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'I don't remember' source of West complaint, says Archie

By Benjamin Herold on Jun 5, 2010 08:00 PM

School Reform Commission chairman Robert Archie said Friday that he “doesn’t remember” who alerted him about a potential conflict of interest on the advisory council that voted on matching West Philadelphia High School with a turnaround provider – though he thought the complaint serious enough to delay the SRC's approval and launch an investigation.

On Friday, Archie, District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and West principal Saliyah Cruz made their first public comments on the ongoing saga at the beleaguered neighborhood high school.

Ackerman said she knew several weeks ago that one parent on the School Advisory Council (SAC) had a part-time job with the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), but not that three others received stipends for their work on a parent outreach team. The four constituted half the parent representation on the 15-member panel, which voted on May 24 to match West with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now. PEF has a longtime affiliation with Hopkins and would have been a local subcontractor in the West partnership.

On May 26, rather than voting on a resolution that would have ratified the SAC decision, the SRC pulled the resolution from consideration. A week later, with the investigation into the alleged conflict of interest incomplete, the District decided to defer West's inclusion in Ackerman's Renaissance Schools initiative until 2011-12.

"If there's a perception or appearance of a conflict of interest, wouldn't you want this District to do something about it?” asked Ackerman.

Archie said the SRC knew nothing about the alleged conflict of interest until the commission's closed-door deliberations on May 26.

"I don't remember the source [of the information]," he said. "It was made known to us during the executive session.  One of the SRC commissioners decided there was the appearance of a conflict."

Archie later said he was that commissioner.

Recounting the day’s turn of events, Archie apparently misspoke, initially saying that the SRC voted during the executive session to withdraw the resolution matching West with Hopkins. Ackerman, however, corrected the SRC chair and said that the decision to withdraw the resolution occurred during the SRC's public meeting immediately following.

A reporter pointed out that the SRC did not take a recorded vote on the matter in its public meeting and asked Archie if he had polled his fellow commissioners. Archie concurred that he privately polled them during the public portion of the meeting, and that a majority of the commissioners said the resolution should be withdrawn. He did not say who they were.

Four of the five commissioners were present that day and the fifth, Ambassador David Girard-diCarlo, participated via speaker phone.

With the District’s investigation into the alleged conflict underway and increasing media scrutiny being paid to the situation, many members of the West SAC are feeling stung by the accusations and implications that they did something wrong as part of their volunteer participation on the advisory council.

Ackerman said that the parents were not at fault. 

“I support these parents, I really do,” she said. “The problem is [some] were being paid by one of the organizations that stood to benefit [from the Renaissance selection process.]” 

Friday, the SAC sent a request to Ackerman and the SRC asking that the SRC ratify the match with Hopkins based on an analysis done by the Education Law Center (ELC). The memo, prepared by ELC attorney David Lapp, concludes that not only was there no legal basis for a conflict of interest complaint against the SAC, but that the whole notion of conflict of interest does not apply to advisory boards and that a "common sense view" of the situation indicates no conflict as well.

Ackerman and Archie did not respond directly to the findings of the ELC memo.

Ackerman also contradicted an earlier Notebook report that both she and Benjamin Rayer, who is running the Renaissance process for the District, were told at a meeting on May 10 that several parents had been paid by PEF.

"The first I heard was on that Wednesday [May 26]," said Ackerman. "I did know that Carla Jackson was working part-time for PEF, but I did not know that there were three other parents [also working for PEF]. We could have dealt with this long before it got to this point.”

However, Carla Jackson’s husband Keith – one of the three parents – said that he told Ackerman directly of his involvement at the May 10 meeting.

"I told Dr. Ackerman two weeks before we took the vote that I was a parent and was on the parent outreach team,” he said. “She certainly knew before [the SAC] voted [on May 24]."

Complicating matters, Jackson also said he had no idea that PEF was associated with Johns Hopkins.  “No one ever said that to me,” he said. “If they [had], I would have said that sounds like a conflict of interest and stepped down.”

Furthermore, only two of the four parents on the PEF team voted for Hopkins. The other two choices were to become a Promise Academy under Ackerman’s supervision or to be converted to a charter school by Mastery Charter.

