The Drama of the SRC

Governor Wolf wants Marjorie Neff to be the SRC’s last chair. But then what?

by Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

Last Sunday, Governor Wolf replaced Bill Green as the School Reform Commission Chair with longtime public school educator and fellow SRC member, Marjorie Neff.

What does this tell us about the Governor ‘s SRC strategy, his broader perspective on public education and overall governance? I interpret the move through three lenses: politics, temperament, and policy.

Politically, the move has to do with having won an election. To the victor goes the spoils! Neff is more aligned with the Governor as shown by the recent charter vote, while Green is clearly more independent.

Bill Green was an independent voice on Philadelphia’s City Council and there were those who wondered what kind of a commission chair he would make, given his wild card reputation. Who can forget Mayor Nutter’s less than gracious reaction to Green’s appointment? Nutter viewed Green as the critic he could never please, much as Mayor Street once viewed then Councilman Nutter.

Bill Green

Bill Green

The fact is, Bill Green has worked well with other commission members, built a strong sense of team, and has done what a good chair does for his CEO, Bill Hite: Worked behind the scenes to support his efforts and take the inevitable political hits. He has been anything but the lone ranger some feared.

Governor Wolf is heavily aligned with the teacher’s unions who provided votes and financial support for him in the general election. They were furious at the Green-led SRC for attempting to impose new terms outside of the collective bargaining process; something the SRC believes it can do based on the law that formed it. The removal of Green can be interpreted as a down payment in the Governor’s political payback plan to the teacher’s union.

The official word from the SRC is that all is well. They will continue to work together as a team. They support each other and the move from Green to Neff does not really change very much. Unofficially I am not so sure.

A second interpretation has to do with temperament. This move is consistent with other recent actions by the Governor, who has taken bold moves to reverse appointments made by his predecessor. He wants to make it clear that he knows how to wield the power of an executive.

This kind of decisiveness can be a useful negotiating strategy. When people think you will act and do the unexpected, you gain some advantage, at least early in political relationships. As for the Green move, nobody saw it coming, especially two days before the Governor’s inaugural budget address.

If you want the SRC to be dissolved, the last thing you want is a politically-independent Chair with his own political relationships at the State Capitol. The Governor told us he favors abolishing the SRC during the campaign, in a primary that often sounded more like a school board election.

But like other sudden moves from the new Governor, it was politically awkward.

First, the communication. Governor Wolf convinced Marjorie Neff who then told Bill Green that he was about to lose his chairmanship. The other commissioners were similarly given the news by Marjorie Neff, but only after it had already dribbled out from Harrisburg.

The Governor’s people later said that Bill Green was hard to work with. Why they felt it necessary to say that is anybody’s guess. After all, Bill Green is from the same political party. A year ago he was viewed as a serious candidate for mayor. Who wants political enemies from the same party at this stage in the new administration?

It was also awkward because Green has done a very good job building relationships across the political aisle in Harrisburg. Why do this now when you need to forge coalition around the budget and school finance? (Besides, the Governor may not have the authority to do what he did. By statute, the Governor has the authority to appoint the Chair but it does not say explicitly if the governor has the authority to remove the chair, unless there is cause. The courts will decide.) Continue reading

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Help Is On The Way

Tired of being embarrassed by City Council? A new PAC is doing something about it.

By Larry Platt

Back in December, when news first broke of what would become Philly 3.0, a political action committee dedicated to changing the makeup of City Council, Democratic party boss Bob Brady unwittingly advertised the need for it  in an Inquirer article. Brady said he was “a little surprised” that Joe Zuritsky—who formed Philly 3.0 with his son Rob and other Center City business leaders — hadn’t first consulted with him about his plans. “He’s been to see me many times for help. I’ve always helped him,” said the Congressman, noting, “I’ve always stuck with incumbents.”

