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At SRC meeting, focus shifts from parent engagement to parent frustration

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

by Isaac Riddle

In a Tuesday evening School Reform Commission meeting intended to discuss and encourage parental involvement, parents and community leaders vented their frustrations about the conditions in local schools and their feeling that they aren’t being included in the decision-making process at schools or the District.

Superintendent William Hite, SRC chair Pedro Ramos, and SRC members Feather Houstoun, Sylvia Simms, and Wendell Pritchett were part of the conversation as parents and community leaders talked at tables of eight to 10 people about a series of questions on what schools and the District are doing well and what the obstacles are to parent involvement.

But for some of those present, the District’s dire financial situation and deplorable conditions at schools have undermined hope of meaningful parent engagement.

“Why are we here?” asked Lisa Haver, an education activist and retired teacher. “Why aren’t we instead working with parents to work for getting more money for schools?”

Another frequently expressed concern was that the District withholds information from parents.

Alison McDowell, a public school parent and member of Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, talked about an open letter to Hite charging the superintendent with purposely keeping certain groups in the dark.

According to McDowell, only the Greater Center City Neighborhood School Coalition was invited to a Saturday morning meeting at Chester Arthur Elementary. The meeting was a part of the School Performance Framework, which according to McDowell is a continuation of the abruptly canceled “School Report Card” meetings from the summer.

“Don’t make decisions in secret,” said Michael Bell, a community organizer at United Communities of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Frustration with the handling of the closing of 24 schools last spring was another concern of many parents. Before the closings, the District conducting a series of meetings seeking public input, but in the end, many parents felt their voices weren’t being heard.

Some participants questioned whether principals and school staff are being evaluated on whether they are welcoming and inclusive of parent voices. How schools treat families of special needs students was another frequent concern.

Many charged that the District has shown resistance to meaningful parental engagement.

“We cannot keep parents in the dark,” said a participant.

The death of 12-year-old Bryant student Laporshia Massey was raised several times by concerned parents. The part-time nurse at Bryant Elementary was not present the day that Massey reportedly fell ill at school; she later died from asthma-related complications. The lack of full-time nurses at most of the District’s schools has increased anxiety about the safety of students with health conditions.

Public school parent Cheri Honkala described arriving at her son’s school to find no one in the office. Honkala’s 11-year-old son has asthma and she worries for his safety if he has an asthma attack and no nurse is present.

“I want to see our counselors and nurses back,” said Haver.

According to Hite, this was just the beginning of a series of meetings to include more parental involvement and hear parents’ concerns.

“Consistency will prove whether or not this works or not. If they [the District] are going to be consistent and follow up with what our recommendations are, I think it will work,” said Maurice Jones, president of Lea Elementary’s Home and School Association and a member of its School Advisory Council.

Isaac Riddle is an intern at the Notebook.