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Greg Windle

Greg Windle / The Notebook

Steel parents skeptical that a second turnaround would work any better

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

Steel Elementary School in North Philadelphia has landed on the list of potential turnaround schools this year, and many parents are furious because the community went through the same process three years ago.

At that time, parents and teachers rejected the District’s plans to turn the school over to Mastery Charter and opted instead to create their own turnaround plan. When it was finished, Superintendent William Hite complimented the plan, which included such elements as more support staff to deal with students suffering from trauma.

But the District did not fund it.

As part of the process, however, District officials did make one change: They forced staff members to reapply for their positions, causing massive teacher turnover that continues to this day. Since then, the school’s proficiency rates in reading and math have declined, a major factor in the School Progress Report metrics used to determine that the school should go through the turnaround process now.

During the first turnaround attempt, the District contracted with Edison Research to come into the school and hold community meetings. This year, it contracted Cambridge Education to run the process.

“What bothers me is people sit in different spaces and make decisions about our community, and what happens in the meantime is that things change,” said Nikki Bagby, a parent, during the first community meeting on the issue, held at Steel by the District and Cambridge Education on Oct. 3. “Our School Progress Report scores were much higher than that four years ago.”

Bagby was one of about 30 Steel parents, teachers, and students who attended the meeting.

The score itself is a point of contention, and not just because parents feel its decline was caused by the District. To qualify for the turnaround process, schools must have an average School Progress Report score of 15 or less over at least three years.

Steel’s average over the last three years is exactly 15. If it were one point higher, chances are that the community wouldn’t even be having the discussion.

Another point of contention is the District’s stated intention of working with the community, which makes some parents skeptical. The last time Steel went into the turnaround process was the first — and last — year that the District gave parents the chance to vote on whether to become a charter under Mastery or remain a public school.

Before that, the District had designated which schools were to be turned over to charter organizations and allowed the parents to vote on which operator they wanted.

Like the other school that year, the Steel community rejected becoming a charter by an overwhelming margin.

This time, the District has presented the Steel community with four options:

  • The school could enter the District’s Turnaround Network of schools, which would mean more money for professional development, but staff members would have to reapply for their positions and many would lose their jobs.
  • Another option discussed at the meeting was “engaging a school support service partner,” which means the District would hire an outside contractor to help with instructional coaching, school climate, and data assessment.
  • A more dramatic version of that option is called “restarting the school,” which would bring in a contractor or charter organization to entirely redesign the school.
  • The last option, which seemed the most popular with parents attending the meeting, was “initiating a school-created plan for academic improvement.” That is what the parents and teachers tried to do three years ago.

Back then, the parents’ vote was binding. But this time, Cambridge Education, the consultant, will gather feedback from these meetings and several focus groups, and ultimately the District will make a decision based on that data.

The Oct. 3 community meeting was just the first. There will be another meeting for community input on Oct. 23 and a final meeting on Nov. 20.

The focus groups will be run by researchers from Temple University. The data from these groups will then be used by the superintendent to decide what to do with the school.

Kendra Brooks, a parent at the school and an organizer with Parents United, said that Steel has never been perfect. But she feels that the crisis the school finds itself in today was manufactured by the District.

“We got a brand-new principal who’s also brand-new to the school," Brooks said. "That plan that we wrote and submitted to the District — nobody even shared it with him. So they sent him into this school without a plan three years ago. Parents fought for the school we had, but the school that we had is not the school that we have now.”

She said that the average teacher tenure was around 18 years before teachers had to reapply for their jobs, and the principal had been with the school for eight years. All that changed rapidly over the last three years.

“Not that we don’t have good teachers, but we have a lot of young teachers, a lot of new teachers. And we have a new principal. So of course the numbers are going to slide, because in order for any relationship to form, people have to get to know each other,” Brooks said. “So here we are in the third year of his principalship, and now they’re talking about doing the planning all over again. Why didn’t they provide him with adequate supports to ensure that we were successful in the first place?”

And Brooks said that many of the roughly 80 percent of teachers who left were great teachers, despite the low student proficiency rates. One woman who had been with the school for 25 years was forced out and wound up teaching at Anne Frank, where she immediately won teacher of the year. Other teachers who were forced out have been hired by “good schools,” in Brooks’ words, including Nebinger in South Philadelphia and Spruance in the Northeast.

