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SRC approves Renaissance conversions and grants to expand three District schools

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 26, 2013 06:11 PM

The School Reform Commission approved the Renaissance charter agreements for three schools on Friday, officially turning Pastorius over to Mastery Charter Schools, Kenderton to Scholar Academies, and Alcorn to Universal Companies.

At a tense, four-hour meeting, the SRC also accepted $1.1 million in grant money from the Philadelphia School Partnership to expand three high-performing District schools: converting the experimental Sustainability Workshop into the Workshop School; creating a second campus of Science Leadership Academy; and expanding the middle school Hill-Freedman to include high school grades.

But it did so over the persistent objections of Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who did a financial analysis showing that the District will be absorbing considerable extra cost for these schools after this year -- a move he called financially irresponsible given the District's shaky budget picture. Earlier in the meeting, the District had announced that it only had enough funding to rehire a few hundred of the 3,800 staff laid off this summer.

District to release report on cheating investigation at 19 schools

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 22, 2013 07:24 PM

The Philadelphia School District plans to release a report on its investigation of adult cheating on standardized tests in 19 city schools that will give a sense of the scope of the problem and say how many educators will face disciplinary charges. But the report, which will be released within the next three weeks, will not name names, sources have told the Notebook.

Sources indicated that infractions were found at most of the 19 schools. These 19 represent one of three groups of schools identified for further investigation through statistical anomalies, such as high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets that forensic analysis found would be virtually impossible to occur by chance.

Altogether, 53 District schools and three city charters were flagged for investigation, with the state dividing them into three tiers. The state itself is investigating 12 Tier 1 schools, where the evidence was strongest. It told the District to probe the 19 Tier 2 and 22 Tier 3 schools.

At a time of upheaval, widespread turnover in principal ranks

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 16, 2013 06:08 PM

About one quarter of the District's schools will open in September under new leadership, a rate of principal turnover that is higher than normal as the District is coping with unprecedented upheaval and major questions about its financial stability. 

According to a listing of principal appointments provided by the District, 58 schools will see new leaders. Among their number are neighborhood high schools like Overbrook, George Washington, and Roxborough, magnet schools like GAMP, Carver, and CAPA, and a cross-section of elementary schools all over the city.

"There is a tremendous proportion of schools under new leadership, and research shows that administrative stability is a key indicator for success in a school," said Robert McGrogan, head of the administrators' bargaining unit, CASA.

Philly teacher has credentials suspended in test-score probe

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 15, 2013 05:38 PM

Two years ago, Ronald Paulus of Bok Technical High School won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, nominated by his peers for, among other accolades, "helping establish Bok's success" on the state standardized tests, the PSSAs.

But on July 9, his teaching credentials were suspended for two months by a state disciplinary board due to "allegations that [Paulus] failed to follow proper PSSA test administration procedures."

Paulus becomes the fourth Philadelphia educator to be sanctioned by the state in the investigation of testing irregularities in city schools. His penalty is the least severe of the four. His certifications to teach high school English and Communications were suspended between June 25 and Aug. 25 of this year -- apparently timed to coincide with summer vacation.

PSP director Gleason: Funding deal 'not a perfect package'

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 3, 2013 05:21 PM
Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership

The Philadelphia School Partnership, an emerging major player in the local education landscape and frequently a lightning rod for controversy, played a significant role in Harrisburg in the frenzy to find a funding solution for the School District. It hired a politically connected lobbyist and pushed hard for strings to be attached to any additional revenue.

PSP executive director Mark Gleason said in an interview Wednesday that in his view, the deal, which is still not completely finalized, is "not a perfect package" but "a lot better than it could have been."

Gleason said that the package ultimately will bring the District $150 million in recurring money, or "80 to 85 percent of what the District was asking for,"  although he called the patchwork of funding sources "a Band-Aid."

Explaining Corbett's school funding plan

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 1, 2013 06:56 PM

In question-and-answer format, here is an explanation of the components of the School District's funding package presented Sunday by Gov. Corbett.

What sources of new money does the governor’s plan include?
​For this year, it includes $45 million in a one-time federal infusion. An additional $50 million comes from borrowing against money that will start flowing to the District next year from extending the 1 percent city sales-tax surcharge beyond 2014 and diverting proceeds to the schools. It also projects that $30 million more will come from more-aggressive city property tax collection (the city projects only $28 million). And it includes a nearly $16 million increase in state basic education funding for the city. But that is only $2 million more in the basic education subsidy than the District had already included in its austerity budget. The governor says it all adds up to $140 million, but the plan would only produce roughly $125 million in revenues not already factored into the District's budget. Whichever numbers are used, the total is well below the $180 million that the District sought from state and city government.

With plan still in limbo, District offers thanks and urges approval of funding package

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 1, 2013 03:43 PM

The School District issued the following statement Monday afternoon in response to the school funding plan released by Gov. Corbett on Sunday. Parts of the plan await final legislative approval.

