HelenGym's blog

Is there a way out of the District's budget hole?

(I'll be on Radio Times from 10-11 a.m. this morning talking about the District budget crisis. Calls are welcome!)

The School District's plan to close the huge budget gap undermines the very bedrock of what we know works in education: early childhood supports, full-day kindergarten, transportation, a manageable class size.

But when the District is faced with a deficit of more than $600 million, are there better solutions?

Much of the public’s attention has been rightly focused on Harrisburg. But no matter what comes out of the final state budget debate, both the city government and the District also need a multi-tiered, short- and long-term approach toward addressing finances. The District also needs some serious re-consideration of the type of leadership that will help us get there.

First, Philadelphia needs a grassroots coalition-building approach toward Harrisburg. District officials have been organizing a series of bus trips and rallies to the state capital to protest the governor’s budget. But local leaders ought to know that actions which include only Philadelphians and feature the controversy-laden District in a prominent role will have limited impact.

The stronger tactic is to build alliances with districts and education supporters across the state, all of whom have benefited from improved funding for schools. This type of alliance helped win the historic Rendell-era funding formula in the first place. In a political environment that is so jaded about Philadelphia's needs, a coalition approach is needed more than ever.

Second, the city needs to re-establish its financial responsibility to the school district. Several years ago a group I co-founded, Parents United for Public Education, worked with others to secure a higher share of city real estate revenue for the schools. City Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr. sponsored a bill that increased the District's share from 58 to 60 percent and brought in an additional $10 million to the schools at the time.

Under the Nutter administration, we have seen that share decline from 60 percent to 55 percent, a difference of almost $60 million, according to the District’s finance office. Although property taxes have increased, the City's contribution to schools has reverted back to 2007-8 levels. The City has also held onto sacred cows like uber-generous tax abatements. An

Inquirer analysis done in 2008 said that by 2012 the schools would have forfeited at least $109 million due to tax abatements. Our schools don’t see a dime of profit from the program until 2025.

The mayor needs to take a proactive approach about the local funding of schools in the deepest financial crisis to face our schools. The city must decide on an additional allocation to help the District address the immediate budget gap. The mayor should support re-establishing the 60 percent property tax share to schools and easing the financial impact of the tax abatement program.

A scandal that can't be ignored

(This entry was cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

Recent revelations about the role of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie in the awarding of a school contract that could be worth up to $60 million demand a full investigation from state agencies and a response from Mayor Nutter.

According to a Public School Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, Archie used his role as SRC chair to effectively nullify the decision to give Martin Luther King High School to one charter organization and lobbied instead in favor of the nonprofit Foundations, Inc. – even though Archie acknowledged a conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman claims her top deputy was “shocked” by what went on in one meeting run by Archie and is distancing herself from the affair. Yet her statements seem to contradict what the superintendent said she previously knew and when she knew it, and they don't explain Ackerman's own lack of action.

Foundations, which is closely tied with State Rep. Dwight Evans and has been represented by Archie’s law firm, withdrew its bid from King High School last week following the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, citing a climate of “unrelenting hostility” from a “vocal minority.”

Foundations’ withdrawal shouldn’t mean the SRC and District officials get to retreat behind closed doors. Instead, Foundations’ decision should strengthen the resolve to investigate what increasingly looks like serious wrongdoing.

Consider:

  1. On March 16, the SRC voted to give King High School to Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a for-profit, Atlanta-based charter school organization. Immediately after the SRC voted, Commissioner Archie joined Rep. Evans in a private meeting at District headquarters with Mosaica’s John Porter. After denying knowledge of the meeting details for over a month, District officials finally admitted that Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery was present and had been ordered by Archie to call in Porter. That encounter was clearly influential. Before it occurred, Porter said he was “ecstatic” to win the King vote. Less than 24 hours later, Porter abruptly withdrew Mosaica’s bid.
  2. A parent volunteer with the King SAC reported that in a one-on-one encounter with Archie on April 12, Archie told her she “did not have a choice” in what he called “a done deal” at King. The parent said Archie offered to be personally accountable for Foundations, including writing into the deal certain provisions the SAC wanted. The parent declined Archie’s offer.
  3. The next day, members of the King SAC met with the full SRC and Ackerman in a closed-door meeting. SAC members reported that Archie seemed to question the validity of their vote, while the other commissioners and Ackerman remained mostly silent on King’s management. The two SAC members in the room were brought to tears during the meeting. They said afterwards they were “furious” with Archie’s role and demanded an investigation.

