Advisors named to work with district until new schools chief is found
Mayor Michael Nutter and interim School District Superintendent Leroy Nunery stood before a microphone on Tuesday in the sun-splashed atrium of district headquarters, putting a smiling face on what both described as a successful opening to the school year — but not ignoring the problems that still fester in the beleaguered district.
“Despite the successes — nine straight years of improved test scores, rising graduation rates — serious problems remain for the school district at a time when there are fewer dollars to address them,” Nutter said. “That’s why we must work harder and with even more collaboration.
“The state and the city are committed to providing additional operational support to, and increased collaboration with, the School District of Philadelphia so that we function as a unified team.”
The team he was referring to added new members earlier this week when Nutter and Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis announced the naming of two “executive advisers” to work with district leadership until a new superintendent can be found to replace the departed Arlene Ackerman.
Last spring, the city and the state entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the goal being an all-hands-on-deck approach to repair the struggling school district. They named Lori Shorr (city), the city’s chief education officer, and long-time educator and former district employee Edward Williams (state) to assist the school district in moving beyond its troubled summer and to repair the damage as best they can before the new superintendent takes over.
Nutter said there is no timeline for naming the new superintendent.
“It is more important to do it right than it is to do it fast,” he said.
Both Shorr and Williams will have offices inside the school district building. Shorr will continue in her position with the city. Williams, the state’s selection, will take a salary through the state at an hourly rate of $81.25, not to exceed $650 per day.
In their roles, Shorr and Williams will attend all high-level district meetings. His closeness to Shorr, Nutter feels, will provide him better communication with the school district and a “real-time relationship” with its daily operation.
Before Ackerman’s departure, a $629 billion budget gap forced massive layoffs and the reduction of many programs. In the last three weeks, two School Reform Commission members, Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizzary, stepped down. This was followed by the release of a scathing report by the mayor’s chief integrity officer which found that Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans had overstepped their bounds in a failed attempt to place Martin Luther King High School as a charter school with Evans’ partners at Foundations Inc.
“We are going to reestablish the faith and trust that children, teachers, parents and the entire taxpaying public in Philadelphia and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania should have and deserve to have in this district,” Nutter said. “This is a new ball game. We will be much more active and engaged.”
Nutter recently appointed Wendell Pritchett to the SRC and said he will name another appointee “shortly.” Gubernatorial nominee Pedro Ramos, the one-time leader of the Board of Education, is awaiting confirmation from the state senate.
Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, will chair the Financial Operations and Systems Working Group, an unpaid position.
The SRC will appoint a group of five to nine executives from around the city with expertise on financial, contracting and personnel matters. Nutter said that group, which should be in place by the end of this month, will evaluate what is going on in the district and make evaluations throughout the school year.
Acting superintendent Nunery was once a candidate for the superintendent position. He has already expressed interest in having “interim” removed from his title. On Tuesday, he was just a team player glad to be receiving some help.
“Mr. Mayor, I take on the challenge. “I think you’ve got a great team of here ready to go to work,” Nunery said.
Right before she crossed the street at the corner of 12th and Walnut streets, President Judge Thomasine Tynes of the Philadelphia Traffic Court made sure she looked both ways on the one-way street and began to walk.
And that’s when the trouble started.
A bicyclist riding the wrong way on one of the one-way streets plowed into the judge, knocking her to the ground a little over five years ago. She didn’t see him coming, but she felt the bruises from the encounter for days to come.
“The force threw me into the street,” said Tynes, shaking her head at the memory. “If a car was coming I would have gotten killed. Meanwhile, he didn’t stop to see if I was OK or anything. In fact, he looked at me like I was at fault. He got up and just rode away.”
Had there been a rule requiring the registration of bicycles — of which the judge is an advocate — Tynes could have taken the rider’s information and reported him for his violation. As it was, she was just left to nurse her wounds and be grateful that there was no Mack truck bearing down on her that day.
These days the head of the traffic court hopes to change things in the city. She is not opposed to people riding bikes and getting in their exercise, but she does believe that city riders should be forced to register their bicycles and be more accountable for the way they ride, for their safety and the safety of others.
“Suppose you hurt somebody on a bike?” Tynes asks. “What do they do? Do you just ride away? Right now that’s the case. Or what if you knock off someone’s side-view mirror and keep going? Who pays for that? There just aren’t enough penalties.”
In Pennsylvania, bikes are considered vehicles and as a result are governed by the same rules as automobiles. They are not allowed to run red lights. If they are in the street and stopped at a red light, they are not allowed to make a right turn if a sign forbids it.
