Saturday, July 12, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

District delays overhaul of West Phila. High

Uncertainty over who will run West Philadelphia High School has hurt, a member of the School Advisory Council said. (David Maialetti / Staff)
Uncertainty over who will run West Philadelphia High School has hurt, a member of the School Advisory Council said. (David Maialetti / Staff)

The planned September overhaul of West Philadelphia High School was abandoned Wednesday amid allegations that parents who had a say in selecting the company to run the school had a conflict of interest.

A nonprofit with ties to a firm that sought to run the school had paid them small stipends to get other parents involved in West.

The surprise move by the Philadelphia School District came a week after the School Reform Commission deferred a decision and launched an investigation.

The district had said West's fate would be decided June 9.

But on Wednesday, the district changed course, saying West would remain a district school for another year. Saliyah Cruz will remain principal.

The 70 teachers - more than half of whom have already signed on with other schools - will be allowed to return to West if they choose, said Benjamin W. Rayer, the district official who oversees the Renaissance process of radically restructuring schools.

"At this point, we're in June, and we need to move forward, and we need to do it in a thoughtful way," Rayer said.

West will receive extra supports as an "Empowerment School," and the investigation will continue, he said.

But according to legal analysis by the nonprofit Education Law Center, there is no conflict.

In a memo to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the commission Tuesday, lawyer David Lapp concluded that the Pennsylvania conflict-of-interest statute for public officials does not apply to the parents who sat on West's School Advisory Council, charged with picking a provider.

Even if the statute did apply, the parents did not violate it, and "a commonsense view of this situation reveals no conflict," Lapp wrote in the memo, which The Inquirer obtained.

Four of the 15 advisory-council members were on a parent outreach team paid by the nonprofit Philadelphia Education Fund.

PEF, an independent nonprofit that promotes quality public schools, has a long history with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, the provider selected by the parent council in a 9-2-2 vote over two other contenders. The fund also expected to get a subcontract to help Hopkins. All the outside firms taking over schools have similar community partnerships.

Three of the four parents were paid between $300 and $400 over a few months to knock on doors and drum up parent interest in West. A fourth, Carla Jackson, is paid as a part-time employee of PEF doing similar work.

But Jackson and PEF executive director Carol Fixman say the parents were never directed to advocate for Hopkins or any provider. In fact, Jackson said, she voted for West to become a district-run Promise Academy.

"I truly voted on what I believe is best for my son and any other student who's at West," Jackson said. "There is no conflict."

The Renaissance process has been bumpy at West.

Of the district's 13 other Renaissance schools, seven were matched with four charter school providers and six will be Promise Academies.

Those selections were made on May 12.

But Ackerman had concerns about the composition of West's advisory council. Ackerman said parents, who are supposed to make up at least half the council, were not involved enough.

She gave the council two extra weeks to get its act together, vowing that the commission would vote on West's provider May 26. She asked the council to reconsider her Promise Academy model.

The council voted overwhelmingly to pick Hopkins to run the school, with, members said, nine votes for Hopkins, two for Mastery Charter, and two for the Promise Academy.

Ackerman's administration agreed, asking the commission to approve a resolution naming Hopkins to run West.

But instead of voting, the commission put off the decision after the conflict allegation was presented to Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. the day of the meeting.

District officials had known about the parents' work, some say.

The dispute has created uncertainty at the school, which despite failing academics had made progress with a committed teaching corps and respected principal.

Wednesday's deferral did not make things any clearer.

"After last week's mess, I'd prepared myself mentally to move on," said Neil Geyette, a social studies teacher and head of the Urban Leadership Academy. "Then in the past few days, I've been thinking more and more about all the work we've put in. At this point, I don't know."

The latest move will make it tough to staff West, he said.

"If you're trying to attract high-quality talent, who would sign up for an unguaranteed year?" he said.

Mia King, a neighborhood resident and member of the School Advisory Council, was disgusted.

Months ago, when West was first named a Renaissance school, "the district said the school cannot afford to continue as its going, that change was necessary, that it could not wait. Now they're saying they can wait? It's a terrible lesson for our children to learn."

The uncertainty has been terrible for the school, King said.

"The damage is already done," she said. "West has been dramatically set back by this, and the students feel it."

Said Elaine Simon, another advisory council member: "The district has certainly succeeded in creating a school turnaround at West - a 360 degree turnaround. Back to the chaos of 2006."

Rayer, the district official, said that it would be wrong to rush West.

"We need to make sure that we get this right and have a fair and open process," Rayer said. "Next year, we need to make sure we're constantly paying attention to what the school's needs are, and making sure they get addressed."

 


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

Kristen A. Graham Inquirer Staff Writer
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