The SRC: What went wrong?

“Earlier this month, around the time the Phillies fell into their offensive funk, another local team found itself in trouble. The School Reform Commission, put in place a decade ago to help revive the city’s struggling public schools, was beginning to implode.”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The SRC: What went wrong?”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Public must scrutinize district spending

 

 

by Susan Cohen Smith

 

It has been said that, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As news of the School District of Philadelphia’s new leadership team and windfall budget sinks in, it would be prudent to recall lessons learned from the past.

 

When the School Reform Commission was formed in 2001, the system was in financial as well as academic distress. With the appointment of Paul Vallas as CEO came an influx of new money for educational reforms. The workforce tentatively acknowledged Vallas’ ideas and new leadership.

 

Some of us were slow to jump on board, and reluctant to accept the alien presence of Vallas’ Chicago imports whom we sometimes referred to as the “Square-Toes” for their preference in footwear.  When in the presence of downtown administrative types, many of us instinctively gazed down at their shoes to determine if they were the new guys from Chicago.

 

One such administrator was charged with heading up the new Secondary Education Movement.  Student Governments fell within his bailiwick. The SRC’s first act with regard to Student Government had been to do away with the longstanding, largely ceremonial tradition of including student representatives on the School Board. These positions had come with the honor of having the students’ names lettered on office doors at the 21st Street headquarters, which the SRC also did away with, but that’s another blog.

 

To make up for this slight, the new head of Secondary Education promised an enthusiastic gathering of Student Government sponsors a whopping $1000 annual budget plus a host of other unprecedented activities and opportunities for students. The goal was to prepare the student leaders of each secondary school for the world after high school and to encourage kids to get involved with the often-thankless tasks surrounding student government.

 

While some of these promises and programs were eventually enacted, their implementation was inconsistent and short-lived.

 

One interesting innovation introduced by this Chicago transplant was a program called Senior Residency, whereby outstanding 12th grade students were identified and recruited for service to their schools. For satisfactory performance of their assigned duties, the Senior Residents were paid a stipend of $100 a month and received academic credit as well. We were warned never to say double-dipping.

 

The following directive went out to the high schools:

 

“Seniors will be required to wear a specially designed uniform while serving as a Senior Residency participant. The uniform will consist of a Secondary Education Movement logo polo shirt and the approved bottoms of their respective school.”

 

At sponsors’ meetings, we questioned the value of this expenditure, as the shirts would be worn only for a few months by kids who were graduating and would never again wear them. We were told that the administrator ordered them and that was that.

 

The high-quality polo shirts, along with heavy cotton button-down long-sleeved shirts, each with embroidered logo, all in size XL, arrived the first week in June! The seniors who were still around refused to wear either shirt in the sweltering buildings. One of the Residents refashioned her oversized polo shirt into a mini dress.

 

This same Chicago Square-Toe also spent enormous amounts of newfound money on elaborate High School Fairs, referred to by many as his “dog and pony shows”.

 

To no one’s surprise, he left the School District of Philadelphia after three years on the job, just before the $180 million surprise deficit surfaced in 2006 to become Superintendent of another urban school district in the Midwest. It became clear that his lavish spending practices were nothing more than portfolio enhancements to enrich his job search.

 

Right now, with a fresh look to the School Reform Commission and new money in the coffers, there must be unrelenting public vigilance and outcry the moment these new faces appear to head in the same direction as their predecessors. Indefensible spending based on dubious and untested practices must be vigorously held to critical examination and intense scrutiny lest we find ourselves in the same mess as in 2006.

