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Students, parents upset over transfer of Kensington Health Sciences principal

The District's plan to overhaul 11 struggling schools drew complaints. The SRC also approved an expansion for FACTS Charter School.

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

Students, parents, and teachers showed up at Thursday night’s School Reform Commission to protest the sudden transfer of the principal at Kensington Health Sciences Academy as part of a plan to overhaul 11 struggling schools.

Also at the meeting, the SRC approved expansion for FACTS Charter School, one of the most successful in the city, allowing it to serve more students who are new to the country and have the most limited English skills.

The FACTS vote was unanimous and uncontested, but the District’s latest turnaround actions stirred passions from students and community members. School turnaround is based on the idea that it is possible to transform low-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods by replacing personnel, investing more resources, coming up with different instructional strategies, or combining these options.

At Thursday’s meeting, parents, students, and staff from Kensington Health Sciences – one of the schools slated for overhaul – complained that principal James WIlliams was forced out as part of the plan.

Tianna Rogers, an 11th grader at Kensington Health Sciences and a member of the student activist group Youth United for Change, said she did not understand why her school was targeted for this intervention when it is already part of Mayor Kenney’s “community schools” initiative. That project is designed to make schools into hubs for health and social services, recreation, adult education, and other supports for families.

“We were told not once, but twice, that no school would be intervened in if there was already a significant academic intervention in place. But what about the mayor’s community school policy?” she asked. About two dozen students and staff from the school stood up in their seats to support her.

“Get this message to the mayor for me,” Rogers said. “While the School District is intentionally going against your community schools policy, one of the main reasons why you were elected as mayor, you have been silent,” she said. “We, Youth United for Change, will not leave this building until we have a scheduled appointment for SRC members to meet with us and Kensington Health Sciences parents, teachers, and students.”

Superintendent William Hite responded to her testimony by saying that the community schools initiative didn’t qualify as an “academic” intervention. Later, Christopher McGinley, the newest commissioner, said he understood that although the initiative was not targeted specifically to classroom instruction, academic improvement was an expected outcome.

The superintendent added that he would be glad to meet with students, but when asked for a date, he responded, “I don’t have my calendar in front of me” and directed them to contact the staffer who manages his schedule. Several commissioners, including McGinley, said they would also be willing to attend a meeting.

Hite said community members’ questions about the principal’s transfer from their school “was a personnel matter and not appropriate to discuss in this environment.” Williams, a gregarious and popular principal who has been heavily invested in the community schools project at Kensington Health Sciences, reportedly is moving from the school to a job at the District’s central office.

Lisa Haver, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and a retired teacher, criticized the District for wasting money on outsourcing the process of identifying the turnaround schools for $200,000 to Cambridge Education Inc., “who clearly did not fulfill the terms of that contract.”

“APPS members attended [community meetings with Cambridge] at six out of the 11 schools,” Haver said. “We heard parents at every one of those schools say they did not want to lose their teachers or their principal. They actually believed the District when it said they were listening to them.”

Haver’s statement was similar to Rogers’ biggest complaint about the process with Kensington Health Sciences, which was: “When the company Cambridge came to evaluate my school, they said that our principal was one of the strongest assets in our school, so why take him away?”

Cambridge’s meeting at the school to explain the process drew an overflow crowd that was vociferous in opposition to staff upheaval.

The District’s most recent turnaround plan was announced earlier this week, and it involves five high schools, one middle school and five elementary schools.

In that plan, Kendington Health Sciences Academy is among four high schools that were not targeted immediately for changes, but would be part of a more general overhaul plan in the works for all the city’s neighborhood high schools. That plan will focus on the 9th grade, which is the year that the most students fall behind or drop out.

Five of the seven other schools have turnaround plans that include some mandatory staff turnover. None will be converted to charters.

Among turnaround interventions, the most drastic is closing a school, followed by turning the school over to outside management, usually a charter organization, and replacing the principal and half the staff. The least drastic changes involve giving the school more resources and developing a new plan of action.

FACTS Charter School expansion approved

The SRC voted to approve Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School’s request for a charter amendment allowing the school to expand. The decision allows FACTS to create a middle school program for English learners with the least command of the language and use a weighted lottery to give some preference to students who need those services.

This year, FACTS was one of two Philadelphia schools — public or private — to earn National Blue Ribbon honors from the U.S. Department of Education, which cited its work in closing the achievement gap. FACTS students also perform well on standardized tests, particularly for a school where 61 percent of students live in poverty and 13 percent are English language learners. Charter advocates say it’s precisely the type of school that the District should replicate.

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said FACTS is an "example of a charter school offering quality opportunities. We appreciate that."

Under the expansion plan, FACTS will add 369 students, with 100 of them part of a “newcomer program” for recent immigrants. FACTS, located at 10th and Callowhill Streets, now serves more than 470 students.

The FACTS expansion approval comes after the commission approved the charter application of KIPP Parkside on Feb. 9. The Parkside school will become the seventh school under the KIPP Philadelphia umbrella when it opens in 2019.

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