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New CEO search, old problems engaging parents

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

The School Reform Commission has held 11 meetings over the past month to get public participation into the search process for a new CEO to replace Paul Vallas. But the turnout has been sparse, rekindling debate over the effectiveness of the District’s community engagement activities.

According to figures provided by the School District, at one meeting only seven people turned out. The highest attendance was 76, at a scheduled monthly meeting of the citywide Philadelphia Home and School Council in Northeast Philadelphia that was redirected to serve as the first public CEO-search session.

Altogether, about 300 people attended.

However, SRC chair Sandra Dungee Glenn and Charles Taylor, the consultant leading the search, said that they were not troubled about the scant participation because the level of discussion at the meetings has been high, and the ideas productive.

“I wasn’t concerned there were not more people,” said Dungee Glenn. “I was impressed by the quality of people who came out and the seriousness of the conversation.”

Dungee Glenn observed that similarly low turnout was the rule earlier this year in meetings called to air issues related to retaining educational management organizations (EMOs) to run schools, even though that is a high-profile, controversial issue.

She added that the people who did turn out reinforced the SRC’s own leanings – that Vallas’s successor should be someone intimately familiar with Philadelphia who comes from an educational background.

“There was a cross-section, parents and teachers and students, and while the numbers weren’t there, I think the quality was there,” she said.

But some education advocates said they were not surprised that the SRC’s renewed efforts to show openness to parent and community input have not yielded more participation. They also argued that District leaders should be more concerned about the low turnout because the public engagement process is important in and of itself.

“One thing the School District needs to learn is how to do community engagement in ways that are deep, broad, long-term, and connected, said Harris Sokoloff, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Project on Civic Engagement.

Sokoloff originally had been slated to organize the public participation phase of the search – the SRC passed a resolution to retain him and his organization in July – but after two months of work, he pulled out of the process in September, saying it was too rushed. Instead, Taylor, a former college president and officer with the Chicago-based Hollins Group, ran the sessions.

“Given the lack of connection between the School District and its various communities, they have to think about how to do this better,” Sokoloff said. “Obviously, the way they’ve been doing it in the past doesn’t get the kind of turnout they want.”

He said that a working group he had convened over the summer, which consisted of representatives from an array of education, activist and community groups, had hoped that the CEO search process would “be the start of something, not the end of something. People wanted to use the search as part of a broader community engagement initiative.”

Sokoloff had planned to conduct outreach in community centers, churches, athletic leagues, and local businesses in hopes of getting 100 to 125 people at each meeting — “not just the usual suspects.”

While he believes that Dungee Glenn wants more community engagement, he said that the pressure to find new leadership quickly and her own newness at the helm of the SRC probably contributed to the accelerated timeline.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education observed that the SRC has a spotty track record of reaching out. It rarely held its meetings in neighborhoods, like the predecessor Board of Education did, she noted.

“This is the first time in five years that the SRC has engaged in a formal process to go out into the community,” said Gym. “It’s the first time in a formal way, they’ve said, ‘Let us hear what you have to say about X.’ That culture or dialogue has not been cultivated for five years.”

Cecelia Cummings, the District’s vice president for communications and community relations, said that the District auto-dialed every household with information about each meeting, sent flyers home with students, did public service announcements for radio, and got announcements on some websites.

“We sent information to myriad community organizations that were translated into eight languages,” she said. “We had several community groups commend us.”

But she also acknowledged that the SRC “is working on” establishing itself as more connected to neighborhoods after years of rarely venturing out.

“This is one step forward. I hope that we’ve made some friends along the way. I think we have,” she said.

At each meeting, participants were asked to name three areas in which they thought the School District was doing well, three areas in which the School District needs to improve, and to list the characteristics they wanted to see in the next CEO. One member of the SRC attended each meeting, or at least showed up to welcome the participants.

“I hope meetings like this are a start, not an end” of community engagement initiatives, said Taylor at Roxborough High School on Oct. 4 after a two-hour session with 13 people – eight parents, four current or retired teachers, and Roxborough’s former principal.

At Roxborough, SRC member James Gallagher had planned to stay, but said he had to leave to fill in for another SRC member at an unrelated event.

He didn’t hear the spirited discussion (each meeting is taped by District personnel), at which Taylor had to rein in the participants’ tendency to complain before listing what they liked about the District.

Among the things the Roxborough attendees said they liked were the standardized curriculum, more public celebrations of student accomplishments, and the creation of more school choices, especially at the high school level. The minus side list was longer, and included a lack of accountability for poor decisions, the budget deficit, a tendency of the SRC to make decisions in an ivory tower, and, as one parent put it, “failure to involve parents in a real way.”

Taylor said that an advisory group of up to 35 people will “give feedback” later in the process when the search has narrowed down to just a few candidates. Both he and Dungee Glenn said the nature of this group’s participation – how the members will be chosen, how many candidates they will actually interview or meet – is still being worked out. They anticipate that the advisory board will be appointed by the end of October, and the CEO search timeline calls for a decision on the new CEO will be made by the end of 2007.

“The exact process is not yet outlined,” Dungee Glenn said. “It would have to be carefully done; we don’t want to scare off good candidates. It’s a very delicate thing, and we’re trying to walk through it carefully – how we can have some credibility and protect the candidates.” Often, candidates for superintendent and CEO posts don’t want their names publicized in advance so as not to jeopardize their current jobs.

Lauren Jacobs of Cross City Campaign for School Reform, an alliance of local education groups, said that she is concerned that the public have real input into the actual decision-making through the advisory committee.

While the community meetings are important, Jacobs said, “they are abstract. The hard choices come later.” She said she hopes the advisory committee includes people who have experience working for school change, especially when it comes to students. “It’s important to have groups that are completely external to the District and don’t receive any funding from them,” she said.

Sokoloff said that the involvement of the advisory committee is the SRC’s next opportunity to look at how it approaches community engagement.

“They have to start thinking about it differently,” Sokoloff said. “Every piece should build on other pieces.”

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