“The root of the problem is the District. They said that our kids were failing, but they didn’t take into account that three years before that they added three grades, took away 26 staff members, and then they wonder why we’re failing,” Brooks said, shaking her head. “So we’re failing, but the District is still, continually, just sticking the knife in, digging it deeper, sticking the knife in, digging it deeper — how much do you want us to bleed? And then they can’t understand why parents are upset!”

She said the District did eventually give the principal a coach and hire a school climate supervisor and a co-principal. But this was all done last spring, which was too late to affect the School Progress Report metrics that were used to determine whether the school would enter the turnaround process again. That data will emerge from this school year, which isn’t yet factored into the average School Progress Report score and won’t be available until the school has already entered the turnaround process.

“That’s just not acceptable,” Brooks said. “They can’t continue to play with kids and expect something different. And now we’re supposed to be excited to bring in somebody else to evaluate us all over again? We just did this!”

Cambridge Education is being paid $100,000 for its role in evaluating the 11 schools slated for turnaround and is collaborating with researchers from Temple University — who are themselves under a $70,000 contract. The company sent representatives to the meeting, and it wasn’t just their tailored suits that stood out among the crowd.

Jililah Dukes spoke on behalf of Cambridge. She began by reviewing the school’s numbers. Reading proficiency is at 10 percent, just 1 percent in math, and only 34 percent of students miss no more than eight days of school.

“You’re not satisfied with those numbers, are you?” she asked a silent audience. She assured them that Cambridge is also looking at “things that are happening well in your school,” before explaining that she has visited schools in Third World countries and found that they all have something working well. It remained unclear why she chose to compare the condition at public schools in the United States, the richest country in the world, to those in the world’s poorest countries.

“The issue I’m seeing is that there needs to be funding — something sustainable — to help,” said Bagby, the parent. In her view, charter schools serving the neighborhood aren’t doing any better.

“We had no choice to invite Cambridge and invite Temple. … If you had asked me what we should do, I would have said save the money you were going to give to Cambridge and give it to the school instead.”

Brooks maintained that the money spent on Cambridge could have spent to hire staff at the school.

Assistant Superintendent John Tupponce defended hiring Cambridge, saying that an outside agency was necessary to get an “objective look,” because he and the principals might not see clearly when it involves their own school and their own performance.

Brooks asked the researchers from Temple University how the four focus groups would be gathered and whether they would all be open to the public. Only one will be open to anyone who wants to attend. Another will be hand-picked by the principal. A third will consist of “a set of parents and community members that are specifically invited,” according to the researcher from Temple. The last group will be called “at random.”

Brooks was concerned that the groups selected by administrators could be used to manipulate the results, although she vowed to keep organizing parents to turn out at these groups and make their voices heard.

“My question is,” another parent in the audience asked, “can we go back and look at the information that was gathered [by Edison] three years ago and incorporate that? We got these two folks here from Cambridge, and it sure seems like we’re going around in circles. … We have to remember, parents, that these are our schools.”

The biggest point of contention was the language used to reassure parents on the District’s PowerPoint slides, which said that the school would not be turned into a charter or Renaissance school “this year.”

“I see the school is not going to be chartered this year and not going to close this year, but my concern as a parent is the decisions already seem to be made,” said Bagby. “We had no choice to invite Cambridge and Temple.”

Tupponce assured her that those options were not being considered “in the foreseeable future.”

“So if the community says, right now, that we don’t want Cambridge or Temple, because we already have a plan, will that be sufficient?” a parent in the crowd asked Tupponce, who told the man he didn’t want to stop hearing from the audience and promised to make sure the information from three years ago was used by the current consultants.

“I just want to know that if the community says, along with the staff: ‘Let’s go with what we [suggested] three years ago,’ can all of this be nixed and we go back to that plan?” The parent asked again. “Is anybody in objection to that?”

The crowd was silent, but so were the District officials, and the parents burst out laughing — knowing what happened the first and last time the District gave parents the chance to vote directly on the future of their school.

No one expected to get that opportunity again.