Bilal Qayyum has made a career of trying to defuse the senseless bloodshed on city streets that every year snuffs out the lives of Black men across Philadelphia. On a rainy Thursday, on the steps of the School District of Philadelphia, he added a new weapon in his fight.
Qayyum, representing the Fathers’ Day Rally Committee, last week lent his support to the city teachers, many of whom have been laid off and are looking for work following the budget cuts that drastically reduced their numbers. The rally, which brought together representatives of the N.A.A.C.P, The Fathers’ Day Rally Committee, Parents United for Public Education and a few other organizations wanting to show teachers some love.
The afternoon rally drew about 50 people.
“We wanted to make the statement that we support teachers and the hard work that they do,” Qayyum said. “They are beaten up nationally and locally. When you look at the things that happened here this summer — the SRC (School Reform Commission), Arlene Ackerman — all of the things that have happened but the test scores continue to go up. That says a lot about the teachers and the parents of the children.”
A number of other speakers joined the rally, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan. Jordan addressed the crowd just hours before his union — 15,000 strong — approved a one-year contract extension later that evening.
“This is really great to have partners across the city that support teachers,” Jordan said. “We have a job of producing great kids that will turn into great leaders for our city in the future; it is an incredible challenge.”
Jordan will be happy to hear that Qayyum intends to focus much of his energy moving forward advocating education and those charged with passing it on to the city’s students. Qayyum said that much of the violence in the city is the result of poverty. Poverty, Qayyum says, is the result of children not being educated.
This leads to a vicious cycle that so often victimizes African-American boys in particular.
“The mayor and the police commissioner can put as many police officers on the streets as possible but it’s not going to change the problem,” Qayyum said. “As long as we are producing men that aren’t sufficiently educated, they are going to continue to turn violence. Education is the only thing that will prevent this from happening.”
Qayyum mirrored the opinion of acting superintendent Leroy Nunery. Earlier this week in an editorial board meeting with the Tribune, Nunery said that it is important for teachers and students to become more digitally proficient.
“We have to bring attention to the fact that education is no longer about just reading, writing and arithmetic,” Qayyum said. “Kids have to receive the proper education that prepares them to be successful in the future.”
Leroy Nunery seeks continued test score growth, better rapport with union
In a wide-ranging meeting with The Philadelphia Tribune earlier this week, acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery spoke optimistically about his future with the Philadelphia School District, enthusiastically about getting students up to speed in a digital age, with trepidation about the relationship between the district and the city’s teachers’ union, and not at all about his role in the Martin Luther King High School quagmire.
The runner-up to former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the job in 2008, Nunery, who has lived and worked in the city for the last 13 years, said if he does not succeed in his present job, there is no need to even think about leading the country’s eighth-largest school district.
“I’m not going to put any further thought into it,” Nunery said. “If I don’t do the job that I’m tasked with doing today, then it won’t matter in three or four months, so that’s where I am.
“Do I believe I have the qualifications? Yes,” said Nunery, adding that he has not spoken with Mayor Michael Nutter about the job. “I’ve already been vetted through the process once. I’ve been in this seat and, quite frankly, I’m doing my old job as deputy superintendent in the current job as acting superintendent at the same time.”
Nunery, who served as Ackerman’s deputy for 14 months before she agreed to a $905,000 buyout of her contract in August, knows that there will be a national search to fill the position.
He does, however, think that he has shown the commitment required to do the job. For years he worked with Edison Schools in New York, but continued to raise his family here.
“I’ve been around a lot of folks, from labor union heads to presidents of universities, community leader and public officials,” Nunery said.
“That doesn’t mean that those things are going to buffer me, but at least I know my way around town. It’s not starting from scratch; it’s more about having a running start and there are some real advantages to that. But if I don’t get the superintendent’s job, if I decide that I’m interested in it, I’ll still be in education because this is what I’ve been called to do. As for the national search, the whole idea of looking for the best talent is something that the city is owed.”
Nunery spoke glowingly about the smooth start to the school year. However, he acknowledged that the budget cuts — the result of the effort to close the $680 million budget gap — have left the district with a skeleton staff. Cuts have reduced staff at central headquarters on Broad Street by 50 percent.
Overall, the district staff, according to Nunery, has been reduced by 30 percent.
Since schools opened last month, Nunery has busied himself by “getting out to as many schools as possible in the community, meeting with business and community leaders.”
