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SRC votes down new Belmont charter; Hite expresses regret at substitute mess

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

Superintendent William Hite said at Thursday night’s School Reform Commission meeting that the $34 million contract with a private firm to find and place substitute teachers is "in jeopardy" unless the company rapidly improves the rate at which it is able to fill empty classrooms.

Hite expressed his "personal regret" that schools experienced a "poor start" due to Source4Teachers’ problems. Over the vociferous objections of the teachers’ union, the SRC hired the Cherry Hill-based firm on a two-year deal in the spring in hopes of substantially increasing the District’s own "fill rate" of 55 to 65 percent of empty classrooms.

"I will be watching and managing this partnership closely to ensure we receive the performance we contracted for," Hite said.

The firm promised a 75 percent fill rate in September and 90 percent by January. But the best it has managed in the first six days of school is 15 percent.

Hite said the District is asking Source4Teachers to bring in a subcontractor to increase its daily rates, beef up its recruiting staff, and streamline the hiring process. It has already altered daily rates, paying $110 a day for all certified teachers, not just those certified in special education. Before, the rate for certified regular education teachers was $90.

Officials disappointed

"We selected a partner with experience and had high expectations," Hite said at the beginning of the meeting. "We are extremely disappointed that Source4Teachers’ performance over the first six days of school has not met those expectations."

In interviews after the meeting, several SRC members expressed their disappointment, but indicated they weren’t willing to give up yet on the hope that the company would come through.

"They have to improve their performance, or we will reconsider," said SRC Chair Marjorie Neff. Pressed, she said: "Had we anticipated this, we might have done something different. Our belief was they could improve the fill rate. We take ownership of what happened. Now we have to come up with a solution."

Commissioner Feather Houstoun noted that the firm came with a lot of experience in other districts and was carefully vetted. Philadelphia is by far the largest district they’ve ever worked in.

"We’re unhappy with their failure to understand the challenges of a big district with a lot of complexity," Houstoun said. "We are monitoring them on a daily basis."

But although "it’s clearly a real problem," she hopes it still might work out in the long run, she said.

"Whether ultimately using this kind of vehicle gives us more flexibility and the ability to fill more classrooms remains to be seen," Houstoun said. "We did this for a reason."

This substitute debacle has made for a rough opening for many schools, with teachers scrambling and often giving up their preparation periods to provide coverage for absent colleagues.

Charter rejected on tight vote

In formal action, the SRC voted narrowly to deny a revised application from the Belmont Charter School in Mantua to open a high school.

The vote was 3-2, with Commissioners Bill Green and Sylvia Simms voting to grant the charter for 500 students that would have opened in 2016.

The vote came with no comments or explanation, but it is likely that the application will be resubmitted this year. Michael Karp, head of the school, argued that Belmont Charter, a converted District school in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, is a "replicable model" because test scores have improved and the school went from being one of the lowest-achieving in the city before the conversion in 2002 to one that is on the high end compared to those with similar demographics.

Several parents and students also spoke, saying the school provided a safe space and a family-like atmosphere.

In response to questions from SRC members, charter office staff said that the application, a revised version on one originally denied in February, did not include any details about a high school curriculum.

Under state law, the SRC is obliged to hear new charter applications each year. The deadline for new charter applications is Nov. 15. Karp, who was briefly a member of the old Board of Education, can try again.

With the "no" vote, a group of parents and students who had come in support of the expansion loudly and angrily left the room. One parent yelled, "You don’t care about our kids."

Facilities issues

The SRC also voted to extend the leases of two selective high schools until June 2017, The lease of the Science Leadership Academy building at 22nd and Arch Streets in Center City will cost nearly $1.5 million a year; Constitution’s building on Seventh Street near Market costs more than $1 million a year.

Several students from each testified that they wanted to stay in the buildings, which are near the institutions they are affiliated with: the Franklin Institute for SLA and the National Constitution Center for Constitution High.

Officials in the District’s facilities office explained that although the intent was to eventually move the schools into District-owned buildings, many of which are vacant, none were immediately suitable. The two-year lease extensions would give the schools time to adjust and the District more time to find an alternative.

That did not sit well with longtime advocate Gail Clouden, otherwise known as Mama Gail, who complained that many neighborhood schools were closed abruptly without concerns for a smooth transition for their students. "Unbelievable," she muttered as she stormed out.

Wilma Frazier from Point Breeze urged the SRC to reopen the closed Smith School, rather than sell the building for housing. She said that closing the school in 2013 "hurt the neighborhood." Some residents paraded in front of District headquarters before the meeting and held up signs while Frazier spoke to the SRC, saying that their children had to cross dangerous streets to get to schools much farther away.

"We need Smith back as a school," Frazier said.

The SRC also voted in favor of a $3.8 million, three-year contract renewal for the firm Elliott-Lewis to manage and clean its cavernous and mostly empty headquarters building at 440 N. Broad St. The vote was 4-1, with Neff voting no.

"I can’t see spending that much money when schools are lacking so much," she said afterward.

Staff in the facilities office said that there was a shortage of building engineers, and those on the District’s payroll were needed to work in schools.

The meeting was lively, marked by multiple interruptions and caustic criticism of Hite and the SRC. It was not packed, although 38 people had signed up to speak. Not all, however, showed up.

The last speaker, parent Leroy Warner, ended the comment period with a bang. He said the SRC is a "racist institution" and a "plantation system." He called for the SRC to be replaced by a local elected school board.

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