Archives for category: Philadelphia

“Backpack Full of Cash” is coming to Philadelphia, where most of it was filmed.

Narrated by Matt Damon, this feature-length documentary explores the growing privatization of public schools and the resulting impact on America’s most vulnerable children. Filmed in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Nashville and other cities, BACKPACK FULL OF CASH takes viewers through the tumultuous 2013-14 school year, exposing the world of corporate-driven education “reform” where public education — starved of resources — hangs in the balance.

2:00 PM – Sunday, January 27, 2019
Unitarian Society of Germantown
6511 Lincoln Drive, Phila., PA 19119
(parking lot is located BEHIND the building at GPS address 359 W. Johnson St, between Greene and Wayne Sts.)

Discussion following the film

Artworks that had hung for many years in public schools in Philadelphia were removed during Christmas break in 2003 by then-Superintendent Paul Vallas, on then grounds that the art was too valuable to hand in the schools. The art has been hidden away in storage these past years and was nearly sold off to help balance the budget.

The art will be returned to the public schools!

The art includes works by Thomas Eakins, N.C. Wyeth, noted African American artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Dox Thrash, and late 19th- and early 20th-century Pennsylvania impressionists Walter Baum and Edward Redfield. At the time they were removed by the district, some works were proudly displayed with gallery lighting and signs; other pieces were found stuffed in closets or boiler rooms.

Officials had them removed from buildings, sometimes under cover of darkness, and said at the time that they would catalog and restore the art, if necessary, before figuring out how best to display the pieces.

The collection remained concealed, however, save for 15 of the works briefly exhibited at the Michener Museum in Bucks County in 2017. A group of advocates, led by former Philadelphia educators, spent years trying to figure out exactly what was in storage and how to get it back in front of children.

Other districts have wrestled with the same problem; some have formed nonprofits to handle their art, and others have partnered with museums to show it.

Arlene Holtz, retired principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School, which once had 72 significant oil paintings carefully framed and hung in its hallways, cheered when the board formalized its new policy in December.

When the district removed the works from Wilson and other schools, “we lost not just a treasure, we lost an idea — that beautiful artwork belongs not just to the rich, it belongs to all our children regardless of where they live,” Holtz said.

Wilson’s art collection was amassed by Charles Dudley, the school’s first principal, who believed that exposing children to art would inspire good behavior and morals and make the school beautiful. He created a museum-like environment, directly appealing to such artists as Baum to sell him works at a good price. Dudley raised funds by charging a nickel to show visitors the collection.

Another school, Laura Wheeler Waring Elementary, in Fairmount, used to display a work by Waring herself, the African American artist and teacher for whom the school is named.

“These collections are inexhaustible and are to be preserved and used to benefit the students and citizens of Philadelphia,” the board policy declared. “The School District of Philadelphia’s collections of art shall be held for educational purposes, research, or public exhibition for the community to enjoy or to generate funds for their preservation and not for financial gain.”

The new board policy is a victory, but a first step, said Holtz. The art has been cataloged and accounted for, but it remains in storage.

I remember back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when charter schools were first invented. Advocates (then including me) said they would be more accountable than public schools, because if they didn’t get academic results they promised, they would close. They would also save money because they would cost less than real public schools. Turns out none of this is true. Charter schools fight for equal funding with public schools, and now we know they fight against any accountability. Even failing charter schools get renewed.

When charters close because of financial scandal or academic failure, they are typically replaced by another charter.

When a charter school fails to meet its goals, its charter should be revoked and it should be returned to the public schools to be run by professionals, not amateurs.

Greg Windle writes in The Notebook about the decision by the Philadelphia school board to renew a failing charter school. Parents thought the bad old days of the state-dominated School Reform Commission were over. SRC thought that charters were always the answer to every problem.

He writes:

After the Board of Education meeting Thursday night, many longtime activists in the audience felt as if they had returned to the days of the board’s predecessor, the School Reform Commission. The most controversial vote reversed the SRC’s 2017 decision to close Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School for years of poor and declining academics, instead granting it a one-year extension.