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Now, I have real respect for Bob Brady, because unlike so many pols, he’s not just all talk: He gets stuff done. (See: The 2016 Democratic National Convention, or any of our averted labor strikes.) But the assumption that a citizen who wants to get involved in local politics ought to bow down and “consult” with the powers that be is simply…Kremlinesque. It’s a notion that values the inside game over the common good. Council is particularly good at doing that. Called the “worst legislative body in the free world” in the 1970s by then-mayor Bill Green, it has been living up to the billing ever since. Time and again, it refuses to do the people’s business (see: the aborted PGW gas deal) and opts instead for pettiness and score-settling, like Council President Darrell Clarke’s longstanding schoolyard back and forth with Mayor Nutter or the power grab that is Clarke’s reorganization plan for L & I.

We should be outraged by Council’s anti-democratic nature. The litany bears repeating:

Council holds hearings on the budget of every city agency—but exempts itself from such transparency. When it comes to its $15 million budget, Darrell Clarke and his minions literally refuse to tell you how they spend your money.

Then there’s Councilmanic Prerogative, the near absolute power each of the 10 District council members wield over development in their districts, an open invitation to corruption.

And don’t forget the six-figure salary, city car and 23 weeks off from work. For many of those on the august body, it’s the best job they’re ever going to have—so why not refrain from rocking any boats and keep it as long as possible? The inspiring Philly 3.0 website, unveiled this week, puts it well: “The six longest-tenured current City Council members have been in office for a combined 132 years.”

Being on Council is the best job many are ever going to have—so why not refrain from rocking any boats and keep it as long as possible? The inspiring Philly 3.0 website puts it well: “The six longest-tenured current city council members have been in office for a combined 132 years.”

To this list of outrages, Alison Perelman brings a bigger-picture perspective. She’s Philly 3.0’s executive director (and the millennial daughter of civic bright lights Marsha and Jeff Perelman). She has worked as a Council staffer, and saw up close the degree to which finding real solutions to real problems just isn’t a part of the daily conversation in those City Hall corridors. “Attention is paid to Mayoral positions on issues, but the same attention is not paid to Council members and their positions on issues,” she says.

Philly 3.0 is sending out an issues-based questionnaire to all Council candidates; once completed, it will publish them and endorse a slate of candidates, no doubt airing TV ads in support. (One published report estimated that the group has raised $2 million for such efforts). Philly 3.0’s diverse endorsement committee is particularly impressive, a host of forward-thinking business people who have all worked with underserved populations, including Dr. Keith Leaphart, President and CEO of Replica Creative and Board Chair of the Lenfest Foundation, Cynthia Figueroa, President and CEO of Congreso, and Dr. Beatriz Garces, founder of the Garces Foundation and owner of Garces Dental Group.

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The topics on the questionnaire that’s going to candidates range from the overarching challenges facing the city—school funding, pension and tax reform—to asking for positions on Councilmanic Prerogative, and whether each candidate would support closing the campaign finance loophole that allows sitting Council members to exceed spending limits for “non-campaign” and “pre-campaign” activities. Recently, 3.0 hired a field director; the organization will soon begin a voter registration drive aimed at the plethora of Millennials who could change this city if they would only turn out to the polls. Continue reading

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Citizen of the Week: Victor Atkins

Each week, painter Victor Atkins turns his street into a blank canvas by picking up trash. He’s hoping his neighbors will join in soon.

By Rosella LaFevre

Two months ago, when Painter Victor Atkins and his wife, Diana, moved into their rowhome rental on Hazzard Street in Kensington, they knew the neighborhood had problems: A vacant lot on the corner. Prostitution on one end of the street. Drug activity on the other end. But what struck Atkins almost immediately was the amount of trash on his new block. “It just…bothered me,” says Atkins, who has worked as a fine artist and painter for more than 40 years.

Victor Atkins-2The Streets Department picks up curbside trash every Thursday in their neighborhood. Throughout the week, the litter increases. Atkins bought a trash picker and claws, and set out with Diana on a Saturday morning to clean up their side of the street. They went back the next week; and the next.

