement and Support Committee Report:  December 5, 2019

by Lynda Rubin

In response to repeated public requests, the Board Committees have begun posting the Committee agendas, including descriptions of Action Items to be considered, one week before the meeting. However, 7 new items were added to the agenda just hours before this meeting, 6 of which are charter renewals (including 5 Mastery charters). Yet the CSO had sufficient time to prepare an extensive power-point presentation. We also question how parents and students from all 5 Mastery schools were printed on the official speakers list. How did charter supporters sign up 24 hours ahead of time to speak on Action Items that were not publicly posted until 5 hours before the meeting? 

Additionally, the power-point slides prepared for the District Reports by staff were not posted until the day after the meeting. Board members continue to say that Committee meetings are where deliberation and dialogue take place, and have used that justification for not responding to questions at Action Meetings.  The Board continues to withhold information about charter matters until after the Board votes. How can people ask informed questions with limited information? 

Present: Chair Angela McIver, Committee members Mallory Fix Lopez, Julia Danzy,  Maria McColgan; Student Representative Doha Ibrahim. Leticia Egea-Hinton also attended. Co-Chair Chris McGinley was absent, but did review materials before the meeting and left questions for staff.

Minutes from the November 14, 2019 committee meeting were approved and will be posted on the website.

Updates from November 14, 2019 Meeting

In response to a request for disaggregated data on student outcomes on IB (International Baccalaureate) exams, Chief of Schools Shawn Bird reviewed a SY 2018-19 data summary of high school seniors participating in six high schools with the rigorous IB programs: Central HS, Hill Freedman HS, George Washington HS, Girls’ High School, Bodine HS and Northeast HS. McIver noted that there is also an IB program at Wilson Middle; Bird said that there is also a program at Mayfair Elementary. Fix Lopez, citing concerns about equity and geographic placement of programs throughout the city, said that eight IB schools are not enough for a District this size.  She asked whether there is a goal to increase the number of IB schools and whether the CSPR (Comprehensive School Program Review) process will address this. Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks said that CSPR could address this but the Academic Office is concentrating on preparing students to be successful. Fix Lopez asked how IB program placements in schools were made. Savoy-Brooks and Bird cited teacher interest and a rigorous certification system, including training. Bird added that some schools have AP (advanced placement) course options, some have both or “dual enrollment credit” programs as options. Savoy-Brooks noted that all high schools are going through Middle States accreditation process.

Bird stated that at the previous meeting there had been questions about 1) decreasing teachers’ reliance on emergency certificates and how the District is coping with that, 2) how District supports “hard to staff” schools due to extended medical leaves, and 3) how the District supports schools with small populations of students who need a particular service (e.g. ELL) but not enough students for a full time staff person. Bird stated that Larisa Shambaugh, Chief Talent Officer, was not available for this meeting but will address these questions at the January 16th meeting.

Schools Exiting Acceleration Network

Bird stated that there are currently 19 schools in the Acceleration Network (formerly known as The Turnaround Network), in which schools temporarily receive additional funds, staff and resources.  Bird gave an overview of the model’s goals. To exit the Acceleration Model, a school must achieve an overall SPR score to qualify for the Watch Tier (just above the lowest tier, Intervene) or higher by 25% for two consecutive years, and the school must show three consecutive years growth in Reading and Math. The five schools exiting the Acceleration Network this year are: John Barry Elementary, Dunbar Elementary, McMichael Elementary (PK-8), Mitchell Elementary School, and Munoz-Marin Elementary. The principals of those schools came to the meeting; some testified. Bird stated that teachers are the most important factor to student success. Actually, research has shown for years that the strongest predictors of student success are parents’ income and level of education. Information on the stability of the teaching staff in the schools (either before placement in the Acceleration Network or going forward) was not provided. Educators are well aware that a principal’s approach to leading the school, and her/his relationship with teachers, can make or break a school. The District might understand those concepts in theory, but the Hite administration has been forcing teachers and principals to reapply for their positions in Priority Schools, Redesign Schools, Transformation Schools, etc. for years. Bird stated that despite exiting the Acceleration Network, the schools will have “some access” to their previous supports; he did not explain what that means. The stability of supports that work for schools has been on the minds of many teachers and principals in these schools. Mitchell Principal Stephanie Andrewlevich addressed this in her remarks. Noting that with equity, books with all pages intact, updated computers, etc., there is hope for change.  She also asked, “Will the additional resources be taken? We’ve been told they’ll stay.” Most importantly she said, “Where resources are lost, advancements crumble.” Committee members asked the right questions about sustainability but don’t always get firm answers. Danzy asked whether the District will leave a “point person” to support the growth and new students as they enroll each year. Savoy-Brooks and Bird spoke about continuity through the school’s Leadership Team, etc. without addressing teacher retention or the importance of the principal’s relationship to the process. Danzy and Fix Lopez asked more questions about how the District plans to oversee the transition and whether there are plans for support to schools if the progress subsides when money, staff and resources are scaled back. There was no clear response to these questions. When certain schools are cherry-picked each year, and given that year’s turnaround designation, it is a distraction from the fact that schools do better when better funded and better resourced.

