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Delayed small schools vote reveals differing views on high schools' futures

Philadelphia School District officials postponed a School Reform Commission vote last month on four contracts totaling $1.65 million to hire “transition managers” for 11 newly independent small high schools in Philadelphia.

CEO Paul Vallas and SRC members said the items were tabled to give the Commission time to hear additional information and allow the District to conduct additional outreach to schools and elected officials.

But the delay brought to light potentially differing views on who should have a say in the small schools transition plan – the District’s first major initiative addressing a growing local movement for dramatically smaller, more intimate high schools.

This is the second year of a District move to create new smaller high schools by dividing some high schools with multiple sites into separate schools and converting some large middle school buildings into small high schools.

District officials now say that 13 schools affected – including two already managed by Victory Schools Inc. – need an outside organization to support the transition to their new status as small high schools.

More small high schools are in the works. Vallas has said that at least three of the city’s large neighborhood high schools – Kensington and Olney – will be divided into small schools as well, with design work and construction planned as part of the School District’s $1.5 billion Capital Improvement Plan.

But, at the January 19 School Reform Commission meeting, high school student groups that have been advocating small schools questioned the plans to hire four transition managers and the choice of managers.

“Nobody asked anybody in our community what we think about these contracts,” Aisha Abdulhadi, a 10th grader at Sayre and member of the Philadelphia Student Union, told the SRC in testimony the day the proposals were tabled.

The proposed contracts, to “provide consultative services to transitional high schools,” were with:

Among Abdulhadi’s questions to the SRC was whether organizations with expertise on developing small schools, such as The Big Picture Company, whose small schools have become national models, were considered.

Students involved with both the Student Union and Youth United for Change have been doing research on small schools in other cities and have become vocal advocates to break up large high schools into schools of 400 or fewer students.

Gerardo Zuviri, an Olney High School student and a member of its Youth United for Change chapter, told SRC members, “Due to the relationships made between faculty and students, you’re made to feel like someone and not just a number in the school.”

School District CEO Paul Vallas has not delivered on continued promises to provide media with a comprehensive briefing in January on the District’s small schools initiative. What he has shared is he expressed a desire by the District to not only build small schools, but to develop them “right.”

“This isn’t only about small schools,” Vallas said, “It’s about the quality of schools. It’s about having small schools with exemplary college programs.”

But when the proposals re-emerge, possibly this month, Vallas and the SRC may be asked to answer why these four providers were chosen and a number of other mounting questions. What consulting services would the managers provide? Would the managers shape the educational focus of the small schools? And what role would parents, staff and students play in the process?

Parents, school seek answers

Sayre Home and School President Nancy Winder said she did have an opportunity about a month ago to meet a number of potential providers who were submitting proposals to work with the District on its small schools initiative. Winder said she doesn’t object to the selection of Princeton Review as Sayre’s provider. But she is one of those who wants to know why they were chosen.

“The same way they break it down to the SRC to try to get the proposal, they should break it down to the parents, with information and how it’s going to be put into effect, and how it will affect my child,” Winder said.

At Parkway Center City, principal Catherine Blunt recently called a meeting on the proposed contract with ResulTech for that school. Parkway teacher Jack Fein described a meeting where a ResulTech representative spoke briefly, and a regional superintendent enthusiastically shared expectations for computers for all students and 100-point-plus jumps in test scores.

For questions, staff were encouraged to explore the company’s website, Fein reported. But on that day, he said, he and others left with numerous questions: Who is ResulTech? What is its track record with small-schools transition? Why is Parkway being assigned a “transition manager,” when save for formerly sharing a principal, Parkway’s three campuses have operated as small schools since their inception?

Others are concerned with the impression that the District will move on setting the schools’ foundations without input from the community on the direction in which they would like to see the schools go.

“I think Mr. Vallas knows what needs to happen,” Dwayne Ming, a former Home & School Association representative at Lamberton, said. “But the issue where they fall short is their relationship with the community. I think he’s reaching out now, and with the community in different ways, but I still don’t think there’s enough.”

Roles for outside participants

One contract for the District’s small schools initiative has already met SRC approval. The commission awarded a $60,000 contract for technical services to Next Step Associates, headed by Cassandra Jones, a retired School District veteran with some 30 years of experience.

District CAO Gregory Thornton described Next Step as a “project manager,” making sure the small schools were addressing such issues as “enrollment, college partnerships, AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate).” Jones herself said Next Step would help implement the District’s small schools strategy and work with its partners in their roles.

On the topic of seeking outside providers for the project, Jones offered that the District, in its effort to improve academic achievement, appears to be looking at building internal capacity, as well as looking at best practices from throughout the country to fulfill its goals. Jones said securing such capacity requires “casting a wide net, between EMOs and partnerships and charters and service providers.”

She also said that she has sensed a desire by the District “for the community to be very involved.”

Jones said that Deputy Chief Academic Officer Creg Williams “is personally meeting with students across the city to make sure they understand it. That’s not going to be a one-shot deal,” she vowed. “Those meetings are to continue, to make sure the public has an opportunity to be involved.”

Parent advocates like Winder will be watching.

“If Princeton does get it, once they say, ‘Yes they are in,’ then I want to see them have these meetings with the community.”

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