Philly SRC greets new era with Wilkerson as chair

Joyce S. Wilkerson (center) is welcomed as new chairperson for the School Reform Commission at the Nov. 15

Joyce S. Wilkerson (center) is welcomed as new chairperson for the School Reform Commission at the Nov. 15

Under the gavel of a new chairperson, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission considered much but did little at its November meeting Tuesday night.

The convening was Joyce Wilkerson’s first as chair of the five-member body. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney appointed Wilkerson the SRC earlier this month. She was soon thereafter named chair by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wilkerson started the meeting with a brief statement in which she emphasized the importance of working across different levels of government. The SRC is split between appointees of the mayor and the governor, and it struggles, at times, to reach consensus on major issues

“I recognize the importance of partnering with both the city, the state, and hopefully the federal government as we begin to better align services and coordinate strategies to improve the outcomes for our children,” Wilkerson said. “I believe that we speak loudest and are most effective when we’re work collaboratively to advance these goals.”

Wilkerson, one-time chief of staff to former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, also received a warm welcome from Superintendent William Hite.

“Chair Wilkerson has a long and distinguished career of public service and her years of experience will be a tremendous asset to the School Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia,” he said.

Wilkerson said she’d spent the last 10 days getting caught up on the inner-workings of the region’s largest school district. She hopes soon to begin canvassing the district to meet more students and teachers.

Wilkerson joins the SRC at a time when the district faces a long-term deficit and has gone more than three years without a teacher’s contract. Many advocates also want to see the SRC dissolved and control restored to a local school board.

None of that, however, was on the agenda Tuesday for what turned out to be a relatively tame meeting.

The SRC did formally vote to close World Communications Charter School, one of the city’s oldest charters. World Communications announced late last month that it would close rather than fight the district’s recommendation that its charter not be renewed. Tuesday’s vote simply certified that decision.

The SRC also voted to amend an agreement with Mastery Charter Schools that will allow them to open a new North Philadelphia campus in 2017. The campus had originally been slated to open in 2016.

The commission also chose not to take action on the recommended termination of Marianne Kennedy, an elementary school teacher at Willard School in Kensington. A cascade of speakers testified that Kennedy hadn’t received a fair shake in her termination hearing and was an excellent teacher who had been undermined by false allegations lodged with the state’s Department of Human Services. A large cohort of Kennedy’s colleagues showed up at the SRC meeting to support her.

The SRC ultimately decided not to rule on Kennedy’s case until it received more information.

Multiple speakers at Tuesday’s meetings also spoke on the district’s recently announced plan to intervene at 11 low-performing district schools. The district announced it will not close any of the 11 or convert them into charters. Rather the schools will be assigned to one of five turnaround programs, some of which could result in considerable staff or administrative turnover.

Right now each school is an evaluation and community feedback process. Hite said he would make a decision on each school by the beginning of February. He also defended the district’s plans to take some form of action at the 11 schools.

“By focusing immediate attention and extra resources on a focused group of schools, we can provide students with access to better schools, strengthen our neighborhoods, and continue in our goal to create great schools close to where all children live,” Hite said.

Many, however, voiced displeasure with the selection process for the intervention schools and said one of the main criteria used, student test scores, didn’t capture the quality of instruction in many buildings. The largest and most vocal group came from Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA), a high school located in the Kensington neighborhood.

Dave Beck, a social studies teacher at Kensington Health Sciences, said if district brass came to his school they’d “see what’s right in Philadelphia education.” Under the leadership of current principal, James Williams, KHSA has become a desirable school and “the best kept secret” in the city, Beck said. 

Viktoriya Figueroa said she transferred from Northeast High School to attend KHSA. She urged the SRC “to see the same potential in my school that the mayor sees in us.” KHSA was named one of nine community schools by the mayor’s office earlier this year, meaning it will receive extra resources intended to address some of the burdens that can prevent low-income students from doing well in class.

At an initial community meeting to discuss the options that await KHSA as part of the intervention process, scores of teachers, students, and parents turned out–many to say their school is healthier and more vibrant than test scores indicate. That drumbeat continued Tuesday, although there was no action item related to school intervention.

The SRC did hear official presentations on a proposed new school calendar, parent engagement efforts, and district-wide lead testing.

Under the current calendar proposal, Philadelphia schools start and end the year earlier. If the proposal is accepted, the 2018-19 school year would start on August 27–up from September 5 in 2016-17. The 2018-19 school year would then end on June 4–up from June 14 the prior year. The purpose of the change would be to cram more school days into the time period before Memorial Day, after which attendance suffers.

The new calendar is now open to public comment. The SRC is expected to take official action on it next month.

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