Student Achievement and Support Committee Report: September 5, 2019

by Lynda Rubin

The Committee conducted its first meeting of the new school year continuing some unfortunate practices from last year: failing to provide all necessary materials for those in attendance prior to the meeting, specifically the full content of the Action Items on the agenda and the staff presentations.  Although the agenda and some very brief descriptions were posted before Thursday, it was not until just a few hours before the meeting that the titles of Action Items 39 through 47, renewals of 9 charter schools (to be reported on below), were added to the Agenda.

Parents, teachers, students and community members need to know what will be discussed before the meeting if they are to make informed comments and questions.  Each time APPS raises that issue about any Board meetings we are told that the public can submit written testimony online. True, but submitted written testimony after the fact is NOT ever communicated to the public and is a very different experience than being able to face the Board members themselves and communicate concerns to those in the audience and any reporters who may be present.  We hope the Board of Education moves into its second year by taking seriously the right of the public to be given timely notification of items and be able to observe, attend and comment on any School District issue. (Access the updated agenda and materials here and clicking on the icons to the right of  9/5/19 – School Student Achievement and Support Committee. The power-point presentations for the following presentations were added for public view to the link above after the meeting.)

Present at the first Student Achievement and Support Committee of the 2019-2020 school year  were Co-Chairs Chris McGinley and Angela McGiver, Committee members Julia Danzy and Mallory Fix Lopez. Maria McColgan was absent.  Board President Joyce Wilkerson stopped in briefly to observe.

Minutes of the June 13, 2019 Student Achievement Committee were approved.

Key Initiatives and School Opening

Chief of Schools Shawn Bird stated that over 100 classrooms were modernized, but he did not specify the names of the schools, grade levels or the type of modernization made to the classrooms. He cited the $37 million spent to retrofit Ben Franklin High School to accommodate the co-location with Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  Bird reported on the number of existing vacancies and information about new teacher hires as of 9/5/19. Vacancies included 40.4 teacher vacancies, 0 principal, 0 counselor, 3 nurse, and 11 general cleaners vacancies. Other vacancies include climate managers (1), climate liaisons (2), climate specialists (3), and student climate support (147). No information was provided as to which schools have these supports or a vacancy. After being asked by McGinley for information about the student climate support positions,  Bird identified them primarily as 3-5 hour/day aides for lunch duty. He reported that the District continues to work on hiring teachers of color. McGinley asked that the Board be provided with a breakdown of these vacancies across the schools. Bird reported that of the new teacher hires, 36% are teachers of color, an increase of 2% from the previous school year. 832 teachers were hired this year, with a total of 8760 teachers in the District. 825 teachers (9.4%) are on emergency permits and 267 (32%) of new teachers have emergency permits.

New Initiative: Voter Education and Registration Effort for Students

Chief Academic Officer Malika Savoy-Brooks introduced Social Studies Curriculum Specialists Yaasiyn Muhammad and Shaquita Smith who presented a new Professional Development  program for High School Social Studies Teachers. In response to a growing call by District teachers, students, community activist organizations and voter rights organizations, the School District is implementing the beginning of a High School Social Studies initiative to inform all students about the voting process and to assist eligible-aged students to register to vote. Professional development has been prepared by interested teachers/coordinators, in conjunction with local voting rights groups, with the goal of increasing student knowledge about voting procedures and participation in elections.  All lessons and information are conducted on a non-partisan basis. Program Coordinators will remain in contact with teachers throughout the year. Kick-off will be on September 24, 2019 with one day mini-lessons on the voting process, getting commitments to participate and lessons on Voter Registration Day.  Coordinators are already working with non-partisan city voter organizations, including the Committee of 70, League of Women Voters and local student voter organizations. A 3-day Voter Education Conference for 1500 students is being planned for Spring 2020. Administration will provide names of eligible-aged students to their schools and will track participation for submission for the Governor’s Curriculum Engagement award.

(The actual resources and lessons can be found by copying the following link into the URL window on your computer < > )

Fix Lopez asked how schools would handle citizenship status and provide talking points for teachers on how to properly and privately handle such questions with students. Dr. Savoy-Brooks said they would reach out to the Multi-Lingual Department.

2019-20 School Selection Procedures 

Dr. Bird testified that the District is monitoring the use by students of the high school selection process, including a 4% increase in total applications, as well as city-wide use and a 2% increase in students of color receiving at least one approval for admission. In addition, all city-wide high schools will use a lottery process for admission. Therefore, four schools which previously had admission criteria – Constitution, High School for the Future, Paul Robeson High and Philadelphia Military Academy – will rely solely on the lottery process. Dr. Bird stated that the District’s goal is to increase access to high-performing schools by students of color. He also stated that the District is aware that some students who do not meet the criteria are being accepted and his office is going to explore this. He did not give any numbers for these occurrences and implied that it could pertain to students given special access to a school.