Carol Fixman, the director of PEF, repeated her earlier statement that PEF staff told the four parents to disclose to Ackerman and others the stipends they received for their outreach work.

“Our staff had advised the parents that there could be construed a conflict of interest on their part because they were a part of the parent outreach team and were paid for their work,” said Fixman. 

Fixman said she could not comment on whether the parents fully understood that the potential for conflict derived from PEF's relationship with Hopkins.

The entire SAC process at West was rife with confusion on multiple fronts for months before the controversy became public, making it difficult to piece together exactly who knew what – and when. But despite the many issues and strong emotions at play in the process, the accelerated Renaissance selection timeline left little room for the conflicts to be resolved effectively.

Ackerman apparently tried to chart a clear course for the group at the May 10 meeting, when she directed the council to reconstitute itself in order to comply with the District's requirement that at least 51 percent of council members be parents. 

"On May 10, I was there to fight for parents," said Ackerman on Friday.

In order to ensure that the group had viable options from which to choose, she also reintroduced the possibility of West becoming a Promise Academy. At the end of the meeting, she gave the group a two-week extension to resolve their issues and make their recommendation.

Although the voting members of the council eventually coalesced around Hopkins, Ackerman’s intervention and the extension on the council’s deliberations were clearly not enough to generate any consensus among the many parties – both on and off the SAC – who are concerned about the future of West.

When asked what will come next for the West SAC, Ackerman replied that “we’ll reconstitute that council and move on. We can't revote now. We need to look forward and hope that it doesn't happen again.”

As part of their plan to support West in the coming year, Ackerman also said that the District would be pursuing recommendations from SchoolWorks, a private firm hired to conduct a review of West and the other 13 Renaissance Schools.

Also on Friday, teachers at West had to formally indicate their intentions for next year.  Principal Cruz said that 19 of the West's 72-member teaching staff had found positions at other schools via the District's site selection process, but that at least some were expected to return to West next year anyway.

Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), is troubled by what the Renaissance saga at West has meant for teachers.

"They've really been treated terribly," said Jordan. "This entire process has been run through very quickly without a lot of planning or communication to staff or to this union."

The most frustrating aspect of this week's developments, said Jordan, is that even if test scores this year and next indicate improvements in academic performance, the school will still have to go through the Renaissance process again next year.

 “We’re not doing something for West that’s different from the other [Renaissance] schools,” Ackerman said Friday, explaining that the 13 other Renaissance Schools don’t get to opt out of the process if their scores go up.

Ackerman also said that she would not accept a proposal from the staff itself for a turnaround plan under the so-called “innovation” option, which encourages in-house educators to try their hands at school makeovers. West’s staff submitted a plan this year that was rejected. Ackerman has said that only educators with proven track records can submit such proposals.

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Comments (29)

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on June 5, 2010 10:02 pm

Do we honestly think that Archie's much bigger (and much better compensated) conflicts of interest have not had a huge influence on this whole Renaissance process?? Oh, and if Archie can't remember who asked for something as important as a postponement in the vote a week ago, then he is simply not competent enough to be in charge of anything!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2010 11:48 pm

Ackerman's comment that on May 10, she was there to fight for parents is so typical of the kind of smokescreen she uses. She was there to fight for the people who were trying to derail this process even then, people who have an interest in the school becoming a Promise Academy. And they were not parents. The four community associations representing the neighborhoods concerned with West Philadelphia High School spoke through a petition and letters in favor of Hopkinson the to Ackerman on the weekend of March 27 and they spoke again on May 28, their letter is published in the University City Review. It is clear that the person Archie can't remember having spoken to him was Jannie Blackwell, who publicly admitted she preferred the school become a Promise Academy. Who does Jannie Blackwell represent?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 6, 2010 7:47 am

Blackwell represents the money trail...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 6, 2010 8:10 am

Only educators with proven track records can submit plans? If this is the case what in Dr. Ackerman's past qualifies her for making suggestions? Let's ask her last 2 districts what they think. She knew about the problem and did nothing until it became public knowledge. Sounds like the 16 administrators without certification.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 6, 2010 11:00 am

 The Renaissancing of West Philadelphia high school is a nightmarish saga of bureaucratic bungling and sordid political intrigue, served up to the public as "doing what's right for kids" or , alternately, "standing with parents."

