Helen Gym Interview Transcript Recorder B-8
Helen Gym Interview Transcript
November 30, 2009
Let’s start by discussing some of the different community reactions to the changes in the Philadelphia public school system in regards to the state takeover in 2001.
The Munoz-Marin Elementary School is quite significant for being a fairly new school that communities had fought for. It ended up being turned over at the very beginning in 2001. That was one of the schools where parents actually ran school board members out of the hearing for the takeover. That was a very hotly contested school. There were a lot of parent protests and anger about their turning over the community school. I think Edision Inc. only lasted a couple of years there, and then it got reverted back to a local community organization called “Aspira”, and run by Alfredo Calderon. He and I talk a lot about our concern that the EMOs have essentially dismantled what once was a viable bilingual program. Munoz-Marin is great example of a school that really fought back and then went under charter control in order to maintain its mission to serve a diverse community and maintain a healthy bilingual program.
You started the Parents United for Public Education organization in Philadelphia. Can you tell me a little bit about what kinds of actions they took to help re-divert the funds from EMOs back to the school district to aid in reducing class size, increasing the number of art/music programs, and limiting the amount of privatization that took place during the takeover.
We’ve been doing public school reform for decades and one of the things that never get discussed in terms of reform efforts is how to look at budgets. A number of us have very strong public school reform tradition and we wanted to take a look at budgets to do that kind of reform. The things that we targeted were questions about budgetary priorities. For example, our school reform commission is a five member volunteer force that at one point cost upwards of 2.5-2.8 million. We raised a lot of questions about that. Why would they have a communications specialist, and a PR specialist, and a lobbyist, and teacher staff that seemed to duplicate a lot of the services that already existed within the school district? The EMOs were an area where we raised a lot of questions. It wasn’t just us. There were a number of groups that were probing and asking a lot of questions about why the EMOs were getting differing amounts of money.
For example, Edison schools, in particular, were getting upwards of $800 per students while other groups got $350 or $400. That’s almost half of the amount that Edison was getting. They would get things like guaranteed contracts and guaranteed enrollment, so that matter how many students they had in their schools the could get paid for 12,000 kids, even if they had 10,000. So, we pushed hard at those questions.
Our question and concern has always been around what we think are somewhat diversions from school reform. There’s all of this investment going into questionable entities, like EMOs. Then on top of that you have management fees that are never audited, documented or reported on. In the mean time, when you look at the average district school that’s kind of plugging along, doing its business, maybe making AYP, maybe just below, we’re seeing their funds decline. What we did was use the opportunity during the takeover to use as much public pressure as we could, to press home the needs of the average district school. What the district had to do then, was to make a commitment to the district schools that they managed, and to provide them with a baseline guarantee of basic functioning school services. What we did to push that issue was ask questions about the priorities the district seemed to be getting distracted with, whether it was EMO management fees, whether it was contracting out for food service, and PR; those kinds of questions.
It seems pretty clear that the EMOs did not take on the role that they were supposed to take on, and that they were getting paid to take on. Do you know anything what the EMOs were actually doing on a day-to-day basis? The district was in charge of the hiring, and budget management, so what was it that the EMOs were actually doing in the Philadelphia schools? How would we define their presence?
There are two things that are going on. One is that they just weren’t required to do any kind of reporting, which was one of the major complaints around the concerns of this whole venture. It’s one thing to embark on something that’s going to cost you hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of time. But it’s another thing to just spend that money and not require any reporting back. We don’t actually know. I don’t think a lot of people know. When you talk to some of the leadership in the schools, there is a lot of confusion about what has happened with these EMOs. I spent a little bit of time talking to a teacher at a middle school that was closed last year. She expressed just terrible confusion about what was actually happening. I attended a couple of parent meetings. There was discussion about with the EMOs about possibly getting their contracts pulled. Again, there was a lot of confusion, people saying, what are you doing, what’s going on? The complaint was that with the EMOs, all they have to do is a press event; they’ll hold a big conference and say, this is how we’re helping you. There’s no sense of an accurate or standardized report showing where they started, where they ended up, how the money was spent, and where the resources were used. None of that is actually required for the EMO to report back upon.
The first time we got a look at the performance of the EMOs over a course of time was actually back in July or August of this year when the Office of Restructured Schools published a school-by-school, provider-by-provider detailed study of EMO performance. That information is on the web. That is the first time after eight years of doing this program that we really got a good look at detailed performance measures for the EMOs. Before that there was just no sense of measurement of the EMO schools. There’s also never been any requirement for the to report back on their management fees. That’s something we fought on for a long time. I think now they have to do some kind of reporting, but they were really resistant to having to do that. We felt this was really troubling and partially suspicious. There was this huge investment and all of these promises that were made to dozens of different schools and communities.