Chestnut Hill cyclist Howard Hochheiser rides four times a week and logs between 100 and 200 miles on his bike. He thinks that registering riders is a waste of time — something that will be very hard to enforce. But he sees riders violating rules all the time.
“I am in favor of more enforcement,” Hochheiser says. “We as cyclists often get on drivers who don’t follow the law, but we don’t reciprocate. If you have four riders riding abreast on the West River Drive and the bike lane is designed to have riders in single file, then yes, that is a problem. It is a two-way street and we have to abide by the rules.”
Registration hasn’t had much success across the country. Detroit once charged riders $55 to register bikes, but that was repealed in 2008. Houston also went the registration route. However, only about 10 bikes per month registered and it was more of a hassle than anything else. Both Washington and Los Angles have also successfully repealed bike registration laws.
In Los Angles it cost just $3 to register a bike. However, riders said they were being unjustly harassed and complained that nothing was done when bikes were stolen before the requirement was repealed.
Tynes knows full well the dangers associated with bike riders. She tells a story of one lawyer in her courtroom whose client had been injured on a bike. He had no identification on him, and as a result, he was in a hospital room for two days and no one knew who he was. Eventually his family filed a missing person’s report and they identified him that way.
Tynes has written letters to Mayor Michael Nutter about the issue. She says it is just as much about enforcement as it is about safety and being able to identify the riders. She suggested that the registration be no more than a one-time fee of about $20.
“I don’t want riders to think that I’m against you guys; I’m not,” Tynes says. “I am saying that [riders] need to be responsible like everyone else on the road. It is better for everyone involved.”
With an eye on the future, Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis Tuesday announced the appointment of two full-time executive advisors and a financial operations and systems working group to assist in the ongoing reforms of the School District of Philadelphia and to make the transition to a full-time superintendent a smoother process.
“Today marks phase two of the city and commonwealth’s Educational Accountability Agreement with the School District,” Nutter said at a midday press conference at District headquarters. “In cooperation with our partners, the city and the commonwealth will be providing educational, financial and management expertise and knowledge to the School District so we can better work together and educate Philadelphia’s students.”
The city and the state each designated an executive advisor who will work in the School District’s executive office at the level of acting superintendent, the office currently held by Dr. Leroy Nunery.
Nutter appointed Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr as his choice for an advisor. The state appointed Edward Williams, a long-time educator. Together they will provide Nunery advice, input and recommendations in the weeks to come.
Craig Carnaroli, the executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania, was named chair of the Financial Operations and Systems Working Group. The group will consist of four to nine people, when complete, and advise the SRC regarding the District’s financial systems, contracting systems, personnel control and general administrative organizations.
The group will be composed of executives from the business, education and non-profit communities.
In June, Nutter, Tomalis and the SRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding to create the Educational Accountability Agreement, calling for increased cooperation, partnership and ongoing communication between the three.
It seems that whenever an African-American man or boy is in the news these days, it’s for doing something dark and nefarious.
In Philadelphia, even the most high-profile athlete in the city, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, has done jail time.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has been making gifting grants to communities all across the country for years, has noticed as well. And to circumvent the bad news, the Knight Foundation has partnered with the Open Society Foundation to make a change.
Having awarded more than $105 million in grants in 2009, the Knight Foundation is looking to bestow some of that money on the men of Philadelphia through the BME (Black Male Engagement) Challenge, the goal being to highlight African-American men and boys in the city who are making a positive impact in their communities, but won’t receive any recognition for the work they do.
Philadelphia and Detroit are the target cities for these first-time awards.
“We want to shine a light on the brothers who help others achieve, who involved neighbors, friends and strangers in things that uplift the community,” said Trabian Shorters, Knight Foundation’s vice president of communities. “If you want to see more Black men and boys providing their leadership in an effort to strengthen their neighborhoods and this city, we want to amplify the positive impact that Black males have in their communities every day.”
The first phase of the projected ended on Sept. 30. During this time voters were encouraged to visit the Web site bmechallenge.org and make nominations. As of press time Monday, Philadelphia had 1,008 nominations and Detroit had 1,047.
The next phase is the application period. Anyone who has entered or been nominated will be able to formally apply for grants, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. Winners will be announced in early January. Before that, the Knight Foundation is looking to bring all of the applicants together around Thanksgiving with friends and family to honor them.
“We want to uplift and highlight Black men who are engaged in their communities,” said Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program director for the Knight Foundation, which is headquartered in Miami. “We decided to start by finding Black men who are already engaged in their communities and doing positive things. We wanted them to tell their stories about why they are doing positive things, and hopefully that will inspire others to do so also.”