This charter had gotten an extension in 2017 despite poor performance. The school met no standards in any of the three categories—academic, organizational, or financial.The SRC voted not to renew on October 4, 2017:

From the 2017 Renewal Report:

Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School was part of the 2014-15 renewal cohort. In spring of 2015, the CSO recommended the Charter School for a one-year renewal with conditions due to declining academic performance in years 3 and 4 of the charter term. The SRC did not take action on the 2014-15 renewal recommendation because the CSO and the Charter School did not reach agreement on the terms of a renewal charter agreement. During the 2016-17 school year, the CSO supplemented the 2014-15 comprehensive renewal evaluation with data and information from the years since the 2014-15 evaluation was conducted; primarily the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years for academic success and financial health and sustainability and through the current school year, 2016-17, for organizational compliance and viability. The Charter School’s performance in the most recent years reflects continued declines in academic success and financial health and sustainability performance and sustained non-compliance for organizational requirements. The Charter School has not demonstrated an improvement in academic performance; proficiency scores are below comparison groups in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 and proficiency rates declined in English Language Arts (ELA) and Science in 2015-16.Furthermore, the Charter School did not meet the growth standard in any subject in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. The Charter School continued to not meet the standard for organizational viability and compliance and now only approaches the standard for financial health and sustainability in 2016-17 due to related party, inaccurate attendance reporting and financial transaction concerns. Based on the aggregate review of performance in the three domains, the Charter School is recommended for revocation.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (now the Board of Educatuon) ordered the closure of Eastern Academy Charter School because of its poor academic performance, but the charter has vowed to fight the closure, a process that could drag on for years due to Pennsylvania’s charter-friendly law. The charter school even challenges the school district’s power to hold it accountable. It feels it is entitled to public money without any accountability for academic quality.

“Eastern is appealing on several grounds. For one thing, it contends that the Charter Schools Office unfairly assessed its academic record by including two special admission schools in one comparison group. For another, it says that two Charter Schools Office staffers who participated in the review were inexperienced.

“Susan DeJarnatt, a professor of legal research at Temple University and a critic of the charter school industry, said that Eastern’s arguments essentially object “to any kind of oversight.”

“The heart of the argument seems to be an idea that many charter proponents have advanced recently — that no charter school should be closed so long as any District schools that underperform the charter school in any way are operating, regardless of the charter’s academic performance or compliance with the law…

“In its appeal, Eastern included a speech by its CEO, Omar Barlow, in which he referred to neighborhood schools where many of his students might otherwise attend as “cesspools” to justify his own school remaining open. In the speech, he made no attempt to refute the charter office’s findings of poor academic performance and violations of state and federal laws.

“DeJarnatt said Eastern’s strongest argument is the one that questions the decision of the charter office to include two special admission schools in a group to which Eastern was compared. But she said that the school presented no evidence of how it would have fared if those magnet schools were removed. Still, she doesn’t see that argument as likely to void the SRC’s decision.

“The school was founded in 2009 with support from Eastern University, though the university has not continued to support the school. David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia, was also a member of the founding coalition. Although Eastern’s website contends that it is a Big Picture School, the only Big Picture Schools in Pennsylvania are El Centro and Vaux.

“By any standard, the school’s academic performance has been low. On the latest round of PSSAs, 20 percent of students in the school’s middle grades scored proficient in English and 1 percent were deemed proficient in math. The high school had poor scores in math and science on the Keystone exams. The school serves 349 students in grades 7-12.”

Twenty percent proficient in English! One percent prominent in math!

This is a failing school.

Why is this school still open?

Greg Windle, a journalist at The Notebook, has drawn together the many strands of the tangled web of Reformer groups in Philadelphia, as seen through the lens of a contract awarded to The New Teacher Project for principal training. TNTP, Michelle Rhee’s creation, was designed to hire new teachers. When did it develop an expertise in training principals? Were there no veteran educators, no one in the Philadelphia School System, capable of training new principals? Or were they recruiting principals who had been a teacher for a year or two?

As Windle gets deeper into the story of a contract dispute about hiring TNTP to train principals, a familiar cast of money-hungry Reform groups washes up on the beach.

“Marjorie Neff, a former School Reform Commission chair who voted against the TNTP contract to recruit and screen teachers, said that in her experience such national education vendors use an approach that is “formulaic” and doesn’t tailor well to the needs of an individual teacher or the “context” of teaching in Philadelphia, where a teacher’s needs are different than in the suburbs. Neff is a former principal at Samuel Powel Elementary and J.R. Masterman who earned a master’s degree in education from Temple University.