APPS members attended public meetings for all Priority Schools (now called SGS schools) during their selection and determination of which reorganization plan they would follow since 2016-17. Since not all schools were given the extra supports, the Board should ask how the other schools in different levels of support, or no additional support, have fared. For years, schools across the District have struggled as a result of  teacher churn and lost programs and resources, then have been judged as “failing” as if it were the lack of dedication or ability of teachers in those schools. We applaud the implementation of new programs and support staff, but wonder why the District didn’t realize what would happen as they removed staff and programs from schools for over a decade? We also ask about the current students in other schools in the District who are also deserving of such supports. We recommend, again, that specific resources in sufficient numbers are critical to a school’s overall climate and progress and welfare of all students: Additional nurses, counselors, NTA’s and the return of viable school libraries staffed by certified teacher librarians. Teachers continue to object to the time they must devote to collecting and reporting data at the expense of engaging children in actual learning.

Charter Schools Office Reviews New Applications and Renewals

Chief of Charter Schools Christina Grant announced that although six Letters of Intent were received, only two full applications for new charters were  submitted. The first required hearing on each of these submissions will be held on the afternoon/evening of Friday December 20, 2019; the second required hearing will be held on January 22, 2020. Public testimony will not be heard at the second meeting. The law mandates that the Board must vote on these applications by March 4, 2020.
Why has the Board scheduled the only charter hearing at which the public can actually testify about the new applications on the Friday evening 5 days before Christmas? This date and time certainly means that fewer parents, staff and community members will be able to attend. The fact that written testimony can be submitted does not mitigate the Board’s message that public discourse is not a vital part of their decision. While this day/time may fit into the schedules of  the executives of the charter company making the application, it is symbolic, to say the least, of the undervaluing of public comment.

String Theory/Joan Myers Brown School of Dance

This is a resubmission of the application twice rejected by the Board in the last application cycle. String Theory now proposes opening in September 2020 with 900 students in grades K-8 in Overbrook. The original application was rejected for several reasons, including the fact that despite using the name of the renowned dancer and founder of PhilaDanco, there was no actual dance curriculum. String Theory’s new application is another attempt to obtain more public funds that comes with each student. They will then use these funds as collateral so that banks and lenders will increase their bond loans. This bond money will then be used to fund their real estate ventures. [Read Building Booms Over Classrooms – Charters borrow nearly $500 million on taxpayers’ dime]

High School for Health Sciences Leadership Charter School

The District has health-related programs in several schools including Kensington Health Science Academy, Swenson, Southern, and Lincoln. There is no educational need to start a health/science charter. There may be a financial or real estate need, but not an educational need.  Why do the biggest hospitals and universities in the city want to get into the charter business? Why have they not made a commitment to provide resources to struggling neighborhood schools? Why is Local 1199C a partner in a charter school?   This applicant wants to operate a school in Logan with 600 students in grades 9-12, recruiting from zip codes 19120, 19133, 19140, and 19141.

APPS will review the schools’ new applications and hearing results in  a future report.

Charter Renewal Applications

This year’s renewals are divided into two cohorts, Fall and Spring. The CSO made recommendations only for the Fall cohort for Board Action Meeting on  December 12, 2019. Grant came to the Committee meeting having met with each of the charter schools below to negotiate the terms of the renewal. She presented the CSO’s recommendations for the Board to approve these charters and amendment requests. The Board will be voting on the following schools at the December 12 Action Meeting:

1.  Folk Arts Cultural Treasures (FACT) Charter School (Item # 33)  K-8, 847 students Chinatown. Recommended for 5 Year renewal.

2.  Mastery Charter School – Harrity (Renaissance Charter), (Item # 35) K-8, 850 students, Cobbs Creek.  Recommended for 5 Year renewal. Letter of support from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was submitted.

