On Thursday, March 20 at 5:30 pm the School Reform Commission held its public meeting at the School District of Philadelphia office located at 440 North Broad Street. The first thing that was quite noticeable was the increased number of security/police presence in and around the meeting room. Approximately 35 individuals had signed up to give testimony and the room was nearly filled with a variety of individuals representing parents, teachers, district staff, and advocates.
Two high school seniors were awarded the Office Depot Seniors of the month award: Gregory Coleman from High School of the Creative and Performing Arts and Lacey Malone from Samuel Fels High School. Each student was described by teachers and peers as being leaders, achieving academic excellence, and being examples to their peers and others by being model students. Gregory Coleman planned and participated in a rally bringing attention to the budget crisis plaguing schools. He encouraged his fellow students to demonstrate and bring attention to the matter. Each was awarded a check to assist with future educational needs.
Kathleen Grugan, a ESOL teacher from Fox Chase Elementary School, was Teacher of the Month. She was awarded $100 for supplies for her efforts and continued success with utilizing the push in model to service her students and by actively participating in overall building activities and needs. The students, staff, and administrator continues to be excited about her presence and hard work. These awards and the acknowledgement of the After School Activity Partnership Debate Team Winners were definitely the positive highlights of the evening. It reminds us that in the midst of this ongoing chaos and dissension, teachers and students are finding a way to achieve and work towards academic excellence despite any and all obstacles.
Next, Deputy Superintendent, Paul Kign presented the new Authorizing Quality Initiative (AQI) that will directly affect how charter schools are approved, renewed, and monitored. This has been a source of inconsistency since Philadelphia began approving charter schools and has resulted in misconduct, misuse of funds, and poor transparency among some charter school operators. The new AQI centers on Equity, Accountability and Autonomy. As Kign mentioned that, “Families believe that they provide a safe environment,” an audience member shouted, “lies” and “You’ll put the money in your pocket.” The overall goal of this new initiative is to strengthen the charter school authorization process and ensure that all charter schools are high quality school options. Hopefully, it will also ensure against favoritism when operators are being considered, which was brought up by Laurence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School during his testimony. The ongoing comments and outbursts from audience members demonstrate that there is disagreement when it comes to charter schools in Philadelphia. The cost going to charter schools from the district increased from 18% to 29% and the cost paid to district schools decreased from 63% to 54%. Please review the AQI as it is made available on the website.
Throughout the public testimony the SRC attention ranged from interested to not very. The testimony ranged from Meatless Mondays in response to healthier choices for all of our students to concerns about the continued lack of transparency. Members from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools spoke about the increasing power of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the Great Compact, and the fact that the parents at Blaine Elementary had no idea that their school was being transformed. This transformation includes half of the staff possibly being replaced. Dawn Hawkins, a Blaine parent and a member of Active United closed her testimony with the following, “These are our schools and neighborhoods and communities.” As an active parent she was enraged that she discovered the news about transformation from a newspaper article. At the end of the meeting Dr. Hite listed the number of parent meetings and how the principal reached out to the Blaine community with all of the details. But, the actual evidence could be heard from the audience members who agreed with Dawn and all of the speakers from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS). Lisa Haver (APPS) said it best, “Our schools are for sale. Because all you need is a lot of money from a private donor and you too can go school shopping.”
Lastly, bus operators made testimony to the new changes being placed on them by a new contract and bidding system. Some of the smaller companies who have been in business for years with the district may not financially be able to keep up with the increase insurance, GPA requirements, and silent bidding process. In other words, many are expected to bid on routes without knowing the number they will receive until they are approved. It brought to light that companies are not paid on snow days and that the new changes may bankrupt them all. And they have received little to no support or information from the district office. Green did acknowledge them and even requested that they meet. Hopefully, it will come before the March 24 deadline for bids.
The Powelton Community was very grateful to Drexel University for holding actual conversations with them regarding the possible sale of the University High School land and building, but did express during testimony the lack of dialogue or presence from members of the School District of Philadelphia.
The overall sense of the room was that individuals and stakeholders want to know about the decisions before they are made or passed. After the debate team was honored, Chairman Green joked that he may need their assistance as the meeting continued. This kind of defensiveness is not healthy or appropriate in an environment rich with distrust especially when the SRC can always make decisions without public agreement. It is still nice to know that they care about the public fears and opinions as they move forward to represent the schools under their watch.
Chairman Green did ask for all of us to fight for the 320 million from Harrisburg, and he stated that “There are 100 failing schools. We are trying to make changes but are limited due to resources.” He also included the requested concessions from PFT, which will continue to make sure that Philadelphia public school teachers are paid even less than their suburban peers. It is a step in the right direction to develop a better system for charter school oversight and approval, it is also vital that the School Reform Commission continues to fully and fairly represent the parents, students, advocates, and stakeholders of Philadelphia Public Schools without favoritism or walking the lines of questionable ethical behavior.