 

Let's remember that on the eve of the Renasissance, West was one of the few comprehensive high schools in the city where there was progress and hope.   An energetic principal, a newly invigorated staff and a strong community based movement for school renewal were having an impact.   School climate was dramatically improved and more effective instruction was expected to produce academic gains as well.

 

Mistake Number One - Nevertheless West is placed on the Renaissance list.   A large community meeting overwhelmingly calls for the staff and leadership team to be left in place.  Ben Rayner responds that "we cannot wait any longer."  Low student achievement can no longer be tolerated.   If the SD had had the wisdom to accept the verdict of the community, West would clearly be in a much better place than it is at this moment.  

 

Mistake Number Two - an innovation proposal from the West Leadership team is rejected because of the lack of "a track record of success."   Personally I'll take Saliyah Cruz's track record over the author of the failed Dream Schools who now is wreaking havoc in her third urban school district.

 

Mistake Number Three - A large School Advisory Committee is approved for West in which there is not a majority of parents.   Then on the eve of making the SAC making a decision, Ackerman reconstitutes the committee and revives the Promise Academy option which was previously rejected.   This action violated the integrity of the process.    If there was a concern about parental involvement it should have been addressed in the original constitution of the SAC.   The reconstitution at that point appears to be a move to thwart the coming together of the SAC around Hopkins.

 

Mistake Number Four -  After the SAC votes to recommend Hopkins, Archie and a secret majority of the SRC tables and later kills the SAC's recommendation, after hearing about a possible conflict of interest from someone  he can't remember.    Jannie Blackwell coyly does not deny that she could have been the source of this charge.   The conflict, it turns out, raises no legal problems, had no impact on the vote, and, I would wager, is not unusual in bodies of this sort.   If we investigated the parents on the SACs that voted for Promise Academies I bet we would find parents who have received compensation in one form or another from the SD over the last year.   

 

So in six months the clear will of the community has been thwarted, parents and community members have been manipulated, teachers left to swing in the breeze, and the legitimacy of the Renasissance process and the SRC itself are in tatters.    Oh, and the students, the objects of all this concern.    They'll be at a West that is likely to be weaker than before and still with an uncertain future.    So much for Turnaround.

 

Submitted by Betsy Wice (not verified) on June 6, 2010 12:31 pm

It was interesting to read in yesterday's Inquirer the following quotation: "'This was the first year of the whole Renaissance process, and in 13 of the 14 schools, it went well.' Ackerman said. 'We had a little bump here.'"

There are large questions about the whole process whereby 14 schools were arbitrarily chosen from among a sizeable pool of schools who have suffered from School District neglect and whose PSSA data is (not surprisingly) discouraging.

There are large questions about the plans to continue the Renaissance process during next year, reaching further into the pool of proud schools that the School District has already crippled through counter-productive directives under the "Empowerment" model and through its failure to assign effective principals (how about 7 principals in 7 years?)

There are very large questions about a process that undermines American public education and replaces staffs with privately-contracted workers.

I'm writing to ask just one small question: How smooth WAS the Renaissance process in the other 13 schools that Dr. Ackerman boasts about? I know something about one of those schools, Frederick Douglass. A group of parents who served on the School Advisory Council have been blogging and protesting to call attention to the fact that the Douglass SAC's choice of provider was ignored . Douglass was arbitrarily given to Young Scholars Charter (contrary to the letter that went out to the Douglass community assuring everyone that their SAC had chosen Young Scholars).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 6, 2010 9:36 pm

Seems this whole plan is corrupt and falling apart at the seams. There needs to be an investigation behind this whole Renaissance process. Keep up the pressure. Write to your Representatives, State and City. Write to the Governor. Make your frustration heard.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 6, 2010 10:52 pm

This is all very interesting and congrats to the notebook for their reporting. It is now time for a the papers to take the story and win a pulitzer with it

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 7, 2010 8:08 am

It's great to keep posting on the Notebook about all of this nonsense going on , but doesn't anyone of the authors/writers have clout with anyone inside the big mainstream newspapers so that this can be front page media???

