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Behind the West Philly delay

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

The School Reform Commission delayed a vote Wednesday that would have matched West Philadelphia High School with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now for turnaround as a Renaissance School.

SRC chairman Robert Archie said that new information came to light that needed to be considered before the final vote. He did not elaborate.

But later, it became clear that someone had complained to the SRC that one or more of the parent members of West’s School Advisory Council, which recommended Hopkins, was paid as part of a parent outreach program run by the Philadelphia Education Fund. PEF has had a longstanding relationship with Hopkins. Beginning in 1999, PEF helped bring the Talent Development program to several high schools in the city, including Strawberry Mansion and Edison. Talent Development also runs a ninth grade academy at West. PEF would be one of Hopkins’ local community partners in the West turnaround.

"The SRC asked us to delay the vote," Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said after the meeting. "Issues were raised in terms of conflict of interest of some people on the School Advisory Council." She said on the basis of those complaints, some members of the SRC "were prepared to vote no" on the resolution.

Rather than "not have [the conflict of interest complaint] resolved," the vote was put off, she said.

Ackerman and Benjamin Rayer, who runs the District’s Renaissance process, said the concerns were raised earlier on Wednesday.The 15-member West SAC had voted Monday night to match West with Hopkins. Based on the SAC’s recommendation, Ackerman also recommended the West-Hopkins match to the SRC. A resolution to approve the match was on Wednesday’s SRC agenda.

The earliest the SRC will now vote on the issue is June 9. West is the only Renaissance School whose process has gone on this long; eight other schools were matched with providers on May 12. At the end of March, Ackerman designated five as Promise Academies.

Several teachers have said that the continuing delay is leading many of them who would like to stay at West to accept positions at other schools rather than continue to live with the uncertainty. The site-selection process for getting jobs at other schools ends on May 31 — before West’s fate is finally decided.

Monday’s SAC vote came after two months of deliberations, and after the council itself had been reconstituted to contain a majority of parents.

As of Monday, the 15-member council was made up of 8 parents and 7 community members.

Several SAC members who were present said the vote, which was supervised by Rayer and Yvonne Soto of the District, was nine in favor of Hopkins/Diplomas Now, two in favor of Mastery Charter, and two to make the school a Promise Academy. One parent and one community member abstained from voting.

Rayer said that nobody was contesting the validity of the vote itself, but the conflict of interest charge was substantial enough to warrant an investigation into whether the person or persons could make an "objective" decision on behalf of the school community."

He said he doesn’t know why the issue was just raised today, however.

Carol Fixman, executive director of PEF, said that the organization has worked in West Philadelphia for many years and in September started an outreach program in which it paid parents for a few hours of work calling and visiting other parents and urging them to become involved in their schools. West’s Parent Outreach Team was coordinated through the school’s Parent Ombudsman.

"We encouraged parents to be involved in the Renaissance Schools process," she said. "In no way did we suggest that they support any particular model."

At least three members of the West SAC are also paid members of the school’s Parent Outreach Team.

Venard Johnson, a local longtime community activist, said that he was not the origin of the complaint. But in an interview after the meeting, he said that he felt strongly that PEF, as well as the University of Pennsylvania, was trying to "bully" the community and "not being honest." PEF and Penn have been involved in a longstanding reform effort through the West Philadelphia Schools Collaborative to break West up into smaller schools.

Johnson, as part of the NuJuice Foundation, was hired by the District to monitor the parental involvement at the Renaissance schools, to make sure that they were in a majority.

He said PEF "did nothing wrong" with getting parents involved, but should not have "put people they employ on the council." The SAC was open to any parent to join, but Johnson said that many other parents felt that the "deck was stacked."

According to Joy Herbert, who is the mother of a 10th grader at West, the co-chair of the West SAC, and a member of the school’s Parent Outreach Team, the Philadelphia Education Fund paid her $8/hour for eight hours of work per week over several months for her time on the Parent Outreach Team.

"The outreach team was formed before the council even came together. It was formed months ago," said Herbert.

According to Herbert and others, the SAC-related work done by outreach team members during recent months included going door-to-door in West Philadelphia to make sure parents were aware the Renaissance process was taking place, encouraging parents to become involved, and collecting parent feedback about West to help inform the SAC’s deliberations.

"[The accusation of conflict of interest] is insulting," said Herbert. "People are deliberately screwing up things for our kids while they are playing these petty games."

Additional information obtained by the Notebook also indicates that the presence of Parent Outreach Team members on the West SAC was widely known by District officials, including Ackerman, well before Wednesday’s meeting. On May 10, both Herbert and Carla Jackson, the head of West’s Parent Outreach Team, were part of a West SAC delegation that met directly with Ackerman to discuss the council’s progress. According to an unofficial transcript of that meeting obtained by the Notebook, Jackson openly discussed her role with Ackerman.

According to multiple sources, Ackerman herself had called the May 10 meeting with the West SAC because she he had received letters directly from SAC members indicating that the council was "struggling" and that there were "mixed feelings" about the group’s earlier site visit to a Baltimore-based Talent Development school run by Hopkins.

On May 7, she requested that the West SAC cancel its meeting scheduled for May 10 to take a final vote in advance of the District’s May 11 deadline for SAC recommendations and instead invited the West SAC to meet with her personally.

According to the unoffical transcript, Ackerman told the group that "before we make decisions, it is important that people not feel railroaded. There was a reason that we put that 50% [of council members had to be parents]…as well-meaning as we all might be, if you don’t have a child at West Philadelphia High School, your investment is not as strong…Those who the most at stake here are parents…I want them to be happy with our choice."

According to multiple sources present at the meeting, Ackerman reintroduced the Promise Academy as an option for West, directed the West SAC to reconstitute itself with at least 51% parents, and delayed by two weeks (until May 24) the group’s deadline for making a final recommendation.

To reconstitute itself, the SAC asked all the community members on the council to step down, then asked the parents on the council to decide who to invite back.

The 15 members who represented the final voters on the council emerged out of this process.

While everyone tries to sort out the mess, again, West teachers are fleeing in droves.

"The last folks left who were holding on to the hope of returning to West next year, myself included, started arranging interviews at other schools immediately after learning of the delay," said Neil Geyette, coordinator of West’s Urban Leadership Academy. "Realistically, we just had to put things in perspective with what West is going to look like next year with 80 – 90% new staff."

The delay has left SAC members outraged as well.

"It’s ridiculous," said Herbert, who resigned from the SAC after the meeting. "There was nothing [in the guidelines for SAC deliberations] that we didn’t follow to the letter. The District asked us to get 51% parents, so we got 51% parents. They wanted Rayer and Soto [at the voting meeting] to make sure there was nothing underhanded [about the vote], and they were there. There is no reason for our process not to continue. This decision was politically handled behind closed doors, and our voices were not heard."

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