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Countdown, Day 19: Facing the threat of split-grade classrooms

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 21, 2013 03:30 PM

A big way for school districts to save money is to hire fewer teachers. And one way to hire fewer teachers is to fill each classroom with the maximum number of students allowed under the teachers' contract and to use "split grades," in which students on two grade levels are mixed together.

For instance, if there are 44 1st graders and 44 2nd graders in a school, they could have two 1st grades and two 2nd grades, each with 22 students. But if the pressure is on to hire fewer teachers, they could have one 1st grade with 30 students (the contractual limit for K-3 classrooms), one 2nd grade with 30 students, and a split-grade classroom with 14 1st graders and 14 2nd graders. The split-grade classroom in this case saves the District the salary and benefits cost of one teacher -- more than $100,000.

Countdown, Day 20: Schools bring back staff, but many can only afford aides

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 20, 2013 05:07 PM

Less than three weeks left. The good news: Each school is staffed for student registration. Either a secretary who has been called back from layoff or a temp worker is at each school. Hours are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on all weekdays but Wednesday, when the hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The bad news: Principals have been confronted with difficult personnel decisions, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the $50 million accepted from the city last week with such fanfare is not going very far.

Schools received details about their additional staff allotments last Thursday. The District has so far declined to provide those details, but some facts are clear from information that principals have shared with staff and parents.

Countdown, Day 21: Mayor says kids, not teachers, being asked to do heaviest lift

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 19, 2013 02:43 PM

Superintendent William Hite and the School Reform Commission continue their commitment not to budget a penny that they are not sure of getting as schools struggle to prepare for opening under unprecedented conditions. They have decided that the $50 million from the city is gettable, despite the tug-of-war between Mayor Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke over how to raise it.

So they have put those millions back into the District budget. Not so for the $45 million grant the state has committed but is holding back, pending concessions from the teachers' union in contract talks.

Over jeers and shouts, SRC suspends parts of school code

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 15, 2013 09:10 PM

[Updated 10 a.m with correction regarding school nurses and clarification on Donna Cooper quote]

Entering the overflowing room to a chorus of boos, struggling to be heard above the derisive shouts of hundreds of teachers, students, and parents, the School Reform Commission voted Thursday to suspend parts of the Pennsylvania School Code.

The move, permitted by the law under which the state took over the School District in 2001, gives Superintendent William Hite the ability to call back laid-off teachers and other staff selectively rather than according to seniority. It also lets him suspend the salary scale that automatically awards raises to teachers for each additional year of service up to a certain point. A provision that would have allowed the District to hire nurses who are licensed but uncertified as school nurses was removed.

Hite has said that these moves are temporary and designed to get the District through an "untenable" fiscal position -- a $300 million budgetary shortfall that forced nearly 4,000 layoffs and raised the possibility that schools would not open on time this year or with enough personnel.

Countdown, Day 25: Mayor, Council promise schools $50 million, but disagree on source

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 15, 2013 03:01 PM

Mayor Nutter and City Council presented dueling plans Thursday for getting a needed $50 million to the School District, but both the mayor and Council President Darrell Clarke said that Superintendent William Hite can count on the money.

Hite said that he would immediately begin recalling critical staff so that schools could open as scheduled on Sept. 9.

"The bottom line here is that schools will open safely and on time," Nutter said.

Even so, they will open with less than optimal staff. It is still not clear, for example, whether each school will have a counselor.

The money, Hite said in a statement, "will enable us to provide many crucial school functions and restore critical staff positions, including assistant principals, counselors and hallway, recess and lunch monitors."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that a detailed breakdown would not come until next week. 

Amid the battle in City Hall over the source of the $50 million, advocates continued to assert that $50 million is not enough.

Countdown, Day 26: Hite wants SRC to suspend school code's seniority provision

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 14, 2013 02:45 PM

[Updated, 10 p.m.]

Still lacking sufficient funds to open fully staffed schools on Sept. 9, Superintendent William Hite will ask the School Reform Commission to suspend parts of the state school code at a special meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday.

Many of the changes involve provisions governing labor practices. The District is seeking to bypass seniority rules as it restores positions and calls back laid-off workers. It also wants the ability to put at least a temporary halt to automatic pay increases based on longevity -- called "steps" -- for professional staff.

"We are in an untenable position," said Hite in an interview Wednesday afternoon. The requested changes, he said, will give the District more flexibility "to grapple with a budget that does not adequately support schools."

Countdown, Day 27: Philly's elected officials want $45 million now; Zogby says no

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 13, 2013 02:34 PM

[Updated with further reaction, 6:50 p.m.]

The city's legislative delegation, Mayor Nutter, and City Council leaders joined Tuesday in urging the state to immediately release $45 million in state-authorized dollars to the District so that schools can open on time.

They sent to Gov. Corbett a list of reform accomplishments that they say fulfills the state's requirements for release of those dollars. In passing the fiscal code in June, state legislators stipulated that the School District must implement "operational, educational and fiscal reforms" deemed by the state's education secretary to be sufficient before money appropriated by the state for city schools can be released.

Countdown, Day 28: Amid scramble for $50M, activists demand more and principals meet

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 12, 2013 12:35 PM

As Mayor Nutter and City Council worked on plans to put $50 million in the School District's coffers by the end of this week, a coalition of education activists and the faith-based organizing group POWER planned to demand more than that minimal amount, which Superintendent William Hite has described as "necessary but not sufficient."

The groups say that the patchwork funding package worked out in Harrisburg is far from sufficient for the District to meet its long-term needs. They are demanding a more long-term solution to the District's funding, one that can sustain a level of resources necessary to provide city students with the "thorough and efficient" education they are entitled to under the state constitution.

Countdown, Day 39: Hite says staffing levels 'nowhere near sufficient'

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 1, 2013 01:13 PM

Superintendent William Hite said that his voice might stay calm, but he is definitely not calm about whether he will be able to open schools on time. He was expecting at least to have access by now to $50 million in new funds from the city -- and he still doesn't have it as Mayor Nutter and City Council remain at odds over the best way to make it available.

"I will not be irresponsible in putting students into environments that are not able to serve their needs," Hite said in an interview Wednesday. "At the moment, a principal and a secretary in a 3,000-student high school is not sufficient to serve the needs of students there."  Northeast High School has 3,000 students.

Two 'receiving' schools to get $3M from Philadelphia School Partnership

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 31, 2013 03:56 PM

The Philadelphia School Partnership is giving $3 million to two District-run North Philadelphia schools that will be receiving additional students in September as a result of nearby school closings.

William D. Kelley and James G. Blaine, both K-8 elementary schools, will each receive $1.5 million "to support the development of a school turnaround model" that will focus on accelerating academic improvement.

"The Great Schools Fund is committed to supporting turnarounds of all types of schools," PSP executive director Mark Gleason said in a statement. He added that the schools' principals, Amelia Brown at Kelley and Gianeen Powell at Blaine, are "laser-focused on improving instruction."

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."

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