Two is that charter schools have been around for twenty years in the school district and there hasn’t been a lot of supervision of them either. There hasn’t been a lot of oversight or tracking. There hasn’t been a lot of analysis over what does and doesn’t work. To me, that is one of the big problems when politics dabble with school reform. It’s not to say that school reform exists outside of politics, I’m fully aware that it doesn’t. But these are not educators who are driving the agenda. Educators would study this. They would take a look at whether this investment works.
What has happened though is not a disciplined approach to reform. It’s literally, let’s throw it onto the wall to see if it works and come back in five years. Like, this district is so big that we can’t handle it, let’s just let someone else take care of it and then we’ll just check in on them, but to not really have this disciplined, thought out approach. This is a massive system that needs to be managed and supervised. The charter, EMO, and restructured school systems- whatever we’re creating in terms of alternative public school systems, they have to be managed, and it has to be disciplined. There has to be assessments, standards, and a sense of what we’re driving towards at the end of the day. I don’t feel like that was ever done and I’m not sure that was ever the intention. The intention was not to think in terms of the educational end and how it was going to play out. It was as if they were saying, we’ve got to bust this thing down. That was language that came in around charters and EMOs, we’ve just got to bust this school district open, you guys stink, you’re failing, you can’t take care of yourselves, we’re going to take it over and break the system down. Then here’s what we’re left with nine years later. We don’t really know where we are. We don’t where we’ve ended up after all of these investments. Frankly, what we’ve got are just three large systems that cost an exceptional amount of money and three systems that aren’t a whole lot different from one another. In the charters and the district schools you have a lot of failures, and mostly schools that just aren’t a whole lot different from one another. I think that really needs to be considered and thought about.
Do you think the district is heading in the right direction with the new renaissance schools initiative? It seems that they’ve increased their focus on involving communities in the reform process. Or do you think this is just mimicking the turnaround strategy that they tried back in 2001? Is it more of the same?
I’ve been to some of the renaissance schools meetings and have been reading up on it. The hopeful thing is that I frankly do believe that communities can turn around schools, far better than perhaps the district can. It’s the reason why I’m as concerned as I am about alternatives to the school district. I did invest in building a charter school in the Philadelphia Chinatown area that takes a look at creating an arts based school, an academic school and one that’s very responsive to immigrant families whose weaknesses we felt the school district couldn’t and wouldn’t really address very well. Then you take a look a something like West Philadelphia High School and you take a look at the efforts around Kensington and I think that this key element of community is a possibility in turning schools around. I think the district, to its credit, is recognizing that. The problem is, communities alone absolutely cannot do it. They are a key element, but left to themselves, they just don’t have the capacity. I really believe that education is a very, very professional field. I respect teachers, school districts, and administrators tremendously for their knowledge base, their resources, and their abilities to transform ideas into reality.
I guess what I’m fundamentally concerned with is that I’m not clear how the district is going to change the assessments. This is one of the concerns I raised with the renaissance school committee. One of things they are going check in on in terms of determining whether your school is successful, is that they’re going to look and compare graduation rates. Then they’ll look and compare whether there is improvement in student and teacher attendance. And they’re going to check on PSSA scores. So, if somebody shows up, takes the test, and passes through, is that really the test and measure of how you want to define a successful school? I’d much rather see some kind of new definition of how we define schools that are turning themselves around. What is your commitment to capping the number of inexperienced teachers at these schools? We have some schools where the teacher turnover rate 50-60% a year. That is the definition of a failing school. What is your commitment to having an increased number of nurturing adults on staff who aren’t necessarily disciplinarians, who aren’t there to drive kids out of the school, but who are nurses, social workers, mentors, and disciplinary officers in unique kinds of ways? What’s your commitment to having a diversity of curriculum courses for kids to choose from? So it’s not like just math and reading. They literally have reading in high school. That’s an actual class. There have been some really big complaints about this new reading program that they’re introducing to high school to turn them around. I totally understand that some kids enter high school on levels that are just appalling. But frankly, giving them an option to do reading at level one, it’s just not high school. What kid would want to do that? I wouldn’t want to do that. There is not a commitment to a diversity of courses. Is there a functioning science lab so that students know that science isn’t just about copying notes out of a textbook? But that it’s actually interactive? Those are the questions that I don’t feel like are being answered.
The concern is that you take those measurements and then you kind of throw it to the wind as to who the provider is, and then all you’ve done is changed the name at the top of the masthead about who runs it. But you’ve promised that child and that family that this is a fundamentally different education from what they’ve been exposed to time and time again, like teachers who just trying to get by and struggling, disciplinary practices that are haphazard. It’s kind of depressing.
What we want and what we’re trying to get at is essentially promoting a vibrant love of education and schools. I don’t feel that coming across from the district. The renaissance initiative is better in the sense that it is responding to the community. However, “community” can easily be tokenized and/or left to fend for themselves. What I don’t get a sense of is the school district saying this is a quality education and we think kids will respond?