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New SRC member Marjorie Neff plans to advocate from the inside

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 29, 2014 03:12 PM
Marjorie Neff (center) at a District press conference in June, when Superintendent William Hite, with the support of many principals, called for more funding.

Marjorie Neff was looking forward to retirement after nearly 40 years as an educator when Mayor Nutter surprised her by asking if she would serve on the School Reform Commission.

"I was intending to do advocacy work, and when the mayor asked me, I thought this might be one way to continue that from the inside rather than from the outside," said Neff, who just retired after eight years as principal of Masterman School.

Neff, speaking by telephone during a summer respite at the Shore, frankly acknowledged that she wasn't quite sure what she was getting into. But when she thought about it, she said, declining the offer wasn't an option at this watershed moment.

More than just in Philadelphia, she said, there is a "national trend" toward "an abandonment of public education." 

At institute, educators explore what teacher leadership looks like

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 25, 2014 03:40 PM

As the School District announced that it wanted teams of educators and others to submit plans for school overhaul, a group of young Philadelphia teachers was holding a summer institute on teacher leadership.

For three days this week, 18 of them met under the auspices of Teachers Lead Philly on the campus of Swarthmore College to discuss their challenges, draw from the wisdom of veterans, tell their stories and work on skills including mentoring, curriculum design, and writing for publication.

State commission on basic education funding begins its work

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 24, 2014 09:12 PM

The state legislature's Basic Education Funding Commission held its first meeting Thursday, with the goal of creating a school funding formula that one member said would be "focused on children and their best interests."

Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that do not have a predictable education funding formula based on student enrollment and characteristics.The distribution of more than $5.5 billion in state aid has some relationship to a district's size and wealth, but does not account for enrollment fluctuations or what is needed to insure at least basic adequacy of services for all students. 

District inviting educators, others to redesign schools

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 22, 2014 06:11 PM

The Philadelphia School District is launching a school redesign initiative, inviting applications from teams of educators, parents and outside organizations, including community groups and universities, to overhaul existing District schools.

"We're doing this now because we see a tremendous opportunity within the school system in the city to provide space for really talented and passionate people to help us with transformation efforts in specific schools," said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn in an interview.

Partnerships director Stacy Holland leaving District

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 17, 2014 05:14 PM

Several additional top personnel moves at the School District were made public Thursday.

Chief of Strategic Partnerships Stacy Holland is leaving; her last day will be Aug. 31. She will be the new executive director of the Lenfest Foundation.

Before joining the District, Holland had been president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network and, in that capacity, started working with the District on strengthening outside partnerships. She was hired by the District last October.

Her charge had been to use the District's work with outside organizations and government agencies to maximize services to children.

District announces 342 layoffs, mostly aides; move unrelated to cigarette tax

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 10, 2014 01:25 PM

Updated | 3:25 p.m.

The School District announced 342 layoffs Thursday, most of them noontime aides and special-education classroom assistants.

But the total also includes eight assistant principals, three conflict-resolution specialists, and 15 assistants in Head Start classrooms.

District spokeswoman Raven Hill said that these layoffs were mostly the result of budget decisions made by principals and are not related to the 1,300 layoffs that may be necessary if the legislature fails to give final approval to a cigarette tax to raise funds for the District.

SRC likely to vote on budget without knowing state revenue

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 27, 2014 05:46 PM

The School Reform Commission is likely to vote on a budget Monday without knowing how much money the District will be getting from the state.

Intense budget maneuvering during the week will continue into the weekend, but it is entirely possible that the General Assembly will miss its June 30 deadline for approving a state budget.

Gov. Corbett said he would hold out past the deadline until he got support for his priorities, which include pension reform and privatization of state liquor stores. 

As of Friday, the House had passed a budget that includes no new revenue sources and would virtually wipe out increases for education spending that Corbett had proposed. That plan would eliminate about $20 million of the funds that the District was counting on from the state.

Pa. Supreme Court declines to rule on District's move to impose work rules

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 26, 2014 06:09 PM

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declined to rule on whether the School Reform Commission has the absolute right to unilaterally impose work rules on the teachers' union in the absence of a contract.

The opinion offered no explanation for the decision. Chief Justice Ron Castille wrote a lengthy dissent, concluding that due to the District's dire financial position, the court was "duty-bound to engage in the review requested here." He was joined in the dissent by Justice Max Baer.

