June 20 — 1:21 pm, 2014

Series on innovative schools leaves out messy details

In his recent Education Week article on the School District of Philadelphia’s plans to create more innovative schools, Benjamin Herold wrote: "The positive momentum, however, has not persuaded state lawmakers or the city teachers’ union to heed [Superintendent William] Hite’s pleas for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue."

Now union members are to blame for not allowing Hite to spread innovation across the District, because of their refusal to give up 13 percent of their salary and benefits? I am no longer surprised to see this kind of blame-the-union narrative in the editorials of the local papers, but I was dismayed to read it in the Notebook, where Herold’s article was reprinted. 

Herold’s series of articles on innovative schools has provided a forum for Hite to sell his program and to express his frustrations that it is not spreading at the speed he desires. His plans include: opening three new high schools; scaling up District magnet schools like Science Leadership Academy (which have been allowed to develop a teacher-created and student-directed program); and the transformation of two District schools into STEM-focused academies.

But the articles fail to consider some crucial issues, including the District’s lack of transparency during the process and Hite’s decision to spend money on untested programs during an unprecedented financial crisis. Hite’s expressions of frustration are puzzling, because both he and chief financial officer Matthew Stanski have defended the decision to put scarce money into these programs and vowed to continue investing in them no matter what. And unfortunately for the people, Hite waited until two months after the SRC approved the creation of the new schools to make a public presentation about them.

Before the School Reform Commission voted in February to approve and fund the three new high schools, a member of our organization, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, asked the SRC to provide the public with information on them. To that point there had been no discussion about funding, staffing, or curricula. As they prepared to vote, SRC members expressed no concern about creating and funding three new schools in the midst of the worst financial crisis the District has ever faced. Even so, Chairman Bill Green refused to answer her question. The following week, however, Hite did share his vision and plans about the program in an extensive interview with Herold in the first of a series of articles on the subject in Education Week.

To tout Blaine Elementary’s principal, Gianeen Powell, as a face of innovation reflects a serious misreading of the circumstances behind the “transformation” of Blaine and Kelley Elementaries. Powell, after applying for and receiving a $1.5 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership, betrayed the same teachers she lauded in a December 2012 Philadelphia Tribune article for “going above and beyond both personally and professionally" by agreeing to force out the entire faculty without cause. 

In fact, one reason Blaine received the grant was Powell’s extensive description of the achievements of her teachers in her application. Neither the Education Week article nor its profile of Powell even mentions that the money came from PSP and that teachers were encouraged to apply and participate in planning. The money was purportedly for developing new programs and for helping the school to adjust to a major enrollment spike caused by the closing of nearby schools.

Not until March, seven months after the initial SRC vote to accept the PSP grant, were teachers notified that they were required to reapply for their jobs. As one teacher told the Inquirer, “We were encouraged to apply for this money, and now it is being used against us.”

Powell may have “goosebumps” when she ponders the transformation of her school and the ramifications of that for her own career, but it is hard to understand how she can justify discarding Blaine’s teachers, which the Education Week article does not address, except to say that “some teachers are unhappy.”

When the SRC approved this grant, there was no explanation of exactly what the money would pay for. “Transformation School” is not a turnaround model that has ever been publicly approved by the SRC. There was no requirement to dump the teachers in the SRC resolution, the grant agreement between the District and PSP, or the application filed by Powell. Rather than create and present innovative professional development sessions to train Blaine’s teachers to adopt the new curriculum, Powell sacrificed the stability of her school and the well-being of her students. 

The ramifications of the Blaine and Kelley conversions are serious ones: They have little to do with innovation and everything to do with carrying out the anti-union agenda of PSP. Given that neither the District, the principals, nor PSP had to give any justification for overhauling these schools, this could happen at any District school. As always, PSP money comes with strings attached. This time, it was dumping the teachers. But any school could be “transformed,” even one that’s performing well. There is every indication that this kind of “transformation” will be foisted upon other schools.

When the District attempted to deliver Steel Elementary to Mastery and Muñoz-Marín to ASPIRA through the Renaissance turnaround process, parents voted decisively to keep their schools within the District. Now that the parents of the two schools have been successful in stopping the District from handing over their schools to private entities, Hite and the SRC will likely be looking to force this new type of “transformation” turnaround on other schools without considering the wishes of parents or the school community. 

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. Email her at philaapps@gmail.com.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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