This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Thursday’s School Reform Commission meeting promises to be long and contentious, with several hot-button items on the agenda, including dozens of proposed new policies.
In addition, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools will demonstrate in opposition to any more school closings, and some of more than 50 scheduled speakers will urge commissioners to put themselves out of existence and support an elected school board.
The agenda includes 112 pages of resolutions, with 10 of them to amend charter school agreements and several large contracts.
There are also 96 pages of new and revised policies to vote on.
Probably the most controversial item on the agenda is a $36 million, three-year contract with Catapult Learning Inc. "to provide an Alternative Special Education Program … primarily for students with emotional disturbance and with severe disabilities." According to the resolution, the new school would start in September and serve 200 students.
A coalition of longtime special education advocates wrote a letter to SRC members Wednesday urging opposition to the contract, saying it would "place students with a wide range of … disabilities in an entirely segregated setting" and "is a huge step backwards from hard-fought gains to end discrimination against and the isolation of students with disabilities."
The letter was written by Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center and signed by 13 organizations that belong to the Philadelphia Coalition of Special Education Advocates.
"Our view is that many of these children could be educated in the District’s regular schools in inclusive environments, in regular education settings that would meet their needs," McInerney said.
If the new school is opening in September, she said, parents won’t have enough time to decide what is best for their children in such a short time frame.
Uri Monson, the District’s chief financial officer, said that the advocates and the District are not far apart in their goals.
"We’re investing in a pilot program to build more inclusive programming in existing schools so we can continue to serve special needs children," Monson said.
Currently, there are about 1,500 students with special needs in approved private schools because the District has determined that it doesn’t have the resources to meet their needs, at a cost of $76 million.
Some students with the most severe needs have been sent to residential treatment centers and to day programs that have intensive therapeutic services. The only residential facility in Philadelphia was Wordsworth, where a student died last fall after a struggle with school staffers. After that incident, Wordsworth’s residential treatment facility was closed by the state; an investigation by the Inquirer found that the school had a history of abuse.
Natalie Hess, the District’s deputy chief for specialized services, said that between 75 and 100 District students were at the Wordsworth Residential Treatment Facility when it closed. The District worked to find them new placements. But the options were limited and included two day programs that were operated by Wordsworth.
The District still has a contract with Wordsworth, which ends June 30.
After the state closed the residential facility, the District audited the other Wordsworth programs and decided "we wanted to place those students in different settings."
But not enough such programs exist; Monson said 120 students are waiting for appropriate placements.
Hess said that if the resolution passes, Catapult would start a school that would eventually be taken over by the Philadelphia Intermediate Unit to serve students that "primarily have emotional disturbance disabilities, combined with low-incidence disabilities," which include less common conditions such as autism and multiple impairments.
Although the school would start with 200 students in the fall, it could grow to 600 students by June 2022, according to the resolution.
"Instead of sending them to approved private schools outside the city, we’re going to start a new school with the intention of transitioning it to a District school," Hess said.
This would allow for "the opportunity to explore opportunities for inclusion within the District … even if for only a portion of the day," That option is not possible with approved private school placement, she said.
McInerney said that the coalition meets regularly with District officials, but that members were unaware of this plan.
"I do think that sometimes referrals to segregated settings become an entrenched practice, and we are challenging whether the number of children who are referred to those settings need to be there," she said. "We believe if resources are focused on educating these children in inclusive settings, that would be more beneficial. And we certainly believe that parents making decisions regarding the placement and programs for their children need to be fully informed and knowledgeable about what is being offered."
Other resolutions on the agenda include a nearly $1 million contract for Educational Testing Service to provide coaching and professional development in four neighborhood high schools – Fels, Overbrook, Benjamin Franklin, and Kensington Health Sciences Academy.
The new policies to be considered range from how to deal with educator misconduct to how to manage food allergies.
Before the meeting, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools plans to demonstrate outside District headquarters, protesting Superintendent William Hite’s plan to close three schools a year starting in 2018. Over the last five years, about 25 schools, most under capacity and in struggling neighborhoods, have been closed.
Also, several speakers from the advocacy group Our City Our Schools, which held an event last week on the future of the SRC, plan to address the commissioners and ask them to resign so that by 2018, a local elected Board of Education can replace the commission.
Philadelphia has never had an elected school board. The state-dominated SRC was formed in 2001 due to the District’s fiscal and academic distress.
More than 50 speakers are registered for Thursday’s meeting.