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Archive: May, 2011

POSTED: Sunday, May 22, 2011, 10:32 AM

State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D, Phila.) has introduced legislation that would abolish the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which was created by the state in 2001 as part of a takeover of the Philadelphia School District.  The SRC consists of five members, three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor, and has certain “extraordinary” powers, including the ability to impose terms on the district’s unions in order to speed reform.

Ten years in, Bishop says, it’s not working.  Things in the district, she says, are “worse now” than it was when the state stepped in to revamp things a decade ago - academically, violence-wise, and fiscally.  “Our children are suffering, no matter what they say,” Bishop said.  “They’re not where they should be.”  It's hard to dispute that there has been progress. The district has seen eight straight years of test score growth, and for the first time, more than 50 percent of students are meeting state goals in reading and math; officials have pointed to that as evidence that the takeover law, and the SRC, are working as they should be.

But this year’s funding crisis raised a serious question in Bishop’s mind.  The district must slash $629 million to balance the 2011-12 budget.  To do so, officials are proposing cutting full-day kindergarten, most transportation services and extended day programs altogether; chopping , school budgets considerably; and making cuts to special education, early childhood education, alternative education, athletics, and a host of other programs. For the first time in recent memory, the state is taking away funding from the district, not increasing it. “If you're not going to fund it, give it back to the city, and let the city do the best it can,” Bishop said.


She’s calling for an end to the state takeover and she's calling for an elected school board, something Philadelphia did not have before the state intervention.  (But she’d be willing to consider an appointed board, as long as it was a city-appointed board, she said.)  

But who’s to say the city could come up with more cash for the district?  “Whether the city can come up with the money or not remains to be seen,” Bishop said.  “But you ask yourself - which is worse, for state to own it and not fund it, or for the city to own it and not fund it?” (Just a note that this is the week that the district goes before City Council to present its grim budget picture.  Officials make their case on Tuesday morning, and public testimony happens on Wednesday.)

POSTED: Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 12:47 PM

The May voting meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m.  As usual for the end of the school year, there’s a lot on tap.  I will be live Tweeting the meeting - check this spot for updates.

Here’s a preview:

1. The Accountability Review Council, a national panel formed to provide oversight of the district for the SRC, will present its annual report.
The ARC (education loves acronyms!) has two main threads.  One, the district is making progress.  No news there - it’s been well-documented that the district has had eight straight years of test score gains.  The number of schools that make AYP, or adequate yearly progress, has increased from 9 percent to 59 percent, since 2002. The ARC “remains concerned,” however, that there are was only “modest improvement” in the narrowing of the achievement gap between black and Latino students and Asian and white students. Threatened budget cuts, of course, do not figure to help the situation.
Two, the ARC commissioned the local nonprofit Research for Action to examine the Renaissance schools, Philadelphia’s attempt to turn around failing schools.  There are two kinds of Renaissance schools, charters managed by outside organizations and Promise Academies, which are district run.  Both have longer school days and years, new faculty, and other reforms.  Promise Academies have extra district resources (about $400) spent per student.
Research for Action found the Renaissance Schools’ School Advisory Councils need to become stronger, particularly at Promise Academies, where both the councils and principals aren’t quite sure what roles the councils should play, how much say they should have, etc.
Research for Action also found that the results were uneven across Renaissance Schools in terms of climate.  Attendance was better at most schools, but there were varied suspension rates at the schools.  Promise Academies’ rate of lateness among students increased from 10 to 14 percent. (Lateness at the Renaissance charters declined, from 7 percent to 6 percent.) There’s also a need for “school-wide strategies for promoting a positive climate at the Promise Academies.”
The researchers recommended the district recruit Renaissance teachers as early as possible, since last year’s hiring was hampered last year.  A hiring delay “did not allow most of the Renaissance Schools to recruit from the strongest possible pool of teachers in a timely manner,” the report found.  That should also be tough this year, as there will be teacher layoffs, though it’s not yet clear whether Promise Academy teachers will be exempt from those.
The ARC is “proceeding with caution in its review and discussion of the study, because it is largely descriptive in nature.”  Translation: wait and see.


POSTED: Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 9:06 PM

Philadelphia School District officials hinted that the School Reform Commission may use powers given to it under the state takeover law of 2000 to keep Promise Academy teachers from getting laid off. The district's $629 million budget gap for 2011-12 means that it will lose about 1,200 teaching jobs. Some will be taken care of by retirements or resignations, but layoffs seem inevitable. Since many teachers at Promise Academies (which are district-run Renaissance, or turnaround schools) have little seniority, many would be vulnerable to layoff. (See here for more backstory.)

