It can seem that all roads in West Philadelphia eventually run through City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Increasingly, it appears that the long and winding path to determine the fate of West Philadelphia High School under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance Schools initiative is no exception.
Asked if her office was the source of the information that led to the surprising last-minute postponement on May 26 of the School Reform Commission vote on West’s future, Blackwell demurred, but added that she was “glad to see the delay.”
“My office is always involved in these issues and concerns,” said Blackwell, who chairs City Council's Education Committee and who represents the district in which West is located. “In that regard, I hear a lot of things. It would be counterproductive for me to be more specific at this time.”
She added that she’s “glad we have the opportunity to review this so that community members, [West] alumni, parents [and others] can all feel we had a positive process. It's better to make sure it’s done well and done right.”
On May 24, after more than two months of deliberations, the West School Advisory Council (SAC) voted to recommend that West be matched with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now. The council was strongly in favor of Hopkins, which received nine votes, compared to two votes apiece for Mastery Charter and Ackerman's own District-run Promise Academy model.
Ackerman had signed off on the council’s recommendation prior to the May 26 SRC meeting. The resolution to authorize matching West with Hopkins was on the agenda distributed during that meeting – almost always a sign that the vote will proceed. Resolutions that produce questions or disagreement at the morning executive session are generally withdrawn and not printed.
At the last minute, however, SRC Chair Robert Archie pulled the resolution. Without elaborating, Archie, an alumnus of West himself, cited unspecified “certain facts” that had come to light.
Blackwell was present at Wednesday’s SRC meeting, although on an unrelated matter.
That night, the Notebook reported that someone had complained to the SRC regarding potential conflicts of interest among parent members of West’s SAC who were also being paid by the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) for their work on the school’s parent outreach team.
PEF and Hopkins have a longstanding relationship centered primarily on the Talent Development Program, which is in several city high schools. In addition, Hopkins had already indicated its intention to work with PEF as a local support provider in the event Hopkins was paired with West.
Ackerman and Benjamin Rayer, who is in charge of the Renaissance process, confirmed a complaint about a potential conflict of interest, but would give no further information.
While District officials had known about the PEF-parent connection through their meetings with SAC members, Ackerman indicated after the SRC meeting that this time the issue was raised directly with Archie.
Each Renaissance school is supposed to be paired with a lead turnaround team. In turn, those turnaround teams are supposed to work with support organizations. It was expected that the support organizations would be chosen after the turnaround teams for the Renaissance schools were formally selected.
But the relationship between Hopkins and PEF has been ongoing since the Renaissance process began, conducted in the open although never officially announced.
Several people said that District guidelines for SAC membership stipulated that employees of potential support organizations are expected to step down if their organization is hired by a turnaround team.
These guidelines, however, are not readily available on the District website. It is unclear if and how they would apply to the PEF-supported parents in this situation.
On March 16, the District officially approved for membership on the West SAC at least three parents who were already being paid by PEF for their work on West’s parent outreach team.
In addition, the issue of a potential conflict of interest for the PEF-affiliated parents was discussed at a May 10 meeting between District officials and members of the West SAC.
Ackerman had called the meeting after receiving complaints that the council was “struggling” and that there were sharp divisions in the group following a site visit to the Baltimore Talent Development High School, run in partnership by Hopkins and the Baltimore City Public School System.
Several people present at the May 10 meeting confirmed that SAC member Carla Jackson, who was also part of the school’s PEF-supported parent outreach team, discussed her dual role directly with Ackerman.
“[The potential conflict] had been brought up, worked over, dissected, and
handled,” said Shirley Randleman, chair of the SAC and president of the 52nd Street
Business Association. “There are no boards of any kind without some kind of conflict. You just have to state them [openly].”
District officials had also heard complaints about the potential conflict of interest from other parties well before both the SAC vote on May 24 and the SRC meeting on May 26.
Venard Johnson, hired by the District in conjunction with the NuJuice Foundation to encourage and monitor parent involvement in all fourteen Renaissance SACs, said he raised the issue of the PEF-supported parents with Rayer “weeks ago.”
In addition to the concerns about potential conflicts of interest on the West SAC, there were also influential members of the West SAC who had for weeks expressed reservations about the Johns Hopkins model.
On May 7, Paula McKinney-Rainey, the president of the West Philadelphia High School Alumni Association and a member of the SAC, sent a letter to Ackerman expressing concerns resulting from the council’s site visit the to the Baltimore Talent Development High School.
McKinney-Rainey said that the team believed there was marijuana being smoked in the school’s cafeteria. “I've never smelled marijuana at West,” she said. In addition, the visitors learned that a proposed chemistry lab for the school had gone unfinished for almost five years.
“We just heard a lot of excuses,” McKinney-Rainey said, adding that the visit raised flags about who was ultimately responsible for the climate and performance of the Hopkins school.
She also said that she thought the Hopkins team was “extremely incoherent” at a May 5 community forum at which Hopkins and Mastery both presented their plans for the school. “It just reinforced the issues about accountability...at the end of the day, will [Hopkins] just be passing the buck [at West] like we saw in Baltimore?”
Despite these concerns, McKinney-Rainey said the alumni association was not the source of the last-minute complaint that caused the SRC to delay its May 26 vote. “I went to the meeting believing there would be a resolution voted on,” she said.
Absent official word from the District, speculation centered on Councilwoman Blackwell, who was represented on the SAC by Marsha Brown before the council was reconstituted. It is unclear if Blackwell’s office had a representative on the final voting council.
For her part, Blackwell says she is pleased with the steps being taken by the District to investigate potential conflicts on the SAC.
“The School District is making its review, and I am satisfied they are doing [so]. I will wait to hear from them before I make a more detailed statement regarding what happens next [at West,]” she said.
In the meantime, West teachers are fleeing in droves, and the West SAC is mulling its next move.
“I'm disappointed,” said Randleman, the council's chair. “This is why people are totally turned off on these type of initiatives. To have a decision that we were told was of dire importance postponed on the spur of the moment without any real rationale...this is why people don't want to participate.”
District spokesperson Evelyn Sample-Oates said that officials were investigating and hoped to resolve the issue by Wednesday June 2.