 

Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at retiredartteacher@gmail.com

 

Imagine 2014

 

 

by Christopher Paslay

(Re: Imagine 2014)

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine there’s no insults
It’s easy if you try
No blaming just the teachers
No waving 30 schools goodbye
Imagine the SRC
Giving us what we need

 

Imagine no outside managers

It isn’t hard to do

No wasting millions of dollars

And no consultants too

Imagine all the parents

Pulling their own weight

 

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday the SRC will join us

And every child will be someone   

 

Imagine no betrayal

I wonder if you can

No inside agenda

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the politicians

Doing what they say

 

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday the SRC will join us

And every child will be someone

 

District Must Expel 20 Students Involved in Sayre Brawl

by Christopher Paslay

 

It appears that the Philadelphia School District is finally getting serious about their “zero tolerance” policy for violence in schools.  According to a story in today’s Inquirer, “Philadelphia School District officials have vowed to expel the system’s most violent students, tighten codes for others, and attempt to streamline a dysfunctional, inconsistent disciplinary system.”

 

“We mean business,” district CEO Arlene Ackerman said, vowing to enforce the zero-tolerance policy to the letter of the law.  Yesterday, Ackerman sent out a letter to parents and students detailing this policy.  The heart of her letter reads as follows:

 

Effective immediately, school administrators are required to suspend a student or group of students for 10 days with intent to expel when there is reasonable and probable grounds to believe that a student or group of students has:

          –Assaulted an adult or another student

          –Committed or incited an act of violence

          –Possessed or has transported onto school property materials to utilize as potential weapons

          If a student commits offenses in any of the aforementioned categories he/she will neither remain at his/her present school nor will be transferred to another district school.  Instead, I will recommend that your students be immediately enrolled in an alternative school placement and, pending the result of an expulsion hearing by the School Reform Commission, will not be allowed to return to a district school for a minimum of one year.  Expulsions may be permanent.  

 

Mayor Nutter also supported this policy.  “We collectively—the city and the school district—are saying enough is enough,” Nutter said.  “How could no child have been expelled from the school system in four years is impossible for me to understand.” 

 

No expulsions in four years is not so hard to understand when you teach inside the district.  For starters, keeping tabs on suspensions and expulsions are part of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In order for a school to make Adequate Yearly Progress, suspensions must be kept to a minimum; this might be why suspensions were never enforced.

 

Second, it’s people like Sheila Simmons, education director at Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, who keep the school district’s zero-tolerance policy for violence stuck in neutral.  Simmons believes the district should put its energy into preventing discipline problems before they start, not “throwing kids out” or “locking kids away”.

 

Although Simmons seems to mean well, she obviously doesn’t understand the dynamic involved in managing hundreds of students on a daily basis, and the fact that a line must be drawn in the sand.  With the lack of parental and community involvement (and the overall moral degradation of urban society), a school can only give a child so many second chances; soon the education of the children who know how to follow rules and respect authority must be made a priority over the violent youth who continue to rob others of their right to learn.

 

Kudos to Dr. Ackerman, Mayor Nutter, and the SRC for making safety and discipline a priority in Philadelphia public schools.  Now let’s see if we get results.  The district can put its money where its mouth is and start by making an example of the 20 students who used violence against teachers, police officers and other students last week during a brawl at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia.  The brawl supposedly started when school officials refused to admit students into the building because of dress code violations. 

 

These students should be suspended expeditiously.  And their hearings should be made public so others in the district can truly see that the Mayor and the SRC mean business.

 

Let’s ALL enforce our district’s policy of zero-tolerance for violence.  Students, teachers and principals alike should stand up for safety and the rights of the children who want to learn, and stop allowing bullies and thugs to run our schools.   

Philadelphia School District Officials Remain Out-of-Touch

 

Note: The author of this article is a Philadelphia public school teacher who requested to remain anonymous. 

After reading Ms. Dungee Glenn’s thinly veiled attempt to rally public support for a one year teacher contract (“School Progress and Contracts,” October 1), I am curious as to why she conspicuously omitted teachers from her list of stakeholders and strong education advocates. Who best knows how children learn and what they should be taught than we teachers with years of experience under our belts and more knowledge of what works in a classroom than the non-educators who dictate what we teach?  Who spends more hours per day with the students than their own parents?  

 

As a proud member of the only profession I know that does not govern itself, I challenge the plan created by the SRC to improve our city schools, once again dictated by non-educators who profess to know what teachers “should” teach and how they should do it under the misguided notion that anyone who attended school qualifies as an educational expert.  

