Weeks before the start of school, the state education department dropped a bomb on a unique charter school popular with Philadelphia-area families: stop using physical facilities for face-to-face learning, or risk being shut down.
The order means that 500 Philadelphia-area families — half the school’s population — will likely be scrambling for new places to learn in September. The changes forced the school, Education Plus Academy, to lay off or slash hours for half its staff, some of whom were just hired or promoted.
Shocked parents and the school’s CEO say the abrupt move, which came the same day as Gov. Wolf asked a Delaware County court to dramatically curtail funding for a large Chester charter school, is further evidence that the governor’s administration is out to get charters.
“Everybody knows the governor doesn’t support charters,” said Nicholas Torres, the school’s CEO and one of its founders. “He specifically doesn’t support cyber charters.”
Parent Amy Millar, whose three children were set to start first, third and fifth grades at Education Plus on Sept. 8, was more blunt.
“It was a kill order,” Millar said. “I feel like there’s been a death in the family.
EdPlus, which opened in 2012, operates on a blended model. It is a cyber school aimed primarily at special-education students, but it also has offered face-to-face learning opportunities with teachers and other education staff at “learning centers” throughout the state, including six in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
Most students had attend learning centers most days, Torres said. The school had supplemented the cyber curriculum with art, gym, and other activities, but those have all been cut because of the state’s order.
“You can have 15 kids in a classroom setting working at different levels, and they’re active, they’re engaged, they’re not frustrated,” said Torres, who has extensive background in Philadelphia education circles. He is the former president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, and founded Pan American Academy Charter, a brick-and-mortar school.
Millar grew frustrated with her home district — Abington — when her two older children, both of whom have special learning needs, were languishing in their public school, she said.
At EdPlus, her children have made astonishing gains, Millar said — her daughter finished third grade at her public school barely reading at a kindergarten level. She’s set to enter fifth grade reading on level now. And Millar’s son, who has autism and a tic disorder, used to try to physically flee school daily.
He has had none at EdPlus, Millar said.
“And now, I’m in this spot where I have to call the school that failed my kids and re-enroll them,” said Millar. “I’m heartbroken over this.”
To comply with the state’s cease and desist order, EdPlus is shutting learning centers in Chester, Clifton Heights, Abington and Somerset immediately. It’s also limiting the number of hours regular-education students can attend learning centers to three per day. Those students will only be able to access tutoring, not instruction as they had been.
Special-education students can use the centers from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, but only for tutoring and supplemental services.
EdPlus had also planned to expand to high school this year. It now will not offer those grades, officials said.
Those dramatic changes mean that many families will be forced to go elsewhere.
Jo-Ann Rogan pulled her two sons from the Philadelphia School District in the face of budget cuts and frustrations with services for her older son, who has special needs.
Her boys found a home at EdPlus, she said, thriving academically with project-based learning, and socially, with a good mix of regular- and special-education students.
“It’s been amazing,” said Rogan. “My kid has made huge progress, and he’s been happy for the first time in school. The last two years have been healing and good for him.”
She will likely keep her older son at EdPlus for this year, but the new model won’t cut it for her younger son, a regular education student.
“He’s a really busy kid,” said Rogan. “He needs to go to school.”
Like Millar and many others, Rogan is poised to fight on behalf of EdPlus.
Torres said the EdPlus board will meet this week to discuss options, and may go to court to seek an injunction to bar the changes.
Minutes before heading into a second straight day of budget talks with Gov. Wolf and top leaders in Harrisburg, state Sen. Vincent Hughes said there would be no Pennsylvania budget without a Marcellus Shale tax and millions of dollars in education spending.
Hughes had planned a news conference at Philadelphia School District headquarters for Thursday morning to underscore how falling state standardized test scores demonstrated a need for greater funding for schools around the city and across the state.
He delivered the message, but remotely, from Harrisburg, where he headed for a second straight day of budget talks with Wolf and leaders of the four legislative caucuses.
Pennsylvania's highest court will decide whether the School Reform Commission can cancel its teachers contract, it said in a brief order issued this week.