3.    Mastery Charter HS School – Lenfest  (Item #34) 7-12  (but authorized for K-12) 600 students, Old City. Recommended for 5 Year renewal. Letter of support from Councilman Mark Squilla was submitted.

4.    Mastery Charter School – Mann (Renaissance Charter), (Item # 36)  K-6, 555 students, Wynnefield. Recommended for 5 Year renewal.

5.  Mastery Charter School – Smedley (Renaissance Charter), (Item #37) K-6, 730 students, Frankford. Recommended for 5 Year renewal with  Amendment + 25 additional seats = 755 students.

6.   Mastery Charter School – Thomas (Item # 38) K-12, 1300 students South Philadelphia. Recommended for 5 Year renewal.

All of the Mastery Charter Renaissance Schools above had previously refused to sign their agreements because they would not accept that the SRC/Board had oversight responsibilities which could include conditions to assist that the schools meet their required goals. They and other charters continued to operate for years without agreements, a major flaw in the PA Charter School Law. The above Mastery schools have now signed an agreement with the District. The Board approved seven Mastery schools in September. Although APPS has asked several times, the Board would not disclose the conditions proposed or why the Board dropped those conditions this year.

Grant stated that the District is now using a new evaluation system for charter renewals. She cited that the Approaching Standards category indicated meeting 45%– 75% of the goal. As Lisa Haver pointed out in her testimony, a charter school can avoid the “Does Not Meet Standard” category just by getting fewer than 50% of possible points. None of the five Mastery schools on this agenda, or the seven on the September agenda, met standards in all categories. 

In reference to the new evaluation system, Fix Lopez asked Grant if “sometimes the condition is not met, it just disappears?” Grant replied that under this evaluation tool, conditions were not necessary. When questioned about Mastery Harrity’s approval, Grant actually said, “They wouldn’t have been renewed if the former conditions were in place. But they’re starting over…”  Unfortunately, none of the Committee members asked her what that meant. There is no “starting over” category on the Renewal Evaluation.

Round 1 Schools Not on December Action Meeting Agenda

7.    Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School  K-12, 1,220 students, Juniata Park,  (recommended for 5 Year renewal) Enrollment +100 students – with Recommendations =1320 total students)

8.    Independence Charter School K-8, 825 students, Rittenhouse Square, (Amendment Request Educational Program Change) –  Shift from 2 Instructional Models (one majority Spanish, one majority English) to single majority Spanish Instructional Model) – Recommended

9.    Northwood Academy Charter School K-8,  788 Students, Frankford (Recommended 5 year renewal)

APPS has long voiced concerns about the District not holding charter schools accountable for lack of progress and other irregularities in their operations, such as failure to provide students due process.  In a previous meeting, when Grant was been questioned about the disappearance of conditions, she replied, “We’re happy with where we are with Mastery now.”

Round 2 Schools (Spring 2020):  7 schools including, Imhotep, KIPP Philadelphia Charter, Mastery Charter at Douglass, People for People Charter, Russel Byers Charter, Universal Charter at Bluford, and Universal Charter at Daroff.

Action Items

None of the Board members raised questions on the proposed Action Items. Bird spoke about the following Items: Item # 29, Contract with Shine Early Learning, Inc. ($60,000) (12/13/19 – 6/30/20) to provide training and design support to the Office of Early Childhood Education to assist in the District’s meeting the requirements of the revised federal Head Start Program standards. Item #30, Contract Council of Great City Schools – Math Curriculum Audit ($60,000) (12/13/19 – 6/30/20) to review the District’s core materials, curricula and curriculum implementation across the District. Item #31 Contract Amendment with TNTP-PhillyPLUS Residents ($10,000) (7/1/19 – 6/30/20). This contract extends the program to two additional schools: Mitchell Elementary and Ziegler Elementary. The Neubauer Foundation has again insinuated itself into District Administration where it can influence the future direction of the District by funding most of the costs of this administrative program. The District was recently directed by the Board to wind down its dependence on outside principal residency programs in favor of developing an in-house program. Bird replied there will be “no full contract again” because the District is bringing this in-house, although he did say that PSP would continue to be a part of the program. What does he mean by “full contract”? It is also interesting that this new amendment covers the past 5 ½ months and continues to up the end of this school year. How was this program extended to two more schools for half of a school year before the signing of a contract?

