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The biggest Philadelphia education stories of 2015

A historic state budget impasse, Source4Teachers, a new mayor, a Notebook founder elected to City Council, and more.

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

As usual, the Notebook is on hiatus for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so we have prepared a review of the year in education. The top stories here, in no particular order, are a combination of the most important and the most read on our site.

State budget impasse – For six months, the Republican legislature and the Democratic governor have been unable to agree on a budget for the Commonwealth, forcing school districts across the state to borrow funds and stalling Philadelphia’s hopes for an infusion of funds that would ease some of the hardship in District schools. Breakthroughs were touted and then collapsed – several times. It has now become the longest such standoff in state history. What is going on? Clearly, vast differences in the philosophy of government between the self-described “rookie” Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, and the Republican-dominated General Assembly are at the root of it. Basic disagreements persist on pension reform, liquor privatization, and on whether and how to raise money to pay for a historic infusion in education aid. Still, four of the five parties – all but the House Republicans – agreed on a “framework” for raising and distributing $350 million in new dollars that would bring $100 million more to Philadelphia. But in that deal, the money would come with conditions that worry even SRC member Bill Green over what it would mean for charter growth and the District’s ability to assure charter quality and accountability. Moreover, while the funds would be greeted with relief, they would not make up for what has been cut from the District since 2011. Stay tuned on this one.

Testing, cheating, and the PSSA score drop – Philadelphia’s test scores plunged, along with the rest of Pennsylvania’s, when the state test was changed significantly. What that means about the state of instruction and learning in the District and elsewhere, however, is not clear. Other testing-related stories included the continued fallout of the cheating scandal, which broke in 2011, that calls into question the validity of using test results to judge schools, students, and teachers. Our post looking at how city high schools did on a state evaluation was one of the most-read of the year.

Staffing problems and the Source4Teachers contract –Superintendent William Hite and the School Reform Commission decided to contract with a private company to hire, train and place substitute teachers. Their hope was to reduce a high vacancy rate and improve an absent-teacher coverage rate of less than 60 percent – a situation that left thousands of students for at least a part of each day without anyone prepared to teach them. They hired the Cherry Hill-based company Source4Teachers, which had worked in many smaller districts but never in one anywhere near the size of Philadelphia. The result, so far, has been a disaster. On vacancies, some students went without permanent teachers for the entire first marking period. And despite promises of a 75 percent substitute “fill rate” by September and 90 percent by January, the company started out in the single digits and, as the end of 2015 approached, never got higher than the mid-30s. An abashed Hite and SRC made adjustments to the contract and took back the task of finding long-term (as opposed to per diem) subs, but declined to cancel the contract, saying that a cancellation could make the situation worse. The fiasco resulted in one of the worst starts of a school year in memory. Already-depleted staffs scrambled to place adults in classrooms, a situation that made it much harder to concentrate on improving school climate and instruction.

No contract settlement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a serious challenge to the union leadership – In 2014, the big story was the SRC’s October attempt to nullify the PFT contract entirely and impose benefit changes that would free up funds to put back in schools. This year the big story is that nothing has happened since then to resolve the stalemate, now in its third year. So far, the PFT has prevailed in court challenges involving SRC actions that violate the contract. But teachers have now worked four years without raises and without a contract since 2013. Citing the prolonged standoff, among other issues, the Caucus of Working Educators is mounting a full-scale campaign to unseat Jerry Jordan and the entrenched Collective Bargaining caucus, which has run the union for decades.

SRC extends superintendent’s contract – Despite these and other problems, the SRC voted at its December meeting to extend Superintendent William Hite’s contract for five years, until 2022. The move, cited as necessary to maintain some stability in District leadership, was greeted with derision and catcalls at that raucous meeting. Hite, for his part, said he was just happy that the SRC wanted him to stay.

The election of Jim Kenney as mayor and Helen Gym as an at-large City Council member and the appointment of Otis Hackney as chief city education official – Promises regarding education played a big role in the campaign, especially in the case of Gym, for whom it was the singular issue. The Notebook co-founder and leader of Parents United for Public Education sees taking a seat on the city’s governing body as an extension of her activism. Kenney, finding common ground with City Council President Darrell Clarke, is a strong proponent of community schools and wants to create 25 of them. Hackney has created what may be the closest thing Philadelphia has to a community school as principal of South Philadelphia High. These new officeholders are likely to refocus the reform conversation, which has up to now been dominated by choice and charters. The new political configuration is also likely to change the relationship between the District and city government, particularly Council, which has historically been contentious. Hite and the SRC signed an agreement with Council in October promising "more openness."

SRC greenlights five new charter schools and resumes Renaissance charter conversions – In February, responding to a new state law, the SRC approved five new charter schools out of 39 applications. And in the fall, it resumed converting District schools to charters under the Renaissance schools initiative, which had been on hiatus since 2014. Then, parents overwhelmingly rejected the chance to turn Steel and Muñoz-Marin over to charter operators. The administration this year designated Jay Cooke, Samuel B. Huey and John Wister Elementaries for charter conversion, with parents given the chance to attend meetings and serve on committees that would choose the provider. But, unlike in 2014, they could not vote on whether the school would be converted at all. The change and the process sparked some opposition, and the District has had a hard time recruiting new providers. Only Huey parents have any choice; only one provider each offered to take Wister and Cooke. While adding new Renaissance charters, the SRC also began serious evaluation of older ones; it recommended non-renewal of one Renaissance charter – Universal at Bluford. In addition, Scholar Academies, facing a non-renewal recommendation at its Douglass campus, turned over its operation to Mastery Charter.

Administrative reorganization at 440 – In July, despite continued funding uncertainty and no teachers’ contract, Superintendent Hite moved to reorganize his leadership staff and embark on his vision for school change. His Action Plan 3.0, he said, is meant to "give every student access to a great school" and "drive decisionmaking to the school level." Hite created several "learning networks" organized not just by region but by school type — alternative, high-achieving (given autonomy), low-achieving (in need of turnaround), and those promoting innovation. That story, along with a post highlighting new principals at 29 schools, was among the most-read on the site this year.

The focus on early education and early literacy – In his mayoral campaign, Jim Kenney promised to find some city money toward the $60 million needed to create universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city. The citywide Read by 4th campaign, started in 2014, found its executive director and stepped up its campaign to raise awareness that teaching reading is, in fact, rocket science and requires a sustained commitment. More than 50 organizations are involved in the campaign, headed by the Free Library. The goal behind both these movements is to improve the achievement of young students so they don’t fall behind later.

And finally……

A big year for milestones and changes at the Notebook Glen’s Village, a 30-minute documentary produced by the Notebook, tackled the issue of childhood trauma. The film, telling the story of West Philadelphia’s Glen Casey and his journey from the streets to the University of Pennsylvania, has won awards on the festival circuit and gained attention nationally and locally from teachers, students, parents, and mental health professionals.

Longtime editor Paul Socolar announced his intention to move on to new challenges, and a search is underway for his successor; he was honored at a brunch in November that raised more than $60,000 for the Notebook‘s new Investigative Reporting Fund.

And, after more than a year of planning, we launched our new website. We hope you will tell us what you think.

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