 

We had hoped that the appointment of former educator Dr. Arlene Ackerman as the new superintendent would finally shift the school district’s management from the big business sector, so far removed from education to be effective at all, to someone who sees things from an educator’s point of view, knows where the real problems lie and is not afraid to hold all the stakeholders accountable. Sadly, this has not been the case. Since Dr. Ackerman came on board, we’ve seen the same old teacher bashing that we had before.  To coin a hackneyed, yet appropriate phrase, “That’s not change; that’s more of the same.”

 

Dr. Ackerman professes to be supportive of teachers, but her core beliefs fall short. In her agenda to increase adult accountability for the academic success of our children, she, like the others, has absolved parents and the students themselves of any responsibility and accountability in the equation. Education begins at home, and although it seems to be politically incorrect to say this, it needs to be said. Parents, teachers and students must all share an equal role in the academic success of our children. High school students, particularly, are responsible for their own actions and decisions that affect their academic success, but this is deliberately left out of the accountability equation.

 

It is far easier to “blame the teachers” for what is wrong with education than to admit that parents and students must also be called to task for the lack of academic success and that there are consequences when their responsibilities are not met. Although it is a hard lesson to learn, some students must learn the hard way that lack of work results in failure, both in school and in the working world.  To place the burden and blame on teachers alone is unfair and unrealistic. That’s not change; that’s more of the same.

 

As we begin a new school year under the leadership of Dr. Ackerman, city schools are fraught with unaddressed problems. Although the PFT has graciously consented to extend the old contract while supposed good-faith negotiations continue, some school administrators have taken this as a golden opportunity to ignore the contract at will. Contract-breaking tactics cause low morale among dedicated, but unappreciated teachers who seem to have to fight to maintain what is legally theirs to begin with. The PFT contract is the only thing that protects teachers from administrative decisions that are too often self-serving and frequently not in the best interest of our students. The contract must be worded very carefully and for this reason, among many others, it is important that we have a long-term protection.

 

Now Dr. Ackerman and the SRC are pushing for a one year contract for teachers. A short-term contract does not provide teachers with any certainty or job security, and will encourage the younger, desperately needed teachers to look elsewhere for positions in which they will be better paid and treated with more respect. The 3% raise offered does not even reflect a cost-of living increase and is insulting, to say the least.  Dr. Ackerman herself said that Philadelphia teachers are grossly underpaid and that our teacher salaries must better align with teacher salaries across the state. She wants a longer school day, although there is little documentation to support that students who spend more hours per day in school receive a better education.

 

Conversely, a longer school day may actually be detrimental to the learning process, and there are statistics that support this. What’s interesting is that increasing the school day would have to include a substantial salary increase for the already overburdened teachers, but that offer is not on the bargaining table. So in essence teachers would be expected to work a longer school day, pay more out of pocket for (reduced) medical benefits and higher co-pays for doctor visits in exchange for a 3% raise. Will we go for it?  I think not.   A one year contract does not benefit teachers or students in the least; it only benefits the administration, buying them more time to try to get more out of teachers while offering them less in return.

 

Additionally, instead of a concerted effort to offer incentives to attract and retain qualified teachers in all subject areas, the SRC and Dr. Ackerman have narrow-mindedly devoted themselves to looking for African American teachers, supporting the (racist) notion that black students are better served by black teachers. When justifiably outraged teachers of all races in my school surveyed their students concerning this matter, students unanimously agreed that they want good teachers and don’t care what color they are. It is not a coincidence that this notion of black teachers for black students is being promoted by Dr. Ackerman and Ms. Dungee Glenn, who are both African-American. It is difficult to teach and work in an atmosphere where each day we are given the not-so-subtle message that teachers of color would do a better job than the rest of our colleagues.

 

I think Dr. Ackerman and Ms. Dungee-Glenn should read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who I dare say would not have supported their mission.

 

One Year Deal for Teachers is a Lot of Tricks and No Treats

 

by Ed Olsen

I’d like to address a few additional points that I feel are worth mentioning in response to Dr. Ackerman’s statements as of late in the press. 

