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Top Philadelphia education stories of 2016

Darryl Murphy

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.

Movement, but minimal progress, toward equity and adequacy in Pennsylvania school funding. The General Assembly finally adopted a rational, need-based, and predictable school funding formula after decades without one. But it decided that the formula would apply only to new education dollars, not the entire allocation, meaning that it will take decades for poor and overburdened districts to get what they need to educate their children. Meanwhile, advocates pressed ahead with a longstanding fair funding lawsuit, and it finally got a hearing before the state Supreme Court. WHYY’s Kevin McCorry, in a series comparing Pennsylvania schools to those in Ontario, starkly highlighted how the state makes school-funding decisions based on values and political priorities that yield counterproductive, damaging public policy.

Turnover at the School Reform Commission and increased calls for a return to local control of the District. After 15 years under this appointed, state-dominated body, the District continues to struggle each year for sufficient funds and academic achievement still lags. Both Mayor Kenney and Gov. Wolf say that they favor replacing the SRC with a locally chosen body, but neither has offered a plan or a timetable for making that happen. The composition of the panel is changing dramatically: Feather Houstoun and Marjorie Neff left the body in the fall before their terms were up, and the term of Sylvia Simms expires in January. Wolf appointed Estelle Richman to replace Houstoun – pending Senate approval – and Kenney named Joyce Wilkerson, who took office immediately and Wolf then designated as chair. Both are on record favoring local control. Parents and education advocates are losing patience, and calls peaked this year for the SRC’s abolition, with complaints rising that the five-member panel has been unresponsive to community concerns. At a forum co-sponsored by the Notebook in early December, panelists agreed that local control is desirable, but also suggested that careful deliberation is needed before taking that step. They disagreed about whether a new body should be elected or appointed.

A window of fiscal stability that allowed new investments, including the return of nurses and counselors to every school. Since 2011-12, when Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration slashed state and federal aid in a way that particularly decimated Philadelphia’s funding, each budget season had brought more devastating cutbacks. Most controversial were reductions in school nurses and counselors. This year, with a slight fund balance, Superintendent William Hite outlined $440 million in new school investments that improved the student-counselor ratio and returned a full-time nurse to every school. Art and music teachers that had been eliminated from school budgets have also made a comeback. The news isn’t all good, though – a major reason that the fund balance existed was the money saved when a private contractor failed to fill substitute teaching positions last year. Which leads to…

An easing of the substitute teacher crisis amid continued staffing struggles. The substitute-teacher catastrophe that dominated the 2015-16 school year was not repeated after the District fired one contractor, Source4Teachers, and hired another, Kelly Services. But, as WHYY’s Avi Wolfman-Arent discovered, the hardest-to-staff schools still have trouble finding subs. And as of Dec. 21, there were still about 100 teacher vacancies. Officials maintain that the rate is low, based on the size of the workforce – there are more than 8,000 teaching positions in the District – but the vacancies are leaving thousands of students without a permanent teacher for all or part of this year. Hite cited as one of his 2016 achievements the hiring of 1,000 new teachers and the doubling of the substitute fill rate to an average of more than 70 percent, which exceeds the rate when the District hired the subs.

A grassroots movement to make drinking water in schools more accessible and safe. After the disaster in Flint, Michigan, students and advocates in Philadelphia demanded an inventory of working drinking fountains in schools. Councilwoman Helen Gym introduced and Council passed legislation requiring at least one working fountain per 100 students, as well as more safety testing. In the wake of this community pressure, the District announced a $1 million initiative to put three modern hydration stations in each school.

The dangers of old school facilities. The disturbing findings regarding lead levels in school drinking water and the severe injury and then death of a worker after a boiler explosion at a Mount Airy school brought renewed focus to problems associated with aging buildings. District officials say that needed capital improvements would cost $5 billion, a sum they do not have.