“I just felt that I had two choices: I could leave it there or pick it up,” Atkins says. “Spiritually when you have a clean street, it just makes a different atmosphere. When people take ownership of their street, others notice. When people violate the street by dumping trash, you ask them lovingly to stop.”

The Atkins’s have hoped that their neighbors would notice and join in. It hasn’t happened yet. But a few weeks after they started, a neighbor across the street stopped Atkins and said he’d seen them cleaning up. “He said they’d do a better job on their side,” Atkins says. “He said they’d tried in the past but it just keeps coming back.”

Meanwhile, neighbors have started to shovel the snow from his front walk for him—perhaps a sign that people are starting to appreciate his weekly cleanup.

“We do it because we live here,” Atkins says. “I’m just doing what everyone should do.”

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Ideas We Should Steal: Judging schools based on inspections—not test scores

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

In late January, when report cards came out at a local South Philly charter school, it was obvious to the parents of one third-grader that their daughter was a success: She got straight As; first honors; high reading and writing marks; comments from her teacher about her obvious affection for school and learning. So it was with some dismay that her parents listened a few days later, as their 9-year-old described the newest part of every school day: PSSA test prep.

“My teachers said it’s the most important test of the year,” she announced. “I’m nervous. What if I don’t do well?”

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At Meredith Elementary—considered the city’s best public K-8—another academically-gifted third grader started spending her after school hours cramming test-taking strategies, nervously working out the best way to answer the PSSA’s often unclear questions. She knew from previous years that the school is counting on her: Students in grades not taking the tests are instructed to tip-toe by classrooms so they don’t bother their schoolmates.

As third-graders, this will be the first time in their academic careers that these girls take the Pennsylvania State School Assessment exams. It won’t be the last: If nothing changes, before they graduate, they will take 17 standardized tests, including the new Keystone Exam requirement for a high school diploma, starting with the class of 2017. That doesn’t count the dozens of practice tests and in-school “benchmark” assessments they’ll take to prepare them for the big test. And with each passing year, the stakes get higher—if not for the students, then for their teachers, the school, and the District, which budgeted over $58 million for testing this year. Test scores are the biggest part of the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, which ranks every school in the state. They are the deciding factor in whether a school is underperforming or failing; whether parents want to send their children there; whether it might become a Renaissance school turned over to a charter company, which will replace at least half the staff; whether it will end up on the chopping block the next time the District needs to close schools.

It’s no wonder schools consider the test so important—and that teachers feel pressured to load up on test prep. Meanwhile, studies have shown that teaching to the test has had the opposite effect intended: Kids are doing worse on tests now, not better. The tests themselves are hopelessly 20th Century. “They measure rote learning, low-level skills, how much test prep a student has had and family background,” says Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, which advocates for better and fewer tests. “That’s not what our kids need if they’re going to be successful today.” Continue reading

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Your City Defined: The El (thē ˈel)

Please, stop calling it the Market-Frankford Line.

By Rosella LaFevre

“The El” is what Philly lifers call the “Blue Line” or the Market-Frankford Line. The train, which takes riders from the Frankford Transportation Center to 69th Street, is elevated above the city except between 2nd and 40th streets, where it runs underneath Market Street. Because it’s the elevated train, it’s been called “The El” for forever.

The 5.25 mile-long Frankford Elevated section was built between 1915 and 1922 and began regular service from Northeast Philly to Center City on November 5, 1922. Daily ridership on the line peaked at 250,000 in the 1940s. After years of shutting the EL down between midnight and 5 AM, SEPTA in June started overnight service, adding 15,000 riders a week.

While riding The El has typically been about getting from Point A to Point B, Philly-born graffiti artist Stephen Powers turned it into an art project in 2009. With the Mural Arts Program, Powers painted A Love Letter For You, a series of rooftop murals between 45h and 63rd street. Now Mural Arts offers a “Love Letters Tour,” and in 2011,  a couple was married by Mayor Nutter aboard a special “Love Train.”

