Testimony of Sally O’Brien, Public Hearing for New Charter Schools, December 20, 2019

Good evening. My name is Sally O’Brien and I am a Philadelphia resident. Since 2015, I have been proud to teach at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, a public neighborhood high school. I believe the proposed High School for Health Sciences Leadership (HS2L) will undermine the vital work already happening in neighborhood high schools with healthcare CTE programs.

Philadelphia School Partnership told our principal, Ms Eren, that KHSA could “learn” from HS2L’s “model.” After reading their application, I am left asking, “how?” Their “Educational Philosophy” section states “Unlike most high schools, pedagogy and norms of collegiality will reflect an open practice model.” This is misleading. At KHSA, we have implemented instructional rounds since 2016; collegiality and open practice have long been the norm. The section on HS2L’s “school climate and culture” also describes plans for an advisory period focused on community-building, leadership, and wellness— much like the advisory program we have worked so hard to build at KHSA over the past several years.

We have built this collegial culture and this strong advisory program while under the same constraints as other District neighborhood schools. We accept EVERY student, no matter their circumstances, no matter the time of year. We are subject to the disruptive leveling process each fall, when staffing is adjusted to align with actual (rather than projected) enrollment. One year, a biology teacher was “leveled out,” meaning some of our 10th graders could not take a science class that year. Another year, our actual enrollment far exceeded district predictions, resulting in class sizes approaching 50. We got four new teachers after leveling, but it took months to actually fill all those positions. Neither of these scenarios would happen at a charter school, because charters are not subject to leveling, and are able to cap their enrollment. What could we possibly learn from the “model” of a school that does not have to play by the same rules?

HS2L will also have access to significant outside funding; by Year 3, it expects to receive approximately a million dollars from private donors. Perhaps this is how the school can afford 3 full-time staff to coordinate “career experiences” for students. Having a team of 3 staff members to focus on this work gives HS2L a huge advantage. Internships for high schoolers in the health field are logistically quite complex to arrange, and relationships with partner institutions take significant work to build and maintain. The likely outcome is that students from KHSA and other neighborhood schools will lose out on opportunities.

The playing field here is not level. For all students to have access to a “great school close to where they live,” we must ensure our neighborhood high schools are robust educational options, not just schools of last resort. We don’t need another charter “model” to “learn from”; we need the resources to provide an excellent education for ALL our students. Invest in neighborhood high schools.