Student Achievement Committee Meeting: December 6, 2018

by Lynda Rubin

Attending: Co-chairs Dr. Chris McGinley and Dr. Angela McIver, Committee members Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Maria McColgan, Student Representatives Alfredo Practico and Julia…

McGinley opened the meeting. The November 8, 2018 Minutes were approved.

Every Student Succeeds Act Changes Assessment

Chief of Schools Dr. Shawn Bird gave his presentation on the first item on the agenda—modifications made to the federal ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) which has replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Pennsylvania’s plan, entitled “Future Ready PA Index” (www.FutureReadyPA.org), stipulates that schools will be judged on two years of data instead of one and will cover more than just academic proficiencies and less emphasis on just standardized tests. The new plan will track academic proficiency, on-track progress and college and career readiness indicators. Within those categories new items will include annual growth, English language proficiencies, chronic absenteeism, 3rd grade Reading and 7th grade Math proficiencies, 4- and 5-year graduation rates, and career standards benchmarks. The status of all schools in the state can be accessed on this Index.

There will no longer be the NCLB designations for progress and support needs according to Priority and Focus schools. The current categories into which schools will be placed for support are CSI– Comprehensive Support Improvement,  ATSI– Additional Targeted Supports and Improvements, and TSI– Targeted Support and Improvements. Schools in CSI and A-TSI designations will be tracked for three years. Charter Schools Office Director Christina Grant reported that this year 60 of Philadelphia District schools, including 10-12 charter and cyber schools, are in CSI and A-TSI categories. As of this meeting, the names had not been given to the district, but had been shared with the actual schools. Those schools assigned to CSI will be the bottom 5% Title I schools and high schools with graduation rates of 67% and below.A-TSI schools will track any school with a student group that meets CSI parameters in one or more subgroups. TSI will comprise, for one year, any school with a student group that meets CSI parameters for one or more subgroup and is designed as an early warning system. However, the progress of one or more subgroups (e.g. English learners, chronic absenteeism, etc.) will have more weight in determining the status of each school.

Since initial data has been collected only from the last school year, this year’s index will not include any college and career data. Bird said that this new system will give schools more credit for items than in the past. Subgroups would include any school with more than groups of 20 students in such categories as economically disadvantaged, moving English learners to proficiency, students with disabilities, homeless youth and ethnicity groups. Therefore, sufficient progress, or lack thereof, in one or more of these groups, will affect a school’s status. Schools could be designated TSI even if above bottom 5% Title I for both chronic absenteeism and lack of meeting standards for high school graduation rates and college and career goals.  The district is still learning from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) about details of this process and how the schools are identified and will give a more inclusive presentation in the future.

Angela McGiver and Maria McColgan asked Bird whether there was any chance for the district to be part of the planning process.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks explained how the High School Plan (grades 6-12) for graduation requirements will be addressed for this year’s students with alternative benchmarks (e.g. Keystone tests) while the overall plan is being implemented by PDE. In answer to Student Representative Alfredo Praticò’s question of whether a subgroup could place a school into a designation, Bird answered yes, but explained that while homeless youth will be a focus, it will not yet play into the state’s category designation. Julia Danzy asked how these new categories align with current district school categories. Bird said there will still have to be some adjustments. Current 11th grade students will not be affected by the new graduation requirements.

Comprehensive Plan Follow-up

Bird reported that the Comprehensive Plan is now in its final format. He discussed some of the public comments focused on English learners, special needs students, teacher training and the impact of trauma on student learning. Bird stated that priority areas for the Comprehensive Plan are highly qualified teachers; interventions for student needs, including mental and behavioral health; and ensuring consistent implementation of standard aligned curricula.  Bird said that the district intends to give principals more autonomy in hiring their own staff. McColgan asked about the requirement for teachers who are in residency have to stay three years in one school or in the district. Dr. Bird said it doesn’t have to be the same school, but does have to be a high needs school. Fix Lopez asked for assurance that all teachers would receive training for English Language learners as these students are in almost every classroom. Fix Lopez criticized the use of “Train the Trainer” types of PD for English Learners development for teachers. Dr. McGinley emphasized that this is an important enhancement for effectiveness, especially for English learners. All Board members asked questions about the timing or content of the plan.