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Taking On Tech’s Gender Gap

A hackathon this weekend at First Round Capital shows Philly combating the tech world’s not-so-dirty little secret

by Larry Platt

The news out of the high-profile sex discrimination suit roiling Silicon Valley isn’t good. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of gossip and titillation in the back and forth between Ellen Pao and her former employer, venture-capital behemoth Kleiner Perkins Caulfied & Byers. There’s the affair Pao, a junior partner, had with a male colleague, and the allegation that said colleague, upon becoming senior to her, was permitted to contribute to her (poor) performance reviews—after she’d ended their relationship. Then there’s the old boys’ club culture of Kleiner Perkins—the all-male ski trip, the alleged exclusion of women from meetings because they “kill the buzz.”

The case has riveted the tech world, and that’s because it goes beyond the he-said/she-said facts of one particular case and captures a disturbing industry-wide zeitgeist, in which women are either invisible or treated as “other”—the odd Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer success story notwithstanding. This is particularly true at venture-capital firms, where women make up just 6 percent of partners, down from 10 percent in 1999. (Pao, now the interim CEO at Reddit, was earning roughly $500,000 a year as a junior partner at Kleiner along with three male colleagues; the men were all promoted to senior partner, a salary bump by a factor of five).

Photo by Corinne Warnshuis

Photo by Corinne Warnshuis

Which gets us to Philly, where the burgeoning tech scene has a vibrant female community committed to addressing this industry-wide imbalance. This Friday and Saturday, the University City offices of First Round Capital will host the third annual LadyHacks hackathon—Philly’s only such women-only event. Women of all skill levels—from beginners and tech-curious to experienced coders—will come together to work collaboratively on projects that help solve social problems.

“There are a lot of strong women in the tech community here asking questions about the kind of roles women perform in the tech industry,” says Amelia Longo, one of the LadyHacks organizers. “Women tend to be project managers, office managers, or in charge of communications. Not designers or coders. We want to help change that.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton’s Adam Grant recently made clear in The New York Times just how insidious these role assignment stereotypes can be; even at supposedly enlightened workplaces, women tend to do the “empathy” work. That’s why LadyHacks—which last year drew 80 women—is female-only. Hackathons tend to be male-dominated. Instead, come Friday, female developers will be working with female project managers. “Even if you have no tech experience, but have an idea for an app, there’s a place for you on a team,” says Longo.

The organizers of LadyHacks come out of the many groups here that are trying to change tech culture. There’s Girl Develop It, which offers classes in everything from coding to design to salary negotiation; Girl Geek Dinners, a social meetup for women in tech; TechGirlz, a nonprofit that teaches middle-schoolers to code, and the Philly Women in Tech Summit—an annual conference that’s part of Philly Tech Week.

By focusing on providing the skills and connections women need, they’re taking on the culture Emily Bazelon wrote about last week in the New York Times: “’You can’t take for granted you’ll be taken seriously,’ one female start-up adviser who had worked at a major tech company told me. ‘That is different for men, 100 percent.’ Many of the women spoke with a mix of frustration and dismay about the guys in computer-science class who were reluctant to code with them or the executives who weren’t sure they were right for a job or promotion.”

Registration for LadyHacks is $10. Visit LadyHacks.org.

For more information about LadyHacks, visit LadyHacks.org or email ladyhacksnet@gmail.com. Registration is here.

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The Real War on Poverty

Early childhood education is the key…So why are we so bad at evaluating child care quality?

By Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s largest cities. Its rate of deep poverty (household income less than half the poverty line) also tops the list.

A city can do three things to put a dent in poverty. It can engage the problem through social service, job training, and housing programs; it can create an environment that maximizes job growth; and it can promote high quality education opportunities.

For 50 years the city has had an office whose sole purpose was to fight poverty but it has been largely disconnected from other parts of government and certainly from the private sector. It was created in 1965 to draw War on Poverty funds from the Federal government.

