By Vivian Rodriguez
What is it like to fight a charter takeover? Below is the story of life inside the school for the past two months, from a longtime volunteer.
On April 1st, our school was hit with a sledgehammer: The district proposal to turn Luis Munoz Marin into a Renaissance Charter, operated by ASPIRA of PA.
Most emphasis has been placed to our community of parents, and understandably so, because their children are the ones who stand to lose the most. But little has been mentioned about how the proposal is affecting our staff.
The timing of the vote is not a coincidence. Site Selection started in the middle of April and ended on May 30th. Because of the possibility that Munoz Marin would not be a public school next year, teachers were considered forced transfers and were expected to select a new school.
The staff was heartbroken! Theoretically, they needed to go through with the process of applying for a new school, but by doing so, it felt like they were giving up on Marin. Like the PFT said, this is the kind of turmoil that the District was trying to create.
From day one, we knew that this would be an uphill battle against ASPIRA and the District Charter School Office. After a few days of emergency meetings, we began to put together our own Parent Proposal for the next school year.
The First Presentation
On April 15th, Dr. Hite came to kick off the meeting. His presentation was remarkably simple without visuals. Our parents were not convinced. They asked questions and made comments in favor of keeping Munoz Marin a SDP public school.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn went next, and presented a PowerPoint with all sort of graphs showing why Marin was selected for this potential turnover. A highly subjective and out of context presentation, of course. I would have rather seen a graph with all the schools that were considered before the selection took place and a photograph of Mr. Calderon selecting Munoz Marin out of that group of schools.
Our presentation was next, and it went well. The whole School Leadership Team presented and a well-written plan mostly based on our actual school improvement plan for the year 2014-15.
Next came ASPIRA.
ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon came into the Auditorium with his entourage and security guards that look like bouncers. ASPIRA presentation with 10+ graphs and tables showing their “improvements” and our “failures.”
The SDP Charter School Office was supposed to check all these graphs and verify their accuracy before allowing ASPIRA to present their manipulated data to our parents. But that did not happen. ASPIRA’s plan for Marin was essentially to paint the school, buy new furniture, put more cameras, etc. Their plan did not include specifics about how they were planning to improve our PSSA scores.
Throughout the meeting, the parents in the audience were highly critical of ASPIRA and their attempted takeover. Had the vote happened that day, I know how it would have gone.
So why did the vote get moved?
On April 22nd, Mr. Calderon, from ASPIRA, was interviewed by Univision. The interview was in Spanish.
In that interview, Calderon said was that he was already working on a delay of our voting day. That was six days before our administration and SAC Team were informed of the switch.
On April 28th, the day of our 2nd Parents Meeting and 3 days before the vote, our principal received a call from Mr. Peng Chao, our contact person from the Charter School Office. She was informed that the voting day was changed and that Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez was coming to address the reason for the change.
Our school did not welcome the councilwoman. Most of our parents didn’t even know who she was. Her recommendation was to delay the vote because parents had called her telling her that the process was rushed, and parents needed more time.
She was attacked left and right.
How many parents called? How can you verify that these were LMM parents? How are you related to ASPIRA?
Quinones-Sanchez answered: even if I one parent called I would have listened. I am a proud “ASPIRAnte”. Both Mr. Kihn and Mr. Chao were present, but didn’t explain the reason for the change. At one point, she denied that this was all political, but she did admit that she was once the director of ASPIRA.
At the very end of her speech, Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez stated that she was sure that Luis Munoz Marin’s parents would see that ASPIRA was a better choice, and openly endorsed ASPIRA in front of all of us.
Our teachers fell apart. They had to accept their positions in the new schools by May 30th, without knowing the fate of Marin.
The Waiting Period
Parents received some kind of communication directly from the CSO about the change of date from May 1st to June 5th. In order to give more information to our parents about the proposals, there was an understanding that a series of meetings were going to happen.
