Will District Listen to Parents and Community for Solutions at SGS Schools?

by Lisa Haver

For the third consecutive year, the Hite administration has placed several neighborhood schools into its “System of Great Schools” (SGS), to be redesigned according to a set of apparently predetermined outcomes.  The District once again went through the motions of providing community engagement in a series of poorly designed parent focus groups. These featured the simplistic questions asked of participants and the lack of informed District personnel to provide information or answer relevant questions about possible outcomes.

Although millions will be spent, the fate of three schools will be determined, and the future of the children and staff at the schools may change significantly, there has been no press coverage.

APPS members have attended 15 of the 16 focus group meetings at Locke, Harrington and Lamberton, all elementary schools in West Philadelphia. [See links to the individual reports below.] APPS members also attended all three of the SGS kickoff meetings. Despite pronouncements from District officials about changes this year as a result of “lessons learned”, the process so far has been a replication of the last two:  the same rationale, the same power-point presentation, the same misrepresentation of the process and possible outcomes. What remains to be seen: whether there will be the same disregard for the stated wishes of the parents and community members. Unfortunately, none of the members of the Board of Education came to any of the 15 meetings. Although they might see the reports, they did not hear firsthand from parents and community members.

One change: this year the District has not contracted with Cambridge Education to conduct a “school quality review”.

The District spent a total of $300,000.00 on those contracts; what it got were reports so shoddy and incompetent that APPS members told the District it should get its money back.

We were told that District staff would be conducting the school quality reviews, but no details about them were laid out at any of the focus groups. We also inquired about whether the District would be conducting separate focus groups for teachers and students as in previous years; we were told there would be, but they were not mentioned in most of the focus groups.

The District has renewed its contract with Temple University to facilitate the focus groups as they were paid to do last year. The list of questions asked by the Temple professors and graduate students seemed to be duplicates of the ones asked at meetings last year. Temple staff told the parents they were there to find out what they thought the schools strengths and weaknesses are in the areas of climate, leadership, communication, and overall performance.   What Temple staff did not do was provide any information about the SGS process or possible outcomes for the schools. When asked those questions, Temple staff told participants that they had no information about it and that only District staff could provide that. Why would the District convene meetings about the SGS process but not give facilitators information about it—or have District staff there to explain it?  It seemed that the actual purpose of the focus groups was to provide the illusion of community engagement without any real opportunity for parents and community members to have a say in their school’s future.

There are only two options for the SGS schools: to go into the Acceleration Network (formerly the Turnaround Network) or to have the school develop its own Academic Improvement Plan.  Only when APPS members pressed the District staff members, when they stopped by meetings briefly, were parents informed of the two options. Only in answer to our questions were parents told that the first option meant that all of the teachers in an Acceleration Network school must reapply for their positions and that at least 20% would be forced out—and that the principal could also be replaced, as many were in the past two years.  Only in answer to APPS members’ questions were participants told that Dr. Hite would make the final decision. The Academic Improvement Plan (AIP) was never outlined, nor were parents told what the criteria were for either option. Only at one meeting—the final Harrington focus group—were participants asked to vote for the option they wanted for their school.

Because we saw little connection in the past two years between what parents and community members said they wanted and what they actually got, we include a list of parent requests after each report.  Last year, two of the six SGS/Priority schools were placed into the Turnaround Network despite community opposition to that decision. The District also contracted with teaching consultant companies, ISA and Jounce Partners, which were placed at several schools even though no one—according to press reports, the Cambridge report, or our reports—asked for outside consultants

In most cases, the District decides on a solution to a non-existent problem—ineffective teaching. Few address the actual needs expressed by the school community.

What we heard from parents, students, school staff, and community members at all three schools is that they want more resources but do not want to lose their teachers. They value stability and do not want disruption for the sake of disruption. Many parents do not feel that bullying complaints are taken seriously. While there were some concerns, parents at none of the three schools said they wanted the principal replaced.  Some said they wanted a full-time librarian. Some wanted air conditioning. At all three schools parents wanted more support staff including classroom aides. In general, parents wanted additional teachers and staff more than increased technology.

The District has scheduled the “Findings and Feedback” meetings at all three schools in the last week of November, the final meeting before Dr. Hite makes his decision in January. (The Board has scheduled the first meeting of its Parent and Community Engagement Committee for the same night as the Lamberton meeting.) We will again urge the members of the Board of Education to attend and hear from the parents, teachers, students and community members what they need to make their schools better.

Findings and Feedback Meetings:

Locke: November 20 at 3:30 PM                                                                                       Harrington: November 27 at 5 PM                                                                                  Lamberton: November 29 at 5:30 PM

Focus Group Reports

Alain Locke Elementary

Robert E. Lamberton Elementary

Avery D. Harrington Elementary