Really, Governor Rendell and PFT President Jerry Jordan need to be kept aware of what is happening to our schools. Can anyone put this out so they can see what is going on?????

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on June 7, 2010 9:14 am

Kristin Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the situation at West on Friday (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/education/20100605_Ackerman_says_she_knew...)
and Thursday (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/education/20100603_District_delays_overha...) of last week.

Valerie Russ of the Daily News wrote about West on Friday (http://www.philly.com/dailynews/local/20100605_Ackerman__West_Philly_Ren...) and Elmer Smith on Thursday (http://www.philly.com/dailynews/columnists/elmer_smith/20100604_Elmer_Sm...).

Jerry Jordan is well aware of the situation at West - in fact, he was quoted in this article. The Governor and Mayor have not yet spoken publicly on what is going on at West.

Given the implications of the delay and then deferral of West's participation in the Renaissance Initiative, as well as the plan to do it all again next year, it seems important that the public know the full story regarding the source of the complaint, the nature of the investigation and what it finds, and how things will be different next year. Hopefully, that information will come out sooner rather than later.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 7, 2010 10:21 am

I heard that there was a press conference on Friday where Ackerman and Saliyah Cruz were both present. Do you know anything about it?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 7, 2010 10:43 am

I understand that Kristen Graham, etc. have written articles, but if you read those articles, they do not express the emotional situation that is resulting from what has taken place in not just West Phila.HS, but the whole Renaissance process itself.

Forget about Mayor Nutter---he cannot do anything about the situation (It needs to go to a higher level).

Another crisis in our schools. Why isn't anyone making it a KNOWN FACT THAT NO ONE ON THE SRC HAS A DEGREE IN TEACHING AND HAS NEVER BEEN AN EDUCATOR???? YOUR NOTEBOOK SHOULD PUBLISH THAT!!! IT IS BUSINESSMEN RUNNING THE SHOW LOL.

YOUR NOTEBOOK SHOULD ALSO DISCUSS WAYS OF RIDDING THE DISTRICT OF ACKERMAN PLAIN AND SIMPLE.

I always post on this blog, but I have noticed that some of the answers given do not hit the nail on the head (answers are danced around).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 7, 2010 10:44 am

I like your points about the SRC. It's time to get out from under the thumb of the state so that we can go back to having a school board where elected officials represent the school district. The SRC has no reason to feel any accountability to the voting public which clearly has presented major problems.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on June 7, 2010 10:31 am

West is a very bad situation, but it is one of the situations going on right now in the system. Many schools that have marked, continuing growth are being trashed. the general public needs to be told all of this.

Submitted by nikki123 on June 7, 2010 5:43 pm

Archie is a liar. It's really that simple. This who situation demands an investigatiion by the state. There's some backroom deal going on.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 7, 2010 8:29 pm

All concerned about the mess at West, please come to SRC meeting, at 440 N.Broad St., Jun 9, 2010. 2pm.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on June 8, 2010 6:55 am

Sorry. I will be teaching, as will most of us. Thik that is the plan? The reason for a 2pm start time?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 8, 2010 9:12 am

just come after school, things don't get started until then anyway.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 8, 2010 9:18 am

Hmmmm... I will be there at 3:45PM. Let's see how many teachers show up.

Submitted by OMG (not verified) on June 8, 2010 11:45 am

I am a teacher at another Renaissance school, one that is not too far from West, geographically or philosophically. I assure you, the process has NOT been smooth. Just look at the original proposed timeline, still on the district's website. Not one deadline was met. Not one promise was kept. The original idea was for the COMMUNITY related to each school to decide upon the school's fate. Our school's SAC, which consisted of too few parents anyway, had no say in the decision to make the school a Promise Academy. Not consulted at all.

Now, with the year almost over, teachers have no idea where they will be next year; Dr. Ackerman sent down information about how next year will go, without consulting anyone in the community (uniforms, for all staff - how is that supported by research?); the children want to leave the school but have been told they won't be allowed to go.