There are no parameters, according to Frisby-Greenwood. All an entrant needs to be doing is something that benefits the community. Former Mayor, the Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr. has been nominated for his work with Amachi. Goode is the director and organizer of the nationally acclaimed faith-based mentoring program that focuses on children with incarcerated parents.
But there are other entrants with much lower profiles than Goode’s. There are barbers who through their trade employ others. One nominee cleans the alleys in his neighborhood daily. There is a security guard who lost his daughter to domestic violence who is now strongly advocates against abusive men.
“Being able to employ people in this economy is great,” Frisby-Greenwood said. “We have men doing so many different things. And in many cases they don’t know that there are grants available to them. We are looking for new and innovative things. They are out there.”
In 1950, the Knight Foundation began dispersing grants, mostly in a small region of the Midwest. In 1993, it reincorporated as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cities that had Knight-Ridder newspapers — The Inquirer and Daily News were once a part of that chain — were designated as “Knight Communities” and, to this day, the company continues to fund grants in those 26 cities.
The Black Male Engagement Challenge is the fourth and latest competition set up by the Knight Foundation. The other three are the Knight Arts Challenge, the Knight News Challenge and the Knight Community Information Challenge.
Progress in safety, learning seen under new management
African-American students throughout the state continue to struggle with standardized tests, as evidenced by the results of their performance on the 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, but there are some beacons of hope coming from Philadelphia charters.
According to the test results, released Thursday by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, only 52.2 percent of Pennsylvania’s African-American students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the standardized test. A slightly higher number (56.8 percent) reached the benchmark in math. However, some Philadelphia charter schools are showing signs that a turnaround could be near.
It wasn’t that long ago that the only thing North Philadelphia’s Stetson Middle School was known for was being a regular on the list of persistently dangerous schools. Equally abysmal was school’s academic performance. In 2010, just 28 percent of the students scored proficient or advanced in reading. Math scores were even worse, with just 25 percent at proficient or advanced.
However, before the start of the 2010–11 school year, ASPIRA became Stetson’s Renaissance turnaround operator. And with very little turnover in the student body, according to ASPIRA, things at Stetson appear to be turning around.
The 2011 reading scores at Stetson increased to 50 percent, a 22 percentage point jump from 2010. Math scores improved as well, jumping eight percentage points to 33 percent of the students now at proficient and advanced.
“We are all thrilled about what’s taking place at Stetson,” said ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon. “It is a step in the right direction — a very big step.”
When a charter provider prepares to take over a school in Philadelphia or anywhere else, the main thrust of the company is usually changing the culture that previously existed there. This starts with children — they often change the dress code to something more formal — and branches out to the parents and the community.
When ASPIRA took over Stetson last summer just 20 kids left the school, so the student population is basically the same as it was when the District operated it. Before Stetson showed up there were 500 suspensions and 20 expulsions. Last year the school didn’t suspend a single student.
“In the District, when a kid misbehaves and does something that merits his expulsion, they send him to an alternative school; we don’t do that,” said Calderon. “We won’t send them home to take a three- or four-day vacation. We do character development. Our kids know that it’s not OK to bully or misbehave. We teach them how to conduct themselves.”
Other charters posted successful numbers as well. Harrity, Mann and Smedley Elementary, operated by Mastery, all posted double-digit gains in math. Harrity students showed the biggest gain of the three — 17 percent — and saw 55 percent of its students at proficient and advanced.
Other charter operators with double-digit improvements included Douglass Elementary, operated by Scholar Academies. Math scores at Douglass jumped 12 percent. And Daroff Elementary, operated by Universal, also saw its math scores jump 14 points.
Calderon says that ASPIRA’S philosophy is at the core of its success.
“We’re giving them the tools, not teaching them for the test — we refuse to do that,” Calderon said. “It’s giving them the critical thinking so they can actually analyze a situation and make a decision. That’s what we’re teaching our kids; that’s how we’re training our teachers. Some people have given up. We are just getting started.”
Overall, students across the state showed small improvement, with scores inching up in math (76.3 percent to 77.1) and reading (72.0 to 73.5). Conversely, the percentage of schools meeting state standards dropped in 2011 from 82.6 percent in 2010 to 75.1 percent.
The higher school failure rate can be explained by the fact that the state increased its benchmark for schools from 56 percent to 67 percent for students passing in math and 63 percent to 72 percent passing in reading.
While the continued poor performance by African-American students continues to be troublesome, all the news is not bad. Right here in Philadelphia some charter schools are showing dramatic improvement.