What Is the District’s Plan for Priority Schools?

by Lisa Haver
November 3, 2016


Renaissance Schools, Transformation Schools, Redesign Schools. Autonomy Network, Innovation Network, Turnaround Network.  Internal turnarounds, evidence-based turnarounds.  There may be a lack of classroom teachers, supplies, and support staff, but the Hite administration never wants for new slots in which to insert schools while creating the illusion of community involvement.

This year’s model:  Priority Schools.   Eleven schools have been chosen to be overhauled in one of five ways, most of which would involve forced transfer of faculties. The options include:

  • Entering the school into the District’s Turnaround Network
  • Merging the school with a nearby high-quality school
  • Engaging a contract partner
  • Initiating an evidence-based plan for academic improvement
  • Restarting the school

For such a big initiative, there is little information about it on the school district website.  There is no banner, only a small notice among a list of others under “What’s New” for which you have to scroll down; that is, either you stumbled upon it looking for something else, or you had to be told exactly where to find it. The link takes you to a district press release that gives few details on what this initiative involves for the eleven targeted schools.  There was never any staff presentation at an SRC meeting.

The schedule of community meetings originally listed only the initial meeting but had no times for the two focus group meetings. Dates for focus meetings have been changed more than once.  Dates for the final meeting, in which the findings of the consultants will be discussed, still have not been posted. Dr. Hite said he will announce his decision about the fates of all eleven schools in January.  Those eleven schools are: John Marshall, Blankenburg, McDaniel, Heston and Hartranft elementary schools; Harding Middle School; Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Fels, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Overbrook high schools.

The district has cited low SPR numbers from years 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 as the reason for choosing these schools.  No data is available for 2015-16.

Questions have been raised about the sincerity of the statements from Dr. Hite and his staff that they want parents and the community to contribute to the decisions about the future of the schools. Parents at the eleven schools were notified that their schools had been targeted for some type of major overhaul just after Dr. Hite’s public announcement on October 11.  That gave parents at some of the schools less than one week’s notice about the first meeting.  Three of the schools’ kick-off meetings were before noon; Harding Middle School’s began at 8:30 AM.  Fewer than half had start times at 5 or after.  Thirteen of the twenty-two focus group meetings will be held before 5PM.

Although the same basic presentation has been made at all eleven schools, information about the public process has been inconsistent.  Before the focus group times were posted, the only way to know that there were focus groups, or when they would meet, was to attend the first meeting.  At Blankenburg and Harding, it seemed that most of the parent outreach was done by the principal through flyers sent home with students and  by robo-calls. At other schools, people were told that the Cambridge Team was doing that.

What is Cambridge’s role in this? The district’s press release says that it will use “objective third-party reviews to highlight school strengths and weaknesses”.  It does not identify the third party as Cambridge, whom the district hired at a cost of $200,000 for canvassing and site visits.  Although not mentioned in the October 2016 resolution approved by the SRC which approved the Cambridge contract, the company is sub-contracting with Educators for Excellence (E4E) on the School Quality Reviews and the parent outreach. Click here and here for information about who is funding E4E.  (We have requested a copy of the Cambridge contract from the SRC office.)

APPS members have attended community meetings at Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Bartram high schools; Harding Middle School; and Blankenburg and Hartranft elementary schools. With the exception of the 4PM meeting at KHSA, there were no more than 8 parents at any of those meetings.  Parents at many of the meetings described themselves as “involved” or “regular volunteers”.  They were hopeful that the district would put back some of the many resources which had been stripped from the schools over the past four years, through the “Bare-bones” and “Doomsday” budgets, which have established a new normal of austerity across the district.  Community members challenged Dr. Hite’s public statement that “despite investments” made in the schools, they have failed to perform.  Blankenburg, for example, had no counselor for the previous two years. They have not had a full-time nurse or a library.  They have been a receiving school more than once in the past three years, but received no additional resources.  Very few substitutes were sent last year, and there were four unfilled teacher vacancies for the entire 2015-16 school year.

Few details about the menu of options were given.  Most of the information came in answers to questions from APPS members.  There is no explanation of what a “contract school” is except to say that the district can contract with a company with special programs not available at any district school.  Power-point presentations were made, but only at Bertram, Harding and Ben Franklin were audience members given any written material or copies of the page listing the five options.

We have asked at every meeting we attended whether reports from each meeting would be posted for the benefit of those who can’t come to the meetings.  We were told that no information will be posted.