Note: The following is a corrected statement released by the District. An earlier version had the estimated revenue from delinquent tax collection at a higher amount than the city had projected ($30 million as opposed to $28 million).

SRC recesses again, hopes for miracle in Harrisburg by Sunday

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 27, 2013 12:38 PM

Doomsday is getting closer.

The School Reform Commission met again Thursday morning, only to recess again until Sunday afternoon. The SRC hopes that Harrisburg will come up with some money so Philadelphia can open schools in September that have more than a skeleton crew of teachers and a principal.

"I can't predict what will happen, but we’ve made it clear for the past 20 months what must happen," said a grim SRC chair Pedro Ramos after the meeting. "Throughout, we kept everyone apprised of our situation with candor. We've done everything we can within the prerogative of the SRC. Now it is up to Harrisburg for officials to do what they were elected to do."

The SRC cannot adopt a revised budget on Sunday -- that requires 30-day public notice -- but it can take actions to restore some services and personnel "if and when new revenues are identified," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

National study: Charter schools getting better, cybers drag down Pa. results

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 26, 2013 05:20 PM

A new comprehensive national study has found that, overall, charter school performance has improved nationwide, but results vary widely by state. In Pennsylvania, students who attend charters performed worse, on the whole, than their peers in both reading and math, according to the research.

Pennsylvania charters' performance, said the study's co-author, was dragged down by the state's cyber schools. Though there were only eight cyber charters in among the nearly 100 schools studied, they enrolled 30 percent of the students, said Devora Davis, one of the study's authors.

The study was performed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. It was a follow-up to an oft-quoted report from 2009, which found that students in only 17 percent of charters did better than similar students in traditional schools.

Voters would consider taxes to stave off education cuts, poll shows

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 24, 2013 05:32 PM

A poll of probable voters conducted for two advocacy organizations found that education has risen to the top in voters' minds as a major issue for state government to tackle, right up there with jobs and economic development.

And it found that 55 percent of women and 49 percent of men would somewhat or strongly favor raising the state sales tax and delaying a scheduled corporate tax reduction to stave off severe cuts to schools.

In addition, 55 percent of women and 46 percent of men would favor an increase in the state income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.3 percent.

"We were testing people’s willingness to increase statewide taxes to fund schools, not just Philly schools, but to restore $1 billion in education cuts," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "People shockingly said yes, especially women."

State looks for Philly funding solution with other people's money

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 22, 2013 12:47 AM

Weeks of frantic lobbying have moved Gov. Corbett and some key legislators to recognize that the Philadelphia School District has a real problem and that they have some responsibility to be part of the solution.

But in seeking to craft a deal that would allow the District to avoid implementing its “doomsday” budget, Harrisburg doesn’t want to contribute any revenue of its own.

None of the proposals currently on the table, either to solve this year’s immediate crisis or provide sustainable levels of aid to Philadelphia in the future, involve an increase in dedicated state money to the city schools, Harrisburg watchers say.

“The state doesn’t want to come up with any money. They think giving [City Council] authorization [to enact more city taxes] is a big step,” said one person with knowledge of the negotiations.

Corbett speaks out on schools; leaked poll suggests that he take on teachers' union

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 19, 2013 05:05 PM

For the first time, Gov. Corbett has issued a formal statement on Philadelphia's school-funding crisis, saying he is "committed to finding a solution ... that is focused on students and is fiscally responsible for taxpayers."

His statement came minutes after Daniel Denvir of City Paper published a leaked poll, conducted by a prominent national Republican polling group, Public Opinion Strategies. The poll of Pennsylvania voters concludes that Corbett can increase his popularity -- and chances for re-election -- by taking on the Philadelphia teachers' union, especially on the issue of teacher seniority. 

Amid dispute with District, Discovery Charter cuts ribbon to new building

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 18, 2013 05:47 PM

Discovery Charter School staged a festive ribbon-cutting for its new building in Parkside on Tuesday, declaring in a press release that it had settled a dispute over payments with the School Reform Commission and that its charter had been renewed.

Discovery did agree to repay the School District for students it enrolled beyond what was called for in its signed contract, according to District spokesman Fernando Gallard. However, he said, Discovery officials have yet to sign a new charter agreement.

District lays off 76 in central and regional administration; eliminates 137 jobs

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 14, 2013 05:59 PM

The other shoe has dropped: The School District issued layoff notices Friday to 76 employees in its central and regional offices, eliminating 137 jobs.

"The new round of layoffs will impact all central administrative offices, including academic and operational functions," said a District statement. The layoffs will save $23 million. Some departments were cut by 40 percent.

Photographer Zoe Strauss and colleagues will document Philly school closings

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 7, 2013 01:37 PM

On the occasion of a 10-year retrospective of her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012, photographer Zoe Strauss said that she strives "to create an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life.”

Now she has set her sights on a project about the unprecedented mass school closings in Philadelphia -- nearly one in 10 of the city's District-run schools will be closed. She is calling her project the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective.

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