In failing to raise any questions about Archie’s or its own behavior, the SRC demonstrates a clear double standard around conflict of interest. Last year, the SRC halted plans for West Philadelphia High School, citing a “conflict of interest” complaint against parents who had received an $8 an hour stipend to improve parent engagement from a subcontractor of one of West's potential turnaround partners. The District’s Inspector General even investigated the parents, a probe that went nowhere.

At the time, Ackerman was quoted as saying:

"If there's a perception or appearance of a conflict of interest, wouldn't you want this District to do something about it?” asked Ackerman.

Yet, weeks after Archie’s troubling involvement at King High School, no similar action has been taken.

There are still contradictory accounts of people's roles and their actions, or lack thereof.

Regarding the private meeting with Mosaica's Porter, Archie last week issued a brief statement acknowledging his presence “in his capacity as School Reform Commission chairman.” However, he has refused repeated requests by the Notebook/NewsWorks to answer questions about his overall conduct. Other SRC commissioners remain equally silent.

Commissioner Archie and the entire SRC must answer questions about their role in this process. Archie also needs to disclose his specific conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting but apparently not his actions behind closed doors.

The superintendent’s predictable habit of blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility can't be tolerated as a shield. Ackerman, who earlier denied any knowledge of what happened in that fateful meeting, now claims her deputy Nunery never provided her with details - and still has not to this day. Ackerman needs to explain why she continued go along with Foundations’ bid until the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation became public.

At this point, the state Inspector General or the state Attorney General’s office must conduct an investigation into the SRC, which is a state body. Depending on the results of that investigation, further action may need to happen from agencies higher up.

Mayor Nutter, who has often distanced himself from the District’s myriad problems, needs to address this growing scandal immediately. Archie was Nutter’s choice for SRC commissioner in 2009. The best thing would be for the Mayor to quietly ask Archie to step aside and lead the call for a full investigation. In the midst of a critical state budget, Philadelphia can’t afford to let questionable behavior overshadow the effort to reinstate education funding by Harrisburg.

Allowing the corrupted process at King to remain uninvestigated will further erode public confidence in the integrity of this administration to steer itself through yet another crisis.

Education Chat: Helen Gym - the continuing conversation

Yesterday, I was a guest on a live chat at philly.com about the District’s budget cuts. The dialogue was fast-paced and lively, and included comments from education advocates, parents, and the District’s communications staff members Shana Kemp and Jamilah Fraser. Because of the timing, not all the questions were posted or answered, so I'm reprinting a highlight of additional posts below. You can read the full comment list at www.thenotebook.org.

State Rep. Dwight Evans: Bullies out a competitor like a "bulldog on a bone"

It’s not often a window opens into the backdoor politicking that sheds a light on all the terrible decisionmaking in Philadelphia.

That window blew wide open with this stunning interview State Rep. Dwight Evans gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook last week. In the interview, Evans boasted of his effective bullying of the School Reform Commission, Supt. Arlene Ackerman and a competitor in a high stakes game of school operations over Martin Luther King High School.

“I made this case to the [SRC] chairman, I made it to the superintendent, I made it to all of them. I said it to Mosaica – I said it to them all,” said Evans. “I said there’s been a lot of work and effort. ... I just said, 'Look – we have a plan here.'

“I was like a bulldog on a bone,” said Evans.

The quick backstory: State Rep. Dwight Evans was a leading architect behind the state takeover of the Philadelphia Public Schools, and a company with which he has close ties, Foundations Inc., became one of the District’s first EMOs (education management organizations) as well as a major recipient of millions of dollars in school service contracts. Foundations has run Martin Luther King High School for the last eight years, taking in management fees as it ran the school. The school has not done well, to say the least, and its poor academic performance placed it on a list for “turnaround,” a national model of restructuring.

According to District policy, the school formed a School Advisory Council which had parent and school representatives ranking the options for King, which the District unilaterally determined would become a charter school. There were only two choices (a third option pulled out before the vote): Foundations or Mosaica Schools, Inc. The choice, according to parents who spoke to the Notebook, was easy. 8-1, they voted for Mosaica and against Foundations. The School Reform Commission accepted the SAC’s decision last Wednesday.

Cue Rep. Evans in his own words:

Evans: I will tell you, I had a very strong strategy and plan. And I believe I made a very convincing argument.”

Notebook: When after the vote?