“They’re selling a product. From that perspective, their formula is their vested interest,” Neff said. “Their bottom line is profitability, and we need to take that into account. Is it the most effective way to do this, or is it the most profitable? I don’t think those necessarily have to be in conflict, but sometimes they are.”

“In 2017, TNTP reported that its expenses were $20 million higher than revenue. In 2016, its revenue was nearly $21 million higher than expenses, but this was entirely due to the $41 million it brought in from “all other contributions, gifts, grants” (excluding government grants). That pot includes grants from outside philanthropies, such as foundations, but also investments from venture capital firms. In 2015, the nonprofit lost $6.1 million, despite millions in outside funding.

“Shifting funding, but consistent ideology

“Bain Capital’s consulting firm has two members on the board of TNTP. Since 2009, Bain’s consulting arm has partnered with Teach for America to develop “high-impact leaders in education” by placing TFA alumni in “leadership” positions in public education. Together, TFA and Bain designed “a series of programs to inspire, prepare, match and support Teach for America alums on the path to leadership.” Bain aimed to bring leadership development practices from the private sector into public education.

“In 2012, the two organizations got together to “expand the scope of work” of their partnership — the same year that Teach for America founded School Systems Leaders to train TFA alumni to “serve at the highest levels of leadership in public school systems.”

“Matt Glickman, an employee of the Bain consulting firm and board member of TNTP, has also served on the board of the NewSchools Venture Fund. That fund has invested in free-market education reforms since 1998. The Sackler family – whose fortune is based on profits from Purdue Pharma, developer of OxyContin – decided to invest heavily in the fund.”

When will education be returned to educators?

Anyone advocating for edupreneurs should be fired. As Neff said quite well, these national vendors are in it for the money.

You know the story about zombies. They are the walking dead. They can’t be killed.

Crack reporter Greg Windle has discovered a zombie charter school in Philadelphia.

It has been warned and warned and threatened with death, but it fails and appeals and fails and never dies.

I remember the early days of the charter movement, the late 1980s, early 1990s. Charter enthusiasts said that the great thing about charters was that they would always be accountable for results. If they didn’t keep their promise, they would promptly be closed.

How did that work out?

This zombie charter plans to fail forever and live forever. No accountability!

We now know that the charter lobbyists have made it extremely difficult to close a failing charter school. Zombies!

It takes a long time to close a charter school, and the process includes many opportunities to delay closure for years. Khepera Charter School has exhausted all but its final chance and is now appealing to the state’s Charter Appeals Board to overturn the School Reform Commission’s decision to close the school.

Khepera is a K-8 school with 450 students located in Hunting Park. It was awarded its first charter in 2004, which was renewed in 2009. After academic results declined, the charter was renewed in 2014 with explicit conditions, along with the proviso that failure to meet these conditions would lead to the closure of the school.

Many of the conditions were never met; beyond that, the school continued to violate the state charter law. Since signing the 2014 charter, the school failed to hire enough certified teachers. Growth on the PSSAs largely reversed as scores began to plummet. The school promised to revise its discipline policy and reduce student suspensions, but instead, suspensions increased, even among kindergarten students. Board members didn’t file the required conflict of interest forms. Nor did the school submit the required financial reports and independent audits.

In 2015, the SRC’s Charter Schools Office first warned Khepera that it was failing to meet the conditions. Yet the school has been operating ever since and, by all indications, plans to open for the 2018-19 school year.

Khepera’s appeal to the state essentially seeks to dismiss all charges for a variety of reasons. Its lawyers argue, for instance, that a lack of certification paperwork for a given teacher doesn’t prove that the teacher isn’t certified.

The school ignored the first “notice of deficiency” from the Charter Schools Office, sent in October 2015. The charter office sent another notice in May 2016, another in August 2016, and yet another in May 2017.

Khepera did not respond to these notices. So in June 2017, the SRC voted to begin conducting public hearings to determine whether it should revoke the school’s charter — fully two years after the school failed to meet multiple terms of its signed contract. Hearings began Aug. 10, 2017, and ended Sept. 12, for a total of seven sessions.

Then in December 2017, the School Reform Commission voted to close the charter. Case ended? No! The charter appealed to the state Charter Appeals Board, which could keep the charter open for years.


