Hilda Solis listens to community’s frustrations
As part of a Friday trip to Philadelphia to drum up support for President Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis took time from her busy schedule to meet with members of the faith-based community in Southwest Philadelphia.
While visiting the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School in the morning, Solis participated in a roundtable discussion with members of the faith-based community.
She then took a tour of the Charter School, which included a visit with the Amachi Program, the nationally recognized mentoring program, before leaving for an early afternoon tour of Esperanza Academy Charter High School.
“It is great to be here and see what is going on in this community at this school,” Solis said. “We want to get out into communities all across the country and speak with the people who are feeling the pain of our economy. We want them to know that we are pushing hard to get them back to work.”
Solis emphasized aspects of the jobs act that are pertinent to places like Philadelphia, where the economy is hurting. She pointed out that the plan, unveiled in September, would put two million people back to work almost immediately, many of them African Americans, especially in infrastructure jobs.
“We have a lot of African Americans, minorities, who have lost their jobs in construction, because that industry is struggling,” Solis said. “[The American Jobs Act] would help to put people back to work repairing roads, bridges, our aviation systems and schools. These are areas that have not been attended to and they are crucial for the country to get jumpstarted and the economy back on track again.”
Joseph Meade, president of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, said the visit was important because it is crucial for community leaders to have as much access to information as the country struggles to get its economic engine running again.
“I’m delighted that she came and that we were able to find a real person — at the top of the chain, in this case — whom we can communicate with,” he said. “She made some real resources available to us, and she gave us regional contact people that we can continue to work with. Not just in this community but across the city. There are substantial resources available for training and employment. It was all worth it.”
Solis highlighted the Jobs Act’s emphasis on areas such as cutting the payroll tax and extending unemployment insurance, which is scheduled to expire on approximately six million Americans around this time next year, just in time to become a 2012 election issue.
“Why wouldn’t anyone want to do this for communities that are struggling?” Solis said. “They are trying to make this an election issue but it’s not all about elections; it’s about hurting people. Families are unemployed, children are starving and people are living in poverty. Businesses need to feel confident that they are getting tax credits to do things like hire veterans and people who have been unemployed for a long time. This can’t wait 12 more months. It has to happen now. And people who are against it need to be made to tell people just why they feel that way.”
Pastor Eric Simmons, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Paschall, participated in the roundtable with Secretary Solis. Among other ministries at the church, Paschall has an economic empowerment ministry that is geared toward placing people in the community with jobs.
Simmons knows that there is no magic cure-all for this economy. However, having someone like Solis coming in and sharing ideas with the community is a great way to address the problem.
“As a church we want to continue to help grow the community,” Simmons said. “We just want to do our part. Having her come here and getting to see her passion for the things that we are doing — having her share resources — those are powerful things.”
School district faces $39 million gap requiring still more cuts
On Wednesday, with some new faces in place, School Reform Commission members, before a packed auditorium at School District headquarters on Broad Street that required an overflow room, contorted their faces and shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch told a disbelieving group that the District has to make $39 million more in reductions.
“We have some bad news, but we have some good news as well,” Masch began. “I will get to the unpleasant first. These are difficult times, and unfortunately, they are not ending any time soon.”
Masch announced approximately $17 million in new cuts, and then said this leaves approximately $22 million more to be axed in the latest round. Individual school budgets, already skeletal, could be slashed, he said, by another one percent, or an average of $40,000 per school.
The $17 million in proposed cuts is expected to come from the areas of professional development, English-language learner instructors, psychologists and music, sports, educational technology and bilingual counseling assistants.
“There they go again, doing what they do best, making cuts that directly affect the poorest people in the city,” said one woman, who would not identify herself as she exited the auditorium rather than wait for Masch to conclude his approximately 45-minute presentation.
After the $17 million in cuts is realized, the School District will still be desperately trying to eliminate the remaining $22 million shortfall. Acting superintendent Leroy Nunery and acting SRC chairman Wendell Pritchett have asked Masch for proposals recommending where the next round of cuts to reduce the shortfall will come from.
“These are difficult times for anyone in the system — students, parents, teachers, employees — they are hard for us all,” Pritchett said. “And unfortunately, they are not ending any time soon.”
Even with the $44 million in savings the district realized because of concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the principals’ union, the District had been banking on savings from union concessions in the neighborhood of $75 million.
Even the good news that Masch promised was not nearly as good as advertised.
He reported that when the District closed its books on the last school year in June, it did so with an $18.2 million surplus, good news — until he explained how that surplus came about.
In the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul fashion that has become typical in Philadelphia’s public schools, the District had to shift a state grant received for the 2012 fiscal year into the 2011 budget. While this is permitted, the move created a matching hole in the 2012 budget.