(In later testimony, APPS members Cheri Micheau and Zoe Rooney pointed out that the District needs to do more than just compile data to see whether predetermined targets are met for increases in schools’ considerations of and acceptances for Special Ed and ELL students. Rather, the District needs to adopt policies and oversight that will help level the playing field for students in accessing these schools despite their special needs.)  Board Member Danzy asked which supports were being put in place to ensure that students were not being set up for failure, including providing programs to assist with student feelings of familiarity in a new school, attention to the academic needs of at-risk students, attendance support, etc. There was some discussion about summer orientations being held. Dr. Bird and Dr. Savoy-Brooks cited a Bridge program at Carver HS where students can come to visit the school for first-hand impressions. Student Services Director Karen Lynch noted that there is more standardization of what is included in the application process and that attendance and behavior criteria are no longer included on the application. Fix Lopez asked about who in the schools were making decisions about acceptances and whether there was room to cherry-pick desired students. Lynch stated that the new standardization of the computerized application form is helpful in more equal access to schools acceptances, but that there still needs to be an awareness that some children’s attributes are not fully reflected by such a piece of paper. She also said they were working with principals about these issues.

APPS members have testified that an emphasis on computerized applications and relying on statistics can miss the human factor of our children’s school experience. Making sure that there are sufficient counselors, Special Ed and ELL staff at  both sending and receiving schools who are given time to engage with each student and their family in encouraging students to explore new possibilities is a key ingredient in supporting students.  In addition, students who choose to attend their neighborhood high schools do not submit applications, and this should be considered when the District evaluates the success of increasing application numbers to city-wide or special admission schools.

Charter School Office Report 

Interim Charter Schools Director Christina Grant reported on the 2019-20 New Charter Application Cycle, including timelines for charter schools to submit their applications and the Board’s response, and any new details being asked of prospective charters, e.g. details of facility acquisition and renovation requirements and checking on the alignment of existing charters to the charter school performance framework. Grant further outlined the procedure for the 16 schools that are in the 2019-20 Renewal Cohort. (Information submitted and school performance updates on these schools can be found on the Charter School “Renewal’ page of the website.) This year the 16 renewals are being divided into 2 rounds, the first being voted on by the Board in December and the second in February.

Ms. Grant reported that Amendment Requests during Renewal, as opposed to mid-cycle, are as follows:

1st Round

  • Community Academy–Enrollment Increase (+) 100 seats
  • Independence–Change to Educational Program; Shift to single language
    immersion model from dual model

    2nd Round

Mastery Douglass              Enrollment Adjustment          Minus (-)25 seats

Mastery Smedley             Enrollment Adjustment      Additional (+) 25 seats

People for People            Enrollment Increase           Additional (+) 100 seats

Ms. Grant summarized these additional seats by adding up the total difference and emphasizing that the 200 additional seat requests are out of 16 schools. This approach tends to minimize the number of  requests. However, APPS has made its concern known that the Board has to view the increased enrollments in the totality of students seats increased over time and in their impact on the entire School District’s enrollment. Continually allowing charters to chip away at student enrollment in the District is not in the best interests of the District’s health and survival.

Another concern is the staff simply repeating what is on the PowerPoint without further explanation, in this instance, what the requested change to Independence Charter’s program change is all about. One Board member did ask Grant to clarify her answer, but after repeating what was written on the PowerPoint, Grant added that as this is not being voted on at that meeting and that the CSO would get back to them with an explanation.

Actions Items and Renewal Agreements

A more detailed chart can be found on the PowerPoint presentations added to the Student Achievement Committee Agenda links.