But that’s not all:

After the SRC voted to revoke the charter of Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in the spring of 2014, the school filed an appeal to the state so that it could open its doors in September for the next school year.

But when it could not pay employees, Palmer abruptly shut its doors in December 2014, stranding students mid-year and forcing the District to scramble to find places for them.

This cut short the hearings before the state Charter Appeals Board, at which administrators for the charter school had invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 77 times.

After closing the charter, Palmer, a longtime civil rights leader in Philadelphia who founded and ran his namesake school, became a consultant to Khepera, where he initially helped with recruitment. At the end of 2016, he was hired to be CEO.

Khepera’s website gives every indication that it intends to operate throughout the 2018-19 school year and is continuing to recruit and enroll new students.

Zombie walks, talks, and enrolls students even though it is a failing school.

Every failing charter in Pennsylvania can find inspiration in the story of this failing charter:

The longest charter revocation process in state history was for Pocono Mountain Charter School. It lasted six years from the initial revocation hearings to the date the school finally closed. The charter revocation hearings ran for two years, starting in 2008, and appealing to the state’s Charter Appeals Board allowed the school to remain open for three more years. Then the school appealed the state board’s decision twice to higher courts, and only closed in 2014 after it declined to file a third appeal.

Toward the end of the process, Pocono Mountain’s CEO was convicted of using the school to funnel more than $1.5 million in tax dollars to himself, his family, and his businesses. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

But taxpayers can take solace knowing that the charter revocation process ended after six years and the CEO was convicted. Justice is slow but sometimes happens.

Franklin Towne Charter High School in Philadelphia has been accused of discrimination against a student with disabilities, reports Greg Windle in The Notebook.

Pamela James was thrilled when her granddaughter was accepted at Franklin Towne Charter High School. Her granddaughter raced off to tell friends the good news, and James gave the school a copy of her granddaughter’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), which included the need for emotional support — a common but relatively expensive requirement among students in Philly schools.

Hours later they were both shaken when James got a call from the Northeast Philadelphia school, informing her that her granddaughter could not attend as a result of her emotional disturbance diagnosis, that the class she needed was “full” and that the school would not accommodate her.

“After I took her IEP to the school, that’s when they shot me down,” James said. “That was really ugly discrimination.”

James was furious. No one at the school would return her calls, though she eventually received a brief letter restating that her daughter could not attend.

“I don’t understand how they’re able to do this,” James said. “They decided to change their mind because she needed emotional support.”

At that point, James did not know it is illegal to deny a student attendance at a public school based on their special education status. But she would soon find out. The Education Law Center of Philadelphia has since taken up her cause, sending an open complaint letter to the schools’ lawyer.

The article includes a graph created by the Education Law Center that shows the stark disparity between Philadelphia’s public schools and its charter schools in enrolling students with disabilities.

The only type of disability where charters accept the same proportion of students as public schools is “speech or language impairment.”

On every other type of disability, the contrast is dramatic. The public schools enroll more than 90% of students who are blind and nearly 90% of those who are deaf. The proportions accepted by charter schools are tiny. Eighty percent of students with autism are in public schools, 20% in charters.

Let us all be grateful to organizations like the Education Law Center. Without them, many students would have rights that are not enforced.

Greg Windle wrote an exemplary report on the record of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, who took Office in 2012.

He makes clear that there are many metrics, not only test scores, and many actors, including the governor and the legislature.

Education writers, take note. This is a treasure trove of information that the people of the city need to know.

Lisa Haver and Deborah Grill, leaders of the activist group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, wrote a commentary calling out the school board for its deference to charters, which are now asking to be held to lowered standards.

Forget about transparency or accountability if you are in the charter industry. Even the school board asks permission from the charters to regulate them and holds closed-door meetings to negotiate what they are willing to do.

They begin:

Philadelphia charter school operators and advocates have long maintained that if they were freed from the bureaucracy and regulations imposed on public schools, charters would be able to quickly and consistently raise student achievement. The School Reform Commission bought into that argument, approving new charters in almost every year of its 17-year reign.

The SRC also turned over control of more than 20 neighborhood schools to charter operators through its Renaissance initiative, whose provisions include “stringent academic requirements” that would be used “as a basis for a decision to renew, not renew or revoke a Renaissance school at the end of its [five-year] term.”