Whether or not Nunery ultimately becomes the superintendent, the disparity and apparent inequity in the awarding of contracts to city businesses will continue to be an issue. As recently as 2003, in an overwhelmingly African-American school district, minority and women-owned businesses just got 2 percent of the pie. An anti-discrimination policy adopted that year boosted that number to 27 percent in 2010. However, fewer than half of those dollars went to African-American contractors.
Nunery said that African-Americans must do a better job of providing the goods and services that the school district needs. He used as an example the purchasing of textbooks, saying that not a lot of African-American companies sell text books.
In the past, African-American companies, according to Nunery, have benefitted in areas of providing social and support services. But in order to receive a larger piece of the pie, Nunery said, businesses will have to provide the services that the budget-strapped district requires.
“There will be more opportunities in construction, retrofitting buildings and things of that nature. That is where you are going to have more opportunities. We have got to turn some of these buildings into more energy-efficient buildings. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities for local businesses.”
Although Nunery says the district is not where it wants to be in terms of graduation rates and improving academic performance, it can point to nine straight years of rising test scores.
Nunery says this is not enough. He said that too many children are graduating from schools — not just in Philadelphia, but all over the country — needing remedial help once they get to college. He referred to a recent conversation with a local administrator in which he was told that three-fourths of the students coming out the school district need remedial assistance, mostly, he says, in technical areas.
“We have to get our kids up to speed in the areas of science, technology, math and science so that the district can be more market responsive,” he said. “We want our children to be more digitally proficient. If that is going to happen, the teachers are going to require more training in that area. It’s that simple.”
Nunery also hopes to develop a better working relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He knows that the union does not favor teacher evaluations — the city’s union chose not to participate in the state’s pilot program.
However, Gov. Tom Corbett, in releasing his education agenda earlier this week, highlighted improved standards in teacher evaluations as one of his main goals.
“This is coming, the whole idea of teacher evaluations.” said Nunery, adding that he has had a number of good conversations with union boss Jerry Jordan. “The conversation for us is about getting both sides on the same side.”
What isn’t coming any time soon from Nunery is an explanation of what he meant when describing a meeting about Martin Luther King High School becoming a charter school as being like a scene from “The Godfather.”
Nunery attended the meeting — along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, former School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie and Mosaica Turnaround Partners President John Porter. Mosaica had been chosen to manage King over Evans’ charter partner, Foundations Inc., just hours earlier.
Mosaica backed out following that meeting, King never became a charter, and last month a scathing report out of the mayor’s office determined that Archie’s and Evans’ actions were inappropriate.
“What I said is in the report,” said Nunery, refusing further comment.
After an adversarial summer that left the School Reform Commission and the office of the superintendent in a state of upheaval, conversation is breaking out across the city with the goal of moving forward and leaving the ruins behind.
This was the tone struck Tuesday night at a public forum discussion of governance and the School District of Philadelphia. Presented by Public Citizens for Children and Youth at the United Way building, the panel, moderated by recently retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith, took on issues such as whether or not SRC members should be paid, whether an elected board works better than the SRC, the lack of succession planning in leadership positions and other issues.
SRC critic Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education, believes that the SRC, which oversees the third largest budget (approximately $3 billion), should be a full-time job.
“I don’t think that five people who have separate jobs and think they are volunteering as an appointment can really do the job that is necessary,” Gym flatly stated. “I just don’t think it’s a volunteer job. You have the third largest budget in the state and you are just going to hand it over to a group of volunteers who don’t have it on their agenda as a full-time job? I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sandra Dungee-Glenn, president and chief executive officer of American Cities Foundation, was the former chair of the SRC. She also served on the Board of Education before it was replaced by the SRC in 2001 in response to the school district’s financial problems.
Dungee-Glenn believes that the chair should take a salary; the other four members, she says, should not.
“You are sitting in that seat and it’s hard for anyone; it’s tough,” Dungee-Glenn said. “For the chair to do it well you need to be devoted to it full time. You are not only the leading voice but you are also the one responsible for setting the agenda — you’re the face of the city and the school district. So, yes, the chair should be a full-time position.”
The district is still trying to close a budget gap that was as high as $680 million. There have been mass layoffs, a damning report out of the mayor’s office condemning the actions of former SRC boss Robert L. Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans, the buyout of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the subsequent resignations of Archie and fellow board member Johnny Irizarry.
For Dungee-Glenn, how those charged with leading the school district arrive there — via appointment or election — is more important is that they know there job when they get there.