This entire process has been ill-planned and worse-executed. Ben Rayer repeatedly told me, when I asked what the rush was, "We can't leave kids in these bad schools." The cure is worse than the disease, in this case.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 8, 2010 11:23 am

So this is something that needs to be followed up on and asked: how many of the other SAC's actually had 51% parents? You seem to suggest that yours did not. It is important to find out how many of the SACs actually met this requirement that was such a big part of the district's meddling at West. Also, it would be very good to know how many parents on other SAC's have been or are currently employed by the School District or other entities with connections to running schools.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on June 8, 2010 5:29 pm

We can't leave kids in these bad schools." The cure is worse than the disease, in this case.
"Bad" by whose definition? I would love to hea from the parents and students at these schools... do they feel the schools are BAD? What changes would they like? I really doubt these parents care if the teachers are in uniform. How many of these parents can or will leave the kids int he buildings that long? How are they going to feel about Saturday school, especially when every other one is for them, too?
I have yet to talk to one parent who supports the month of July as full days. I have even been asked by two if they can just sign their kids out at lunch...
What is happening to these schools is WRONG. It is harmful, distracting and the couple of kids I have discussed this with feel disrespected and abused. In the words of one fifith grader, "why is what I am learning not praised at all? I am reading and writing on grade level. My test scores are good. Why is my school being punished?"
I could not answer her. Can you, Ms. Ackerman?

Submitted by OMG (not verified) on June 8, 2010 11:43 am

I was told but have not checked, that there is a list of the SAC members somewhere on the Notebook's site, and that our list was incorrect.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on June 8, 2010 1:00 pm

Hi. We have a list of SAC members here, which we received from the District on 3-19. There was a minor change made a few days after that, but aside from that it has not been updated. It does not reflect the reconstitution of West Philly's SAC, just what it was when it was finalized in March.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 8, 2010 6:34 pm

You should investigate all of the SAC's, who belongs, when have they met, was each member trained, etc. I believe that the SRC would see plenty of cases deemed "a conflict of interest" more severe than the one at West. I am almost positive that some SACs do not have a 51% parental membership. Erica, please check this out, you will be surprised by the story you find.

Submitted by K. R. Luebbert (not verified) on June 8, 2010 2:42 pm

Teachers just got a notification from the PFT saying all transfer sessions (where "forced" transfers pick new schools) at 440 have been halted this week because they were not following the rules of the transfer process correctly. Is that one of the things that is going smoothly??

Submitted by OMG (not verified) on June 8, 2010 2:48 pm

To continue the discussion of our SAC. The list of SAC members is on the District's site and on the Notebook itself.

It looks like ours identifies two teachers (one of whom doesn't even live in Philadelphia) and one student as "Community Based Organization," identifies two students as parents, identifies one person who works here (and does, in fact, have a child here) only as a parent, although obviously she would have other interests.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 8, 2010 2:29 pm

Which elected representative will be the first to publicly call for Ackerman's resignation? I will support that person if they run for higher office.

Submitted by OMG (not verified) on June 8, 2010 8:43 pm

I was wondering when the most recent debacle would be brought up. Yes, many teachers gave up a good bit of the weekend or Monday afternoon to go to the district and pick. I was thrilled to be clear about where I am headed next year. However, it seemed that there are just not enough jobs for everyone who needs one; the list was looking pretty empty by the time I left and there were three sessions of forced and other transfers left.

Although those who attended the session yesterday were told then and there that the process had been halted and all choices declared null and void,(by, apparently, two young and newly hired women - what, the head of TALENT DEVELOPMENT couldn't be there?) those due down there today weren't sent emails until 12:30 this afternoon. Imagine how many of them showed up, not having time or a computer to check email, and paid to park, or paid for after-care or babysitting.... And other poor saps like me weren't informed by the district that our choices had been nullified until today at 5:19. What's the delay? Aren't there like a thousand new employees down there, courtesy of Dr. Ackerman?

This is just ludicrous; the incompetence, the clunk-headedness, the lack of consideration or humane treatment of others....

What can we do to get rid of this awful woman??!!

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