SRC gridlock over charter renewals and scandal at ASPIRA. In October, the School Reform Commission was slated to vote on two resolutions that would deny the renewal of two charters run by ASPIRA, John B. Stetson Middle School and Olney High School. The District’s charter office recommended non-renewal, but the five-member body could not muster the votes, or even a second, to take any action. Published reports and the charter office’s evaluation showed that ASPIRA had been using tax money meant for its charter schools to shore up other enterprises and to settle a sexual harassment claim against its CEO, Alfredo Calderon. The split over charter policy continues to be divisive; in early August, the Movement for Black Lives and the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charters, saying their expansion deprives traditional schools of needed resources. The announcements fueled much debate among Black parents, educators, and advocates about what is best for Black and Brown students who are often underserved by the public education system.

Yet another year without a teachers’ contract. In what has become the longest such impasse since the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers won bargaining rights in the 1960s, teachers are ending 2016 having had no raises since the 2012-13 school year, not even those earned for accumulating more years of service and attaining more degrees. That means some five-year veterans are still getting the salary of a beginner. Philadelphia salaries are falling further behind those in the nearby suburbs, making it harder to recruit and retain teachers. The two sides have had minimal negotiations and instead have been fighting out their differences in court, which sided with the union in affirming that the SRC doesn’t have special powers. In February, the state Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that the SRC had no right to impose a contract. In the fall, the District put an offer on the table costing about $90 million that included some raises and step advancement for experience, but would not restore teachers to where they would be under the terms of the expired contract. The union’s counteroffer, officials said – which presumably includes full restoration of steps, percentage raises and back pay – would cost an unaffordable $575 million. Mayor Kenney said his administration was trying to broker a deal, but there has been little sign of progress.

Mayor Kenney’s initiatives in education. Kenney proposed a soda tax, primarily to pay for expanding the number of quality pre-K seats in the city and for rehabilitating parks and recreation centers. The tax was challenged in court by lawyers representing the beverage industry and several local retailers, but the state Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit. As of December, 1,700 of 2,000 new pre-K seats had been filled.

Kickoff of community schools initiative. Another beneficiary of the soda tax money was Kenney’s effort to create 25 community schools, a model in which these schools become local service hubs and neighborhood centers for students and their families. The effort kicked off in 2016 with the designation of nine schools to pioneer the path to reaching this goal. Coordinators hired by the city have started the process of assessing community needs and developing a strategic plan.

Renaissance schools turmoil. In addition to the charter office’s recommendations regarding non-renewals for four Renaissance schools run by ASPIRA and Universal, the District’s dominant school improvement strategy of turning over low-performing schools to private management took two other big hits. Wister was converted to a Mastery charter by the SRC after Superintendent Hite first recommended this move, then changed his mind based on new analysis of achievement data. The controversy split the Germantown community. And Kenderton Elementary School in North Philadelphia was abandoned by its charter operator, Young Scholars. Mastery was willing to take it over on the condition of changing its grade span, but the charter office demurred. Then the District botched the process of resuming control, and the school sank into disarray. Councilwoman Helen Gym wrote a commentary piece on the debacle at Kenderton.

Agreement to create a new high school in North Philadelphia in cooperation with the housing authority and the union. In December, the District announced the purchase and reopening of Vaux High School by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The revamped school will be a part of the District’s Innovation Network and will be managed by the national education organization Big Picture and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will represent the teachers. This represents a new approach to school management, and the involvement of the Housing Authority is a major step.

And a development with unknown consequences for Philadelphia and other urban school districts:

The election of Donald Trump as president and his nomination of Betsy DeVos to be U.S. secretary of education. DeVos, a billionaire, promotes school choice and vouchers. She has never worked in a public school, attended one, or sent her children to one. She and Trump have talked about redirecting federal aid toward school choice, adding uncertainty in Philadelphia regarding its perpetually difficult financial situation. District officials are already projecting a $500 million shortfall in five years, and now are unsure what they may be able to afford going forward.

Finally …

Change in leadership at the Notebook. Philadelphia native Maria Archangelo came in as only the second publisher of the 22-year-old publication, succeeding Paul Socolar. Under her leadership, the Notebook has increased its reporting capacity, forged new partnerships, and focused on increased advertising revenue and fundraising. She has also boosted the Notebook’s event and social media efforts.

Notebook reporter Darryl Murphy contributed to this article.

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