Open Letter to Dr. Hite Regarding School District Facility Issues

Dr. William Hite
Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia

2/20/2020

Dr. Hite:

We, Parents United for Public Education, are deeply concerned with multiple aspects of the facility issues notification process, clean up procedures, and lack of parental involvement in the district’s latest school closures. There is a continued lack of transparency around how hazards are identified, and the procedures for and outcomes of the testing that deems that threats have been cleared. We have spoken with parents in the affected schools about the information given to them by the facility managers and they have expressed similar concerns.

As members in the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative coalition, we are attempting to work with your staff to develop effective information sharing, communication, transparency, and stakeholder involvement. We are aware that there is a great deal of poor communication and miscommunication between the district staff and the school communities. There are also noted inconsistencies between the individual environmental inspectors who are tasked with identifying “imminent hazards.”

In addition, there is a general lack of forethought and planning for how to answer logical questions and provide information regarding the health and welfare of individuals in the school communities impacted by these closures or remediation work. As we have seen over and over again in person and in reporting on these issues, the front line district officials are not adequately able to inform parents and teachers about the level of exposure or any potential medical follow up required. The recently published informational videos with the expert from Drexel do not address these issues, instead providing only the most basic of general information about asbestos, and are not a solution to the communication problems the district has had in this area.

In September, the district told the public that the school buildings were “safe.” This was clearly a false statement. After closing a 9th school for emergency asbestos abatement, there appears to have been a rush to open FLC, McClure, and possibly other schools, even when there has been no effort to clean an HVAC system which has been ignored for decades (in the case of FLC) or to meet the agreed upon requirements for testing (in the case of McClure). These are immediate health hazards and need to be fully corrected. It is very clear that regular timely maintenance had not been done for many, many years at FLC, and it’s clear that the necessary work and testing at both schools hasn’t been sufficiently prioritized. Why is this negligence continuing?

In yet another example of unacceptable practices, Carnell Elementary was closed due to a severe increase in imminent asbestos hazards throughout the school identified by a second inspector despite being recently cleared by the first inspector. The Asbestos Best Practices states that between “2-5 TEM [must] be conducted based on the amount” of this “major friable” abatement. Yet, the decision to reopen was made after only one air quality test performed in the basement. It appears from this and the recent events at other schools that this district is not even following its own stated practices to keep it’s school communities safe.

What has been happening with regard to critical school building issues (mold, asbestos, lead, HVAC) is unacceptable. The rush to take care of individual problems in individual schools means there is no transparency, little planning, a true lack of accountability, limited reporting on what is being fixed and what the fix looks like, and insufficient direct communication with parents.

The lack of district communication and adequate testing has led to a lack of trust in the district’s ability or desire to keep students and staff safe.

We demand:

  • Prioritization of asbestos work that includes stakeholder input, participation or involvement in how priorities are set.
  • A standardized set of inspection/evaluation methods, practices or procedures across schools that is implemented with consistency between inspectors.
  • Inclusion of parent and teacher representatives in the FAC/Principal walkthrough process, follow up environmental inspection activities, and development of a summary report that includes recommendations and an action plan.
  • All reports and methods made available to parents and to the public, translated into multiple languages, and in clear, easy to understand language.
  • Transparent communication that includes:
    • Clear confirmation of school safety after a remediation that includes detailed test results
    • Explanation as to why some schools are open while others are closed during remediation that is fact-based, not reliant on trust in district leadership or contractors
    • Clear criteria for future remediation that dictates when schools are to remain open or be closed
    • Address school community health fears without patronizing or talking down to parents and that realistically and appropriately addresses the level of risk from exposures to asbestos and other environmental health hazards present in the school
    • Timely updates to the website pages related to school environmental concerns many of which contain misinformation and broken links.

We are extremely concerned that these schools are not outliers, but just the first ones. We know that there are nearly 200 Philadelphia schools that have likely asbestos issues that could be causing harmful exposure to asbestos. The district’s response to this point has been haphazard, flatfooted, misleading, and alarming to parents, staff, and students. This is a process. Though we understand that we have only just begun, we are stunned by the lack of transparency, poor leadership, and unprofessionalism that have persisted through these facility emergencies.

Respectfully,

Leadership, Parents United for Public Education

Philly Healthy Schools Initiative

Since 2015, Parents United for Public Education has been working towards ensuring Philadelphia’s schools buildings are safe, warm, and inviting for students, staff, and communities. We helped to expose the serious facility and health issues existing in our schools with Inside Philadelphia’s filthy schools aired on Aljazeera America.

We joined the Philly Healthy School Initiative (PHSI) in May 2017, to fortify our efforts with many of the largest labor unions: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), AFL-CIO, AFSCME districts 33 and 47, and Teamsters Local 502, representing the city’s public school principals; as well as parent/community organizations such as the Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE); environmental health groups like Penn Environment and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and national school facility organizations such as 21st Century Fund.