Masch pointed out that most future cuts will have to be discretionary moves because “law” and/or “collective bargaining agreements” prevent them from coming from other areas.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first attended by mayoral SRC appointee Lorene Cary. The SRC is still awaiting the state Senate confirmations of gubernatorial appointees Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun.
Things won’t be any easier for the School District at next week’s meeting, which will be televised for the first time, the District announced. That meeting (Wednesday) will include recommendations for school closings and consolidations.
When the National Assessment of Educational Progress — commonly referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card” — was administered to 12,000 high school seniors last year, it became clear that when it comes to teaching the civil rights movement in America’s classrooms, there is a terrible disconnect.
Asked to describe the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas — which made it illegal to segregate schools — just two percent of the students were able to sufficiently answer the question.
A new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” found this type of ignorance rampant in schools across America. The study gives 35 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, failing grades when it comes to teaching students about the Civil Rights Movement. The civil rights movement period is generally recognized to be from 1954 up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” said civil rights activist and former center president Julian Bond, in his preface to the report. ”One of these basics is the civil rights movement, a nonviolent revolution as important as the first American Revolution. It is a history that continues to shape the America we all live in today.”
“Schools across the entire state teach civil rights in detail,” said Tim Heller, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “It has always been an area of emphasis in curriculums across Pennsylvania.”
In the SPLC’s evaluation, states were given a grade of F if they required less than 20 percent of the content recommended by the SPLC based on textbooks, existing curriculum and expert opinion. As an example, just 12 states require their schools to teach about Rosa Parks, largely viewed as the “Mother of the movement” for her 1955 refusal to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus.
Pennsylvania scored 0; New Jersey notched 15 percent.
To receive and A, a state had to include at least 60 percent of the SPLC recommended content. Alabama, with 70 percent, received the highest grade. Also receiving an A were New York and Illinois, with scores of 65 percent and 64 percent, respectively.
In Philadelphia, a course in African American history, including the civil rights movement, is a graduation requirement.
This left some Pennsylvanians puzzled.
“It has been a part of our curriculum for a long time,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Fernando Gallard. Gallard said that the school district’s policy of making the study of the civil rights movement mandatory has been in place for years, adding that he believed that Philadelphia was, for a long time, “the only large district” in the country where it was mandatory for graduation.
In New Jersey, a 2002 state law made it mandatory for African American history to be a part of the social studies curriculum. From the law sprang the Amistad Commission, which provides and promotes an African-American history curriculum, related teaching resources, professional developmental opportunities and grants.
“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance director. “When 43 states adopted Common Core Standards in English and math, they affirmed that rigorous standards were necessary for achievement. By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the civil rights movement, they are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn.”
The SPLC said it issued the report to encourage a national conversation about the importance of teaching the civil rights movement. The report calls for states to include civil rights education in K-12 history and social studies curricula. It urges colleges and other organizations that train teachers to ensure that they are well prepared to teach it.
The report found that students in regions where the movement took place knew the most about the movement. It also determined that physical distance from the region where the movement took place – the south – also influenced the way it was taught.
“Region and proximity to the movement mean a lot,” Costello said.
Black families study options, may appeal
Lawyers for seven families who saw their federal racial discrimination lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District thrown out last week are huddling now to determine if they will appeal the ruling, handed down last Thursday.
“Obviously we are disappointed,” Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia lawyer Jennifer R. Clarke said. “We will meet with our clients over the next couple of days and we will let them let us know what they want to do. That is the conversation we will be having.”
The law firm DLA Piper LLP also represents the plaintiffs.
The original suit, filed in 2007, alleges that African-American students are disproportionately placed in special education and low-level classes in Lower Merion.
It contends that African Americans make up about 14 percent of the school district’s special-education programs, even though they comprise just eight percent of the district’s overall population. Plaintiffs also claimed that between 2005-08, no African Americans were enrolled in advanced or accelerated programs.
“Even assuming that plaintiffs put forth evidence that their constitutional rights were violated, there is no evidence that the School District did so based on an official policy or custom, or that it was deliberately indifferent to plaintiffs’ rights,” reads the decision by Chief Judge Harvey Battle III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
“The School District’s awareness of an achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American students and its failure to eliminate that gap is not evidence of intentional discrimination or deliberate indifference,” Battle continued.
In a letter to the Lower Merion School District staff, Superintendent Christopher McGinley said he hoped the ruling would enable the district to begin the healing process.
“I am hopeful that this ruling will enable all parties to continue moving forward in a positive spirit of partnership and open dialogue as we work to close the student achievement gaps. Litigation has been divisive, distracting and costly to everyone involved in this case. All members of the community must feel safe and encouraged to speak their minds, share ideas, innovate and express differences in opinion. Only in this collaborative environment can we ensure the greatest opportunities for students and staff,” wrote McGinley.