Evans: I talked to the chairman, I talked to all of them. I made a very convincing [inaudible]. I showed ‘em all.”

In an interview with the Daily News earlier this week, Evans denied any involvement in the decisionmaking and accused the Notebook of misquoting him. And the Notebook does what any professional journalistic outfit would do; it provides a transcript of the audiotape. Read all about it here at the Notebook.

It’s the latest fiasco behind the difficulty Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has had in convincing school communities that her “turnaround” process for schools is meant to really benefit them. Protests over turnaround – an unproven effort promoted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed – have erupted at West, King, Olney, and Audenried High Schools since the fall.

For example, as a brand new school, Audenried’s students had yet to take the PSSA exams which were supposed to be used to determine which schools were designated for turnaround. The school has protested its designation and has complained that the charter operator, Universal, has had a troubling record as an EMO provider in the District. SRC Chair Bob Archie formerly sat on Universal's board of directors.

West Philadelphia High School will be on its fourth principal in one year and the second dramatic teacher turnover thanks to the turnaround process which requires a new principal and the replacement of 50% of the teaching staff. City Council member Jannie Blackwell has indicated her close involvement in backdoor decisionmaking about West.

Although I admire what State Rep. Evans has done for the Oak Lane neighborhood and a broad visioning of that neighborhood which includes the arts and education, this interview shows he clearly crossed a line in employing brazen tactics to force out a competitor and upend an already fragile process about a minimal attempt at local control.

But hey, it’s all about the kids right?

Once again, the District proves it is its own worst enemy

Shepard Fairey-Obey

The School District’s jaw-dropping decision to terminate Audenried teacher Hope Moffett is just another example of the polarizing style that defines this administration. Whether it’s handling an outspoken young teacher, racial violence at South Philadelphia High School, or parents who disagreed with turnaround policies at West Philadelphia High School, the District has shown the the lengths it will go to make a point and its willingness to sacrifice its moral authority to do so.

But with a political and economic climate that's just waiting for excuses to underfund schools, has this administration's leadership failures become a liability to itself and the city?

Hope Moffett is a young third-year teacher at Audenried High School who by all accounts is dedicated to her work and admired by students and colleagues alike. It’s hard to understand why at a time when qualified, effective teachers are hard to come by, the District wants to make headlines by terminating Moffett’s employment after she raised concerns about the District’s turnaround plan for her school.

Consider for example that the District’s turnaround centerpiece, the Promise Academies, opened this school year staffed mostly by new and inexperienced teachers. Almost three-quarters of Promise Academy teachers are first-year teachers or have less than three years experience, according to the Notebook. More experienced teachers largely opted out of turnaround process. How will Moffett’s termination encourage thoughtful, passionate teachers to come to our hardest-to-staff schools?

Aside from the questionable legal maneuverings, the District’s move toward fast-tracked termination of Moffett also shows zero understanding of a public entity’s responsibility to hear public dissent. As anyone who goes into public service ought to know, our schools are public resources, publicly funded, and ought to be subject to public debate. One would hope that, despite the time and struggle, all of us become better for it. And while not all public servants run to embrace public debate, it’s also clear that this administration seems to reflect a uniquely low level of tolerance for it.

Moffett is just one of a series of examples of the District’s combative management style. The District's refusal to address civil rights violations against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School not only shocked the public but required federal intervention by the U.S. Dept. of Justice. At West Philadelphia High School, the District ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Advisory Council and removed popular principal Saliyah Cruz after the SAC voted in a way that apparently displeased Supt. Arlene Ackerman. State lawmakers complained after the District suspended five whistleblowers in what appeared to be a central office witchhunt. And parents and community members at Audenried are up in arms over a process that ran roughshod over their concerns.

These things add up at a time when the District most needs school communities, teachers, parents, and students rallying to fight for school funding.

State lawmakers have found the District's disasters easy fodder to garner support for reducing Philadelphia's fair share. Gov. Corbett’s budget brings school funding back down to the pre-education funding formula levels when money was based on arbitrary assessments rather than actual need. Philadephia also suffers more than other districts; our damages constitute a full quarter of the education budget cuts.

But rather than work for a unified front, the District seems go out of its way to take umbrage at the slightest offense, devoting important legal resources, media attention, and political capital to scapegoat and villify student victims of violence, ordinary parents, its own central office staff, and an earnest teaching professional.