But when the data show many of those schools failing to achieve anything close to the “dramatic gains” promised, the SRC did not hold those charters accountable.

Recently, charter operators have actually lobbied the District to lower the standards by which their schools are evaluated. A June 11 Philadelphia Public School Notebook/WHYY story, “Philadelphia School District nearing new accountability rules for charters,” revealed that secret negotiations had taken place between District and charter officials about changes in the rating system, which “was developed with substantial input from the charter operators themselves.” This is not the first time charter operators and District officials have met in secret: They conducted closed-door meetings from fall 2016 through spring 2017 to formulate public policy about charters.

Belmont Charter CEO Jennifer Faustman argued that it’s not fair to compare charters who took over poor-performing District schools, saying, “You’re basically being challenged to exceed the District.”

But hasn’t that been the justification for creating and expanding charters — that they would always do better than public schools? Belmont Charter would not sign its 2017 renewal agreement, citing unfairness of conditions, even though Belmont failed to meet standards in all three categories—academic, financial, and organizational.

District officials contend that the new rubric is “fair” to charter operators, but do not explain how it is fair to the students or their parents. Theoretically, a charter school could earn a 45 percent academic grade even with near-zero proficiency rates. That is, a charter could be renewed as long as it showed improved attendance and growth — if not actual academic achievement. Incredibly, the charter coalition finds that expectation too high. They are holding out for a 40 percent passing grade.

Then-SRC Chair Estelle Richman told reporters that the charter “performance framework” has undergone “more than 60 negotiated changes” in the last year and that the “charter agreements incorporate a revised performance framework which provides charter schools with transparent and predictable accountability and ensures charter schools are quality options for students and families.”

Transparency, apparently, should be extended to charter operators but not to the public. If charters are truly public schools, as charter operators contend, then all policy discussions, including changes in the rating system, must be open to the public. Nor did Richman explain why the SRC felt the need to consult those being regulated on how they wished to be regulated.

Last month, in one of its final actions, the SRC approved 10 charter renewals. Four others, including two Mastery charters, were not on the agenda, reportedly because they rejected conditions suggested by the District.

Who is in charge? Why no accountability? Why are standards higher for public schools than for charters? What about all those promises?

Greg Windle, writing for The Notebook in Philadelphia, writes here about polite corruption in bidding for public contracts on the Philadelphia School System, which is run by a Broadie, William Hite.

“In a dispute over a lucrative contract for principal coaching, a bidder [Joseph Merlino] has accused the District of ignoring its procurement procedures, as well as state and local bidding requirements.

“The company has filed a complaint in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas demanding the District and school board agree to follow their own contracting procedure in the future to avoid undermining public confidence in the integrity of the process…the District is preparing to argue that it has no obligation to follow state law or enter into competitive bidding when it awards contracts for professional services, despite promising to do so in its procedures sent to bidders.”

The contract was for training principals. The bidder who lost co,planned that his organization had a more experienced team and a lower bid than the bidder who won, which was The New Teacher Project. The decision was made by someone with informal ties to The New Teacher Project.

“Underlying this dispute is a concern over long-term outsourcing of this type of work, as well as a clash of philosophies over the best way to train teachers and principals in leadership. This clash pits those favoring more traditional means against others promoting a more “disruptive” approach that has been advocated by major national education players, including the Gates and Walton foundations, and the groups they fund, such as the New Teacher Project, which was awarded the contract….

“In a complaint sent to the District as a prelude to his court action, Merlino noted that the District’s deputy in the department that selected the New Teacher Project, out of nine who submitted bids, was on a two-year fellowship with School Systems Leaders, part of an informal network of organizations that grew out of Teach for America and includes the New Teacher Project. School Systems Leaders seeks to place Teach for America alumni in high-level administrative positions within public school districts….

“In his complaint, Merlino noted that the contract was awarded when Katie Schlesinger was a deputy in the office of Leadership Development & Evaluation, which managed the bidding process. At the time, she also had a fellowship through School Systems Leaders.

“School Systems Leaders and the New Teachers Project are both spinoffs of TFA, and both function by staffing rank-and-file positions with TFA corps members or alumni. And they both receive funding from the same venture capitalist firm – the NewSchools Venture Fund.”

One hand scratches the other.

This deal stinks.