Does the Philadelphia School District Value Public Input?

by Lisa Haver

 

“Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”

            —Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

 

A meeting at Germantown High School on Thursday, February 3, was billed in a Daily News ad as an opportunity for parents and the community to have their say on some important issues. The ad listed times and locations but was not clear on objectives. Not until the meeting started did I understand that the main topic was how to deal with declining enrollment and the increasing number of empty desks in some schools and overcrowding in others. ( I thought it was going to be about Germantown’s transition to Promise Academy; that is the subject of a subsequent meeting.)

 

A presentation which included a number of charts and graphs, distributed to the audience, was given by a consultant with DeLonghi/Ritter. This company has been hired to analyze data and advise the Philadelphia School District on how to solve the empty desks problem. The information showed how the student population has declined citywide due to a number of reasons including declining birthrate and growth of charter schools. I asked what percentage of the empty desks were attributable to the second reason: the answer was 60 percent. I then asked why the district made sure that this number would surely continue to grow given their practice of approving more charters and restructuring existing schools into charters. It’s not an act of God to be cleaned up after–it is their own policy. When I asked, the representative did try to explain; but he advises the district, he does not make the decisions. As soon as I got my answer, it was time to go into our “breakout groups”.

 

Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunnery made some brief comments, telling us that the contributions of the public, especially parents, were very important. The meeting was highly structured with two district facilitators at each table holding six parents. Each group was told to look at a list of “educational priorities” and vote for the five we thought were the most important. One parent at my table asked why the choices included literacy, math, science, and social studies since they are state-mandated subjects. The facilitator replied that these choices had been selected by parents in the first round of meetings. What first round? Nobody at my table had known about them.

 

After the votes were tallied, I asked how they would affect district policy in the future. I was told that the results would be published on the website. I tried to say that that was not an answer to my question, but I had a strong feeling that these votes weren’t really going to change many of the decisions already made by the district.

 

There have been ten meetings convened for this same issue; I attended a second at Saul High School. Instead of having us vote, this time the facilitator wrote down issues and questions given by the participants . About sixty people attended the Germantown meeting, about eighty at Saul. Given that these two meetings were for the residents of the entire Northwest area—Roxborough-Manayunk, Mount Airy, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, West Oak Lane—that is a very low turnout. Perhaps more notice than an ad in the paper and an item on the district’s website would have increased attendance. In answer to a question, a facilitator told us that no flyers had been sent home with students.

 

For all its talk of “parent partnering,” does the district really try its best to hear from them or others in the community? Since the state takeover ten years ago, the School Reform Commission has held all of its regular meetings in the early afternoon. Since teachers, students, most working parents and taxpayers cannot be there, who is watching and participating when the real decisions are being made and voted on?

 

If the parents of one neighborhood vote to stop a school from shutting down, does that mean the school stays open? Not if you ask the parents of the former Ada Lewis Middle School. They fought a futile battle with the district, using their own money to pay for consultants and engineers to show that the building did not really need the costly repairs the district claimed it did. Parents were quoted in the local press, including the Public School Notebook, expressing their feelings that the closure had been decided before the first Lewis parent took the microphone at the School Reform Commission. So when the district and its representatives tell parents that they “need” their input, what does that really mean?

 

Another series of meetings, begun last week, has been scheduled to discuss the decision made by Superintend Arlene Ackerman to restructure eighteen more schools in Renaissance Schools or Promise Academies. Again, the purpose of these meetings is baffling: hasn’t the decision already been made?

 

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught middle school for 16 years at Harding, Central East, and Roosevelt. 

 

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