Over protests from the public and concerns from one of its members, the School Reform Commission awarded a contract Thursday to prepare 20 new teachers to work in the Philadelphia School District.
The contract amount is relatively small for a district with a multibillion-dollar budget: $150,000 for one year of work. But the approval was controversial because of the vendor: Relay Graduate School of Education, a relatively new teacher-preparation program founded by three charter-school networks.
Relay works with more than 50 districts nationwide, including some of the largest in the country, and is licensed to grant degrees in nine states. It submitted an application to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but failed to gain approval to offer degrees in Pennsylvania.
Aspiring teachers will essentially be in a two-year Relay "residency" program, working with a veteran Philadelphia educator their first year and in their own classroom the second year. If they complete the program, they would get a master's degree from a Relay program in another state.
Relay, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Temple University, and New York University all bid on the contract. Relay said it could educate the students for no additional tuition costs to the 20 students beyond the $7,500 paid by the district. NYU, for instance, would cost the residents $45,000 out of pocket, officials said.
Most significant for Philadelphia, Relay is good at attracting candidates of color. The school system wants to do better at recruiting a diverse workforce.
Over 70 percent of Relay's students in the Philadelphia-Camden area are candidates of color, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.
If the district ends up using Relay for five years, "then we would have gone a long ways to accomplish many of our diversity goals," the superintendent said.
SRC member Christopher McGinley, who holds a doctorate in education, worked as a superintendent in suburban districts and is a member of Temple's education-school faculty, voted against the contract.
"I have concerns about the quality of the services that they're known to provide," said McGinley, who said he was not aware that Temple bid on the contract.
Shemanne Davis, Relay's dean for the Philadelphia-Camden region, strongly disputed the characterization of Relay as providing subpar instruction.
"It's extremely rigorous, and we invite anyone to come and look at our program and to recognize that," Davis said.
She said that traditional schools of education are not doing a good job producing teachers of color.
"Our hallmark is getting teachers who look like our children," Davis said.
The Relay partnership raised alarm among some members of the public, too.
Deborah Grill, a retired Philadelphia educator, urged the SRC to reject the contract.
"If Relay is a school of education, then it is the McDonald's of teacher preparation, with a limited menu and low overhead," Grill said. "Philadelphia's students, teachers and principals deserve more than a diet of educational fast food."
The SRC also heard from a number of teachers at Kenderton Elementary, a school that had been in turmoil after a charter company abruptly abandoned the school last year, returning it to district control in September.
Kenderton had struggled with safety and academics, parents, students, and teachers said. The district replaced the principal in November, and the teachers who testified said the school has improved considerably with more staff and the new administration.