Two years ago, two schools were designated Renaissance schools, but parents voted overwhelmingly to stay with the district. Last year, the district chose three neighborhood schools to be placed in the Renaissance program; parents were given no choice in the matter.  That same year, four schools had internal turnarounds imposed upon them which resulted  in the loss of most of the faculty; at two schools, principals were forced out. Community meetings were held, but the community had no say in the district’s decisions.

Below are our reports from the initial community meetings. (Meeting are listed in the calendar order they were held.)

Blankenburg Elementary School
Blankenburg Focus Group 1

Benjamin Franklin High School
Benjamin Franklin: Focus Group 1

Bartram High School

Kensington Health Sciences Academy
Kensington: Focus Group 1

Hartranft Elementary School

Harding Middle School

Look at this article to see who is funding Educators4Excellence
Educators4Excellence because teachers NEED their own education reform front group | Wait What?

Eyes on the SRC – September 15, 2016


by Karel Kilimnik

September 13, 2016

As the school year begins, we witness another disappearing act by the SRC and the Hite administration. Now you see the resolutions, now you don’t. And when we asked for copies of resolutions already posted and distributed, but for some reason deleted from the district website, we were told by SRC staff that we had to file a Right to Know request. The SRC has made resolutions concerning ASPIRA, Olney High and Stetson Middle schools, along with Universal Audenreid High and Vare Middle schools, vanish into thin air—until they decided to make them reappear. The last time they were seen was at the April 28, 2016 SRC Action Meeting, when the Charter School Office strongly recommended non-renewal. Attorney and former mayoral candidate Kenneth Trujillo presented himself at the May 19 meeting as “Oversight Counsel” for ASPIRA, Inc; he admitted that ASPIRA had funneled money designated for Olney and Stetson into their other enterprises, but promised to correct that “cross-collateralization”. Trujillo told the SRC commissioners that ASPIRA Inc. had engaged William Blair and Company, one of the largest investment banks in the country. If ASPIRA wants to clean up its financial problems why are they spending money hiring William Blair & Company, “ a privately held financial services firm that provides investment bankingequity researchbrokerageasset management and private capital services.” What does this have to do with getting Aspira’s finances in order? Commissioner Bill Green made it clear that the SRC would be meeting with Aspira representatives to ensure that the company maintained control of these two schools.

APPS has been active in the five months since April to ensure that the public knows how the SRC is spending public money. We have written to the Mayor and the city’s Chief Integrity Officer, along with the Inspector General appointed to oversee the district. Negotiations with charter companies should not take place in private.

Also pulled from the bag of tricks is the reappearance of renewal resolutions for three Mastery charters—Clymer, Gratz Middle and High, and Shoemaker middle—also originally posted April 28. Despite low test scores, the Charter office recommended renewal. Why did the SRC postpone these for five months? Have SRC commissioners also been negotiating with Mastery? Originally they were posted but then they disappeared from the website. There is also a proposed charter amendment for KIPP Philadelphia Charter. This proposal was denied twice before. Why is the SRC allowing KIPP to submit the same amendment? Why so many do-overs for charters but none for public schools like Wister?

In April 2013, the SRC voted to close Vaux High School as part of the Hite administration’s massive closure campaign. The reason: under-enrollment. Fast forward to the present: the SRC, with no presentation or discussion, will vote to re-open Vaux—not as the public school it was, but as something called a “contract school”. The district, apparently, has been in negotiations with a company called Big Picture. Instead of supporting the school community to provide resources for all of their students, the district chose to scatter those students, disperse the staff, and leave a hole in the neighborhood. Is this the beginning of a new pattern, as more and more people see what a disaster charters have become? Close a school for a couple of years and then allow a non-profit to open it as a “contract” school? Public education dollars are the modern day gold rush for carpetbagger corporations.

Past practice shows us that these charter school operators will be out in full force at the September 15th SRC Meeting. We need for everyone to show up, ask questions either through testimony or by holding signs. We need to show that the community has questions and concerns about the direction the unelected SRC commissioners are taking.

The School Reform Commission is a governmental body. They control the over $2 billion dollar budget for the District and as public officials they must include public input. It’s difficult to comment on issues when Resolutions pop up and then disappear until a Resolution announcing the decision appears.

WE REALLY NEED YOU TO JOIN US AT THE SRC MEETING ON THURSDAY SEPTEMEBER 15th. Judging from the nature of the Resolutions and past practice, the charter operators will be out in full force. In order to get upstairs and into the auditorium call to register to speak by Wednesday September 14 at 4:00 p.m. The phone is 215 400 4180. The meeting starts at 4:30.