Such official meetings never occurred. Instead, ASPIRA’s staff was outside our doors during admission and dismissal time. The distributed flyers with attacking Marin advertising three meetings at the local recreational center. They sent a bus almost every day to take parents to visit ASPIRA’s schools including their own schools, Pantojas and Hostos.
When our administration called the CSO to complain about ASPIRA’s aggressive tactics, We were told that ASPIRA had the right to be there, and that they would look into the flyers.
It took weeks of harassment and an extremely serious attack on Marin’s Staff on their last flyer to make them stop. That flyer insinuated that Marin’s principal and staff were going to be arrested because they cheated on the PSSA. They were desperate!
Right Before the Vote
So what was ASPIRA’s next move?
One week before the vote, Mr. Chao attended a School Advisory Committee (SAC) meeting and somehow arranged a meeting with the SAC and Mr. Calderon. The meeting was supposed to take place on Monday, June 2nd at the Luis Munoz Marin School.
When the SAC Team president and some of the members realized that this was not a mandated meeting, they cancelled the meeting via voicemail and email. The CSO insisted in having the meeting for any parent interested in speaking to ASPIRA, but no parent showed up.
At this point, Mr. Calderon has filed a grievance, which you can read about here if you like. The truth is that Mr. Chao shouldn’t have attended a SAC meeting to arrange such communications between ASPIRA and our SAC. The SAC shouldn’t meet with Calderon. They were mandated to visit ASPIRA’s schools and attend one of the two Parent’s Presentations, and they did. If any of the members, as parents of LMM, felt that they wanted to speak to Mr. Calderon in person, they could have attended any of the three extra meetings held in the area (although almost none of them did).
The vote is set for Thursday June 4th. The staff awaits the results, hoping that their school will be saved and that they will be able to stay at Luis Munoz Marin.
Vivian Rodriguez is a retired special education teacher with 30 years experience in the School District of Philadelphia and the city’s Latino Community. She has spent the last 5 years as a volunteer at Luis Munoz Marin Elementary.
Working Educators and Teacher Action Group are proud to announce our new Social Justice Unionism Summer Reading Series. Join a small group of colleagues, educators, and supporters from around the city to hone in on some of the biggest issues facing education and unionism.
Whether you're looking for an overview of education politics, exploring neoliberalism, or discovering how union activists have energized their unions around the country, and so much more- we've got a book for you! Take a look at the book list below, and then go to our sign up page for more info and to get your name on the list!
Books we'll be reading...
-Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch
-The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch
-Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, by Matthew Countryman
-Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, by Jane Mcalevey and Bob Ostertag
-The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein
-Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, by Micah Uetricht
-How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, by Labor Notes
-A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, by Mercedes K. Schneider
-Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, by Bhaskar Sunkara
We the members of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, decry the unjust treatment of our colleagues at the Blaine and W.D. Kelley Elementary Schools. We protest the use of a non-existent “Transformation Model” to justify the wholesale forcing out of the faculties of both schools.
The School Reform Commission has never voted to approve “Transformation” as a turnaround model. There were no community meetings announced by the district.
How could this happen? In a reprehensible bait-and-switch, the two schools were invited to apply for funds from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), which could help them to adjust to significant enrollment increases brought about when nearby schools closed.
The SRC voted in August 2013 to accept a $1.5 million PSP grant for each school. Although Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn told a NewsWorks reporter in March that the money would come with “no strings attached,” PSP essentially went shopping for two schools whose principals would take their money as long as they agreed to discard their teachers.
To be clear: nowhere in the application for PSP funding did Blaine Principal Gianeen Powell suggest that teacher quality or teacher technological skills were lacking at Blaine. Nowhere in the grant agreement between PSP and the School District is there a requirement for a complete turnover of the faculties.
Teachers at Blaine and Kelley were not told until March 7, 2014, after months of planning for the new grant, that they would have to reapply for their positions because their schools had been named as “Transformation Schools.” Many parents told union members just days after the district’s announcement that they knew nothing about the transformation, and were shocked that teachers were being forced out.