In 1978 Mayor Rizzo reorganized it as the Philadelphia Allied Action Commission, and then in 1984 Mayor Goode transformed the agency into the Mayor’s Office of Community Services (MOCS).

The agency was commonly viewed as a patronage office.  Exempt from civil service requirements, it used hiring flexibility to fulfill political favors while ostensibly coordinating community activities.

MOCS was the kind of place where the friend of a friend who helped elect someone might work. It was the antipoverty version of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

In 2013, with two years left in his term, Mayor Nutter changed its name to the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and brought in Eva Gladstein, an accomplished public executive to run it. Shared Prosperity is the new office’s poverty-fighting plan. It focuses on work force development, access to public benefits, early childhood learning, housing security, and asset building.

To its credit the report has goals and performance metrics, but the office does not have the structural power to coordinate operations over disparate efforts inside and outside of government. Continue reading

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Won’t Back Down

For a year and a half, the editors of Neshaminy High’s newspaper have refused to reverse their ban of the school’s racist nickname. This is their story.

By Gillian McGoldrick

Editor’s Note: This commentary was originally published in Education Week on Feb. 18, 2015. The author is a senior at Neshaminy High School, in Langhorne, Pa., and the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Playwickian.

Gillian McGoldrick

Gillian McGoldrick

When I raised my hand to vote in a classroom at Neshaminy High School nearly 18 months ago, I was unaware of the battle I was about to ignite as editor-in-chief of The Playwickian, my school’s newspaper. In the fall of 2013, one of my fellow editors began a conversation about our school mascot, which is also the name of every sports team at our school and our school’s nickname. This would soon become a national controversy over our use of a racist mascot and a legal battle over the amount of control students have over their publications in public schools.

This mascot is the “Redskin.” It has been consistently criticized by a Native American parent within our school district for its derogatory and hateful connotation. The paper’s staff and I came to a consensus that we should listen to what this parent had to say and start a conversation about the future use of the mascot, given how offensive it is to Native Americans. We debated, did our research, and ultimately came to a vote—14-7—in favor of removing the mascot—and the football team’s name—entirely from our newspaper, essentially forming a new policy. Both the majority and the dissenting sides wrote editorials, and we went to press Oct. 23, 2013.

As the editor-in-chief since 2013, I continue to face reproach for this decision, including the possibility of criminal charges, as well as a lot of social-media bashing by my peers and the parents in my school district.

My high school is known for its strong athletic program and as a football powerhouse, making it to the playoffs almost every year. With an environment focused on school sports and a population of 2,600 students, there is a foundation built on school spirit. From “gym night,” our school’s version of spirit night, to football games, an entire community is enriched by these traditions. So when we published our editorials and our stance on the mascot name, pushback came not only from the community, but the student body as well. We took the initial heat from the community and our peers and thought we would be on our way, until we faced opposition from the last place we expected—our administration.

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Illustrated by Brent Greenwood. ©Brent Greenwood

A few days after we published the editorials and the student body’s reaction had slowly begun to die down (painful though it was), my principal, Robert McGee, sent a directive to our newspaper adviser, Tara Huber. In this directive, he said that our “new” policy would be put on “hold,” and that we were not permitted to edit or reject any letters to the editor, advertisements, or articles that featured the mascot. So this policy that we had just formed carefully and precisely was now suddenly reversed. Continue reading

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Your City Defined: Percent For Arts Program (pərˈsent fər ärts ˈprōˌɡram)

This is the reason you can meet your friends at the Clothespin.

Established in March 1959 by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Percent for Arts Program requires developers to allocate at least one percent of building construction costs of redevelopment projects to the commissioning of original, specific-to-the-site artworks. This was the first legislation of its kind passed in the United States.

The Percent For Arts Program was part of Richardson Dilworth’s vision for Philadelphia. Mayor of Philadelphia from 1956 to 1962, Dilworth presided over Philadelphia’s Modern Golden Age, restored parks and historical sites, reformed public transportation, and established a public housing system, among other things.

