Student Achievement and Support Committee Report: February 20, 2020

Will Board Keep Funding Edu-Vendor Contracts–or Spend More to Solve the Environmental Crisis? 

By Diane Payne


Co-chairs Angela McGiver and Chris McGinley, Committee members Maria McColgan, Julia Danzy, and Mallory Fix Lopez. Board president Joyce Wilkerson and Board member Leticia Egea-Hinton also attended.

Committee approved the January 16, 2020 Minutes.

[All videos of meetings, agendas, and powerpoints can be viewed on the SDP website by visiting the Board of Education page. ]

Does the District Want Highly Qualified Teachers–or Does It Want TFA?

District Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh began this presentation by addressing questions, raised by Board members at the last Committee meeting, on what the District is doing both to reduce the number of teachers with emergency certifications and to fill hard-to-staff positions.  Shambeau narrated a power-point presentation on the District’s pathways to hiring teachers and supporting diversity in the workforce, including contracting with Teach for America (TFA) to place recruits in the hard-to-staff schools. As APPS co-founder Lisa Haver pointed out in her testimony, TFA has been the “lifeblood’ of the corporate disruption of public education and that it has pivoted from a teacher-training organization to an education management launching organization.  The privatization of public schools drove many teachers out of the profession–while TFA replaced through its teacher-lite program. Why would the Board want to bring people with minimal training and no experience into District schools, especially struggling schools? McIver said the District has to keep “all doors” open, but shouldn’t we be concerned about who comes in those doors? TFA recruits go through a brief training program before being placed in a classroom–as opposed to certified teachers with advanced degrees. Why should children in certain schools have to settle for this?   In addition, TFA recruits rarely stay in the classroom beyond their 2-year commitment, frequently moving into positions relating to education in think tanks, non-profits, and leadership roles (even though they have limited coursework background in education and few years of actual teaching.)  When questioned, Shambeau did admit that teachers who came to the District through traditional routes stayed longer than five years at a much higher rate than TFA recruits. Not a great track record.

Board members and Hite administration officials should heed the warning many of us heard from our parents:  you don’t get something for nothing. In this case, the price is a deepening of corporate ties and corporate agendas into our public education sphere.

One of the pathways for certification is through the corporate reform model known as Relay Graduate School, although, as McGinley emphasized once again,  Relay is “not a real graduate school”.Nor is Relay accredited in Pennsylvania.

In fact, the Relay representative who spoke later said she was from “Philadelphia Relay at Camden”.  Action Item 16 proposes spending a total of $1 million on three accredited universities plus Relay for training teacher residents.  The Board should deny this Relay contract and send a message that it will no longer spend precious funds on substandard programs.

A positive note:  the District will offer current teachers $10,000 to attend a university of their choice to help fill special education positions.

Will New Acronyms Improve Academic Performance? 

Tonya Wolford, Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability narrated a power-point on Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), Additional Targeted Support and Improvement (A-TSI) and Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI). The District has created a new slew of acronyms but the threat of punishment inherent in this system remains unchanged, as does the over-reliance on the high-stakes standardized tests.  Wolford updated the Board on the federal requirements, under ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), for monitoring student achievement. She explained the three new categories and showed how many District schools fall into each category.  Federal funding is tied to this monitoring but it is not yet clear what the stakes are as per Wolford.

Hearing the testimony of the teachers and staff about their day-to-day reality often makes the 440 staff presentations seem out of touch.  The 440 administrators lay out all of the ESSA requirements teachers must comply with. Yet no 440 administrator mentions the impacts of schools disrupted through toxic school closures, teacher vacancies in hard-to-fill positions, overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources, and educators’ pleas for help when  students affected by trauma disrupt classrooms. Shouldn’t part of these power-points include the District’s plan to mitigate these contributing factors?  Why is the onus to solve all of these problems placed on the educators in struggling schools–while the District fails to even acknowledge its responsibility?

[All staff power-points and the meeting video can be found on the SDP website.]

Board Set to Vote on Two Charter Applications

Charter Schools Chief Christina Grant gave a summary of the the Charter Schools Office (CSO)  evaluation of this year’s two new charter school applications. Six domains are considered when reviewing these applications: academic, organizational capacity, community engagement, finance, facilities, and existing operator track record (when applicable).

The CSO’s evaluation of the High School for Health Science Leadership (HS2L) cited deficiencies in all major categories. But, as noted in the APPS analysis,

serious issues arose even before the application was submitted.  KHSA Principal Nimet Eren and members of the KHSA staff testified to the Board about the unscrupulous tactics of Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) representatives who gained access to the school under false pretenses to appropriate ideas developed and used by KHSA. They claimed to be interested in supporting KHSA, but their only interest was in taking advantage of the KHSA community in order to develop a new charter school. Eren wrote about PSP’s actions in a Notebook commentary; she and KHSA staff spoke about it at Board hearings in December and January.  No one from PSP or from HS2L’s founding coalition has denied these fraudulent actions–or apologized for them.  In addition to this unscrupulous move, the CSO discovered another deception–HS2L’s claim that District 1199C was a partner and offering its Training and Upgrading Fund as part of the charter’s program.  When notified, 1199C disputed this in a letter to the Board and in a letter sent to PSP in which they demanded that PSP “cease and desist” from using the union’s name in its application.

Tim Matheney, a founding coalition member and proposed CEO for HS2L, spoke in defense of the school.  His testimony mainly consisted of a Dickensian narrative of his own early “hard-scrabble” existence in Toledo, Ohio and his repeated claims that this new charter would somehow alleviate the  poverty of HS2L’s future students. Notably missing from Matheney’s testimony was any refutation of the criticisms in the CSO evaluation.