Teachers and staff have not been afforded due process in this phony turnaround scheme. The educators who have dedicated their professional lives to the care of some of the most vulnerable students in the city are being forced to suffer the emotional distress at having to leave their students behind, and at having to deal with the disruption of their own careers in order to further the mission of the corporate “reformers” who do not have the best interests of our children at heart.
As members of the WE Caucus, we see the violation of the rights of the Blaine and Kelly teachers as a wake-up call to all educators in Philadelphia: this can happen to you and your school.
We must strengthen our alliances with community and parents to stop this from happening to any school which PSP chooses for “transformation.” We must build on the victory of the parents and teachers who fought to keep Steel Elementary a public school.
Educators, students, and parents have been working for years across the District to transform their schools. The Caucus of Working Educators believes that local communities and those affected by school reform should be looked to for the wisdom and knowledge to transform their schools. This process should be bottom-up, participatory and highly democratic to engage schools and communities in school improvement. Philadelphia has had enough of "transformation models" imposed by outside forces.
The WE Caucus demands a full explanation by the district about how this bait-and-switch was perpetrated. We demand that the SRC explain why they are allowing this blatant injustice, under the guise of a non-existent turnaround model, to continue. We demand that the district afford the teachers at Blaine and Kelley the due process rights to which they are entitled.
For more information:
- Discuss with them how the SRC has been running our schools for over thirteen years and things just keep getting worse. Make sure they know that many of our kids have no full time nurse, no full time counselor, no school library, no technology class, no music, no art, no books, no supplies, and on and on. Implore them to stay informed, get involved, and take back local control of our city with us.
- After they've signed, explain that our kids need them working to elect a new governor and advocating for an elected school board. Making that connection with each voter face to face is the true value of this initiative.
- Always have voter registration cards handy. If someone tells you they aren't a registered voter, stress the importance of them registering.
- You will encounter families and groups, so out of respect for their time, always have two or three clipboards to pass around so that voters can fill it out faster, but make sure to continue to engage the group in the important conversation of local control.
- It is huge plus to have a friend or two with you. You draw strength from each other, share advice, and it always helps to feel a little less alone. If you know a friend is going to canvass, please try to give them a hand. Being able to work alongside dedicated educators and volunteers on Saturday made the canvass an interesting, entertaining, and empowering experience.
Here are just a few ideas that Labor Professor Lois Weiner shared during her keynote address at the Education for Liberation conference:
- Unions need a "sense of urgency and a laser-like strategic focus" in these times.
- They must remain militant: "There can be no negotiating with people who aim to destroy you. To negotiate with them is surrender."
- There is no formula or silver magic bullet for this work -- it simply takes work.
- Our African-American teachers are a "valuable, scarce resource" that are being pushed out. The union needs to defend them!
- When it comes to school district budgets, unions need to be on the offensive. Why is interest paid to banks (also known as "debt servicing") sacrosanct, and pensions and staff members are not?
She ended her talk with these words: what's morally right is politically essential.
Those of us who were present walked away inspired by her talk. To continue the conversation about social justice union work with us, sign up for one of our regional discussion groups today!
On Wednesday, April 23rd, a few of the steering committee members of the Caucus of Working Educators sat down for their first meeting with the leadership of the PFT. We presented our platform and asked the leadership what we could do to support the ongoing fight to defend public education in Philadelphia.
The outcome of the meeting was a mutual pledge to work together to strengthen the involvement of the rank and file PFT membership.
In the immediate future, this goal will be achieved through a few specific actions:
- Working to abolish the SRC and regain local control of our school district, specifically by supporting the initiative to put the question to voters through a non-binding ballot question in November.
- Campaigning for a full, fair funding formula in Pennsylvania, specifically a return to the funding levels that were voted on by the PA state legislature under Governor Rendell. This formula would have put Philadelphia’s funding on an equal footing with the rest of the state, but was then reversed by Corbett.