Clarke said that the ruling does not absolve Lower Merion of being discriminatory.
“It’s difficult to prove intent; everybody doesn’t agree on what it is,” she said. “But it’s really important that we be clear in what we are talking about. We brought forth a significant amount of evidence. The ruling is not saying that there is no discrimination in Lower Merion. He just said that we didn’t prove this sufficiently; that we didn’t give him enough information to make that determination on these seven kids.”
Said McGinley: “While we never doubted this case would conclude in favor of the District, we are gratified for a ruling that unequivocally reaffirms the tireless and extraordinary efforts of our staff in supporting the achievement of all students.”
Battle’s ruling came a little more than a week before the trial was scheduled to begin (Nov. 1). Lower Merion had filed for a summary dismissal of the case in late August.
Also last week, the district settled in federal court with a former substitute teacher who alleged she had been discriminated against on the basis of age and race. The suit was filed 17 months ago.
Forty-seven-year-old African-American Besslindora Goree claimed she was recruited from Broward County, Fla. in 2010 to Lower Merion under the presumption that her long-term substitute position would result in a permanent position, according to the complaint.
The complaint further cites that she was not treated as well as her white counterparts, claiming that, among other things, she was not assigned a ‘buddy” – an experienced teacher – to help her familiarize herself with district policies. She was assigned to teach about 150 students while, according to the complaint, a white teacher was assigned just 90.
The complaint alleges Goree was passed over for a white woman in her mid-20s.
Armbrister resigns, Corbett names Houstoun replacement
Denise McGregor Armbrister became the third member of the School Reform Commission to resign within a month, her resignation Wednesday coming on the heels of the departures of Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizarry.
Not long after the ink on her resignation had dried, Gov. Tom Corbett moved to fill the vacancy with Thursday’s nomination of Feather O’Connor Houstoun.
“Feather Houstoun’s experience and depth of knowledge in public service will be a tremendous asset to help lead Philadelphia’s educational community,” Corbett said. “She understands many of the needs and challenges facing the children who attend our state’s largest public school system, and her experience running large public systems will bring a special expertise to the SRC.”
In June, Corbett named former City Solicitor Pedro Ramos as his choice to replace Archie as SRC chair.
However, Ramos is still awaiting state Senate confirmation. It is believed that Houstoun and Ramos will go through their state Senate confirmation hearings simultaneously to expedite the reformation of the SRC with its full complement of five members.
Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to the SRC. He followed that up with the appointment of arts ambassador Lorene Carey. Joseph Dworetzky, whose term expires in 2014, is a gubernatorial appointment and now the longest tenured member of the Commission. He has been a member of the SRC for two years.
All of Armbrister’s children have been educated in the Philadelphia public schools, and she still has a daughter in the 11th grade in the district. In a recent phone conversation, Armbrister, who had already served four years on the SRC and would have seen her term expire in January, said she wanted to move out of the way so the governor could make an appointment and therefore move the Senate hearing ahead more quickly.
“I’m hoping this will expedite the process, that a fifth commission member will be named and the confirmation process can quickly begin,” Armbrister said. “It is complex and it is time-consuming. It is a lot of work.”
As priorities for the SRC, Armbrister mentioned the continued efforts to close the $680 million budget gap that has reduced the number of workers at headquarters by 50 percent and the number of employees district-wide by 30 percent. She touched on the huge undertaking that is the facilities master plan, a key component of the school district’s five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014.
She also said that while the job of an SRC member is “extremely challenging work,” she did not suggest, as some have, that it should be a paid position.
“I want to say that I felt honored and humbled to take on this responsibility,” Armbrister, speaking of her tenure, said. “The work of the SRC is incredibly honorable work that, I assure you, none of the people whom I worked with took the responsibilities lightly. However, I don’t think that it should be a paid position.
“I owe a great deal of gratitude to my fellow commissioners,” Armbrister continued. “Hopefully the new and reconstituted commission can be put in place quickly and the SRC can go about the very crucial job of providing the children in the school district the best possible education. Nothing is more important than that. Nothing.”
“Feather Houstoun is one of Philadelphia’s most dedicated and accomplished public servants, and her appointment will help the SRC move forward with its difficult and critical work,” Nutter said. “While serving at the William Penn Foundation, Feather left an undeniably positive and lasting impact on the entire Philadelphia region. As a SRC member, she would be able to bring her expertise and passion to improving the lives of Philadelphia’s students.
“We look forward to the Pennsylvania Senate taking up the nominations for Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun,” she said. “Their quick confirmations will allow the new SRC to get on with their important work of identifying the next superintendent of the district and managing through complex budget and facilities issues.”
Houstoun, 65, is president of the William Penn Foundation. She has been the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare under Gov. Tom Ridge; worked as the chief financial officer for SEPTA; and served as treasurer of the state of New Jersey.