Original Renewal Year      Next Renewal Year

KIPP West Philadelphia                            2018-19                    2023-24

Mastery Cleveland                                     2016-17                    2021-22

Mastery Clymer                                          2015-16                    2020-21

Mastery Gratz                                             2015-16                    2020-21

Mastery Hardy Williams                           2017-18                    2022-23

Mastery Pastorius                                      2017-18                    2022-23

Mastery Pickett                                          2016-17                    2021-22

Mastery Shoemaker                                  2015-16                    2020-21

The Mastery schools above were not renewed at their appropriate renewal date by the SRC which postponed them for up to four years because the charter operator refused to sign new charters that imposed conditions for improvements. Thus, they have been allowed to continue operating for several years, some having failed to meet basic academic standards.   According to Ms. Grant, the District has “gone away from the use of conditions” but also claimed that the schools now meet the District’s guidelines. What has changed? Is the District rewarding charters for not agreeing to conditions the first time just to get the contracts signed?  Have they changed the rules of the game so charters won’t complain anymore? All negotiations with charters are conducted in private, so the public who funds the schools have no way to know which conditions the operators are refusing to abide by. The Board did not ask for any explanation of why  conditions were dropped by the CSO. APPS has estimated the cost of funding the 7 Mastery charters on the above renewal list for 5 years, based on District allotments in this year’s budget, to be $888, 494, 511. 

Dr. McIver raised the issue of charters being a place for innovation. Dr. McGinley noted that this may have been the original intent decades ago, but certainly is not what charters are about now.

Ms Grant then stated, “The CSO is glad to be at this point with Mastery and looks forward to presenting these renewals to the Board.” However, some of the Mastery schools being recommended for renewal do have some other changes (e.g. Mastery Pastorius includes a name change AND enrollment increase.) Mastery and other charter schools have been stripping their schools of their original names. Is this an attempt to sever any historical ties to the neighborhoods and the School District?  Other schools are requesting enrollment increases but the CSO description did not include the number of additional seats requested or anything about the name changes. It is the antithesis of “public engagement” to have the CSO announce these prospective changes in their public report to the Committee, then have the Board vote on them at the next meeting, without releasing crucial information about these transactions.

Action Items

Dr. McGinley requested information on Action Item #6 which would increase the contract with contractors supplying Special Education teachers and “one-to one”  aides from 60 to 100 at an increase of $3,500,000. McGinley was concerned about the size of the increased expenditure. Dr. Bird explained that these positions are to fill vacancies as they may arise during the school year, but all may not be necessary.

McIver requested clarification about Item #37 – Tailwinds LLC – Aviation Program at Frankford HS, in particular the $80,000 for students to obtain their private pilot’s license. Bird responded this was the continuation of a program established during a STEM program a few years ago. He explained that while there are 15 students in the program,  the amount would really be $40,000 for 2 students. Bird said this program is a private program and used to support students already in the program to complete the program. Fix Lopez noted that this amount of money for two students could fund a number of other things,  for example, two playgrounds. McGinley asked for confirmation that Bird would return for approval with a lower amount of money for that item.

Public Speakers

APPS member and ELL expert Cheri Micheau spoke about the revision of Policy 138 concerning the lack of appropriate supports to children and teachers. Micheau said that expectations of teacher support for ELL students without appropriate material and direction is taking its toll on both students and teachers. She noted that there are three upcoming Parent/Teacher/Community meetings to discuss these concerns: Tuesday, 9/17/19 at Lincoln HS, 5:00-6:30 PM; Wednesday, 9/18/19 at Kensington CAPA , 5:00-6:30 PM;  and Thursday, 9/26/19 at South Philadelphia HS, 5:00 – 6:30 PM. Micheau requested that Board members attend some of these sessions to hear from staff and parents directly. She also noted that it seems that “decision makers in the District do not understand how language is acquired”.

APPS member Zoe Rooney, who is both a District educator and a District parent of a child with special needs, came to speak primarily about obstructions to special needs families. She recounted reports from other parents of problems with special education transportation that are still unresolved and is causing important classroom time to be missed. Rooney stated that there is a culture of fear among staff and parents about coming to Board meetings to report such problems for fear of on-the-job retaliation and/or lack of support for parents. She said that she was glad to hear about some of the changes in the School Selection process that were discussed at this meeting, but still feels there are inequities, especially regarding special needs students and/or racial equity among admissions. These inequities occur both in the selection process itself and in the amount of additional paperwork that counselors and teachers have to complete for these students.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver reiterated concerns previously brought to the Board about the lack of transparency concerning charter schools. Among her biggest concerns was that the public is not being given accurate costs to the District for new and renewed charter schools and the continual granting of increased student enrollment numbers to charters.  She also spoke about the ongoing lack of timely release to the public of annotated items to be voted on and the blatant violation of the PA Sunshine Act in withholding the terms of the charter Items until after the Board votes.

Retired District counselor Lynda Rubin cautioned the Board about the District’s increasing reliance on data and on standardized, one-size-fits-all applications and reporting systems that ignore the emotional, social and academic growth of children that need to be represented when considering school selection and assignments. Children are not standardized and reducing them to facts and numbers does a disservice to our mission of educating the whole child.