- A concerted push for educators around the city to speak out publicly about how the budget cuts have impacted teaching and learning in every classroom in Philadelphia, specifically by writing opinion pieces and letters and organizing school communities--teachers, parents,and students--to meet with city and state legislators.
The following people were in attendance:
- Kelley Collings, Teacher, Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- David Hensel, Taggart Elementary, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- Evette Jones, Community Engagement Coordinator, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Jerry Jordan, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Hillary Linardopoulos, Membership & Community Organizer, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Tatiana Olmedo, Counselor, Central High School, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- Larissa Pahomov, Teacher, Science Leadership Academy, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- Dee Phillips, Special Assistant to the President & Vice President Middle Schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Peggy Savage, Teacher, Richmond Elementary, Caucus Steering Committee Member
We look forward to the next meeting between steering committee members of the Caucus of Working Educators and the leadership of the PFT at the end of May, as well as a long productive working relationship.
The Caucus of Working Educators is a diverse group of PFT members and their supporters who hail from every corner of Philadelphia. Below is the story of one supporter -- a Building Rep from a union family--who chose to join.
What experiences led you to join the Caucus of Working Educators?
For years I have been frustrated and saddened by the state of education in Philadelphia. An emphasis on “basic skills” and standardized testing was not engaging my students or helping them to learn well. As I progressed through my Urban Ed degree at Temple University, I began to understand that urban and rural districts throughout the US (and the world, in fact) were being negatively impacted in much the same way. A respected colleague engaged me in conversations about social justice unionism and connected me with others. I discovered that a number or like-minded teachers shared my ideas.
This is why I joined the Caucus of Working Educators - to fight back on my terms against the forces that are harming my profession and my students – privatization, obsession with standardized tests and the de-professionalization of teachers.
You're a PFT Building Rep. What's the relationship between that role and being a caucus member?
I come from a family of union members. My father was a UFOA delegate for the FDNY and my mother was a member of the NYTU teacher in NYC. I was raised on the conviction that collectively, we can make our workplaces and community better and safer. For three years I have been the PFT Building Representative at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences. I feel strongly that teachers have a right to due process and a need to be heard on issues of safety and academics at our school. I have spent a lot energy engaging my colleagues in the on-going fight to preserve our hard-won rights and to make our school a better place to teach and learn. The Caucus of WE helps me frame our issues and supports my efforts to energize each teacher at my school to fight for the students we teach. WE compliments and amplifies my traditional PFT advocacy.
What's your favorite part of being a caucus member?
The most important thing that the Caucus of WE does for me is to continually help me frame and reframe issues in terms of social justice. PFT members are workers that have earned and deserve respect. We do a tough job and have fought for and deserve basic rights such as due job security and regular raises. We also deserve basic amenities such as potable water, desks and reasonable rosters. Our working conditions are our students learning conditions. Students deserve fair treatment such as safe and clean environment. They deserve a rich curriculum that includes technology, library science, art and music. They deserve schools that are populated with caring professionals – counselors, nurses, therapists and safety personnel. The Caucus of WE energizes and supports my fight beyond the boundaries of the SDP/PFT contract.
What would you say to other educators who are thinking about joining the caucus?
If you are wondering why you should join the Caucus of WE, do so because it is a space where you can determine what your school needs and take action. It is a grassroots group that seeks to unite and empower different kinds of people – parents, teachers and citizens, to act in ways that make sense at their school and in their neighborhoods.
For those of us who choose to enter urban public education, we don't expect to get rich. The fact that we serve our fellow citizens and, in some small way, contribute toward alleviating society's ills is often reward in itself. In exchange, we also like to see every now and then that society appreciates our efforts and our sacrifices.
Unfortunately, the city of Philadelphia, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the School Reform Commission continue to denigrate and degrade us every chance that they get. When we ask for librarians to nurture a childhood spark of inquisitiveness, we get layoff notices and shuttered doors. When we ask for counselors to help guide society's most vulnerable members through the treacherous waters of American inequity, we are given platitudes about how the money was given away in tax breaks in order to spur economic growth. When we dare point our finger at a government that refuses to invest in our children, they shrug their shoulders and tell us it's our fault for seeking a decent living wage.