District officials have complained about poor turnout for a lobbying day in Harrisburg. A Friday rally they organized to protest budget cuts drew a fraction of the support that Teacher Action Group held with its rally called "We will NOT be intimidated!" This afternoon, the PFT will host a demonstration in part to denounce the District's silencing of teachers, a follow-up to their federal lawsuit against terminating Moffett. And although education funding is also on the agenda, the District's poor leadership and management style is clearly driving turnout to the event.

To paraphrase New York University professor Diane Ravitch, it's hard to imagine how anyone can win a war by firing on their own troops. The District, in all its unchecked fury, still seems determined to try.

$500K for a superintendent? Another financial misstep by the School Reform Commission

(This is an updated entry to my Daily News column today and is currently running at the Notebook website)

The announcement by the School Reform Commission that it will extend Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s contract through June 2014 sends a terrible message about the SRC’s approach to the most serious financial disaster the district has seen in recent memory.

The move effectively preserves one of the most lucrative pay packages for a public employee in the state, flying in the face of a national bipartisan trend toward curbing exorbitant compensation for school chiefs.

The contract provides the superintendent with a current salary of $348,140, more than the mayor ($167K with his 10% voluntary paycut) and governor combined ($175K). According to a 2009-2010 study by the Council of Great City Schools, $275,000 was the average salary of heads of districts with 100,000-200,000 students.

The contract becomes even more problematic when bonuses are factored in. Annual performance bonuses worth up to 20 percent of the superintendent’s salary amounted to $65,000 last year. It also entitles the superintendent to a $100,000 retention bonus this year that may be renewed at the discretion of the SRC. In response to inquiries, Ackerman agreed to defer this bonus until the district is on firmer financial footing.

The bonuses are in addition to annual raises, her health plan and a $65,000-a-year contribution to an annuity. Add to that 34 vacation days, 30 days of paid consulting time (which come out of her vacation or personal days) and perks like a car and premiums toward a $1 million life insurance policy. Together salary and benefits push Ackerman to $500,000, and would be $600,000, but for her temporary deferment of the retention bonus.

I contacted the New York City school district, where recently hired Chancellor Cathleen Black earns $250,000, not a single dollar increase over her predecessor and a salary that hasn’t changed since 2002. There are no retention or performance bonuses for Black, who runs a district eight times larger than Philadelphia’s.

The District's communications office has pointed out that Black has some lucrative side deals with corporate boards that dramatically boost her pay. I'm curious to get the same information on our superintendent. After all, she too has a contract that leaves plenty of room to earn money on the side.

To be fair, the high-rolling salaries in Philadelphia began when the SRC was first formed, headed by James Nevels, an investment executive. Nevels often said private industry would solve the problems of public education, and Nevels, who dined regularly at the Four Seasons on the district dime, had the district paying salaries to match. Ex-superintendent Paul Vallas was the first to negotiate previously unheard-of retention and performance bonuses.

But should such excessive compensation continue?

Does City Hall endorse racial profiling by advocating for a Market Street casino - AGAIN?

No casino sign

In posts too many to name, I’ve shared concerns many of us in the Asian community have about the gambling industry’s penchant for racial profiling. Sometimes, though, it’s refreshing when the industry just speaks for itself:

Philadelphia's large Asian and Slavic populations help make it the right place for a second casino, an attorney for a company that had pondered bidding to run a casino here told the House Gaming Oversight Committee Thursday.

“It is known that we have the two ethnicities that frequent the gambling,” said James J. DiVergilis, who represents Global Gaming, a company that operates no casinos, but considered seeking one of the two Philadelphia licenses awarded in 2006 and now wants to open one in the Meadowlands. “The two ethnicities that go to these are the Slavic community and the Asians,” he said. And “outside Brooklyn, North East Philadelphia is the highest Slavic community in the country.” . . . . .

. . . But freshman legislator and committee member John Lawrence, R-Delaware, was clearly flabbergasted by what he heard.

“Sir, with all due respect, your comments with regards to particular ethnic groups being more or less likely to participate in gambling was somewhat surprising and shocking to me. And disturbing, frankly,” Lawrence said. “I wonder where you come across this information, and how you justify it, frankly.”

DiVergilis told Lawrence that this was not his personal opinion, but what he has read in the gaming trade publications [sic]. “It's all in the literature,” he said.

