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SRC approves nearly $100 million in contracts for online services and substitute teachers

The commissioners also moved Policy 406 ahead for review, despite fierce opposition from charters.

Exterior of The School District of Philadelphia
Emma Lee/WHYY file

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

While advocates call for more teachers and resources, the School Reform Commission approved two contracts for a total of $20 million Thursday to update its information management system and bring some online courses and instructional programs to schools.

Community members fear the expenditures will compromise face-to-face instruction and data security. But District administrators said the programs are not intended to replace human instruction.

“These resources are not used to supplant the teacher,” said Chris Shaffer, deputy chief for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “They are a supplementary resource for teachers to use.”

In addition, the commission approved a new $64 million contract for the company that finds substitute teachers for the District and added $12.3 million to the contract for the current school year.

And, a policy proposal that has upset charter school advocates was advanced for a review.

Online instruction

The SRC approved contracts for $10 million worth of “online courses and adaptive instructional programs” in writing, literacy, and math for grades K-12 using 14 vendors, including Raz-Plus, Headsprout, and Lexia Learning. The contracts run from March 3, 2018, to June 30, 2020.

The District says these programs will “enable teachers to be more effective by leveraging online instructional models and materials” and “personalize the student learning experience with the goal of improving academic outcomes and closing the achievement gap.”

In addition to online courses, these programs will be used for credit recovery, grade improvement, and advanced placement. The adaptive instructional programs will provide “acceleration and enrichment that personalizes the instructional experiences based on student need.”

Vanessa Baker, a community member, said, “Online learning can never replace what a classroom provides, such as peer-to-peer interaction, a caring human instructional leader instead of corporate software … but that is just what this decision would prioritize.”

Nicole Newman, a parent in the District, questioned the approach, arguing that “there is a plethora of open-source software and free solutions that would enable students to practice what they learn.”

But Commissioner Christopher McGinley warned against using free products that haven’t been vetted by the District.

“Those products are much more likely to seek and obtain identifiable information about kids and families,” McGinley said, minutes before the vote. “That, to me, is a huge concern. I am more comfortable with the vetted products that the District reviewed.”

Information system

The SRC also approved a $9.5 million contract with Pearson Inc. for Schoolnet, the District’s current information management system that provides student data for teachers, administrators, and other District employees. The five-year contract covers hosting, upgrades, and support services.

The system provides web access to student data, instructional tools, and a platform to monitor student assessment.

The data will be collected through Infinite Campus, the student information system that allows students and parents to track academic assignments and progress, though parents won’t have access until March 12, said Melanie Harris, the District’s chief information officer. In the meantime, they can access it through the student’s login.

Parents have expressed concerns about data security under the system. Use of the word data-mining in the resolution language raised red flags. However, District administrators sought to calm those fears.

“We can say unequivocally no student data is sold, no student data is made available to these vendors or outside vendors for any cost or for any purposes,” Harris said.

Cost of substitutes

In addition, the SRC approved a contract amendment with Kelly Educational Staffing, which provides the District’s substitute teacher service, for an additional $12.3 million. That brings the total cost of the contract, signed in May 2016, to $54.3 million. Kelly requested the increase because it is filling more jobs than anticipated and needs more money to pay substitutes through June.

Louis Bellardine, the District’s chief talent officer, said the original contract predicted that the services would maintain a 70 percent fill rate, but Kelly has managed to exceed that by 15 percent. Bellardine gave the figures for Feb. 15: With 682 teachers being out, Kelly was able to reach a 92 percent fill rate, with 638 substitutes.

Bellardine said that though there has been a slight rise, the teacher absentee rate has been relatively consistent. He also said he would work with principals and examine data to see where improvements can be made. As of June 2016, the teacher absentee rate was about 6 percent.

“I think the activities that happen locally in the schools — to show culture and to show how important it is for teachers to be in front of classrooms — will have a tremendous impact,” he said.

The contract will expire June 30, but Kelly will receive another two-year contract — this time for $64 million, which will begin July 1. Bellardine said the number is based on expectations of teacher absences over the next two years.

Amending charters

Though final action has yet to be taken, Policy 406 was approved for review, even as charter school advocates continued to argue against it.

The policy revision sets up stipulations for schools that want to amend their charters while in the midst of their five-year renewal term. Advocates maintain the regulations will limit the schools’ ability to innovate, relocate, or adjust their educational programs.

On Wednesday, charter advocates held a rally opposing the policy at District headquarters. Sixty of the 84 charter schools have signed a letter saying the policy will “set up a lengthy and contentious policy (and likely legal battle) that will last beyond the SRC’s existence.” The SRC is scheduled to cede the reins of governance July 1 to a new mayor-appointed Board of Education.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is they want charter schools to be more like the District, rather than the District to be more like charter schools,” said Stephen DeMaura, executive director of Excellent Schools Pennsylvania. “Applying this very top-down regulatory structure on charters doesn’t make much sense.”

Though many argue that the SRC has been friendly to charters, the two sides regularly spar over the degree of regulation that the District imposes on them.

For instance, charters contend that it is against state law for the District to impose enrollment caps. The District counters that unchecked growth could leave it bankrupt under the current state system for funding charters. Currently, charters are the District’s biggest expense.

“If we do not enact this policy,” said Commissioner McGinley, “we will fail students, parents, and charters and limit the ability of high-quality charters to make important changes that they feel can improve educational opportunities for their students.”

The commission is set to vote on the policy in March.

Florida shooting

Thursday’s meeting of the School Reform Commission began with a moment of silence for the victims of the school shooting Wednesday in Parkwood, Fla., that claimed 17 lives.

“I can’t imagine what my colleague and my friend Superintendent Robert Runcie must be going through right now, along with staff members, families, and more importantly, the children,” said Superintendent William Hite. He asked the SRC meeting attendees to keep the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School community in their prayers.

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