First, she claims that the district’s proposed one year contract is to bide time in order to “develop a strategic multiyear contract that tackles the tough issues that are key to student success.”  How can the PFT be so sure that this one year contract won’t set a precedent?  Has Dr. Ackerman even considered the costs of healthcare premiums?  According to the National Coalition on Health Care, premiums rose an average of 6.1% in 2007.  If the PFT were to agree to a one year contract, that would also mean that the contracts with the various healthcare insurance providers would only be one year.  This allows them to raise rates as they see fit as opposed to predetermined rates that would be negotiated in a multiyear deal.  Who, I wonder, will be asked to cover these increased costs?

Second, I’d like to review the five-year–that’s what I said, five-year–contract that Dr. Ackerman negotiated for herself with the SRC to the tune of $325,000 annually; and let’s not even get into the bonuses and perks: 20% annual bonuses for performance; $100,000 retention bonus after three years; $1,000,000 life insurance policy paid by the district; a late model sedan for business AND personal use; a blackberry; a cell phone; a laptop computer; a printer and a fax machine.  Oh, and I almost forgot, the district agreed to pay up to $15,000 to move her to Philadelphia.  That contract reminds me of my first contract when I was hired by the city on September 29, 2000; except now that I think back, they must have forgotten some things. 

I suppose it started with my salary.  They left off the last zero, and my retention bonus was only about $4500.  They didn’t pay to move me here, but they had me sign a new employee residency certification that required me to live within the city limits (eliminated from the contract in 2000).  I do have a life insurance policy, but that comes out of my pocket.  Same goes for the car and the cell phone.  My father-in-law was able to get my wife and me laptops and a printer from a business that was upgrading because I guess the district figured laptops are probably not useful for teachers, so they never gave me one.  You can see the similarities here.

I will admit that Dr. Ackerman certainly has more education, experience, and responsibilities that deserve higher compensation, but how about a little “trickle down economics”?  Shouldn’t we at least be given a fair, multiyear contract like our superintendent?

Now let’s turn to the issue of increasing the staff day to “provide a safer and learning environment.”  The current PFT contract already has provisions for allowing the district to schedule the teacher work day to start before and end after the student day.  It even requires, “in the elementary schools, the student day shall begin ten minutes after the teacher day.”  (Article XVII.B.1(b).)  The same is true of other staff such as NTAs, secretaries, and paraprofessionals.  The PFT contract allows teachers and NTAs to be scheduled between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm, while secretaries and paraprofessionals can be scheduled between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm.  What we really need to provide a safer learning environment is to hire more teachers, NTAs, and school police officers, not just make our staff work longer hours. 

As for absences, she wants to review the “practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence.”  Well for starters, this policy is a school district policy that was reiterated in a memo by Paul Vallas a few years ago and the memo states that consecutive absences shall be considered one incident of absence, not one absence.  Staff is still required to take a personal illness day for each day of absence.  There is also a district policy that requires principals to issue a warning to staff after their third incident of absence and suggests disciplinary action after the fifth and seventh. 

While we will all agree that a substitute is no substitute for a regular classroom teacher, even the teachers and staff of Philadelphia get sick from time to time; it’s not like we are around hundreds of kids everyday.  I bet some of us even have children that get sick and can’t attend daycare or school sometimes.

Finally, the issue of the “current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”  Remember my first contract? I was hired by the school district on September 29th and didn’t start until October 16, 2000.  The PA Public School Employees’ Retirement System charges a penalty based on how far you are from a normal retirement benefit, which is 35 years of service.  PSERS reduces your retirement by one quarter of one percent per month for each month you are under normal retirement requirements.  In other words, if a teacher was hired after September 1, then they can not retire until that date or they will be charged a penalty.  Teachers have the option of continuing to work past their 35 year retirement requirement, but as many former teachers have told me on their last days, “When its time to go, its time to go.”  Does the district really want to force teachers to stay when their hearts are no longer in it?  This sounds a bit Draconian and harkens to the days of indentured servitude. 