I have to give it up to you Mr. DiVergilis, gambling industry rep, for your brutal honesty in laying out the cold reality of the predatory gambling industry. You’re hardly wrong to be baffled by anyone’s naivete about your industry’s success in free-range racial profiling. In an investor phone call, Steve Wynn cited the proximity of “a Vietnamese neighborhood” as one of the reasons he contemplated (for a nanosecond) taking over the failed Foxwoods project. Sugarhouse is advertising for an Asian Marketing Executive whose primary job is to “attract an Asian player base to the property.” Earlier this month, Sugarhouse filed a request with the Gaming Commission to create an “Asian themed room” with a noodle bar.

So if there’s little pretense about the fact that the gambling industry has its sights set on the Asian community, explain to me why the City not only continues to endorse that industry but enable it by advocating a casino return to Market Street:

Could the idea of a Market Street casino be back on the table?

Mayor Nutter and his staff are still very much opposed to a casino on Columbus Boulevard at Reed Street in South Philly and are keen on a gaming hall on Market Street East in Center City near the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center. Alan Greenberger, Nutter's deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told the state House Gaming Oversight Committee this morning that the administration would like the see a second casino in Philadelphia used to "leverage" a larger project such as a hotel near the Convention Center.

Standing up for teachers, standing up for our schools

STAND FOR TEACHERS
“We will NOT be intimidated. We WILL be HEARD!”
Friday, Feb. 25th, 4 p.m.
440 N. Broad Street (School District HQ)

Info below

Why join this rally?

  1. Sometime next week, an automatic extension clause in the contract of schools chief Arlene Ackerman will kick in, giving the controversial leader another three years in Philadelphia till June 2014, as one of the highest paid superintendents in the country.
  2. A controversial and unproven plan for "turnaround" that's run roughshod over communities and resulted in a series of student walkouts and community protests.
  3. An atmosphere of intimidation and inexplicable aggression by the District against its own constituents, from calling upon the Inspector General to investigate School Council parents at West Philadelphia High School; to the expulsion and typecasting as a gang member a student victim of racial violence who boycotted South Philadelphia High School; to the latest outrage: the forced removal of Audenried teacher Hope Moffett, who spoke out against the District's plan to turn her high school over to the unproven Universal Companies.

Fortunately, Teachers Action Group is stepping up to the plate with a rally this Friday to address a whole lotta these issues. So if you care about your tax dollars, about our schools, and this city's future, join folks tomorrow on the District's doorsteps and say so.

Teacher Action Group calls on:
Teachers, Students, Parents and All Supporters of Public Education

Tell Ackerman and the SRC:
"We will NOT be intimidated!"

Rally for Public Education
Friday, February 25th, 4:00pm
440 N. Broad St.

We DEMAND that the School District of Philadelphia:

  1. Give Students, Parents, Teachers and Community Members a legitimate role in directing School Reform in Philadelphia: Students, Parents, Educators and Communities have first-hand experiences and ideas about what needs to change in our schools. The District consistently offers us only symbolic advisory roles that have no real impact on final decision-making. We DEMAND to be a part of the decisions that will affect our lives and our schools.
  2. Stop Intimidating Teachers and Students:: We have a Democratic Right to express our opinions and ask questions of our District. These are OUR schools. We DEMAND the District stop threatening and disciplining our teachers and students who speak out.
  3. Have a Transparent Process of School Change: The District is targeting our schools by calling them “failures” without showing us adequate data to back up their decisions. The District is continuing to take over schools without proof that the Renaissance Schools process is even working. We DEMAND answers and transparency.

Join us on Friday, February 25th at 4:00pm
440 N. Broad St.

We WILL NOT be intimidated!
We WILL be HEARD!

For more information, contact rally4phillypublicschools@gmail.com
www.tagphilly.org

Open letter to the SRC: The public deserves to know

Today’s Daily News reports that controversial schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman automatically receives a one year contract extension (until June 2014) unless she or the School Reform Commission gives notice by March 1. The SRC’s response?

According to her agreement, she gets to keep her job for a sixth year, through June 2014, if neither she nor the board gives written notice by March 1 of this year of their intent not to extend her term.

"This is a personnel matter about which the School Reform Commission has nothing to report to the media at this time," [SRC Chair Robert] Archie said in a statement.

I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman. The contract of the Superintendent of public schools is not a mere personnel matter. This is not about a private review of a standard District employee. This is about the standards of compensation – which are clearly out of line with significantly larger school districts – and the performance objectives and direction of the School District. The public deserves to know if and why the SRC intends to keep Supt. Ackerman for another three years, how the Commission intends to assess her performance, and whether the terms of her contract make sense at this time.

