System of Great Schools 2018: Initial Focus Meetings

by Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik

The School District of Philadelphia has chosen three neighborhood elementary schools, all in West Philadelphia: Harrington Elementary, Lamberton Elementary, and Locke Elementary. APPS members attended all three initial focus meetings held on September 25, 26 and 27, respectively. We will be attending and reporting the remainder of the focus meetings and the final Feedback and Findings meeting, at which time the school communities will be told of the decision, made by Superintendent Hite, about the fate of their schools.

Neighborhood Network 2 District Superintendent Rahshene Davis-Bowie gave the full System of Great Schools (SGS) presentation to about 60 students, parents and community members gathered in the auditorium of Avery D. Harrington Elementary at 53rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. Harrington Principal Joseph Dixon, who is in his 2nd year as principal at the school, was present but did not speak. District Chief of Schools Shawn Bird, SGS Program Director Chris Davies, HR Director Lou Bellardine, Family and Community Engagement (FACE) staffer Lynn Denise Williams, and General Counsel Lynn Rauch also attended but were not introduced and did not speak. None of the nine members of the Board of Education attended.

Davis-Bowie reviewed the history of the school over the past two years. As a result of several reports from teachers and parents about school violence in 2016-17, the District conducted a one-day “climate audit” and concluded that the reports were “founded”. Several recommendations were made, but Davis-Bowie said that not all were put into place because the principal retired. Another “independent” climate audit was performed the following year, but complaints were deemed to be “unfounded”. Davis-Bowie said that in 2018 she realized that the reports were not shared with “everybody”, but did not say with whom the report was shared.

The Power-Point, with a few exceptions, was the same as the one presented in SGS/Priority schools in the previous two years. It did not address Harrington’s specific needs. The administration’s official position is that all children can learn and achieve and that improvement is possible. Davis-Bowie explained the School Progress Report (SPR) rating system, in which schools can be put into one of four categories based mostly on PSSA scores; climate and attendance are also criteria. (According to Davis-Bowie, 79 District schools are in the Intervene category, 91 in Watch, 39 in Reinforce, and 7 in Model, the highest rating.) Harrington was placed in the SGS program because it has been in the Intervene category for over 3 years.

This year, there are only two options for the three schools in the SGS program: 1) to be placed in the Acceleration Network (formerly the Turnaround Network) or 2) to develop an internal Academic Improvement Plan. Both are 3-5 year plans. As in previous years, neither closure nor conversion to charter school is being considered.

Placement in the Acceleration Network involves:

  • Keeping and hiring the “best” staff
  • Placement in the Network has shown “proven results”
  • A “defined improvement model” would be created

Developing an School-Created Academic Plan involves:

  • A “customized” improvement model
  • Unity of “school vision”
  • Having a strong leader and leadership team

Not included in the District presentation about the Acceleration placement is the forced transfer of a large percentage of the faculty; all teachers, regardless of years of service or observation ratings, are required to reapply for their positions. The school would be allowed to keep “up to” 80% of its faculty; that is, any number of teachers could be forced out as long as the school kept at least 20%. The same is true for the principal; in previous years, several principals at SGS schools have been replaced.

Davis-Bowie said that there were “lessons learned” by the District about the past SGS process. (This may have come as a result of Board Member Chris McGinley telling Shawn Bird, at the Student Achievement and Support Committee earlier this month, that he has “vehemently disagreed” with many facets of the SGS program.) The only specific lesson she mentioned is that instead of paying consulting company Cambridge Education [a total of $300,000] for conducting a School Quality Review, that review will be conducted by District staff.
https://appsphilly.net/2017/01/09/apps-review-of-cambridge-education-reports-on-priority-schools/
Before taking audience questions, Davis-Bowie told attendees that the District wanted “your input and your feedback”.

Lisa asked about the District’s policy of forcing out teachers and principals when they are placed in the Acceleration Network. Davis-Bowie said that she didn’t consider 20% a lot of teachers to lose in one year; Lisa reminded her that “up to” did not mean they were committed to keeping 80%. Davis-Bowie said that teachers in the Acceleration Network were required to do things that may be “in conflict” with the contract between the District and the PFT and that teachers must “sign up” for the extra work. She did not clarify that any teacher’s willingness to agree to extra work is not the criterion the Principal used to decide whether she can stay at the school. Davis-Bowie said that the District’s contract with the PFT allowed them to do it; Lisa said that she wasn’t asking whether they could do it, but whether they should. That is, how it would that be a good way to address the school’s problems. There was no answer to that.

APPS member Deborah Grill asked how a serious assessment of the school could be done in two days as planned and as Cambridge did in the past two years. Davis-Bowie responded that two days is enough time, that the District is not looking for “a gotcha”. She then said she had done this type of assessment as a Queen’s Inspector in the British Isles. Her response does not acknowledge the punitive nature of the administration towards teachers over the years.

Community member Shanee Garner told Davis-Bowie that a group of twenty parents and community members had written to Principal Dixon last year asking for a meeting but got no response. Davis-Bowie said that no one ever reached out to her; Garner responded that Davis-Bowie was copied on the letter to the principal. Davis-Bowie then apologized, saying “we dropped the ball” on responding to the concerned community members. Garner asked how many teacher vacancies there were at Harrington; Davis-Bowie said that she did not know. Garner said that the school’s problems were not the fault of the teachers, but the failure of the administration to make sure that Harrington had the resources it needs. One parent and two students said that they felt that Principal Dixon did improve the school and that there were fewer fights than there were under the previous principal.