I have been a bit harsh in my response to Dr. Ackerman and her one year proposal, but it feels like a slap in the face to me and thousands of other teachers and staff member that work tirelessly and volunteer extra time and effort to teach and nurture the youth of the Philadelphia School District.  As PFT President, Jerry Jordan, states, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning condition.”  The PFT contract expired on August 31 and was extended for 60 days.  That means it is set to expire again on October 31, Halloween.  I hope for the sake of the students that Dr. Ackerman has a treat for Jerry Jordan and the PFT, and not a trick. 

Ed Olsen is a Social Studies Teacher and the PFT Building Rep. at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.

Sandra Dungee Glenn Addresses PFT Contract Situation

by Christopher Paslay

Sandra Dungee Glenn, the chairwomen of the School Reform Commission, wrote a commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News headlined, “School progress & contracts”. In it she touts the experience of Arlene Ackerman, the Philadelphia School District’s newly appointed CEO, and highlights the support the district is receiving from “strong public education advocates” Mayor Nutter and Governor Ed Rendell, and “pro-education members in City Council”.

Dungee Glenn also emphasizes the academic progress the school district has made since the SRC’s inception in 2002, and “is excited by the potential to catapult this district forward through strategic partnerships that bring resources and support to our children.”

With that said, I’d like to commend Miss Dungee Glenn for her enthusiasm. Although her commentary is not a direct response to the article I wrote last Thursday in the Inquirer (How about the teachers?), I do find the timing quite curious. I also find the content curious as well. Dungee Glenn’s piece is well written, and it clearly rebuts (if not defends) most of the points brought up in my Inquirer commentary.

I thank Miss Dungee Glenn for writing this. It means she is open minded enough to hear the voice of a Philadelphia public school teacher, a voice I believe echoes the sentiments of a large majority of Philadelphia’s teachers (and quite possibly the PFT).

There are issues in Dungee Glenn’s article that need to be addressed, however. One is the idea of having teachers come to school before students and stay after they leave. Let’s be honest here—this has little to do with school safety. In fact, there are teachers who might feel less safe being forced to stay in the building after the bell. If the SRC wants to extend the school day, then they should just come out and say so; regardless, I feel too much emphasis is put on the length of the school day. There is a point of diminishing returns. More isn’t always better.

Second: I don’t believe the SRC is being totally honest concerning their one year contract offer to the PFT. In my opinion, the one year deal is more about control than it is about finding long term solutions. Contract negotiations have been going on since February 1st. Why hasn’t the long-term deal been put in place yet?

I hope this exchange (and our recent articles in the press) have opened the lines of communication with the SRC and the PFT. I truly believe we all want the same thing—the best educational resources for students, teachers, parents and the city. Hopefully we can all get on the same page and work this out soon.

Arlene Ackerman Responds to Inquirer Commentary

by Christopher Paslay

Arlene C. Ackerman, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, responded to my commentary in Thursday’s Philadelphia Inquirer by writing a letter to the editor. The letter, headlined, “Taking Exception,” explained that the School Reform Commission is working hard to rectify the problems faced by the Philadelphia School District, and that there are “no easy answers”.

I appreciate Ackerman’s diligence and professionalism for responding to my questions. However, I’d like to further explore what she labels “four areas in need of discussion”.

First, Ackerman says, “We must work together to improve teacher quality and retention by raising base salary for teachers and offering differentiated pay for teachers in hard-to-fill positions and chronically underperforming schools.”

I agree with raising base salaries. This will help Philadelphia compete with the suburbs. However, I don’t know if differentiated pay will draw teachers to hard-to-fill positions. I think cutting class size in these schools might work better.

Second, she says, “We need to provide a safer learning environment by ensuring that our staff comes to school before students arrive and stay after students leave, unlike what is stipulated in the current contract.”

Let’s face it. This is just a nifty way for the SRC to justify lengthening the school day. In my opinion, the length of the school day isn’t the root problem of children failing academically.