“How they get there is not really important,” she said. “Whether elected or appointed, most school board members are very poorly prepared for what we are asked to do — that’s really the problem.”
Keith Lomax, a 2011 Southern High graduate, expressed concerns that the SRC didn’t operate in the best interest of Philadelphians, mostly because the governor has more appointments than the mayor.
“It should have had more people from Philadelphia who are familiar with what goes on in Philly,” Lomax, headed for the army, said.
For Maurice Jones, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union and the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhood Schools, governance at the school district is an amorphous group of acronyms that seem out of touch with parents and the students.
“From the perspective of a parent,” Jones, the home and school president of Lea Elementary, said, “I just feel like I haven’t been able to interact with the whole process because my voice is never heard. People get nominated for positions and there is no interaction. They come and they go and during that process the parents, who speak for children, don’t have a say. When they are gone the parent is still left standing and wondering when I’m going to get a say. When do we get an opportunity to have a say?”
Samuel Reed, a representative for the for the Teachers’ Institute of Philadelphia, believes that too often governance is discussed from the top down, the result being that the grass roots people are ignored and neglected.
“We all need to be involved to have a better, more responsive school district,” Reed said. “Therefore you should just be concerned about who is in charge and running the big operation. Let’s take care of the foundation at the school level, then we can approach what we need to do at the top. If you have a poor foundation but good governance at the top, what are you going to have? The foundation hasn’t been addressed and as a result the building is going to crumble.”
Smith led the discussion into a conversation about succession planning; something the school district has come under criticism for, particularly in wake of yet another national search to fill the vacant superintendent’s seat. Smith asked whether constantly bringing in people with a “new vision” for the school district was a good idea.
“I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about that,” said former Trenton Public Schools principal and Penn Professor James H. Lytle said. “One of Philadelphia’s biggest problems is that it hasn’t had a local superintendent since the mid 1990s.”
A professor of Foundations and Practices in education, Lytle added, “One of the first things you teach is leadership so that you don’t have to go fishing all over the countryside every time we need a new leader. We have not done a good job of this at any level.”
Ed Williams, Lori Schorr say they are partners with Phila. district – not overseers
Lori Shorr and Ed Williams, the new city and state executive adviser appointees for the Philadelphia School District, don’t want their new roles misinterpreted as the district embarks on yet another search for a superintendent.
In their own words, they are not operatives of the city or the state, setting up offices at 400 N. Broad St. to provide oversight to a district that many, following a summer of turbulence, view as out of control.
“No, my role is anything but that,” said Williams, chuckling, recently following last week’s meeting of the School Reform Commission. “Our roles will crystallize in the coming weeks. But the one thing that is completely understood is that this is partnership and the goal is simple: make sure everything we do is geared toward making the next superintendent’s transition work for the children, teachers and parents of the district. That’s all.”
“I have an excellent working relationship with [Interim Superintendent] Lee Nunery,” Shorr said. “I have been working closely with the district for the last three-and-a-half years. The mayor is very concerned about the state of education in the city. This will be an extension and a convenience in that we can be in more constant communication about what happens in the district in real time. But we’ll be following Leroy’s lead. It’s going to be exciting to just be here for the acting superintendent.”
Both Shorr and Williams are lifelong educators.
Before she became the chief education officer in the mayor’s office at the start of 2008 — where her primary focus is to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase college degree attainment — Shorr spent the previous two years as the vice president of Policy and Planning with the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nationally recognized non-profit that manages millions of dollars in investments from government and industry.
Before this, she was a special assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, reviewing and analyzing initiatives and priorities to ensure that they met established standards.
Before Tomalis appointed him, the semi-retired Williams had previously served as the chief academic officer for the district. He has also served as the deputy associate deputy associate superintendent for the office of schools, where he oversaw the transformation of the district’s then 264 schools into the neighborhood cluster model.
Williams has also served as both a teacher and a principal at the elementary and secondary levels.
Both will be integral in providing information and input room the city and state as the district embarks on yet another national search for the next superintendent, a search of which Mayor Michael Nutter has not provided a timeline.
Nutter said the process would be ramped up once the SRC is fully constituted.
The SRC on Monday moved one step closer to completion when Nutter named arts advocate and novelist Lorene Cary to the SRC. Cary should be swiftly approved, and then the last piece of the SRC should be finalized around Thanksgiving if gubernatorial nominee Pedro Ramos is confirmed by the state Senate.
