Over objections, the School Reform Commission on Thursday authorized a $10 million, 100-student program to serve Philadelphia children with special needs.
The program, which will operate in three existing Philadelphia School District buildings, will be open primarily to children with emotional disturbances and severe disabilities who had been educated at Wordsworth, a private provider that lost its contract with the school system after a child's death in one of its residential programs.
Catapult Learning Inc. will run and staff the district's new initiative for three years, with an eye toward the school system's eventually taking over the programs.
Though the SRC stressed that it wants children to be among their general-education peers as much as possible, advocates and parents fear the school system is creating a segregated program.
"Inclusion should not be aspirational," said Gabe Labella, a lawyer with Disability Rights Pennsylvania. Labella and others said the district's $10 million would be better spent equipping neighborhood schools with the resources to educate children with intense emotional, medical, and learning needs.
"Inclusion does not mean a separate setting within the school district," said Maura McInerney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center.
A number of speakers at the SRC meeting said they had questions about Catapult, the Camden-based provider. Commissioner Estelle Richman, a former state Department of Public Welfare secretary, said she had "some grave concerns" about Catapult.
Ultimately, she voted for the resolution, which passed unanimously. Richman said she would be involved in monitoring the program's going forward.
Cheryl Logan, the district's chief academic officer, said she was comfortable that Catapult had relevant experience, a question raised by a number of speakers. District staff visited three Catapult programs in Delaware and Maryland, Logan said.
Commissioner Christopher McGinley, a former special-education teacher, said he was comfortable with assurances from Logan and others that the program would be closely monitored.
McGinley, Richman, and others said the new resolution was an improvement over the district's last plan. In late June, the SRC was set to vote on a last-minute resolution to spend up to $54 million on a program for up to 600 children that was much more opaque about plans for inclusion and transitions.
An outcry from the public — and concerns on the part of Richman and McGinley — caused the SRC to table that plan, and to work to refine it.
Lee Awbrey, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, thanked the commission for its work. But she and others said the SRC's revised plan still left children vulnerable.
City Councilman Derek Green, in a letter to the SRC, said Catapult should be given a one-year contract, and monitoring reports should be made public.
Green, who has a child with special needs, said he was "disappointed in the lack of transparency" shown by the school district.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. acknowledged the district's initial approach was flawed and "should have included more input and planning before it was originally introduced." But, Hite said, he was confident that the new plan was a solid one that will allow children with intense needs to be educated closer to home and with more monitoring.
Commissioner Bill Green stressed that the new program would be an option for children formerly served by Wordsworth.
"We're not sending children to Catapult," Green said. "It will be among the many options available to parents."
The commission also voted Thursday to authorize $400 million worth of short-term borrowing. The school district does such a borrowing annually, to cover its operating costs until state payments come in.
It will pay $6.4 million to borrow the money at the rate of 1.66 percent.
Officials also heard from a number of speakers urging the district to halt suspensions for children 10 years old and under. The district has already forbidden suspensions for most kindergartners, and said it wants to expand the ban, though it will not do so all at once.
State Rep. Jordan A. Harris (D., Phila.), who has authored legislation on the subject, asked the SRC to do more. In Philadelphia, black children are three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended, speakers said, despite the fact that their behavior is not worse.
Suspension "is damaging to many of our most vulnerable and youngest learners," Harris said. "At no point should a punishment be a lack of education."