Davis-Bowie did not mention that Superintendent Hite will have the final say on the fate of Harrington and the other two SGS schools, nor was that was part of the Power-Point presentation.

Four focus meetings open to all members of the school community are scheduled for Harrington:

  • Wednesday, October 10 at 8:45 AM
  • Tuesday, October 16 at 5 PM
  • Thursday, October 18 at 8:45 AM
  • Wednesday, October 24 at 5 PM

The final “Findings and Feedback” meeting will be held on Tuesday, November 13 at 5:30 PM.

Ms. Davis-Bowie presented the same System of Great Schools Power-Point to about 70 parents, students, teachers, and community members in the auditorium of Robert E. Lamberton Elementary at 75th Street and Woodbine Avenue in Overbrook Park.
Also present but not identified or introduced were Principal Antoinette Powell, Assistant Principal Mr. Tomlin, SGS Program Director Chris Davies, FACE staff members, and District Deputy Chief of Communications Lee Whack. None of the nine Board of Education members attended.

The acoustics were terrible; it very difficult to hear what was being said. School staff and parents created a powerful visual statement, wearing electric blue T-shirts with the slogan “Rebuilding Lamberton One Student at a Time” emblazoned on the back. They entered and sat as one block. At Lamberton, community members lined up in the middle aisle of the auditorium to speak instead of waiting for the microphone to be brought to them.

Until 2013, Lamberton held a unique position in the District as a Kindergarten through 12th grade school. As part of that year’s mass school closures, Lamberton lost its high school, leaving grades K to 8. According to several speakers, the school has lost many staff members and resources that have never been restored. The present Principal was appointed just weeks ago in August 2018. She is the third Lamberton principal in two years. When the District Power-Point talks about a “shared responsibility” for the school, one has to wonder who is carrying the burden of that sharing.

Parents, school staff, and community members wanted specific answers to their questions. Few were given. Assistant Superintendent Davis-Bowie constantly referred to the generalities presented in the District Power-Point. Parents commended teachers and wanted to know how to best support them, rather than having them reapply for their jobs and possibly be forced out. Participants also asked about:

The specifics of the District’s plan for their school.
The cost for each of the two options (Davis-Bowie replied that “…funds are allocated depending upon what each school needs. The Acceleration Network has a set plan.”) Another speaker responded that if you are coming to us then you should have a budget prepared for Lamberton.
The timeline allowed for Lamberton to write its own plan and who selects the people to both create and review the Proposed Plan.
When members of the school community could meet face to face with whoever is making the decision about what happens to our school.
Where the specific data is for schools currently in the Acceleration Network.
One teacher asked why something is being done now to address the needs at Lamberton when she had reached out last year to 440.
Whether their concerns about leveling would be answered. One parent asked: Is it about the bottom line or is it about our children?

One parent summed it up, saying that helping Lamberton School has been a long time coming and that they have been asking for accountability for a while. She expressed a desire to understand the process. When she asked who governs this process , Davis-Bowie replied “the Superintendent”; that was the only time that information was given. Davis-Bowie added that it is her job to ensure the implementation of whatever plan is selected for them. Another parent rose to say we need more specifics and stated this is “like going around the mulberry bush with no end in sight”.

Karel got up, faced the audience and thanked everyone for coming and speaking up. She urged them to keep asking for specifics and that if answers are not forthcoming in a timely manner—as this is a rather compressed timeline—then they should bring their concerns to the October 18 Board meeting to make this a public issue.

Focus meetings at Lamberton are scheduled for:

  • Wednesday, October 10 at 8:45 AM
  • Tuesday, October 16 at 5 PM
  • Thursday, October 18 at 8:45 AM
  • Wednesday, October 24 at 5 PM

Lamberton Feedback and Findings meeting: Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 5:30 PM.

Note: APPS has alerted the SGS office that the Board of Education is holding its monthly Action Meeting on October 18. They have responded that the October 18 Lamberton meeting may be rescheduled.

In addition to Davis-Bowie, District staff present for the first meeting at Alain Locke Elementary included Chief of Student Support Services Karyn Lynch, SGS Program Director Chris Davies, Director of Advocacy and External Engagement Haniyyah Sharpe-Brown, and Principal McKellar Carter. None of the nine Board of Education members attended. There did not appear to be any parents or community members in attendance other than Karel and a member of the PFT/WE Caucus. There may have been two school staff members in the rear of the auditorium who stayed for some of the session, but they were not identified and left early.

Locke is in its second year as a Community School. When Davis-Bowie said her piece about selecting a school with no other major interventions to enter this process, Karel asked if being a Community School did not come under the heading of major intervention. Davis-Bowie stuck to the same line used to justify placing other Community Schools into the Priority Schools Program: that being a Community School is not an academic intervention.

A printed form of the Power-Point appeared on the table along with the sign-in sheets; these were not available at Harrington or Lamberton. A flyer from Drexel University Lindy Scholars was also available. Lindy Scholars appears to be an afterschool tutoring program with Drexel students. The Community School staffer manned another table filled with childrens books. Along with an absence of parent, school staff, and community representation there was another difference: at both Harrington and Lamberton District Police Officers were present, but at Locke there were three Philadelphia Police Officers on duty.

Focus meetings at Locke are scheduled for:

  • Thursday, October 11 at 8:45 AM
  • Wednesday, October 17 at 4 PM
  • Tuesday, October 23 at 8:45 AM
  • Thursday, October 25 at 4 PM

Locke Feedback and Findings meeting: Wednesday, November 14 at 5:30 PM.