This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) process will be guided by District staff, with the assistance of private-sector consultants who will handle key tasks on several fronts, including data analysis, communications and strategic planning.
It’s a familiar pattern; during the years of state control and budget cuts under the School Reform Commission, the Hite administration steadily whittled down the size of its central administration. That belt-tightening earned it praise from budget hawks and financial markets, but significantly reduced the District’s capacity to manage projects and respond to problems.
Any doubt about the costs of this shrinkage was removed by this fall’s Ben Franklin High School construction fiasco, which officials now concede was due in part to poor project management. Overloaded facilities staff were unable to give the massive project the attention it needed, officials have said, and students ended up paying the price. As Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson put it this fall, “Unfortunately it’s become a bragging point how thin our administration is – but it’s too thin.”
The CSPR consultants have been hired at a total cost of $1.3 million through 2021. FLO will collect and analyze data, modeling potential outcomes, while while Bloom – subcontracting through FLO – will help manage the process, facilitating meetings and helping with strategic planning. Altogether, the firms will take part in a total of 49 closed-door planning committee meetings, and 14 public community engagement meetings. They’ll also be charged with helping volley data and ideas back and forth between school communities and the District’s internal advisory team.
Lewin, a former assistant superintendent who has worked on countless education projects around Greater Philadelphia, will be charged with facilitating outreach to principals, and representing their needs and perspective throughout the process.
However, in addition to making outside hires, the District has also invested in its own team. The CSPR process will be led by a newly hired deputy chief of planning, Vanessa Benton, who has three new staff members of her own, including one with experience in planning and data management.
The Hite administration has also invested in itself, recently completing a $604,000 renovation of the executive suite, replacing traditional cubicles with an “open-concept floor plan” designed to accommodate additional staff and encourage effective collaboration around all projects, including CSPR. Hite downplayed the renovations’ impact – “just knocking down walls,” he said, – but according to budget documents, officials believe the upgrades will help “ensure the effective operations of the organization and continued improvement of student outcomes.”
The District’s extensive use of consultants has always drawn fire from critics. But the latest surge of high-profile hires has some concerned not just the cost of the contracts, but the capacity shortcomings that make them necessary.
“When you are not able to handle something in a specific area of expertise, hiring a consultant makes sense. I’m not going to perform surgery on myself,” said Aaron Edelman, a parent at Jackson Elementary.
“But [planning] is a core function – it should not be outsourced,” he continued. “Why don’t they have their own statistical expertise? The excessive use of consultants shows the lack of leadership to adequately staff the administration.”
Benton counters by noting that the consultants all provide unique services; Harris Lewin has “deep knowledge” of the system and its stakeholders, and FLO’s level of technical expertise is hard to match for any district, she said.
“FLO provides things that can’t be easily replicated,” Benton said. “They’re not here to tell Philadelphia what to do. They’re showing us the data they’ve collected and getting the input from us … They’ll say, ‘You want to see what this looks like? We’ll put it in our system, and kick back out maps and data to show you what would happen.’”
Benton expects the members of her staff team to increase their own levels of expertise as the process develops. And regardless of exactly who does the work, some hope the CSPR process permanently upgrades the District’s capacity to collect and assess data. At Meredith Elementary, Eugene Desyatnik said he and his fellow parents “hope the exercise equips and empowers the School District with a repeatable process to maintain the forecast models in future years.”
And Benton’s team has already shown an ability to adjust on the fly; when members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a volunteer watchdog group, showed up uninvited at South Philadelphia’s first planning committee meeting, Benton and the team allowed them to observe and participate. APPS’s Lisa Haver said afterwards that the group has concerns about transparency of the CSPR process, but APPS members were pleased to be included, and hope the practice persists. “We were welcomed as members of the community, and we take that as a good sign that this process will be open to the public,” Haver said.
Meet the team
District staff: The CSPR team is lead by Benton, a Philadelphia native who spent 20 years in finance and banking before moving into school administration. A graduate of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, she spent four years as the director of academics for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District in North Carolina, and a year handling “external strategy” for Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia.
She’ll be supported by a staff of four, including senior project manager Kathy Cueva, a fellow Broad Academy graduate with experience developing academic plans for charter and district-run schools. Based until recently in Massachusetts, Cueva was recently honored as an “Aspiring Latino Leader Fellow” by the group Latinos for Education.
Benton says that Cueva will play a critical role in the CSPR process, facilitating exchanges between consultants, District staff, school communities and the public. “She, more than anyone, is responsible for getting the data and interpreting it, and making sure that we can share it effectively,” Benton said.
FLO Analytics: Based in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., FLO Analytics is an employee-owned firm whose specialty is providing demographic data to inform administrative changes. One recent project was to develop an app that enables school districts to quickly model the outcomes of various redistricting proposals, which lets planners “create boundary scenarios on-the-fly during meetings and receive answers almost instantaneously.”
Unlike the District’s last strategic planner, Boston Consulting Group, FLO does not focus on internal management reforms or privatization schemes; the firm is not likely to recommend, as BCG did, that the District carve itself into privately managed “achievement districts.” Instead FLO seeks to help districts refine traditional administrative practices, providing detailed data about students and families in order to help leaders make decisions about enrollment, feeder patterns and programming.
FLO has led boundary projects with a number of small districts out West, including Hood River County and North Clackamas in Oregon; it recently began work in Portland, that state’s largest school district. While that project has yet to propose any major changes, one former Portland school board member, Paul Anthony, said the firm brought an open-minded approach, and didn’t hide their limitations. “They came in with a real willingness to listen,” Anthony said. “They also came in knowing next to nothing about the history of the district.”
Bloom Planning: Based in Philadelphia, Bloom is a “strategic planner” specializing in a range of organizational assessments, marketing and outreach practices. It has worked with a long list of regional schools, districts, and educators. Past clients include a number of Philadelphia charters, Carver High School of Engineering and Science, the Cheltenham School District, and the Mayor’s Office of Education. Little is available publicly about the firm’s work, but one client was Boys’ Latin Charter School, where the board praised the firm for a series of “thoughtful and helpful” focus groups with students.
The firm was founded by Ingrid Boucher, a Teach for America alum who later handled strategic planning for KIPP Philadelphia Schools, and who promises to help school communities make informed decisions about how to address changing needs. “It’s easy to get drawn into something flashy, new and different,” said Boucher in a recent story about one client’s effort to upgrade its science labs, “but if it’s not strategically selected, it can end up being a waste and a loss.”