Looking for ways to bring inspiring projects to your school? Check out this write up from caucus member Tom Hladczuk of Stephen Girard Elementary about a project that involved both art and civic engagement.
The project started When I met Sarah Kodish-Eskind and Jackie Quinn, two artists who run the Art Cart, a mobile art display and selling space that they use to display and sell the work of local artists. I asked if they would like to work with a school and expand the community concept to working with children and getting their community more engaged with the school. They had been thinking along similar lines, so we set about planning it.
In cooperation with Girard teacher Kristy Katz, we applied to Public Citizens United for Children and Youth for a PICASSO arts project grant to fund our idea. We wanted to expand our students' experiences at the school and show the community what they were capable of. The two artists who started Art Cart had this vision as well, independently, and had been doing it to empower local artists. Kristy had the experience of working with the grant before, and doing an engaging art project through PCCY funding. PArt of PCCY's mandate is to do advocacy as well. So we planned it together.
We had never done this kind of project at my school before, and it was fantastic! The grant made art classes possible for the students. They designed their own personal symbol and used it to make their own pencil cases and posters. They told their story by working together to create, design, write, edit, problem-solve and sew.
With the budget crisis looming at our school, we decided to make the project a political one as well. We sent letters stamped with the designs you saw to the local elected officials, and we went on visits to City Council Offices with a parent and student in tow.
The purpose the project was use art as a way to engage the community, give children a voice, and show what public schools can accomplish what they do best when not held back and forced to do rote learning and test prep for standardized tests of low-level skills.
If you are inspired by this project, you can support our students by buying a pencil case! They will be sold at Ultimo Coffee on Saturday, June 14th, at 15th and Mifflin Streets, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM and on Saturday, June 21st, on Rittenhouse Square.
Caucus member Luigi Borda is many things. He is a parent, social studies teacher, and PFT building representative at Masterman Elementary. He is an avid runner who has been very involved in local politics as a tireless advocate for our city's children. Luigi has combined these two interests to help make some very powerful statements for the need for full and fair funding for Philadelphia's students.
From the outside, the vote on whether to turn Luis Muñoz-Marín public school over to a charter operator seemed like a done deal. But when the call went out to Working Educators for spanish-speakers who could help call parents and gauge their support, I quickly learned that the opposite was true. Spending Wednesday evenings in the basement of the PFT offices, calling family after family, WE volunteers quickly saw that parents powerfully supported keeping the school public.
“Buenas tardes, me llamo Max y soy un profesor con el distrito escolar de filadelfia. Estoy con la coalición para mantenerse pública la escuela Muñoz-Marín, y queremos saber si podemos contar con su apoyo?” Can we count on your support?
“Claro” was the most frequent comment I heard. Of course.
We spoke to block captains who had been mobilizing their neighbors, mothers who did not want to see their favorite teachers gone. “My daughter is in special ed”, one parent mentioned to me. “I don’t know what will happen to her under ASPIRA. All special ed parents should be concerned”.
Longtime Muñoz-Marín volunteer and retired teacher Vivian Rodriguez wrote for the WE blog about the community’s fight to keep their school public: confusion over the vote being pushed back, alienation of teachers who had to choose whether to stay at a school that might not exist next year, frustrating accusations about school leaders.
Despite the challenges, last Thursday the parents at Muñoz-Marín voted overwhelmingly to keep the school public.
If parents hadn’t courageously come out for their beliefs, would the community’s support for their public schools have been lost in history? Could this story have looked like the other charter takeovers we hear about every day, in which community opinion garners only a short quote at the end of an article filled with the voices of politicians and (so-called) education experts?
My experience volunteering as a WE member with the campaigns for Muñoz-Marín and Steel Elementary demonstrated the powerful voices of parents, communities, and school leaders in the battle for public education. These are the voices that have been marginalized and ignored in the corporate reform movement, but are increasingly gaining power in cities like Newark, Chicago, and now Philadelphia.
When families and communities are asked, they decisively want adequate funding for our public schools, not to turn them over to private companies.
We know that parents and communities are not usually asked for their opinions, though. From the outside, corporate reform will continue to look like a done deal, such as in the ongoing school ‘transformations’ at Blaine and Kelley. These schools make it clear that our work is just beginning.
However, the victories at Muñoz-Marín and Steel this month show that we can make sure our voices are heard, regardless of whether they are asked for. When a diverse coalition of parents, teachers, and community leaders come together despite the alienation and frustration, we can show that corporate school reform is far from a done deal.
Join WE this Friday, June 13th, to celebrate this year’s victories together -and plan for new ones!- at our End of Year Happy Hour at Frankford Hall.
WE volunteers call Muñoz-Marín families ahead of the big vote.
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.
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:
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.
Since the news broke that Marin and Steel Elementary Schools were up for potential charter conversion, there has been a great deal of speculation -- and and a lot of misinformation -- but not many reports about what the situation has been like at the schools themselves. Below is a letter from one educator at Steel describing the scene.
We (principal included) were informed on March 31st -- only after rumors initiated our calls to 440 -- that Mastery Charter will probably be taking over Steel Elementary. They have been sending parents of students from Gratz -- also run by Mastery Charter -- to our events to talk to parents without our knowledge. We were informed that we will have the option to create a presentation for the parents before a vote. We have merely weeks to create a presentation to complete with one that Mastery has had for probably a year. What can we offer except that we are a family? Although I am new here, there are teachers that have been in this building for 20+ years; they have taught generations of Nicetown families.
Since the possibility of takeover went public, Mastery has been allowed to have 6 "representatives" outside the building every day, to try and convince families that they should vote for the turnover. When it rains, they're actually allowed to come inside our building and use our space for their petitioning. They are pulling out all the stops in their attempt to woo parents including dinners, calls, canvassing, etc. Today they even had a small bus out front to take parents on a tour of Gratz.
The girl complained, as well she should! If someone from Mastery had called the school to inquire why this student was late, I would not have been able to release that information or even confirm or deny that the student attends here under the guidelines of FERPA. So why do the representatives from Mastery have the right to ask students right outside our door? They do not.
Representatives from the PFT and AFT have also been out to inform our families about their choices. When they are there, the Mastery reps have been overheard angrily complaining that we are "using their tactics." They were complaining directly under a window and a teacher and her students could hear this conversation.
Our situation also puts the lack of a contract into a new perspective. I am not a conspiracy theorist by any means; however, the fact that more schools are being turned over while the contract is in negotiations is not a coincidence. They are expecting us to accept anything just to have a job. I will not by any means! Our staff is angry. It feels like all this is an attempt to intimidate us, but it is backfiring--we are finding the courage to fight back.
Brandy Meyers, Counselor, Steel Elementary
Check out Caucus Members Luigi Borda, Eileen Duffey, and others -- along with dozens of students, parents, and community members -- showing the School District who runs our schools!