Since the inception of the Percent for Arts Program, nearly 400 pieces of artwork have been installed in Philadelphia. These include “Wave Forms” by Dennis Oppenheim (Domus Building 34th & Chestnut Street); “Plateau” by Andrea Blum (University of Pennsylvania, 40th & Walnut Streets); “Open Air Aquarium” by Magdalena Abakanowicz (Dockside, Columbus Boulevard); and “Goldilocks” by Ming Fay (Tivoli Building, 20th & Hamilton Streets).

In an effort to ensure that the artworks are fully integrated into the community, the Redevelopment Authority requires that 5 percent of the Percent for Art contribution goes to educational programming about communities and public art. This “Percent for Community” may take the form of artist workshops, arts education, pamphlets and audio tours.

While this was a groundbreaking program 50 years ago, its model has since been improved by other cities, according to a PennPraxis study commissioned in 2008. Cities seem to have solved issues that plague Philadelphia’s version of the program: lack of funding for ongoing maintenance and conservation of the collection of these public artworks, and the inability of the city to enforce the program and ensure that developers are complying.

Unfortunately, the program has received minimal funding and support from the Redevelopment Authority and several mayoral administrations. With a bare-bones staff and little funding, developers face little punishment if they do not comply with the Percent for Arts Program demands.

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Citizen of the Week: Nikki Johnson-Huston

Informed by her own year of homelessness, a Philly tax lawyer created an app to help connect those in need with the organizations that help

By Rosella LaFevre

When Nikki Johnson-Huston was nine, her family lost their home.

When they could afford it, they stayed in hotels or short-term apartments. When the money ran out, they relied on the kindness of friends and strangers who would let them sleep on the couch or in a spare bedroom. Other times, they used the last of their cash to get to a shelter at someone’s suggestion. Sometimes the shelter was closed or didn’t serve families.

NikkiJohnson-Huston“We didn’t have a network of people we could go to, so we would get sent to places that didn’t serve people in our population,” Johnson-Huston recalls. “It made us very distrustful of the system.”

Now Johnson-Huston, a tax attorney and former Assistant City Solicitor, has translated this early experience with homelessness into a platform to affect change. She conceived and funded the creation of a new mobile app, Donafy (available March 2 in the Apple store), which can turn every smartphone user in Philadelphia into a street team for the area’s local organizations fighting to end homelessness.

The app’s name is a mishmash of the words “donate” and “notify.” The app enables users to alert local organizations of people in need of help by making a phone call through the app, as well as give donations as small as $1 to organizations set up to take them through PayPal.

She likes the immediacy with which app users can give to their chosen organization. She recalls one time giving $5 to a homeless man outside a Wawa. When she saw him use it to buy cigarettes, she thought there had to be a better way to give her money. “I’m not going to judge that person, but I felt like I didn’t really help them,” she says. “I felt like, Gosh, if I’d given $5 or $10 to an organization how would they help people like this?

Johnson-Huston was homeless for one year before her mother sent her, at age 10, to live with her grandmother in the California cities of Santa Maria and San Diego. The two lived on public assistance and she attended public school. Meanwhile, her mother met the man who would become her stepfather and they shifted from place to place. Her brother was sent to foster care, and struggled with homelessness until he passed away in 2010.

“I’m incredibly lucky. My mom did what a good mom does: You give your child the best options you can in life,” Johnson-Huston says. “Living with my grandmother was the best option for me.”

While she lived with her grandmother, she learned the importance of service. The message that sticks with her: There is no shame in being poor, but being poor of character.

Johnson-Huston hopes her app will teach young adults that they have something to give, even if it’s just $1. “I wanted to get young people in the habit of giving, which I call ‘micro-philanthropy.’ I think it’s great if you have millions to give but most people don’t,” she says.

Her sense of responsibility for taking action to help others comes not only from her grandmother’s parenting, but from her life after homelessness. “To a certain extent it was a lot of luck on my part,” Johnson-Huston says. “It was people giving me second, third and fourth chances.” Continue reading

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