The PHSI’s mission is to take immediate, ongoing, and much needed action to address the threat of dangerous conditions in Philadelphia’s public school buildings and grounds. We know that working together, we can make sure that all of Philadelphia’s schools are healthy and safe places.

The plan includes:

  • Improve the Public’s Right to Know by requiring greater information and data transparency about environmental health threats from the School District of Philadelphia to parents, teachers, and community members. District officials have thousands of Indoor Environmental Quality reports, site inspections and other environmental health-related data that is not easily available, or even known, to the public.
  • Establish “Adequate Building Conditions” that will set minimally acceptable environmental health standards that should be met by every school building in Philadelphia and Best Practices Standards to significantly improve school conditions.
  • Identify and address the most critical environmental health threats in our schools—and develop an action plan to remediate them in the fastest ways possible.
  • Develop a districtwide “Comprehensive Educational Facilities Master Plan” (CEFMP). While most large school districts across the country have a Facilities Master Plan to prioritize and ensure schools are healthy and safe, no such plan exists for the School District of Philadelphia.
  • Create an official Educational Facilities Environmental Health Task Forcecomprised of parents, teachers, unions, public and private advocates and other community stakeholders that can provide input and recommendations to the School District and help develop the CEFMP.
  • Advocate for Increased funding to finance these and other critical initiatives to address environmental health risks in our school buildings.

We have learned an incredible amount of information about the state of Philadelphia’s school building and the processes to address facility issues. We look forward to sharing information to parents and school communities.  It is very clear that a lot more needs to be done to create the school facilities that can truly nurture and educate our children.  Keep an eye here for updates. If you have concerns about your child’s school building conditions, email us.

Learn more about Philly Healthy Schools Initiative. 

Media: http://thenotebook.org/articles/2017/05/17/new-philly-healthy-schools-initiative-aims-to-improve-environmental-conditions-in-district-schools

It can happen here. Are we ready?

OPEN LETTER

TO: Mayor Kenney, City Council, Superintendent William Hite, current SRC Members, and the soon-to-be selected Board of Education

FROM: Parents United for Public Education

In the aftermath of another horrific school massacre, I thought a review of the current school district of Philadelphia active shooter policy was in order. I wish I could talk about it, but such a policy does not exist for Philadelphia district schools.

A search of the district’s new impossibly difficult to navigate website yielded no result. (I will continue to complain about the website.)  A search of the Office of School Safety yielded several emergency procedures listed in the FAQS (frequently asked questions), but none that were unique to an actual active shooter scenario.  It should be noted that policies and procedures are not the same thing. Policies exist to provide clear concise statements of how any organization intends to conduct its action, service, or business. Procedures describe how policies are put into action.

So…after Columbine (1999), Sandy Hook (2012) school massacres, and all of those in between, the School District of Philadelphia does not have a formal policy to delineate a solid cohesive comprehensive approach to an active shooter event?  Now, we are living in the aftermath of another school shooting (Parkland 2018) where 17 lives were extinguished, 15 people were physically injured, and the entire school community traumatized.

Two weeks ago, a gun was found in Wagner Middle school, later found to be a toy; a young man with a gun attempted to enter Mastery – Douglass . Last Tuesday, Feb 27  loaded gun was brought to Samuel Fels High School by a 15 year old freshman. The possibility of another horrific event in Philadelphia is very real.

Image result for active shooter policy

Schools throughout Philadelphia practice lockdown procedures that apparently would be used in an active shooter event. Each principal submits a safety plan that would theoretically address this issue.  Is that enough? For many teachers, the lockdown procedure involves some variations of:  locking the classroom doors, pulling down a shade over the glass, stacking desks across the door frame, and sit quietly in a group away from windows and the door. There are several problems with this general plan.

  • To complete the lockdown procedures, many doors have an outside keylock. Teachers have to open their doors, stand out in the halls to key the lock, leaving them vulnerable to being shot by anyone in the hall. What about rooms that do not have a lock?
  • Many doors have large glass fronts. Some have narrow glass panes. Some are covered with loose fitting plexiglass or cardboard from a previous glass break without replacement. None are shatterproof or bulletproof. There is nothing to protect those in those rooms from harm if an offender breaks the glass, reaches in, and opens the door.
  • Piling desks up does not prevent entry to a room when the door swings out.
  • Sitting quietly – how does that work in rooms with scared children who are scared or those with have learning and/or emotional differences?

All of the above options leave our students, teachers, and staff at risk of serious injury or much worse. Why would we engage in these actions, especially when they traumatize the children and highlight their vulnerability, if none would prevent the carnage seen in even the latest schools shooting?

The lack of a “standardized” unified plan to ensure that our children are safe in their schools is unconscionable. It is not ok that such events are rare. What we understand is that the district doesn’t think enough our children to even come up with a clear, actionable plan.

Image result for active shooter policy

What is the answer? Is anyone listening to teachers and parents?