Among my top questions:

  • Does it make sense to continue to pay the superintendent a salary that is almost as much as the Mayor and Governor combined and has a base salary far greater than districts which are significantly larger?
  • Does the SRC think it sends the right message to hand out 20% performance bonuses, retention bonuses, and annual salary raises no matter the District’s financial state?
  • After last spring’s furor over the SRC’s refusal to publicly disclose the terms under which the Superintendent of schools is assessed for a performance bonus, will the right to secretive performance assessment process also remain a part of the SRC practice?
  • The Superintendent is entitled to as many as 30 consulting days. Is this an appropriate and standard use of public dollars?

In addition, it should be noted as written that the Superintendent’s contract states that if she is terminated “without cause” she is entitled to her full compensation package. One would assume that as of March 2011, she would therefore be entitled to three years of her contract instead of two.

Zack Stalberg at the Committee of 70 calls Archie’s description a “disingenuous” effort to close down inquiry into important matters that should be public discussion.

Claiming this type of information is a “personnel” matter is deeply wrong and a violation of the public trust. The public deserves to know, and the SRC should be providing the answers.

Today at 5 p.m. at 440 N. Broad Street is the SRC's last meeting before March 1st. You can contact the SRC at 215-400-4010.

Tiger Moms, the model minority stereotype and the impact on Asian youth in schools

Earlier this month, Yale Law Professor Amy Chua wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that set off a media and cultural firestorm. Titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” the piece’s outlandish assertions about “Asian immigrant parenting” hit the requisite rounds on the 24-hour news cycle. From Time to Stephen Colbert, media pundits wondered: Are Asians superior in education? What should Westerners do about it? What the mainstream media has not adequately addressed is Chua’s calculated exploitation of two pernicious stereotypes about Asian America every educator needs to consider – the first being the model minority stereotype and the second the threat of a “rising” China.

Chua’s Journal excerpt essentially asserted that Asian immigrant parents are a relentless and constant presence in their children’s lives, one that demands academic excellence and supports non-stop tutoring and music – even on vacations. The media focused on the controversy over whether her authoritarian methods allowed for verbal and psychological abuse and looked down upon other cultures and forms of learning and education.

“Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that Chua’s Journal piece served as a promotion for her novel, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir that by all accounts is not as sensationalistic as the Journal piece that catapulted her book to the top of the charts and made her the subject of talk shows across the country.

While Chua has reportedly backed off some of the assertions in her Journal piece – she claims she didn’t pick the headline for example – there’s no doubt that what made Chua’s essay register on the national media consciousness had less to do with her extreme parenting style than the racialization of the discourse around parenting. Let’s face it: another parenting how-to manual? Snooze. But a parenting manual that plays off the Asian model minority stereotype and the U.S.’s growing fears of an unstoppable China? A marketing and media bonanza.

In particular, Chua’s essay exploits the “model minority” stereotype that has done great harm to Asian American youth in schools. This stereotype promotes the idea that Asian youth will succeed academically under any circumstance because they have families at home that push them toward academic excellence, because Asians understand and support the U.S. system of education, because Asians have access to more resources than others, and because they are resilient and can withstand any manner of abuse. The model minority stereotype implies that Asian Americans are a docile group with a pull yourself up by the bootstraps culture – a group that doesn’t need services or much political or cultural attention and resources.

It leads to the notion that Asians are far from a minority, they’re a super privileged class who evoke fear and competition from American educators. As such, it’s a stereotype that also creates and widens divisions between Asian Americans and other people of color.

The media hype around Chua’s essay also exploits vulnerabilities within the Western psyche about a rising China, fears that gain even more traction when the U.S. struggles economically. We saw this type of Asian xenophobia with Japan in the 1980s. Today it’s China, where the political ads from the November election reflect a calculated attempt to sell voters on candidates who won’t allow the U.S. to fall behind.

These are stereotypes and images that haunt many of our Asian youth in schools, resulting often in the denial of a host of educational services from language services to lack of testing for special ed, counseling services, or multiracial ethnic studies in schools. These stereotypes have led to informal quotas in higher education and the neglect of racial harassment and violence in schools. Consider these challenges:

Top 10 Education Stories of 2010

From rising test scores to a Justice Department settlement about “unlawful discrimination” against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School, education news this year was more prominent than ever. Money poured into the district thanks to stimulus funds and Gov. Rendell’s commitment to an education funding formula. But it was the spending of that money that came under scrutiny, from contracts to salaries to million dollar turnstiles at District headquarters. Here’s my pick for the biggest local education stories of the year.