System of Great Schools Update

Bird gave the same generalized power point presentation about the evaluation process of all three schools in this year’s SGS cohort: Locke, Harrington, and Lamberton elementary schools. Julia Danzy asked one “weakness” observed in the classroom observations, that grade-level work was not being done–did he mean the student or the teacher? Bird answered that it meant the student was not working on grade level, which was the opposite of what APPS members heard in SGS meetings at all three schools. Danzy questioned why, considering that these schools were in this process because they were scoring low on academic achievement, they were being further judged adversely on the level the student was working on. McGiver reiterated this point. What Bird failed to mention was that these observations took an average of 15 minutes per classroom. McGiver also asked about teacher turnover in these schools. Fix Lopez, who had attended the third findings meeting  at Harrington with parents, said that she felt that the district had not made clear to the parents and community members what the actual choices for the schools were going forward. McGinley stated that this SGS model was created by the Administration and approved by the SRC [actually, the SRC never voted on the program] but was in the first year of Board of Education oversight. He then said that “when we get to the recommendation stage the Board would have a role in endorsing these recommendations or not.” [In past years, the SRC did not vote on Dr. Hite’s decisions for SGS schools.]  Fix Lopez asked whether the public knew going in that there would be two options and what they were. Bird replied that parents and community were concerned about whether their school would be closed or turned into a charter and that the district had assuaged them about this. APPS members who have attended almost every meeting at SGS schools for the past three years know that parents have specifically said that they want lost resources and staff returned and that they do not want their teachers or principals forced out. Bird was not clear about this at the SGS meetings, and he was not clear about it at this Committee meeting.  In past years, this has been very disruptive to school and student cohesion. This process could actually leave the school with many teachers new to teaching and/or vacancies to be covered by substitutes. McGinley ended the discussion by getting assurances that the results and recommendations would first come back to the Student Achievement Committee in January; Bird said they would come back to the committee and then to the full Board. How much influence the committee members will have in decisions about SGS schools remains to be seen.

Big Changes in School Calendar

As this issue was discussed at past Committee meetings, the full Board will vote on it at the next Action Meeting. Bird cited some of the points behind the calendar changes including learning time before standardized testing, professional development, need for high school graduates to attend orientations at colleges or transition programs at high schools, time for “rest and rejuvenation” during year and recognizing and celebrating diverse backgrounds holidays and practices.

Dr. Bird spoke of the difficulties behind the current year’s calendar and the results of the online survey which elicited 6000 responses. The administration decided to go back to starting school for students after Labor Day. Also noted was the difficulty working parents have with half-day PD’s in caring for young children and paying for day-care. The proposed 2020-21 calendar includes a 2-week winter holiday.  Dr. McGinley noted that many students are dependent on schools for sufficient food consumption, so that a full two weeks in 2020-21 could be problematic for those children.

Action Items for December 17 Board Meeting

The Committee projected only the titles of the Action Items, no text or explanation.  Nor were the Items made available in hard copy. So there is no way for those in the room to know what the Committee is discussing.  APPS has asked the Board more than once to correct this, to no avail.

One item to be voted on at the next meeting concerned Action Item 31, buying Playworks, a structured recess program. Playworks received a grant from GlaxoSmithKline to partner with the School Board for training staff on using Playworks materials and methods.. Action Item 35 would accept a $5.5 million grant from PDE to provide funding and early access to technical assistance and evidence-based tools for schools identified as needing support under Pennsylvania’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan. Bird said that half of that money would be for schools designated would be CSI or A-TSI targeted schools, the rest to other schools.  McIver asked how much input principals would have for the use of these funds; Bird didn’t know. Action 41 proposes an Act 55 Public/Private partnership pilot program with The Bridgeway School – Drug and Alcohol Recovery High School (a non-residential approved private school in Philadelphia). The District would have option for up to 20 available seats at any given time at $8000 per student.

APPS continues to raise concerns that grants from businesses and non-profits serve to increase the amount of District services purchased from or served by private programs and vendors. The District should invest in training administration and staff currently employed by the School District.

Questionable Settlement Agreement for Retroactive Renewal of Richard Allen Charter School

APPS members present were stunned by the resurrection of the renewal of  Richard Allen Charter School (Action Item 3) as the SRC had voted last year not to renew the school’s charter. The SRC voted for non-renewal in very few cases in its 17 years. The school has been in serious decline for years and failed to meet standards in any major category in its last renewal evaluation. Christina Grant admitted that the Item had been posted publicly just prior to this meeting– that is, a week after the original Action Item list had been posted.  Dr. McGinley commented, incorrectly, that not all questions on the matter could be answered because the proposed renewal of Richard Allen Charter is “a legal matter”. Charter renewals are decided by the Board, which is a governing body that makes executive decisions. The Board is not a judicial body and cannot make legal decisions. The responsibility of the Committee and of the Board is to address and answer all questions about matters before them, including this one.

Unknown to the public, the Charter Schools Office (CSO) had been in negotiations with Richard Allen Charter since the SRC’s non-renewal vote.  No explanation was ever given about why the Board, instead of scheduling revocation hearings, decided to give Richard Allen another chance and directed the CSO to come up with a settlement.  Grant stated that there have been signs of “academic improvement” since October 2017 and that Richard Allen Charter has taken steps to remedy the numerous compliance problems the district had found leading to the SRC vote. She also stated that the agreement states that if the school did not meet specific growth standards for the next two years, the school had agreed to surrender its charter.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver pointed out that Richard Allen had been granted a rare one-year “Renewal with Conditions”  in 2015 with conditions–which they obviously failed to meet. Because the District failed to act, that one-year extension actually lasted three years.  In her testimony she also advised the Committee that experience has taught us that charters always sue even when the data is against them. They, therefore, get de facto extensions for years while the appeals process slowly moves forward. Lisa stated that all the Board was doing was extending for two years at which point Richard Allen Charter would most certainly sue. Lisa cited the school’s last three School Progress Report ratings, all of which put them in the lowest tier–Intervene. It is in their financial interest to sue and postpone closure for as long as possible. This is borne out by the fact that Richard Allen Charter charged that the conditions the District wanted to impose were illegal. Why would the Board now trust the school to comply with conditions and honor a voluntary agreement.