Nunery has voiced his approval of Shorr and Williams lending a hand and helping the struggling district.
“This is not only my ringing endorsement,” Nunery said, “but I’m excited about having people on my wings talking all the time about how to get things done and working with the great team of people that have. We’ve got some folks here who are incredibly dedicated to their craft. What we need to do now is charge forward.”
Both Williams and Shorr believe that Nunery – as the interim now and, ultimately, if he becomes the superintendent – must be the person to make all the final decisions on everything.
“This is his plan; we’re just here to advise him and support him in the things he wants to do,” Williams said. “So if he gets the job, great. He will have been involved in all of the things we have talked about. It should be an opportunity for Leroy to move the system where he wants to move it, and then I’m going to support him in any way. That’s how I see the role of the advisers.”
Bright Hope Baptist Church Pastor Kevin Johnson has heard all of the talk about “turning pages” and transparency coming out of the Philadelphia School District the past week.
He’s seen the School Reform Commission swear in a new member, and he’s seen the appointment, by the mayor and the state, of a pair of executive advisors.
But Johnson wants to see the changes in action, not hear about them from a podium.
“All of this looks good in theory,” said Johnson, who is former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s minister. “But the verdict is still out. It might work for the adults. But the verdict is out on whether or not it will work for the kids.”
On Monday, Mayor Michael Nutter, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and the SRC held a press conference to reinforce the notion of increased cooperation and collaboration between the city and state to improve the school district. In the days to follow, anyone connected with the school district spoke of a new transparency, something sorely lacking in the school district in recent months.
Johnson hopes this new transparency is not solely about the children, but also the business that is generated by the school district’s $3 billion budget. Referencing the uproar in the city when Ackerman gave a previous no-bid contract for $7.5 million to IBS Communications, Inc — one of many minority firms sidestepped for district business — Johnson hopes that this will no longer be the case in a district that is more than 80 percent African American.
“I’m all for fiscal transparency but I’m also for fiscal equity,” Johnson said. “We can be transparent all we want, but what good is it if minority contractors don’t get their fair share? What good is it if there is no equity?”
On the same page with Johnson is state Rep. Ron Waters. Like Johnson, a supporter of Ackerman, Waters wants more than lip service in every facet of the school district’s operation.
“There has to be transparency in order to build up and keep public trust strong,” Waters said. “Taxpayers are entitled to know how the money is being spent and invested. They should know everything from payrolls to contracts to student achievement.”
Nutter on Tuesday named Lori Shorr, since 2008 the mayor’s chief education officer and the director of the office of the public school family and child advocate, as the city’s executive adviser. Tomalis named Edward Williams, the school district’s former chief academic officer, as the state’s representative. Acting chair Wendell Pritchett, the mayor’s most recent appointee to the SRC, made his debut at the first SRC meeting of the academic year on Wednesday. Nutter is expected to name his next appointee later this month, and gubernatorial appointee Pedro Ramos should go before the state senate for confirmation around Thanksgiving.
And in one final Wednesday move, Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, was chosen to head up the Financial Operations and Systems Working Group, an unpaid position. The SRC will appoint a group of five to nine executives from around the city with expertise on financial, contracting, and personnel matters.
On Wednesday, Shorr and Williams said their role is to offer advice to interim superintendent Leroy Nunery. However, Nunery will “be the man to make the final decisions,” Williams said.
All of these moves are seen as counters to the circus-like operation of the district in recent months. There has been little explanation as to how the district budget gap soared to $629 million. Some have wondered if the strong-arm tactics of former SRC chairman Robert Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans — detailed in a scathing report by the mayor’s chief integrity officer — warrant criminal charges.
All this, of course, was sandwiched between Ackerman’s SRC-granted contract extension, her refusal to support Evans’ charter takeover of Martin Luther King High School and her subsequent ouster as superintendent, orchestrated by the SRC.
This has activist Elder Pamela Williams making demands.
Before moving on, Williams wants to see the SRC’s books opened for the public going all the way back to its inception in January 2005. Like Johnson, she wants a full accounting of all the districts contracts.
“We say that we are going to be transparent, but where does it start?” Williams asked.
Referring to Shorr, Williams added, “It does not start with the mayor appointing an overseer to watch over Leroy Nunery,” the interim superintendent. “Now everything that happens will be pushed under the rug.”
Williams also believes that district chief financial officer Michael Masch has been given a free ride with regard to the district’s financial woes. Ackerman once described the advice given her by Masch as “mumbo-jumbo.”