And what of our "ludicrous" wages? Wages so high, they claim, that the SRC is seeking to forego any cost-of-living adjustments and, in fact, demanding that we give back 13 percent of it.
If salary is a measure of one's worth, then society must despise the educators of our city's youth. Recently, TWU Local 234 was offered an agreement by SEPTA that would give the city's bus drivers a 5 percent cost-of-living wage increase over the next two years. If approved, this means that the average bus driver in the city of Philadelphia would now earn over $68,000. Meanwhile, the average city school teacher currently earns $70,790. If the SRC has its way, that figure would drop to $61,587.
SEPTA, like the School District of Philadelphia, gets a large proportion of its funding from Harrisburg. SEPTA also continuously runs deficits, like the school district, because the job of transporting commuters in one of America's largest metropolitan areas is a Herculean task - as is the job of educating its children.
What, therefore, are we Philadelphia educators left to believe? What should we think when one predominantly state-supported entity gets so much funding that it can afford to offer its public employees a 5 percent pay raise over the next two years, but the other expects its public employees to take a 13 percent pay cut?
Clearly there are priorities and these priorities do not rest with our children.
Perhaps it's time that the teachers of this city abandon their sense of civic duty and their desire to inspire the next generation.
Perhaps it's time for them to exchange their numerous collegiate diplomas for a driver's license and a place behind the steering wheel.
Maybe then we'll finally get some appreciation.
This morning, Caucus Member Larissa Pahomov was interviewed on WHYY about the Philly Teachers Sound The Alarm campaign.
"It's become this absurd new normal where teachers are just expected to bend over backwards to make their classrooms work," said Pahomov. "We do it because we're good people ... but we need the public to know that we're doing it, because it's become invisible to a large degree in Philadelphia."
As for the site's lack of anonymity: "This comes back to a classic union idea, which is that there is strength in solidarity," she said. "There's strength just in making those connections across the district."
The following is an extended version of a letter that ran in response to The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the recent events at Bartram High School.
Dear Ms. Graham & Mr. Purcell,
First, I want to thank you for your in-depth article in today's paper on the troubles at Bartram High School. It was heartening to see that you had interviewed teachers and students rather than solely relying on the input of district and union officials.
As a former teacher at Bartram, however, I saw the real story at the very end of the article. You quoted a teacher who said, "There's a lot of talented, intelligent kids that are getting the bad end of the stick."
In my experience, this is the entire story.
When we talk about education in this city, first we talk about budget crises, then about labor disputes, then about school safety and unspeakable tragedies in the neighborhoods, and finally, if there's any time, we talk about the incredible success stories of the lucky few.
The one thing we neglect to talk about is that our students are just kids. They have favorite subjects and favorite teachers. They hide from teachers whose homework they haven't done. They gossip with their friends and have crushes on their classmates. They are just like any other students in Pennsylvania, except that they are only given half the chance.
When I worked at Bartram, I was asked the same question constantly, by friends and neighbors and strangers on the street, "Isn't that a bad school?" I was not naive enough to believe anyone was referring to quality of education or the poor physical condition of the building. They meant to ask, "Isn't that a school full of bad kids?" The question broke my heart every time it was asked.
As I stated at the start of this letter, I am grateful the safety of our students is being addressed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local media. It is an issue that needs to be made public, and addressed meaningfully by this city. I would love more than anything, though, to see our students portrayed publicly as the human beings they are, rather than statistics, the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. There are, in fact, a great number "of talented, intelligent kids" at Bartram High School, and I'd like this city to see them, to know them, and to give them the attention and the education they deserve.
Bernadette McHenry taught at Bartram for the 2012-2013 school year and was then laid off. She no longer teaches in the School District of Philadelphia.