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Anger and frustration aimed at Hite and SRC at meeting

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

Robin Dominick, her 2nd-grade daughter, Leah, at her side, told the School Reform Commission on Thursday night that she was worried about putting her child in a split-grade classroom.

“Can you tell her what to do when a 3rd grader bullies her, with no counselor and no aide?” asked Dominick, president of the Home and School Association at Powel School in Powelton Village.

Maureen Fratantoni, president of the Home and School Association at Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia, pleaded for the rehiring of the school’s music teacher, Aaron Hoke, who was transferred.

North Philadelphia community activist Danita Bates, staring at Superintendent William Hite, asked, “When are you going to ask for the next 33 [school] closings?”

Doubt, anger, and frustration filled the packed room as speakers went beyond questioning how schools would open in the face of drastic budget cuts and repeatedly questioned how hard Hite and the SRC are really fighting for the system. An even bigger crowd had protested outside.

“Are you working for Philadelphia’s children?” asked Joan Taylor, a teacher at Middle Years Alternative School, “or are you working for a governor whose conservative policies put him at odds with the needs of these kids?”

“With the massive turnover rate you already have, you should be doing everything you can to keep teachers here, not drive them away,” said David Hensel, a teacher at Taggart Elementary School. “This isn’t reform. This is destruction.”

Hite listened calmly to the 90-minute parade of speakers, occasionally interjecting explanations on issues such as split classes, which he said he does not see as a long-term solution to the budget crisis.

But some of the angriest words were directed at the empty chair of SRC Chair Pedro Ramos.

Lisa Haver, a community activist and a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, accused Ramos of supporting cancellations of portions of the teachers’ union contract as a political favor to Gov. Corbett, who appointed him. She cited a report in the City Paper that a secret Republican poll recommended that fighting with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers would fire up the GOP base in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

District officials said they did not know where Ramos, who is rarely absent, was or why he did not attend the meeting. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky was also absent.

Masterman parent Alison McDowell attacked the SRC’s acceptance of a donation from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to develop a school report card, questioning whether it was “a Trojan horse” to get commercial software platforms into the District.

One spectator raised a sign saying, “Fund Public Schools, Not For-Profit Education.”

Of the several dozen resolutions approved by the SRC, one of the few that drew comment from the speakers was the acceptance of a $228,000 gift from the Home and School Association of Science and Leadership Academy for teacher salaries and benefits.

Taylor said, “I wish I could applaud the parents … for their hard work raising the [funds], but I can’t. “ She said that SLA had set itself up as a “gated community” within the District, which “makes it harder for other schools that cannot do the same.”

The SRC also revised policies on harassment and bullying/cyberbullying in the Student Code of Conduct and approved licensing agreements with five charter providers under the Renaissance Schools Initiative. There was no discussion of either of these issues.

Activist Helen Gym of Asian Americans United spoke in favor of the strengthened District policy on harassment, citing the lessons from efforts at South Philadelphia High School to put an end to bias attacks on Asian students.

"We learned that you need an aggressive approach to bullying and harassment with policies and procedures that help enforce and train people how to say no when an anti-gay or racial slur occurs, rather than shrug shoulders and turn the other way," she said.

The revised policy requires all reports of harassment to be investigated and reported within 14 days.

The harassment policy change also specifies that a violation does not have to be intentional or involve repeated incidents.

The bullying resolution adds a whistleblower provision protecting people who report bullying. It calls for staff training in the prevention of bullying and the use of translators in bullying investigations if the victim has limited English proficiency.

The licensing agreements call for the charter operators at these five Renaissance Schools to maintain the buildings and pay the District for their use.

  • Mastery Charter Pastorius Elementary School — $5,621 per month
  • Universal Alcorn Charter School — $9,517 per month
  • Universal Audenried Neighborhood Partnership Charter School — $391,944 per year
  • Universal Vare Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School — $186,000 per year
  • Young Scholars Renaissance Kenderton Charter School — $7,991 per month

Universal had previously used District buildings for Audenried and Vare without payment under an arrangement reached during the administration of the late former superintendent Arlene Ackerman. These were the only two Renaissance charters without an executed facilities license agreement.