Today, spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser issued a statement on the topic:

“The School Reform Commission is reviewing all of its options as it addresses the budget for 2011-2012. The Commission was given certain extraordinary powers and the SRC is considering whether the exercise of any of those powers will assist it in resolving the budget issues, while preserving to the greatest extent possible the educational program and priorities of the District. This would include all of its options under Section 696 of the Public School Code. The SRC is scheduled to vote on the budget on May 31, 2011.”

POSTED: Friday, May 13, 2011, 4:49 PM
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan. (Clem Murray/staff) (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

Updated, 5:30 p.m.

After The Inquirer reported that the Philadelphia School District had classified Promise Academy teachers a "protected class" of employees, exempt from any layoffs, district spokeswoman Shana Kemp said she misspoke.

"No official decision has been made yet," Kemp said.  "We are carefully weighing all decisions as we move forward with the budget planning process."

POSTED: Thursday, May 12, 2011, 2:50 PM

"Is summer school happening?" - that's a question I often field from teachers and staff these days.

Tucked away in a corner of this story about yesterday's SRC meeting was a mention of summer school, but I thought it was worth a separate posting given the interest.

Essentially, summer school is happening. Here’s what district Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch had to say about that, from my story:

POSTED: Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 1:35 PM
Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman (center) with member Joseph Dworetzky (left) and Chair Robert L. Archie Jr. at the school commission meeting last month. (File photo: Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

Today, the School Reform Commission meets for its May planning meeting.  The meeting is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m.

On the agenda are a number of resolutions that have to do with district buildings.  Much has been said - but little revealed - about the district's facilities master plan.  Essentially, there are about 70,000 empty seats citywide (though some areas are overcrowded, many are not.)  The district knows it must fix this - and it will, over the next several years, officials say - through not just building closures but also grade re-configurations, boundary changes, and other measures.  No schools will close in September, but there will be some grade changes.  The resolutions on the agenda for today are the rightsizing policy itself, an adaptive reuse policy that will govern how empty buildings are handled, and related measures.

Also on the agenda: about 35 student expulsions, a pretty typical number for the SRC to consider in a month.  There are also a number of contracts, as is usual - from $500,000 with Pennoni Associates, Inc., Lippincott Jacobs Consulting Services and GAI Consultants for "Professional Material Testing Services" to $45,000 with Ceisler Jubelirer for "media and issue advocacy services."  Every month, there are dozens of such contracts - remember, this is a $3.2 billion organization. 


POSTED: Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 10:54 AM

Around the city on Tuesday morning, teachers stood outside public schools before classes began and waved signs, chanted and handed out flyers detailing the impact of $629 million in proposed budget cuts.

It was part of a citywide “informational picket” planned by the Philadelphia School District’s teachers’ union. 

PFT president Jerry Jordan stood on the lines himself at two schools in the Northeast, Lincoln High and Mayfair Elementary.

POSTED: Monday, May 9, 2011, 6:51 PM
Philadelphia teacher Chris Paslay was in the audience for a recent taping of the Glenn Beck show on education. Paslay is shown here.

Christopher Paslay, a teacher at Swenson Arts and Technology High in Northeast Philadelphia, recently appeared on a Glenn Beck show about "teachers who love their jobs but are frustrated with the education system."  (In my experience, that describes a good percentage of all teachers, no?) 

Paslay describes himself as someone who agrees with much of what Beck believes, though he diverges from Beck on some educational issues.  (“Glenn, like most journalists and talking-heads, has a more superficial understanding of public schools...”, Paslay wrote.) Hmmm...

Before the show began Paslay, who blogged about the experience here, filled out a questionnaire on key education issues.  Here are some excerpts: "Education is one of the few professions in America in which policies are written and decisions are made by governing bodies outside the field. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all govern themselves. Their panels and boards of directors are made up of other doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Not teachers, though. Politicians make the decisions when it comes to education in K-12 schools. So do researchers, think tanks, and lobbyists. Does it matter that most of these people have little to no experience teaching in a K-12 classroom? No, because they have the data and the power."

About this blog

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham writes the Philly School Files blog, where she covers education in Philadelphia, both in and out of the classroom.

During the school year, you’ll frequently find her hosting live chats about the district on Philly.com.

Please do pass along the scoop about what’s going on at your Philadelphia public school; Kristen welcomes tips, story ideas and witty banter.


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