Click here to read APPS Analysis of selected resolutions on which the SRC will vote on September 15th.


APPS Calls on Mayor Kenney to Investigate SRC Actions in Aspira Case

Full SRC 5-19-16

The SRC has been considering the status of the charters of two ASPIRA schools, Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, for almost two years. There have been several stories published in the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook about ASPIRA’s failure to provide sufficient educational services to its students, along with serious issues about its questionable managerial and financial practices.  In April, the Charter School Office, which is under the domain of the SRC, presented detailed reports on both schools and recommended non-renewal for both. Rather than accept the findings of the CSO, the SRC has voted several times to postpone the vote.  APPS is requesting that the Mayor have his Chief Integrity officer investigate the actions of the SRC in the ASPIRA matter, in particular the private negotiations being conducted by two SRC members designed to make sure that ASPIRA retains control of the schools.
Rather than honestly answer the questions when interviewed by City and State Pennsylvania about the APPS letter, SRC Commissioner Bill Green launched a personal attack on APPS Co-founder Lisa Haver and questioned APPS independence.
APPS has previously questioned possible ethics violations due to conflicts of interest by SRC members relations with charter companies such as this letter to SRC Commissioner Farah Jimenez on September 2, 2015. In the letter, APPS stated: 
You identified yourself in that article as “Chair of Terry Tracy for Council-at-Large”. Mr. Tracy is a Republican party-backed candidate for city office. Subsection 696 (b)(6) of the Pennsylvania School Code of 1949, as amended, states: “No commission member may, while in the service of the School Reform Commission, seek or hold a position as any other public official within this Commonwealth or as an officer of a political party.”

Although no resolution has been posted regarding ASPIRA for Thursday’s (August 19th) SRC meeting, it is possible that the SRC will add a resolution for renewal at the last minute.

Below are the intros to the City and State Pennsylvania article and the letter to Mayor Kenney with links to the full text.

Education advocates call for investigation of Philly charter schools
City and State Pennsylvania – August 12, 2016

by Ryan Briggs

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an educational advocacy group, has called for the city’s Inspector General and Chief Integrity Officer, Board of Ethics and the Mayor’s office to investigate the relationship between School Reform Commission members and the troubled ASPIRA charter school organization.

The charter operator has been flagged by the School District of Philadelphia’s charter office for repeated academic and financial failings, but has remained in operation for more than a year due to the repeated postponement of a charter renewal vote.

The letter accuses School Reform Commission members of engaging in a “private appeals process” to benefit the charter at the public’s expense.

APPS member Lisa Haver accused SRC members Bill Green and Sylvia Simms in particular  of colluding with school operators to keep the school in operation through “ex parte” negotiations held outside of SRC meetings

“The School District charter office’s own reports recommended nonrenewal,” she said. “They’re working it out behind closed doors. It’s a violation of public trust.”

Haver said that Green and Simms had formed “a voting bloc” bent on keeping ASPIRA running in spite of its failing record at Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, which the operator took over four and five years ago, respectively.

Click here to read the whole article published in City and State Pennsylvania

APPS letter to Mayor Kenney Calling for an Investigation into SRC Actions on Aspira

Dear Mayor Kenney,

On behalf of the members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, we are writing to request that the City’s Chief Integrity Officer, Ellen Kaplan, conduct a full investigation into the actions of the School Reform Commission during its current renewal procedure of the charters for Aspira Stetson School and Aspira Olney School. We have attended all of the SRC meetings in April and May of this year when these resolutions were considered, and we have serious concerns that the public has been denied the right to a fair and impartial process in these matters.

Click here to read the entire letter to Mayor Kenney

Ears on the SRC – July 1, 2016

SRC 7-1-16 #1

By Lynda Rubin

July 11, 2016

This Philadelphia School Reform Commission meeting, which had been posted for months for June 30 at 5:30pm, was changed just a couple of weeks before to Friday, July 1 at 10:00 am. Chairwoman Marjorie Neff introduced attendees to a “special meeting” of the SRC, but it was actually the Action Meeting for July. Moving a meeting to the Friday morning of the July 4th week-end continues the SRC’s pattern of changing meetings to days and times more difficult for parents and public to attend. (Last month, the SRC voted to change its 5:30 meeting time to 4:30; no reason was given.) Feather Houston was absent but participated by phone.

Click here to read the entire post.