10. Big money for vouchers in the gubernatorial race: When three suburban Philadelphia businessmen made an unprecedented seven figure contribution to Sen. Anthony Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, you can bet folks sat up and noticed. The reason for the investment was clear: revive vouchers. A Republican sweep of the governor’s office and legislature make it likely this 90’s-era relic will re-surface statewide and in Philadelphia.

9. Minority contracting: The Inquirer’s investigation into Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s role in steering a $7.5 million no-bid security contract to a Black-owned business unleashed renewed complaints about the District’s poor numbers in minority contracting. Black-owned participation is a dismal 13% in the District; white female-owned is 9%, and Hispanic-owned comes in at 4%. Asian Americans receive less than one half of one percent of District business. The question remains whether the District will engage in a transparent process as it tries to improve those numbers.

8. Where's the SRC? Whether it was school violence, a looming deficit, or a willful CEO spending money often without their approval, the failure of a proactive and decisive School Reform Commission was the biggest non-story of the year. This past year, they rubber stamped a host of contracts, met for hours behind closed doors on issues like school finances that ought to have been public, then failed to take decisive action while a budget deficit blew up under their watch (see below). When faced with controversies like the violence at South Philadelphia High School or minority contracting, they stood largely silent before hundreds of people at SRC meetings. One exception: The SRC initiated a task force to identify school failures in addressing black and Latino male achievement though it's unclear how their report will result in significant change. While some commissioners have indicated a need for improvement, as a whole its members seem unable or unwilling to assume their role as fiscal stewards and assure the public they'll provide essential oversight to the often frenetic decision-making in the District.

7. Executive salaries: Daily News columnist Phil Goldsmith made a big splash this summer by highlighting Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s $338,000 salary (not including perks and benefits), among the highest in the country. Salaries overall have ballooned at the District, with chiefs in the public relations, human resources, and legal departments all earning paychecks that rival the Mayor’s. The District’s claim that such salaries are “budget neutral” will have a harder time flying given the pending deficit.

6. West Philadelphia High School: West, once a school on the upswing, became a victim of a Renaissance process gone haywire and a superintendent’s wrath. The problems started when West was slated for outside turnaround over the protest of the principal, staff and community. Things got uglier when Ackerman ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Council for conflict of interest, threw the staff into upheaval, and yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz. West experienced chaos this fall, with many parents and students laying the blame at the feet of District interference.

5. Renaissance schools: Philadelphia jumped onto the school turnaround bandwagon promoted by U.S. Secty. of Education Arne Duncan. The District identified its lowest performing schools through a complex performance index, then invited outside providers to convert them to charters serving the same students in the same buildings. The District also invested millions into its "Promise Academies," which are District-managed investments into low-performing schools. Promise Academies received new principals and teachers – most young and inexperienced – as well as new technology, extra hours of instruction, and enrichment activities. The approach raises questions about outsourcing our most troubled schools and whether the District can guide low-performing schools through a meaningful process of improvement.

4. Rising test scores: For the first time, at least half of Philadelphia students met or exceeded proficiency standards on statewide testing. The Governor, Mayor and District leaders herald the test scores as historic. While the 2010 results are significant, other indicators of academic progress are more sobering. The Nation's Report Card showed that fewer than one in five of Philadelphia’s fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math on national tests – well below the national average – and the Fordham Institute ranked Pennsylvania near the bottom of the nation in terms of rigorous state testing.

3. The DEFICIT: A dogged media confirms that the District’s deficit next fiscal year will far exceed the $230+ million acknowledged by the Superintendent and could approach half a billion dollars. (Note: Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was raked over the coals for a $73 million deficit in 2007). Both the Mayor and Ackerman held a press conference to scold the media for "speculating" about the numbers. In most camps speculating about the budget is usually called sound financial planning, isn’t it?

2. South Philadelphia High School: A year ago dozens of Asian immigrant youth won international attention when they boycotted South Philadelphia High School to draw attention to prolonged racial violence against them. Earlier this month, the U.S. Dept. of Justice charged that the District remained "deliberately indifferent" to "severe and pervasive harassment" which constituted "unlawful discrimination against Asian students based on race, color, and/or national origin at South Philadelphia High School." The Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission issued groundbreaking agreements that set a national standard on how to address racial bias and harassment in schools. A new principal has calmed the school and made clear the difference between a quality leader and a poor one. At the center of it all stood a resilient group of immigrant students, who summed it up best:

“We will always remember December 3, [2009], but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change.”

