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School board hears complaints about special education and the demographic study

Board members disagreed about Council member Helen Gym’s request to use the current budget surplus to create a fund for emergency repairs.

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

Since the Board of Education held public hearings on future priorities last week, the District’s upcoming study of neighborhoods’ changing enrollment trends has quickly become a source of controversy. The project will help officials plan for the future, but it also has the potential to redraw catchment areas for some neighborhood schools.

Some advocates feared that the process would look like 2013, when the District closed 23 schools based on the advice of an outside consulting firm. Others wanted to use the process to change enrollment policies for schools on several grounds, including special education. Parents questioned the District’s policy of creating “hubs” for particularly high-needs special education students instead of enrolling them in their local neighborhood school.

“When I hear absolutely no talk about using catchments to create equitable, integrated schools, I feel like the District is in danger of sacrificing kids, and I’m not talking about white kids,” said parent Kathleen Butts, who also teaches at YESPhilly’s accelerated high school for students who have fallen behind or dropped out. “The District is in danger of sacrificing Philly’s kids to gentrification, property values, and the vocal minority of affluent families.

“It’s already happening in Northwest Philadelphia, where I live. We are seeing dramatic increases in the number of white families enrolling in kindergarten, and some of our schools are becoming more and more segregated.”

The District has not committed to desegregation as a goal of redrawing catchments, but it also has not ruled it out. Officials say they are open to feedback from the community. And they got plenty of it.

Butts said the research is clear: Integrating schools using racial, economic, and disability demographics leads to better academic outcomes for students. Yet a few District schools have barely any black students, and at many special admission schools, less than 1 percent of students have a disability. At some neighborhood schools, she said, up to 40 percent of students have a disability. These tend to be the hubs where high-needs students are sent if their neighborhood school cannot appropriately accommodate them.

“We are in danger of precipitating educational apartheid,” Butts said. “If you don’t actively speak up about this and address this, then you are not only allowing this apartheid to fester and spread across our city. You will be sacrificing kids.”

Redrawing boundary lines also has a direct impact on property values. Properties in gentrifying neighborhoods with public schools that are perceived to be doing well experience more rapidly rising values than those in gentrifying neighborhoods where the schools are perceived to underperform. Naturally, the real estate industry is up in arms.

Higher socioeconomic status directly correlates with higher standardized test scores. So small shifts of catchment lines that would incorporate more students living in poverty into a school where the poverty rate is low could bring down a school’s overall test scores and therefore impact home values – even though research shows that test scores of individual students will improve.

“We must look at catchment boundaries with greater urgency than what is proposed in the District’s timeline, and we must shift the conversation from the enrollment capacity of buildings to conversations about creating district-wide equity,” Butts said. “And we must stand up against those who are going to attempt to use catchments as a means of segregation, rather than integration.

“The goal of this battle must be to create high-quality, integrated schools in all areas of our city.”

Anna Perng is the president of the Home & School Association at Gen. George McCall School in Society Hill, an overcrowded school in an affluent neighborhood. A primary focus of the District’s study will be how to address overcrowding at such schools in gentrifying parts of South and Northeast Philly while als0 better utilizing facilities in under-enrolled schools in high-poverty areas like North and West Philadelphia, which have seen the biggest enrollment declines as the result of charter school growth.

McCall has received a bathroom renovation, for which Perng thanked the school board, but she said it still needs more facilities work due to overcrowding. The 705 students are served food using just one cafeteria window, leading to long lines that force them to line up early and sacrifice recess or go to recess and risk missing lunch.

Perng also echoed Butts’ message, speaking against the “status quo” of “displacing” high-needs special education students from their local neighborhood school.

“Publicly available enrollment data shows that our schools are more segregated than ever,” Perng said. “If you’re a student with a physical disability, your choices are already drastically reduced because not all schools are accessible.

“The District must be prepared to include diverse voices from the disability community” as it looks at school capacities and catchment area changes.

Lisa Haver, co-founder of the District watchdog group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, said much apprehension of the study comes from communities that had schools among the 23 that were closed in 2013.

For its part, the District has conceded that those closure decisions were made based on under-enrollment, without studying the trends to see whether enrollment was increasing or declining over time. This study is meant to examine those trends.

But Haver’s concerns centered on what her group felt was a purely symbolic effort at “community engagement and transparency” around those closures, making it hard to accept promises that the feedback from affected communities would have a meaningful impact on the final decisions.

School board member Chris McGinley called the new study “the opposite of what occurred in 2013 – it’s a look forward.”

“Certain communities [where schools were closed] had many young families, and this study is the District trying to get a handle on all those demographic changes and trying to figure out how to best accommodate all those children,” McGinley told Haver. “At no point did the District ever take stock of the impact of those changes [in 2013], and this is an opportunity to take stock.