Prevention involves more than metal detectors and police presence.  Serious attention is needed to incorporate anti-bullying curriculum and culture in our schools. We have programs like Second Step, but are they being utilized? This district has stated its commitment to restorative programs and practices, but frequently they are not resourced. Schools are not programming with fidelity that is required to make an actual change.

Our children require more counselors and less police in our schools. District states its understanding of trauma informed practices, but still has not resourced the counseling staff in any attempt to address the mental health needs of our students.  Police continue to have an adversarial relationship with students; esp at risk high school populations. Our students need more attention and access to mental health assistance and less punitive relationships with law enforcement.

Building a strong safe school community involves increased outreach to parents. Our schools have long been shut off to parents in the name of safety.  If anything, police have been used by the School District of Philadelphia to keep parents and community members out of schools and administration offices.

However, school communities that actively encourage parent and community involvement, and  listen to student voices are safer, engaging, and great places to learn. Our schools must foster a culture that respects all students and supports them in speaking up.  

At the very least, our schools deserve to be at least safe for our children.  Our children deserve to be safe in their schools. This is not too much to ask.  Parents United for Public Education demands that The School District of Philadelphia immediately develop a comprehensive emergency policy  and actionable procedures that would address an active shooter event in a way that will potentially save lives. Our children need actual safety to allow them to receive a full and vibrant education. The appearance of safety is not acceptable.

The “Poor People’s Campaign and its connection to local control 50 years later

MLK Day Speech, Kendra Brooks

Prepared for POWER’s A People’s Call to Action

January 15, 2018

 

Four years ago, my community won a fight for public education in this city. This was a fight between the haves and the have-nots for control of a community treasure — a “school”– Edward T. Steel school. Since then, it has become my mission to continue to educate myself and other parents and fight until all of our children have quality education in our neighborhoods.  Today, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, we can no longer be quiet — we must ORGANIZE. Fifty years after the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, we are still fighting injustice at the hands of the government and corporations against the poor. We still need dignified education, housing, jobs, and healthcare.

Dr. King said, “The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” The Trumpet of Conscience, 1967

We the people, in the poorest big city in America, have nothing to lose! And we must help each other to take action together. In the City of Brotherly Love there has been a decades-long intentional defunding of public education affecting the most vulnerable children in our city and still, some chose to stay silent while the powers-that-be closed schools in primarily poor, black and brown communities leaving blight – “the new phase of redlining” – to usher in gentrification and the displacement of families again in the name of reform and redevelopment. As we enter the final months of the state-controlled School Reform Commission, We the people, call for A People’s School Board that instead reflects the true stakeholders and diversity of our schools

In a city where the essential needs of children are put second to militarism and policing in schools; Where we add more police and eliminate social workers, counselors, and nurses. We the people call for a People’s School Board to challenge the district for staffing eliminations that cost a child’s life. We the people call for a People’s School Board to demand city and state government to fund the restoration or replacement of school buildings that are contaminated with lead, mold and asbestos or are falling apart and stay silent while they build more prisons.  

WE the people Call for a People’s School Board – ready to fight for fair funding, for an end to the school to prison pipeline, and for teacher of color recruitment efforts. 

In a city where corporations have turned our schools into condos, recreation resorts, investments hubs and training camps for industry but refuse to pay their fair share in taxes to support our children’s academic enrichment that includes critical thinking, problem solving, and culturally relevant curriculum. Where taxing the poor and working class has become common practice and the rich or top earners receive tax cuts and abatements. Where the local pay-to-play $100k deficit outweighs the much needed debate about funding both local and state to end the education gap between the rich and poor.  WE the people call for – A People’s School Board free of conflicts of interest and monetary gains.

 

This is a call to action! What are you doing with your POWER ?

 

Join us – I charge you to call for The People’s School Board.  Nothing about us without us!

Statement on the Dissolution of the School Reform Commission

 

Parents United for Public Education celebrates Mayor Kenney’s announcement that the School Reform Commission will dissolve, returning our public schools to local control. We applaud the Mayor for joining grassroots parents, students, and teachers of Philadelphia by standing on the right side of history.

This is a historic victory for the wellbeing and dignity of our children, families, and communities. We’ve proven that an independent, organized and engaged set of parents can win victories like the one we’re witnessing here today.

Parents United for Public Education, a proud coalition member of the Our City, Our Schools campaign, has spent many years organizing for this moment. We believe this is a powerful step in a positive direction towards true community control of our schools.

This moment comes after 16 years of passionate organizing and community action to shine a light on the failures of the state-takeover of the Philadelphia School District. We’re committed to repair the harm the School Reform Commission has caused by pressing towards an elected school board in Philadelphia. Just like every other county and school district in Pennsylvania, Philadelphians deserve to democratically elect the governing body of our children’s education.  

Parents United calls on the next local school board to stand with us to unapologetically fight for funding equity and restored life-affirming staff and programs in our schools. We call on the next local school board to take a clear stand against a privatization agenda where wealthy interests capitalize on our youth, our parents, and our communities. We call for a People’s Board.