Grant then reported on the resubmitted application for Joan Myers Brown: A String Theory School (JMB).  This application was found to be substandard and was denied twice by the Board last year. String Theory CEO Jason Corasanite admitted, after the third submission in November 2019, that few changes had been made in the application. Grant pointed out, as she did last year, that the two existing String Theory schools, including a Renaissance charter at Edmunds, have shown poor academic performance and that String Theory has refused to sign new charter agreements for both schools. Corsanite spoke in defense of the JMB application, stating that the CSO lacks understanding of Charter School Law and citing Charter Appeal Board (CAB) legal cases to support this assertion.  Last November, Corsonite told the Inquirer that he anticipated a Board rejection and that he intended to appeal to the CAB.  His cavalier dismissal of the school district’s local authority to grant or deny a charter, as well as his disinterest in the financial harm to other district students, leads to renewed doubts about claims by Corasanite and String Theory  that they are all about serving the community.

In January, APPS reported:  String Theory Schools (STS) has been the subject of news articles detailing Corosanite’s use of previous charter schools granted to STS as a platform from which to build a real estate development business with attorneys at Sand & Saidel, P.C. and with financial consultants Santilli & Thomson, LLC.  Santilli & Thompson would act as JMBA’s business controller, using the per-pupil funding for each student to satisfy the bank’s collateral for additional building loans. The complicated legal agreements of the funding partners could leave the District and taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of debt if the real estate and/or banking market falls (as they did in 2008 crash) leaving STS, Sand & Saidel P.C. and Santilli & Thomson LLC underwater. This was laid out in several articles about String Theory’s real estate/business model, including the 2015 Inquirer article by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs, Philly Charters Borrow $500 Million of Taxpayers’ Funds.

Grant’s final charter item was the application from Laboratory Charter School for relocation.  Currently this one school spans three sites in three zip codes, and they wish to consolidate to two campuses. (Almost all District schools occupy one building in one location; in charterworld, it is not unusual for one school to spread across locations and buildings. String Theory’s Performing Arts Charter occupies two buildings in South Philadelphia and one in Center City, spanning two zip codes.)  Grant said the CSO would be exploring the community engagement, family affects, and the receiving community’s engagement before making a presentation to the Board in March or April. As with charter renewals, there are no separate hearings for charter applications.

How Will Board Ensure Equitable Student Supports?

Chief Academic Officer Malika Savoy-Brooks  addressed the issue of how the District can provide the best to our children to ensure student success?  The bottom line of this presentation seemed to be, “we can’t keep doing what we are doing now.” The solution seems to be, mandatory Professional Development which includes all *leaders* in the District; 440 leadership staff, principals, assistant principals, and school based teacher leaders.  This mandatory professional development’s goal would be to make sure everyone is on the same page and knowledgeable about what students need. This is not a bad goal.

What seemed to be alarmingly missing from this discussion and solution was teacher voice.  Brooks frequently referred to “I” in this discussion. She referred to 440 staff having difficult and reflective conversations about this issue.  But once again, it felt very much like a top down identification of a problem and solution.

Further, this goes back to the point made by Cheri Micheau in her public comment portion when she questioned the continued outsourcing of P.D.  In addition, Micheau raised concerns about the qualifications of the people in leadership positions within 440. This issue has been raised before, even by Board Member McGinley at an Action Meeting where he noted that qualifications do matter in leadership assignments.  So what comes to mind again, is the disconnect. If the folks in leadership positions don’t have the necessary background, experience, and or educational degrees then all the outsourced P.D. in the world won’t make them competent. And, ignoring teacher voice will once again make this a failing top down initiative.

Public Speakers

As teachers and educators spoke about conditions in their classrooms and their schools, one felt that disconnect between their reality and the previous power-point narratives.

A Finletter Elementary teacher described the noise of a power saw, for some reason being operated during the school day, that disrupted the teaching and learning in her classroom and all those within earshot.  She had the forethought to record it, and she played it for the Board members so they could experience what she and her students were subjected to. Of course, her students’ academic achievement, as measured on standardized tests as required by the ESSA, will be judged without any consideration of the disruption.  This kind of thoughtless disruption, unfortunately, is not an anomaly–just ask the students of Benjamin Franklin High School.

Three teachers from McClure Elementary spoke about the unexpected change in their schedule, forcing them to work over the Spring Break while the rest of the District has off.   A number of instructional days were lost due to an emergency closing of McClure for hazardous material clean-up. These teachers reminded the Board of the many efforts McClure staff made to engage the District in thoughtful solutions for their students and how they were consistently ignored by the Administration.  Now they find themselves ordered to work through Spring Break. No information was available regarding the contractual impact of this order. McGinley noted that the Hite administration, not the Board, deals with the contractual issues between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Actually, only the Board has the authority to change the official school calendar.  In addition, the Board has authority over the Superintendent and could express its collective wish that these days be made up in another way. This order failed to show any consideration of long-term plans and engagements staff may already have in place for those days. As one teacher pointed out, the District’s efforts to paint this as “what is best for the kids” is a sham tactic.  Isn’t it possible also that students’ families have travel and holiday plans? Should teachers lose planned vacation time with their families because the Hite administration had no coherent plan to deal with the many environmental crises?

Four members of APPS–Zoe Rooney, Lisa Haver, Cheri Micheau, and Lynda Rubin–spoke in defense of public education issues.    These speakers questioned the format for the Comprehensive School Review Process (CSPR), outsourcing contracts for professional development and teacher recruitment with Relay and TFA, and rejecting substandard charter school applications.  Fix Lopez said that the Board expects to get some answers at the next Action Item meeting on some of Rooney’s CSPR questions. Good news, as APPS members have been asking the Board and the Administration to include the community in this process for months.