Student Achievement and Support Committee: February 21, 2019

By Diane Payne

Chris McGinley and Angela McIver co-chaired.  Also present were committee members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, and the two student representatives, Julia Frank and Alfredo Pratico.  Board Member Wayne Walker attended this meeting and although Committee Member Maria McColgan was absent, she watched the meeting via livestream and texted questions to co-chair McGinley.

Five members of APPS attended this meeting and three spoke in defense of Public Education.  (Meeting agendas and power-point presentations can be viewed on the SDP website by going to the BOE page and clicking on “meeting materials.”   A large number of people attended this meeting.  As the room filled, members of the public had to sit in the atrium and watch the meeting on a screen.  Several public speakers had to come from this overflow room. If this first-floor meeting space constantly overflows for this meeting, it is hoped the Board will accommodate the public by moving to the larger, second floor auditorium where everyone can feel included.

Minutes of the January Student Achievement and Support Committee were approved.

District Presentations

Recruitment and Retention of School-Based Staff

Chief Talent Officer Louis Bellardine and the Deputy Staffer Teresa Ritz reported on three categories: school leaders, teachers, and support staff.  They listed the challenges and strategies in staff recruitment and retention for each of the categories (which can be viewed on the PowerPoint presentation).  Not mentioned in this presentation: the professional conduct, school-based resources, and building conditions that so many members of the public testify about before this Board (as well as its predecessor, the SRC).  Recruiting and retaining quality staff must begin with the heart and soul of the District’s philosophy–not just jargon on a PowerPoint.

The District gives lip service to a desire to recruit and retain highly qualified individuals, but its own administrative staff is replete with Superintendent recruits from outside Philadelphia with no institutional memory of this system or the city’s neighborhoods.  Many have little teaching experience but do have close ties to charter schools and their related organizations. The District is using Philly Plus, a Philadelphia School Partnership program, to train principals.  PSP is a corporate “reform” organization created and funded by pro-privatization, anti-union individuals and corporations. Charters hire teachers only on at at-will basis and use Teach for America (TFA) recruits, sending them into struggling schools with only 5 weeks training.   Those who have worked in the District know that failing to respond to teacher concerns–the  top-down dictates that reduce teaching staff to fearful automatons, the lack of resources, the chaos and disruption built into leveling and each year’s focus school’s process, working in toxic school buildings–can hardly be seen as a District seeking to recruit and retain highly qualified staff.  It is a District seeking a complaint workforce.

Charter Schools Office Update

Interim Director of the Charter Schools Office Christina Grant gave a summary of her office’s evaluations of the three new Charter School Applications for this year:  Frederick Douglas High School: A People for People School, Joan Myers Brown: A String Theory School, and Tacony Academy at St. Vincent: an American Paradigm School. APPS members have researched, read the reports, and attended all the meetings of these three new applicants.  APPS prepared and submitted to the BOE our own analysis of the alarming shortcomings in each application as well as the dismal academic performance in the applicants existing schools and requested the Board vote NO on each of these applications. (You can see the APPS reports at  Greg Windle of the Public School Notebook also wrote in-depth investigative articles on the People for People application and the American Paradigm Application thus far.    Both of his reports contain damning and alarming information.  It should be noted that for the five years of just these three Charter Schools, the District payout will be just under $119 million.

A brief summary of the concerns and deficiencies cited on all three of these schools includes: financial harm to public school students when approving any more charter seats or schools, applications rife with missing and conflicting information, shady and opaque real estate and financial deals, eye-popping CEO and administrative salaries, the lack of accountability for Special Ed allotments, and consistent poor academic performance in schools currently operated by all three organizations.  The disparity between district buildings and the new, well-resourced buildings comes into sharp focus during this process (one String Theory school has an interactive dance studio and hydroponic lab).

It is time for this Board to set itself apart from the unaccountable SRC and stand up for public school students.  We cannot afford any more charter schools; that 20-year experiment has been an expensive failure.

Committee Questions to Chief of Schools Shawn Bird:  McGinley asked whether there were consistent expectations for the trauma training PD’s, since multiple providers are used. Fix Lopez asked whether his office could build into Action Item requests for expanding a program, evaluations and data that supports the program’s effectiveness.

Public Speakers

There were about 16 public speakers.  Three student speakers advocated for restorative practices in schools instead of the promotion and expansion of policing strategies.  Upcoming District Policy 805 intends to mandate use of metal detectors in all high schools; these students pointed out the criminalizing and debilitating effect this has on the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline.

APPS member Cheri Micheau spoke in defense of QTEL, a professional development program that supports content-area ELL teachers and has been found effective and useful for those in the classroom and exposed to the training.

One  parent speaker gave emotional and moving testimony about her 7 year-old special needs son who has endured inappropriate and deficient extended school year experiences.  She laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of District leaders (not the staff in the extended school year) for improper planning and implementation. McGinley did ask the parent to connect with a District staffer.

Education Law Center attorney Reynelle Staley reported on ELC’s recently completed (soon to be released) Study on Charter School Authorizing. ELC’s  comprehensive study of District charter schools shows a widespread pattern of segregation through manipulation of demographics. This is just one more reason to deny the three new applications.

Two APPS speakers, Lisa Haver and Diane Payne, spoke against approving the three new charter applications.  Both enumerated the reasons (listed above) why the Board must vote No.

All three charter applicants sent a top official from their respective organizations,  all of whom expressed shock about the CSO’s analyses. Considering all three currently operate charters, they seemed taken aback that the CSO would criticize their applications.  Do they not understand that the duty of the CSO is to examine and critique all applications in order to look out for the interests of children, families, and taxpayers? It is clearly stated in the application process that once the applications are submitted, and the deadlines have passed, the District cannot accept revisions. This has been a costly and time-consuming endeavor. String Theory co-founder Jason Corosanite actually stated that the Board should consider the opinions of city leaders before voting.  Did he mean the “influence” from elected officials such as Councilmembers Bobby Henon and Jannie Blackwell who have been strong charter supporters, both openly and behind the scenes? People for People CEO Pri Sebwadwi, contradicting his January 19th testimony that this new school had “no overlap” with existing school or its management organization, told the Committee he was testifying on behalf of People for People Inc. CEO Herbert Lusk. Gerald Santilli the well-connected founder of American Paradigm, expressed outrage that the CSO would question the school’s budget because he had experience in creating budgets for the District years ago.  Santilli does not seem to have a problem leveraging his experience as a public official to acquire significant financial gain for himself and American Paradigm’s affiliates–including a financial concern that he founded.

The Board must begin to examine all aspects of the charter school industry and work to change the charter law which allows charter investors and CEOs to operate with little public accountability. String Theory is not the only charter operator that has hired a PR firm. But the Board must not be swayed by these companies and their spin. How many more decades do we have watch tax dollars funnel into pockets, without advancing academic results, all while public school students starve for resources and languish in toxic buildings?