Left out of the discussion are the Richard Allen students. The District is abrogating its responsibility to ensure that all students–whether in public or charter schools–receive an adequate education. It’s one thing to take on the Charter Goliath and lose; it’s another to not even try.

More Charter Renewals

The 2018-19 charter schools renewal cohort will be up for review in April 2019, and MSCO’s (Multiple Charter School Organizations)  will be discussed in January 2019.

Public Speakers

PSP Teacher Recruitment Website

The surprise press conference called the day before by PSP Director Mark Gleason in order to announce a new teacher recruitment website—which will list vacancies at public, private and charter schools—was a major topic. Superintendent Hite’s presence at the announcement was a surprise, as there was no separate announcement from the District about this arrangement. APPS members Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin both questioned the Committee on whether they were aware of either the press conference or the creation of the website. Three Committee members stated on the record that they were not informed of the District’s role in the website. McGinley remarked that since  Superintendent Hite was at the press conference, it is obviously something he supports, but that the topic had not been brought to the Board for approval or even notification. McIver said, “It caught us off guard.” When Committee members questioned Chief of Schools Shawn Bird about it, he replied, “I’m not in the Talent division. I’ll have to ask Mr. Bellardine”, referring to Chief of Talent Lou Bellarding. Did anyone at 440 other than Dr. Hite know about the website? That something this central to the mission and practices of the School District of Philadelphia was enacted and approved without Board knowledge is disturbing.

Lisa Haver said that she had raised her objections about the deal with PSP at the Finance and Facilities Committee meeting held earlier that day. She told the Committee members about PSP’s consistent anti-teacher and anti-labor positions.  She reminded them that in 2013, PSP lobbied then-Governor Corbett to withhold federal funds from Philadelphia unless the PFT agreed to a 10% wage reduction and collective bargaining give-backs. Lisa specifically asked how it was appropriate that of a public entity being placed in a subsidiary position to a private organization whose first loyalty is to its own Board—not to District stakeholders.

Lynda Rubin reiterated that the fact that the possibility of the District’s inclusion in, of all things, a teacher recruitment website without the Board of Education’s knowledge was inconceivable. She also pointed out that such a website would allow PSP to run, maintain and control the applications and the personal data of all teacher applicants. Lynda further noted that PSP’s funding this site is just one more way that PSP is expanding its influence in the School District, as it has for years.

Educating Students Who Speak Other Languages

Three professors from Temple University spoke about the challenges for teachers who work with students speaking other languages. They reported on work that they are doing in this area with teachers in Philadelphia. Professors Jill Suavely, Jennifer Carrigan and Erica Johnston spoke about extra supports and different ways of teaching ELL students and communicating with their parents. When contacting parents, BCA’s (Bi-lingual Counseling Assistants) can be more effective. Although translation of letters and documents in native languages is important, if a parent does not read and/or write in their native language, the information is useless. They also recommended changing the level of language used for better understanding. Most important is understanding that teachers need to know how not only to teach actual curriculum content to students, but also how to teach students to be able to talk about and write about the content—be it history, math, science, etc. for actual use in the world. Lowering class size and making sure that students were rostered into classes taught by teachers trained in TESOL, along with diversity training for school police and other support staff, are important. Key to the success of teachers being trained in such methods is that administrators be instructed on the different teaching methods, offering any extra time necessary, to bring ELL students to success. McIver encouraged the Temple professors to come back when the Board takes this matter up in the future. McGinley also noted that the District does have several people who have provided such guidance. He noted that Cheri Micheau, who often attends the Student Achievement/Support Committee meetings (and is an active APPS member), has spoken about and written in detail about similar recommendations and should be included in such work.

District parent Cecelia Thompson, a regular advocate for students with special needs, spoke about how creation of the new academic calendar (with a 2 weeks break proposed for the following year) should be rethought in light of the needs and resources of parents who work two and three jobs. She also implored the Board and the District to “stop blaming the children in low-performing SGS (System of Great Schools) schools for not learning what they weren’t taught.” APPS has followed and written reports about how SGS schools, after being stripped of resources and essential support staff for many years, are now being blamed for low academic results. Parents, educators and community have long decried the SRC spending policies that have led to inequitable schools, especially in low-income areas.We await the Board’s decision on the SGS schools in the coming months.