“This is going to be a long and difficult process, because any time you move a line on a map from one block to another, there’s an impact on families and children. None of this is driven by ‘Let’s find schools to close.’”

Haver didn’t argue with the District’s intentions, but she tried to explain the backlash from communities.

“I understand this isn’t just about closing schools, but there’s a fear of that,” Haver said. “We have gone through so many of these public hearings, not run by District staff but by consultants like Cambridge or the Boston Consulting Group. They’re really not what I would call public meetings. The public is there, but it’s a very tight agenda. There’s no question and answer session.

“There’s just been too much of that.”

Monica Collins is the mother of an autistic student who, she says, attends one of the neighborhood schools that function as hubs for students with high-needs disabilities, though she did not name the school.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a parent is to send my child – who is nonverbal and classified as having autism and ADHD – into a world without me,” Collins said. She has complained about inadequate services and described the response of school staff as “hostile.” She said her son had been prevented from attending school trips despite having a one-to-one aide.

Collins said she showed up one day to pick up her son and found him unsupervised, not wearing his pull-up diaper, and having defecated in his pants.

“My son deserves the very best treatment, thoughts, and considerations,” Collins said. “To do otherwise is a travesty to human rights.”

School Board President Joyce Wilkerson directed Karyn Lynch, chief of student support services, to meet with Collins after her testimony.

Shareda Cromwell, parent and a member of the Parent & Community Advisory Council, brought Collins to testify. Cromwell said that Collins was unaware that she had opportunities to speak directly to the school board, and she urged the board to make the public better aware of such opportunities. And, Cromwell said, Collins’ story is not the first she’s heard of students with disabilities not receiving appropriate care from school staff.

School Board Member Angela McIver thanked the two for their testimony.

“One of the critical pieces of our advisory council is encouraging families to come and share their experiences,” McIver said. She asked District staff to add more questions about the quality of special education services to the District’s annual parent survey.

Cecilia Thompson, a longtime advocate for special education students, gave board members a series of recommendations for improving services. First and foremost, she asked the board to hold “town halls or listening sessions” next fall to hear concerns like those raised by Collins.

Thompson said that, in her experience, special education students are in literacy classes that focus on reading but do little to help students with writing.

School board member Mallory Fix-Lopez, a former English as a second language teacher who now teaches at the Community College of Philadelphia, said she understood Thompson’s complaint.

“As a former teacher in the District, looking back, I realize I didn’t know how to teach writing,” Fix-Lopez said. “And that’s something we need to focus on in our literacy work.”

Thompson urged the board to consider expanding Career and Technical Education options for students with disabilities, because otherwise many high-needs students may end up sitting at home after they finish school, unable to find work.

“Some of our children need that to learn, so that families like myself don’t end up quitting our jobs because we’ve got to sit at home with our children since they don’t have anything to do,” Thompson said.

City Council Member Helen Gym urged the school board to do a better job of making feminine hygiene products available to girls in all schools. She also cautioned the board against approving Freire Charter School’s application to form a Multiple Charter School Organization, which would allow the board of the management company to take over control of each school in place of the school’s existing boards, which are intended to operate independently of the management company. Gym applauded the school board for reaching out for public comment and urged them to do even more of this work.

“We worked for years under the state takeover to make community engagement a major aspect of the work that we do,” Gym said. “As well-crafted as our policies are, as well-intentioned as they may be in our own areas, they cannot possibly encompass the wide variety of experiences that young people in our schools have.”

“And that’s why community engagement and democracy-building and democratic participation is the heart of what the District does, because schools are fundamentally a social enterprise.”

Gym urged board members to take some of the District’s budget surplus and create an emergency school repair fund. Her office received “thousands” of emails over the past year from parents reporting that their school urgently needs repair.

Laurie Mazer, a parent and member of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, asked school board members to use the District’s budget surplus of $40 million to establish an emergency repair fund. That way, when emergencies pop up, such as a ceiling collapse flooding a school or a malfunctioning HVAC causing a mold outbreak, the District can make repairs without having to pull money budgeted for other facilities work.

But Wilkerson said she would not touch the surplus.

“I want to disabuse folks of the notion that we have a surplus,” Wilkerson said. “By the end of our five-year plan, we have a deficit.”

That deficit is projected to be more than $200 million by 2022.

McGinley echoed Wilkerson’s remarks, but did not accept that this should stop the board from creating an emergency repair fund.

“I like the idea of creating some amount of money that can be used for emergency conditions,” McGinley said. “Replacing a roof now prevents also having to remove mold later.”