The Philadelphia School Board spent thousands on a glossy report that left out community voices and offered nearly nothing new | Opinion

Only six teachers and six parents were selected to serve on Watlington’s 104-member transition team.

School Superintendent Tony Watlington at his introductory press conference in April 2022

School Superintendent Tony Watlington at his introductory press conference in April 2022

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
lisahaver

It’s been a month since the transition team selected by new Philadelphia School Superintendent Tony Watlington presented its 29-page report to the Philadelphia Board of Education.

In the report, Watlington and his consultants repeatedly cited the need for more transparency and public engagement. Yet the parents, educators and community members who have testified over the years at every board meeting — advocating for safe and healthy schools, restoring school librarians, less standardized testing, and ending the disruptive practice of leveling — were conspicuous in their absence.

Only six teachers and six parents were selected to serve on the 104-member team, with no parents on the Community Engagement Committee and no teachers on the Well-Rounded School Experiences Committee. The administration did appoint 20 of its own central staff and regional administrators to the team.

Ultimately, it is the board and the administration who will decide which of the team’s recommendations will make it into the final 5-year strategic plan.

No surprise, then, that the administration released a report that leaves out the specific requests made at board meetings and in the district’s listening sessions: smaller class size; restoration of school librarians in every school; more counselors, support staff and classroom aides; improved services for students with special needs; art and music for every elementary student; and an accelerated effort towards healthy, non-toxic schools free of lead and asbestos.

Many who participated in the district’s listening sessions told the superintendent and his consultants they wanted no more closing of neighborhood schools, yet the report recommends ways to “consolidate or co-locate small schools.” One APPS member, a parent who has testified for years about the lack of integration in her neighborhood’s schools, was dismayed that the Anti-Racist Committee made no recommendation for addressing inequitable enrollment patterns.

So who is the district’s leadership actually listening to?

In recent years, the board has imposed several speaker suppression policies, capping the number of speakers and cutting speaking time by a third. The illusion of public engagement, like appointing temporary committees who issue non-binding recommendations, is not a substitute for the real thing. Governance by invitation represents the antithesis of the democratic process.

A telling moment came at the October meeting, just after the transition team completed its presentation and board members had given their speeches extolling its efforts. Board President Joyce Wilkerson, without explanation, called for a recess. When the board returned about 10 minutes later, most of the transition team had left the auditorium — before the public speakers were called up.

In other words, the transition team responded to questions from the board members, but were gone before members of the public could ask theirs.

Did the board really need to spend $450,000 on consultants to select a special team with five sub-committees in order to issue a glossy, multi-colored, multi-page report? Or could they simply listen to those who come month after month to speak to them directly about their concerns? None of the APPS members who have attended district governance meetings for years and written on local education issues were invited to serve on any committee.

Recent remarks by district leadership raise questions about whether the report they commissioned will bring real change. Watlington came in with a promise of making the district “the fastest improving” in the country — presumably to be measured with even more testing and test prep. More test prep means fewer opportunities for creative learning and engaging electives.

Watlington specifically told the board to keep focusing on “Goals and Guardrails,” their data-driven analysis of the district’s schools, which takes up two hours of every monthly board meeting. Wilkerson declared, “If we’re going to do better for our children, adults are going to have to change the way we do business.” But plans to close schools, impose more leveling, judge students and teachers by standardized test scores, and focus on data-driven curricula all promise business as usual.

After the listening sessions, the transition team report, the sub-committees’ short- and long-term recommendations and the 5-year plan, we will know what the district intends to do the same way we always do: when the board passes its next budget.

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