Naomi Wyatt, Chief of Staff, spoke about additional Action Item #39, Ratification of MOU (Memorandum of Understanding – The City of Philadelphia through Department of Health.  If ratified by the Board and approved by the State, this would provide for an interim school position for a doctor from the City to fill the missing role needed by nurses to fill Standing Orders. In answer to Danzy’s question as to whether this doctor will be an accessible resource for nurses questions, Wyatt said, “No.” She said the District is looking for someone else capable of overseeing the ACCESS program and be a School Health Medical Consultant able to answer any questions the nurses may have.

Public Speakers

Horace Cloudon questioned how the Board measures success using the complicated statistical SPR (School Progress Report).  Danzy remarked that she too has questions about how SPR is used. She stated that when she thinks of achievement, she thinks academics. One statement that should be etched in stone and displayed on a wall at 440 was made by Chief of Schools Shawn Bird in reply, “Children are more than just a number on a test.” While many of us have been extolling that sentiment for years, we have often questioned the District’s insistence on increasing the number of assessments given to children every year, beginning on the first day of kindergarten.

APPS member and retired school counselor Lynda Rubin spoke against Item 31 and the continued outsourcing of District responsibilities to corporate companies not based in educational pedagogy, but in profits.  PSP, Great Schools Compact, KIPP, and foundations such as Neubauer and Broad use their wealth to promote standardized teaching and administration through TFA and PhillyPLUS programs which use one-size-fits-all methods–instead of using researched educational skills and child development knowledge.  Rubin asked what happened to the Board’s decision to stop outsourcing such important jobs and bring them in-house. Rubin referred to a meeting where an Assistant Superintendent was promoting past performance from such trained principals. The principal had been trained at PhillyPLUS and wanted to use a behavioral program she  had learned about in the principal training. That program was Jounce, a program described as “inhumane” by teachers who have gone through it.  Principals need to be steeped in proven educational models and learning skills to best serve our students.

Lisa Haver, retired teacher and APPS co-founder, also spoke about the use of PSP as teacher or principal trainers since they are more about teaching ideology than meeting children’s needs. Haver stated that the charter renewal process is a sham because it is done behind closed doors without public hearings as is done in, for example, Bethlehem School District. Haver provided the Committee members with a report on Jounce’s harsh methods that she and Lynda Rubin had written. Haver also pointed out that the seven Mastery schools that were renewed in September represents $440 million in District spending over the five year agreement. She noted that not one charter had met standards in every category. Haver then stated that since Approaches Standards can range from 45% to 75% achievement, that charters could meet fewer than half of the points needed and still meet standards for renewal. With such a wide spread, Approaching Standards is a meaningless measure. Haver again brought up the status of two Franklin Town Charter schools and their renewal through an agreement to bypass court hearings. Franklin Town Charter is known to some as the “Real Estate Apartheid Charter School”.  District website shows that Franklin Town Charter Elementary = 81% white and Franklin Town Charter High School = 67% white.

Zoe Rooney, high school math teacher, parent of special needs child and APPS member, spoke on several initiatives of the District. CSPR has been covered in both the Finance/Facilities Committee as well as Student Achievement where, she said, it most belongs. Rooney filed a Right to Know Request weeks ago and just received a copy of the  Flo-Analtyics contract. That company will be conducting the research for the CSPR. Rooney told the Committee that Flo-Analytics staff will have access to student educational records and personal information. She said that parents should have been notified, at the least, and that providing the data in aggregated form (which does not expose personal information) should be followed. (The irony here is that stakeholders must file special requests for public information so that the personal information of the company’s personnel is protected.) Rooney said she used some formulas from the Algebra she teaches to explore the District’s claim of “building capacity”,  noting that the figures the District posted online have not been updated since 2011. If those numbers are what the District is currently using, then they are seriously out of date. For example, Rooney said that IEP capacity (number of classrooms needed) hasn’t changed in years. While the number of students with IEPs has grown, the classroom capacity numbers haven’t changed. She noted 2%-3% increases in two years. But at Strawberry Mansion, the number of IEPs went from 30% to 50.3%.  Rooney pointed out that many classes for students with IEPs are capped at much smaller sizes than general education classes; students with IEPs may also require space for pull-out supports both necessitating more classroom space. McIver responded that the student data exposure needs to be addressed and making sure that all school planning data is using accurate figures.

Power-point presentations can be found by going to the Committee meeting agenda.

The next Student Achievement Committee meeting will be held on January 16, 2020.