The non-decision favors the union, because it will make it easier for the union to file grievances and legal challenges to District actions that violate the terms of the expired contract. 

The SRC had asked the Supreme Court to definitively declare that certain noneconomic issues, including the use of seniority in teacher assignment and transfer, were not mandatory subjects of collective bargaining with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. And it asked the justices to do so under "exclusive jurisdiction" -- a way of skipping over the usual process of starting in a lower court and moving up through appeals.

Mastery 3.0: Moving beyond turnarounds

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 26, 2014 03:20 PM

Concerned that not enough students at Mastery charter schools are enrolling, persisting, and succeeding in college, the organization is revamping its curriculum and instructional methods, according to founder and CEO Scott Gordon.

The charter school network, which operates 15 schools in the city – most of them converted District schools – sent a notice to parents at the end of the school year and provided the Notebook with documents that outline some new teaching strategies and the philosophy behind the changes, dubbed Mastery 3.0.

District, Council reach deal on more borrowing for schools

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 19, 2014 01:48 PM

City Council will apparently borrow $57 million to ease the School District's fiscal crisis -- $27 million immediately and $30 million more in the fall.

The agreement, which will help prevent up to 800 layoffs and other program cuts for next year, was secured after marathon lobbying to break the logjam between District leaders and Council President Darrell Clarke over funding for the schools.

Clarke had consistently opposed borrowing for the District, even though that was an option given to the city by state legislation last summer. He wanted the District to fill part of its shortfall for this year through proceeds from building sales. 

Council on Thursday passed the bill to borrow $27 million

District ratchets up pleas for more funds; Clarke calls request 'disturbing and unfair'

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 17, 2014 06:35 PM

Superintendent William Hite and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green are putting on a full-court press through the media to convince City Council to approve a higher borrowing level for the School District, warning of hundreds of teacher layoffs and other dire consequences if lawmakers don't act.

In response, Council President Darrell Clarke accused the District of "dealing with a ... budget deficit of its own making" and of "disrespect" for the city's taxpayers.

Mayor calls Council action on school funding 'unfortunate,' would support more

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 12, 2014 05:26 PM

School District officials are still hopeful that City Council will borrow more money on their behalf than was approved by a Council committee on Wednesday, and they have Mayor Nutter on their side. 

But these debates are still mainly about how to close a lingering gap in this year's budget, not the larger revenue shortfall the District is facing in the new fiscal year that is less than three weeks away.

Council approves $27M toward current year gap, rebuffs District pleas for more

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 11, 2014 06:52 PM

The City Council Finance Committee on Wednesday agreed to borrow $27 million to give to the financially ailing School District immediately, an amount based on the assumption that both the University City High School and William Penn High School properties would be sold before the end of this month.

Between the loan and the property sales, Council expects to reach the goal of delivering $61 million in additional funds promised to the District last August for this school year. 

The promise allowed the District to avoid more layoffs at that time. But with the fiscal year almost over, the money has not yet been delivered.

City, District move to improve services for students involved with child welfare

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 10, 2014 03:31 PM

The city and School District are moving to provide more intense and coordinated services for nearly one in five city students -- 17 percent -- who have been involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system, officials said Tuesday.

They plan to place 27 additional social workers in schools that serve high numbers of these students, work harder to coordinate community-based services for them and their families, and provide attendance officers to keep track of absentees, said Karyn Lynch, the School District's chief of student support services. 

The officials released a report showing that these students need special education services at much higher rates than their peers and that their outcomes -- attendance, test scores, grade promotion, and graduation rates -- are poorer.

City charters get $100M more for special ed than they spend; debate rages in Harrisburg

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 5, 2014 02:12 PM

Philadelphia charter schools received more than $175 million last year to educate special education students, but spent only about $77 million for that purpose, according to a Notebook analysis of state documents.

That is a nearly $100 million gap at a time when city education leaders are considering raising some class sizes to 41 students and laying off 800 more teachers in District-run schools due to severe funding shortfalls. Payments to charters, which are fixed under law, make up nearly a third of its $2.4 billion budget.

The issue goes beyond Philadelphia. Statewide, charters, including cybers, collect about $350 million for special education students, but spend just $156 million on them, according to calculations from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO). The Notebook used the PASBO analysis of state data to calculate the numbers for Philadelphia, which has half the state’s 170 charter schools.

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