1. Arlene Ackerman: Yes, the superintendent is my pick for the number one story of the year – for becoming the news all the time. In addition to orchestrating the District’s disastrous response to civil rights violations at South Philadelphia High School, she oversaw a reverse turnaround at a once-stabilized West Philadelphia High; suspended suspected whistleblowers in a contracting dispute; fired and demoted a host of underlings for decisions that turned sour; and won national awards and impressive displays of public support. Her style and personality transcended almost any issue and demanded that every controversy become a personal referendum on her. Last February, a small group of parent supporters held up signs that seemed to embody the District's approach: “It’s Dr. Ackerman’s way or no way.”

With a paralyzing budget deficit looming and school closings on the horizon, education – and Arlene Ackerman – promise to stay at the top of the news agenda in 2011.

Remembering: South Philadelphia High School's racial violence one year later

Duong Ly, student: “We remember December 3rd but we will not be defined by it.”

A year ago today, more than two dozen Asian immigrant students were attacked throughout the school day at South Philadelphia High School. The attacks sparked an eight-day boycott by more than 70 Asian immigrant youth who raised their voices and stood up against school violence, the indifference of school officials, and the retaliatory force of the District. When the boycott ended, they organized and spoke out against continued violence, scapegoating by school officials, and failing leadership at their school. This past summer the U.S. Dept. of Justice issued a "finding of merit" in a federal complaint that the School District of Philadelphia had violated the civil rights of Asian youth by failing to protect them against racial bias and harassment.

In the process, these young boycotters – one of whom had arrived in the U.S. only six weeks prior – demonstrated the power of students to enact change in their schools. They did so under school circumstances most of us would find unimaginable. And they did so with an unwavering sense of principle and justice not only for themselves but for all students who deserve a just education in a safe school.

Today, they have become empowered young leaders who’ve been behind dramatic changes at their school and throughout the District. They’ve challenged racial stereotypes and become articulate and passionate spokespeople for safer, more inclusive and anti-racist schools. And later this afternoon, they’ll commemorate December 3rd flanked by their new principal, student allies across the city, and their fellow classmates.

This didn’t happen because adults with titles and power and responsibility stepped in to solve problems. It happened because one year ago, when chaos and hate descended, when no one quite knew what to do, their voices mattered.

Read more about the progress – and the struggles – at South Philadelphia High School: First steps at South Philly High: Will they lead to lasting change?

Size matters: Signage and casino shenanigans?

Thanks to the work of ever-vigilant SCRUB, City Council has tabled a bill which would have allowed multi-story revolving neon signs along Market Street. Because you know, that's how you class a place up.

"I'm a proponent of creating signage making a more vibrant and attractive place where people will go to after five o'clock at night," said [Councilman Frank] DiCicco. " I've said it before, Market Street from 11th to sixth is the dead zone, after 5:30 hardly anybody's out there."

Hmmm . . . I wonder what thriving business could Councilman Frank “My Fighting Days Are Over” DiCicco possibly support with a seven-story full animation sign going 24 hours a day on Market Street?

Dept. of miserable jobs: Sugarhouse's Asian Marketing Executive

(Update: Read WHYY's story here)

Remember how Chinatown made that big ole fuss over a neighborhood casino?

Here's more proof why: Sugarhouse’s Asian Marketing Exec:

Sugarhouse Asian marketing exec-Part1

Sugarhouse Asian marketing exec-Part2-c

Sugarhouse Asian marketing exec-Part3

Side note: It’s particularly nice to know the qualifications are in keeping with Sugarhouse’s top-notch standards, i.e. "regularly required to walk, stand, see, talk and hear." (don't want to surprise applicants with unexpected job requirements!)

School closings: Top 5 issues

(Cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

Yesterday the District publicly unveiled its proposal for a facilities master plan – aka, for the rest of us, a school closing plan – and based on where the District is going, major issues are already coming to the forefront.

Let’s face it: the District has done a miserable job about school closings in the past. School closings are always going to be painful, yes, but the District’s last-minute timing, failure to give communities options and benefits, and refusal to share information have turned troubling situations into traumatic ones – and unnecessarily so.

Among the things discussed yesterday was the bombshell that some (unnamed) schools may close before September – even though the transfer process is now closed, most private school admissions have closed, and charter school lotteries are being held in a few months. In other words, parents at the shuttered schools are likely to have been shut out of most school choice options.

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