Third, she says, “We need to ensure adequate notice of teachers’ plans to retire or resign well in advance of the new school year. It is current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”

Here’s the deal on this. Teachers retire in the middle of the year because they get hired in the middle of the year. It’s a pension thing. The only answer to this is to make sure that the SRC hires all of its teacher before September 1st.

Finally, she says, “We must review the practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence. It deprives children of valuable instructional time.”

This is factually inaccurate. According to the current contract, multiple consecutive days off doesn’t count as one absence, it counts as one incident. Teachers receive 10 sick days and 3 personal days each year. Each time they are absent, they lose one of these days.

After three “incidents” teachers are given a disciplinary memo by their principal. In my opinion, this is nonsense. Why should teachers be penalized fore using contractual sick time?

Again, I appreciate the fact Dr. Ackerman took the time to respond to my commentary. If anything, it shows she truly cares. Hopefully, through this correspondence, the lines of communication will remain open between the PFT and the SRC, and a contract agreement (multiyear) will be reached soon.

How About the Teachers?

by Christopher Paslay

Here is a reprint of a commentary I published in The Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday, headlined, “How about the teachers?” To comment, please click on the link below.

***

After six months of failed negotiations with the School Reform Commission, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is still without a contract. The Sept. 1 deadline has come and gone, and both sides remain at an impasse.

But can you really blame SRC members for the stalled talks? It has been a long year for them.

In March, they voted to hire Arlene Ackerman as the district’s new CEO, and I can only imagine that this was an extremely exhausting process.

First they had to work out Ackerman’s base pay – which ended up being $325,000, the second-highest superintendent salary in the country.

Then they had the task of formulating Ackerman’s retention bonus, which is estimated to be $100,000.

Next the SRC had the matter of extending the contracts of the city’s education management organizations, the private consulting firms that charge the district millions of dollars to run some of the city’s public schools.

The decision to extend their contracts must have been daunting, given that studies show these private managers perform no better than Philadelphia’s traditional public-school officials.

Last year, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.

The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

In other words, education management organizations aren’t worth the money.

How did SRC members react to this? In June, they decided to extend the contracts of 32 of the 38 privately run schools.

And then there’s the issue of renewing the contracts of Philadelphia’s charter schools.

In April, the SRC approved a new five-year term of operation for 13 of Philadelphia’s 16 charter schools whose charters were due to expire at the end of the 2007-08 school year.

As with the private managers, statistics show charter-school managers perform no better than traditional school officials.

Research for Action also published a study evaluating the performance of Philadelphia’s charters.

The study concluded: “Students’ average gains when attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experienced while at traditional public schools.”

And then there are the Philadelphia Academy and Northwood Academy charter schools, both now under federal criminal investigation for missing funds and illegal land deals.

How did SRC members respond to these findings? They had a meeting of the minds and decided to approve the opening of seven more charter schools by the fall of 2009.

The SRC has had quite a busy year. This probably explains why it hasn’t gotten around to ironing out that new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

I mean, why make time for the teachers? All we really do is educate the kids, right? Teach them how to read, write, communicate. Mold them into critical thinkers and productive members of society.

And where has Mayor Nutter been during contract talks? Did he take the PFT’s endorsement and run? What about “Putting Children First,” his plan for public education?

As a Philadelphia public school teacher, I remember his plan well. He was supposed to use his influence as mayor to reduce class sizes, improve safety inside schools, expand programs to retain quality teachers and principals, among other things.

Of course, when Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, put these very issues on the table during contract negotiations, the SRC balked.

Jordan wrote in a recent letter to union members that the SRC was “not willing to put into the contract any language that addresses these serious issues.”

In fact, the school district is moving in the opposite direction. According to Jordan’s letter, the SRC is now fighting for a one-year contract.

Failing charter schools and ineffective private managers get three- to five-year extensions, but the workhorse known as the Philadelphia public school teacher deserves only a one-year extension?

This is a slap in the face on so many levels.

The school district needs to get its priorities straight. It must show its teachers some respect and offer us a fair, multiyear contract.