SRC approves alternative school contracts, hears pleas to save a charter

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School Reform Commission (SRC) voted Thursday to approve $146 million in contracts to private alternative school providers, all but one that already operate schools in the District’s Opportunity Network — 14 schools that serve about 3000 students who are not making it in a traditional setting.

The new player is Liguori Academy, a private school in Kensington that was previously religiously affiliated and had originally sought to open a charter school.

The resolution was bundled with others that were voted on after the SRC listened to more than 50 speakers on a variety of topics, including some that spoke on behalf of Memphis Street Academy, charter school recommended for closure in a vote that could come as soon as Monday.

Other speakers berated the SRC for the continued lack of a teachers’ contract. Members of the Caucus of Working Educators s ran a paper chain around the room with 1334 links — one for each day of the impasse.

The alternative school operators are Camelot Education, Ombudsman, YESPhilly, Big Picture Philadelphia, One Bright Ray, CADI, and Gateway to College, a dual enrollment program with Community College of Philadelphia. The $146 million covers five years of operation.

The biggest provider is Camelot, a company that runs programs all over the country. Here, it operates one accelerated school for overage students and another for students with disciplinary problems. A recent report by Pro Publica and Slate alleged that Camelot used physical force to discipline students over the years in various locations including Philadelphia. But District officials have stood by the company, which has operated here since 2001.

Camelot teacher Darrell Dewer spoke in favor of the organization: "I’m part of a model that begins with the vision that each and every student’s worth is to be uncovered… Camelot’s work is indeed the work of redemption and it is done in coordination with the school district. The school district does not outsource to us, it works with us.” One speaker, Karel Kilimnik with the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, spoke against outsourcing but not against Camelot specifically. “Nothing is impossible. If you want proof, research the bumblebee. Scientists said they weren’t meant to fly, but they do because no one told them not to,” said Chyna White, student at YESPhilly High School. “I think of myself as a bumblebee because I know I can do anything I put my mind to. There are many other bees out there and that’s why I’m advocating for accelerated high schools in Philadelphia.” There are 14 alternative schools serving some 3,0o0 students, according to Christina Grant, who oversees the network. She said they are held to standards of accountability, but didn’t explain them in detail.

Lisa Haver, a public school advocate with the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, protested the SRC’s policy of voting on resolutions in batches without naming them for the record and describing them, saying that not naming them is a violation of the Sunshine Act. Short descriptions of the resolutions are available in writing at the meeting.

The auditorium filled up early, with 58 people signing up to speak. Suits and dresses filled the first few rows of seats, and the back of the room was a sea of orange t-shirts worn by people showing their support of Memphis Street Academy, formerly John P. Jones Middle School that was turned over to the charter operator as part of the Renaissance Schools initiative.

District officials presented a new plan to award several million in contracts to a series of providers for professional development services for principals. Contract recipients include The New Teacher Project ($1.1 million), Relay Graduate School of Education ($165,000), and the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders ($150,000). Two other potential contracts for training in specific areas have not been awarded to a specific provider.

Danielle Floyd, the Director of Capital Programs for the District, gave a presentation on the District’s efforts to create more green space and upgrade playgrounds. Since 2004 the District has spent $8.75 million doing just that on 67 projects. About a third were parks, another third storm water improvements, and the last third were playground.

Floyd pointed out that they’ve achieved so much through three different avenues: capital investment or selling bonds, public-private partnerships, and “friends of” organizations run by parents and school community members.

Several students from Memphis Street Academy spoke about the need to keep their school open.

“When I was a fifth-grade student at Memphis Street Academy things were not as they are today,” said Joeyliz Ortiz, who attended the school before it was turned over to American Paradigm Schools. “I had a great teacher and a team leader who pushed me to become a leader myself.”

Ortiz will be attending Central high school in the fall.

“When fifth and sixth graders come to us they are completing math and reading well below their grade level,” said Catherine Blumenstock, a teacher at Memphis Street. “The achievement gap is closing, maybe not at the rate that the Charter School Office would like, but we are making a difference.”

Much of the public commentary focused on the 1,334 days that members of the teachers’ union have spent without a contract, and the objections weren’t just coming from teachers.

“You’re being undervalued,” said Leroy Warner, parent of a student at Lincoln high school, addressing the teachers in the audience. “But do you think the reason is because it’s your job to raise these black kids out of poverty?”

And the teachers were even angrier.

Michael Berstein, a teacher at Southwark, brought out a giant trash bag and a chain of construction paper links spilled forth and was carried around the circumference of the room, largely by WE members wearing red t-shirts. Each link represented one day that the teachers have gone without a contract.

“The SRC chose to go to the courts, wasting tax-payer money and time. Now that the SRC has exhausted their appeals we are back at the same point,” Berstein said. “Millions of dollars have been wasted and the lives of our students have been harmed.”

Nicole Molino, a teacher at Taylor in her seventh year at the District, shared a quote from Barrack Obama:

“From the moment our children step into a classroom, the single most important factor in determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from. It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is. It’s the person who stays past the last bell and spend their own money on books and supplies.”

The quote got a round of applause—one of the rare moments in the evening when charter and public school advocates clapped together.

Said Molino: “1,334 days without a contract means more instability, 1,334 days without a contract means trying to keep up with the cost of living on a 2012 paycheck in 2017. It means doing more with less every single day; 1,334 days without a contract means I have to crowdsource funds to supply my classroom; 1,334 days without a contract means that I have to work a second job. It means that I’m going into a classroom full of children, exhausted; 1,334 days without a contract means that every second counts.”

“We do not teach in order to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, yet many have made that sacrifice. Would you?” asked Keziah Ridgeway, a teacher at Northeast High School, while she stared at those members of the SRC that were still present–Bill Green left shortly after public comment commenced, and phoned-in hours later for the voting. “It’s time for a fair contract so we teachers can get back to the business of creating the next generation of tomorrow to replace all of us, including you.”

“In front of us are the purveyors of privatization,” said Kilimnik of APPS, a retired teacher and graduate of the District, while she glared at the SRC. “As the rich grow their wealth on the backs of workers, there’s been a rise in the nonprofit industrial complex,” which she said is “taking over the work of District staff,” referring to the contracts to outsource services.

She specifically decried the proposed contract of over $1 million awarded to The New Teacher Project to run a one year professional development service for principals and a $22 million contract for cleaning services. She also referenced the impasse with the teachers’ union.

“How come teacher turnover is bad in charter schools but is becoming a policy in district schools?” Kilimnik asked. “How much are you spending on ‘priority’ schools and when am I going to get an answer?”

Members of the SRC stared at her in a long silence, despite answering the questions of most other speakers.

“Some things never change,” Kilimnik said.