What does it mean?
Had the Supreme Court declined to take a crack at the case, the SRC's Oct. 2014 move to nullify the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' contract would have been null and void. Commonwealth Court in January sided with the PFT, keeping at bay the commission's move to cancel the teachers' contract and impose changes to teachers' healthcare plans.
Significant changes continue at the Philadelphia School District, with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. Wednesday announcing a number of personnel shifts, hires and other moves.
Hite expanded the number of “learning networks” — groups of schools arranged by geography or theme — to 13 from 8, and has hired a crop of new asssistant superintendents to oversee them.
He’s also shuffling his cabinet around. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn recently announced his resignation, and will not be replaced.
But Naomi Wyatt, former human-resources chief, will become chief of staff, a new position for Hite. Fran Burns, the chief operating officer, will add duties as “executive sponsor for finance,” in the wake of Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski’s departure.
Sophie Bryan, who had been special assistant to Hite among other roles, is now Chief External Relations Officer, replacing Rodney Oglesby, the former government relations staffer who left the district.
Evelyn Sample-Oates becomes director of the Office of Advocacy and External Engagement. Karyn Lynch, the Chief of Student Services, will oversee the Office of Parent and Family Services.
Hite also made some interim appointments. Wayne Grasela, the former senior vice president for food services, becomes acting deputy chief operating officer. Amy Virus takes over Grasela’s former job.
And Kendra-Lee Rosati, who had headed recruitment for the district, becomes acting human-resources chief.
Karen Kolsky, a former assistant superintendent, will be acting chief of the neighborhood learning networks.
New learning network assistant superintendents are Racquel Jones, who had worked in Baltimore City public schools; Randi Klein-Davila, the former principal of Hackett Elementary; and Jeff Rhodes, who comes from Michigan and recently completed doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania will all lead groups of neighborhood schools.
Other new assistant superintendents will lead specialized networks. Chris Lehmann, the nationally-acclaimed founding principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, will remain a principal of that school and add responsibility for the Innovation Network.
Eric Beacoats, who worked for a charter management group in Illinois and was superintendent of Durham, N.C. schools, will lead the Turnaround Network of struggling schools. Christina Grant takes over the Opportunity Network of alternative schools. She comes to Philadelphia from the Great Oaks Foundation, where she was superintendent.
Cheryl Logan, who had been a neighborhood assistant superintendent, moves over to lead the Autonomy Network — a group of strong schools given charter-like flexibility in budgeting and curriculum.
Salary information was not immediately available.
Expect more changes in the Philadelphia School District, with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. scheduled to announce news about the schools' "learning networks" - groups of schools organized by geography or theme.
Acclaimed Science Leadership Academy Principal Chris Lehmann has said that he will lead the Innovative Schools Network. Lehmann is SLA's founding principal; he will remain as co-principal and Aaron Gerwer, who had worked as an intern under Lehmann, will join him as co-principal.
"The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia," Lehmann wrote in a letter to SLA families and posted on his blog. "It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways."
Every Philadelphia public school could have a full-time counselor in September, and dozens of laid-off counselors stand to be re-hired if a recently-issued arbitrator’s decision stands.
Handing the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers a significant victory, the independent arbitrator ruled that district was out of bounds when it bypassed seniority in recalling laid-off employees, and that it is in violation of its contract for failing to have one full-time counselor at every school, union officials confirmed Tuesday.
The district has vowed to appeal the decision, throwing into doubt whether the changes will be in place when school opens in the fall.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has gotten his report card: solid, but no straight As.
And though he was eligible for a performance bonus, Hite declined to take one, citing the Philadelphia School District’s dire financial straits.
The city schools leader was evaluated by the School Reform Commission in six areas: student growth and achievement; systems leadership; district operations and financial management; communication and community relations; human resource management; and professionalism.
Philadelphia School District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn has resigned his position, officials confirmed Wednesday.
Kihn, who was Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s second-in-command, has been with the district for three years. He was paid $210,000, and is leaving to spend more time with his family, who are moving back to Washington, D.C.
Kihn came to the district from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co.