Elmer Smith: School needs grown-up participation
ATTEMPTS TO CAP a spill that is polluting the environment at 48th and Walnut streets have failed! No, the BP oil slick has not spread this far north yet. What is leaking around West Philadelphia High School this week is vitriol.
ATTEMPTS TO CAP a spill that is polluting the environment at 48th and Walnut streets have failed!
No, the BP oil slick has not spread this far north yet. What is leaking around West Philadelphia High School this week is vitriol.
This is the caustic residue of months of contention between groups of well-intentioned adults who all support West Philly in their separate ways. The School Advisory Council, the West Philadelphia Alumni Association and a well-connected group of community partners have staked out different positions on reform. Finger-pointing and allegations behind the scenes have continued unabated.
But all agree that the school is in dire need of a major overhaul. With the vast majority of tested students scoring "below basic" in math and reading, the need for reform is urgent.
Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had designated West as one of 14 "Renaissance" schools to be restructured by organizations chosen by the schools' advisory councils. The advisory council at West chose Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, a Baltimore firm.
That's when the snit hit the fan.
Accusations of conflict of interest and about ethical issues involving potential contracts at the school led the district to halt the process and launch an investigation, leaving the reform in limbo.
The School Reform Commission, making the worst possible choice, tabled the restructuring at West for another year.
The tone of the e-mails and phone calls I've fielded since writing about this on Friday makes it clear that this issue is not settled. One group, the West Philadelphia High School's Concerned Communities, has joined the school-advisory council in efforts to pressure the SRC to reconsider its decision.
"We are appalled at the irresponsible delay" and "frankly stunned at the inept handling" of the matter," the community groups wrote.
"We urge you to take special action immediately," to reinstate the advisory-council choice of Johns Hopkins/Diplomas now.
The letter was signed by the 52d Street Business Association and the Spruce Hill, Walnut Hill Garden Court and Cedar Park Neighbors associations and copied to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, state Rep. James Roebuck, Mayor Nutter and the Daily News.
As of Friday, their request had not found a receptive ear. Ackerman told me Friday that the restructuring cannot go forward until an "independent" investigation of the selection process has been done.
The SRC set aside the council's choice of Johns Hopkins because two of the nine members who voted for Hopkins had been paid a small stipend for knocking on doors to attract more parents to the school. The Philadelphia Education Fund, which paid them about $32 a week, could be a subcontractor if Hopkins is chosen.
Ackerman conceded that the parents' stipends probably had no effect on the outcome of the vote. But she said the district asked the inspector general's office to do the probe. It would be improper for the district to investigate, she said, because its own "Promise Academies" was rejected by the council.
"This is the only one of the 14 Renaissance schools where we have had this kind of problem," Ackerman said.
In part, the problem reflects West Philly's longstanding inability to get parents involved. The restructuring process requires that parents make up 51 percent of the voting members of any school-advisory council. At least one community partner had to leave the advisory council before the vote to bring it into compliance.
But all of that was done before the vote. And Johns Hopkins would have won by a wide margin even without the votes of the two parents who had been hired to knock on doors months before the vote was taken.
Those two parents should have stepped aside before the vote, Ackerman said. She has a point.
But to expect parents who have worked long and hard to improve their school to step aside the first time they get a chance to make an important decision for their school doesn't make sense to them.
If the SRC really wants parents to be active in school reform, the last thing it needs to do is invite them to the table, then overrule their decisions.
Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith