Fact Checking Propel Charter Schools – Do They Live Up to Their Own Hype?

The Propel Charter School network has a history of making fabulous claims for its schools – claims not always backed up by reality.

The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.

At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.

Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.

The other day I saw a bus advertisement bragging:

“Catch Your Star!

#1 Elementary Charter School in the Nation – Just Blocks Away!

Propel McKeesport”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any support for this claim anywhere.

When I went to Propel’s own Website, in fact, there was nothing about it. Instead, it claimed Propel McKeesport was:

“…ranked as ONE OF THE BEST charter schools in the nation by U.S. News World Report” (Emphasis mine).

One of the best is not THE best. But it’s still good. Let’s call it embellishing the school’s resume.

According to Propel’s Website, in 2021, the McKeesport location was #11 in the state’s charter elementary schools and #7 in the state’s charter middle schools.


I suppose that is impressive, too, though being one of the best CHARTER SCHOOLS isn’t the same as being one of the best SCHOOLS.

In fact, when compared with all schools in the state, Propel McKeesport is in the bottom half for standardized test scores in both math and reading – one of the main metrics used to calculate its rank by US News and World Report.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.

Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.

So what exactly is Propel celebrating?

Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).

I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?

That still sounds like a worthy goal – and one that is being actively worked against by Propel’s business model.

Moreover, Propel McKeesport is the only school in the charter chain where students of color outscore white students. Across the Propel system, white kids do anywhere from 17.6% better in math at Propel Pitcairn to 32.6% better in science at Propel Braddock Hills.

Not exactly a civil rights victory.

So what about the rest of Propel’s claims?

Since charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but can be privately operated (like Propel), they are free from many of the safety regulations that make authentic public schools great – like elected school boards, and transparent curriculum and finances.

The corporation runs the following schools in Allegheny County: Propel Andrew Street High School, Propel Hazelwood K-8, Propel Montour Middle School, Propel Braddock Hills Elementary School, Propel Homestead K-8, Propel Northside K-8, Propel McKeesport K-8, Propel Pitcairn K-8, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Montour Elementary School, Propel Braddock Hills Middle School, Propel Montour High School, and Propel East K-8.

According to an advertisement in mass circulation, each of the schools in the charter chain provides:

“Safe Learning Environment

Individual Attention


Small Class Size

100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Award Winning Arts Programs

Leaders in Technology Integration

Uniforms

Tuition Free”

Let’s take a look at each claim in turn.

-Safe Learning Environment

What exactly does that mean?

Propel schools are no more safe than other schools in the area. There certainly isn’t any evidence they are somehow MORE safe.

There have been numerous incidents of arrest, criminality and danger in and around Propel Schools.

In 2021, a security guard at Turtle Creek, Pitcairn and McKeesport Propel Schools was fired after being charged with open lewdness and indecent exposure, according to court documents. North Versailles Police said the suspect was captured on video exposing and fondling himself inside a Walmart. When confronted by police, he allegedly showed officers his Propel School ID badge.

In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.

In 2015, a visiting dance instructor at the Propel Middle School in Braddock was fired and arrested after allegedly sexting a 13-year-old female student. He allegedly told the girl not to tell anyone about it. In a statement from Propel, school officials say it happened “after school hours and off of Propel property.”

In 2019, Pitcairn Propel was evacuated when fumes made three teachers and four students nauseous. Roughly 280 teachers and students were evacuated from the school and the affected people were taken to nearby hospitals. Monroeville Borough was doing work on a sewer when fumes got into the school.

In 2019, police arrested four people in connection with a scheme to steal nearly $23,000 from Propel Schools by forging checks in the charter school operator’s name. The Propel Schools Foundation filed a report with police after discovering nearly two dozen fraudulent checks in Propel’s name had been cashed at various places, a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman said. At least 28 checks drawn against the school’s bank account were counterfeit, the complaint said. The fake checks were cashed using the forged signature of the school’s co-founder, Jeremy Resnick.

So does Propel provide a safe learning environment? Maybe. But not more so than any other district.

Individual Attention and Small Class Size


The problem here is verification.

Charter schools are not nearly as transparent as authentic public schools. They are not required by law to provide as much information about their operations as neighborhood public schools. For instance, nearly every authentic public school district is run by an elected school board which has open meetings and open records.

For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.

According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.

So for most details we’re really left with just taking Propel’s word without any method of verifying it.

When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.

However, individual attention is even harder to verify.

Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.

Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.

Even in 2018 when Propel had submitted applications to the state to consolidate its network into a Multiple Charter School Organization, it did not submit its entire curriculum which had been requested to see if it was aligned to state academic standards. The state ultimately denied this request due to insufficient information.

So does Propel provide individual attention? Your guess is as good as mine.

-100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Authentic public schools need to have certified and qualified teachers by law. To teach math, for example, you usually need someone with at least a 4-year teaching degree or more. Only in the case of shortages can positions by temporarily filled by individuals with emergency certifications. Not so with charter schools. They only have to have certified and qualified teachers in core content areas – English, Math, Science and Social Studies.

So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.

Unfortunately, it is definitively false.

According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.

Moreover, a state audit of the Propel network conducted in 2016, found that even in core content areas, Propel charter schools did not have “highly qualified” teachers in accordance with state law.

So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.

Award Winning Arts Programs

Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.

In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”

What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?

-Leaders in Technology Integration

Some Propel charter schools do claim to provide laptops to students. However, details are pretty sketchy beyond this point.

Moreover, technology in school is a terrible end in itself. It really matters how it’s being used. There are very few details on this that I can find.

-Uniforms

Yes! Propel does require students to wear blue, black or khaki clothing of a particular type. And you can even buy clothing on the network’s Website.

But is this really such a positive? Standardized testing is bad enough? Do we have to standardized dress, too?

Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.

-Tuition Free

Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.

Also having multiple schools that provide duplicate services is instrumental in raising your local taxes.

Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools already in service.

In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?

Certainly.

Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.

Don’t let its non-profit status fool you.

For instance, in 2016 the state caught Propel stealing $376,922 of your tax dollars to pay for rental fees on properties it already owns. It was literally charging itself an unnecessary fee and paying itself with your money.

Technically, this is not illegal. But it certainly doesn’t help educate children. It just goes to enrich the charter school operators.

Non-profit? Yeah, in name only.

However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.

indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.

The site has many entries on schools in the Propel network. Some are positive. Some are glowing. But most are incredibly negative.

Here in their own words is what it’s like inside the Propel network from the people who work (or worked) there.

Propel Schools – Insiders’ Accounts:

 

 

Students rule.

Para Educator (Former Employee) – Propel East, Turtle Creek – July 19, 2020

Pandering to the cultural climate and using all the right talking points still doesn’t provide a quality education because of the many behavior problems.

 

 

 

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – August 4, 2022

Management verbalizes a desire, but does not actively seek to improve diversity within the ranks of educators. The lack of diversity directly impacts how the student body is educated.

 

Stressful, consuming place to work with little support from administration.

First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022
I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being.
Pros
Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits
Cons
Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure

 

 

Hope you have a good therapist if you get hired at the Hazelwood location.

Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022
My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.

In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one.
Pros
There were no pros. I can’t even make one up.
Cons
Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.

 

 

Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021
Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare.
Pros
There is not one pro I can think of.
Cons
Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”

 

Don’t work for them

Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022

Hr treats you bad
Teachers treat you bad
You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses
Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen
Pros
Nothing
Cons
You will be treated like you are worthless

 

Pure and total chaos

Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021
Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible.
Pros
Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance.
Cons
Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff

 

Long school day, longer school year, longest time spent working outside of contractual hours

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021
Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator.
Pros
Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum
Cons
Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support

 

Schools care for kids but profit can get in the way

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021
Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this.
Pros
Dedicated cohorts
Cons
Work-life balance off

 

Administration had a lack of trust for teachers and lack of discipline for students.

teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020
There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment.
When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.

 

Not very friendly

Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020
Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.

 

Ehhh.

Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020
Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.

 

This is a good ole boys system

Principal (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 26, 2020
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
 
 
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.

Cons

Being cussed at and put down by students daily
 
 
 

Poor working place

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 10, 2019
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!

Pros

Good benefits

Cons

Everything
 
 
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – May 6, 2017
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.

Pros

Teaching children, benefits and compensation

Cons

Bad work/home life balance

 


 

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School Leaders Refusing to Mandate Masks Are Responsible for the Coming Storm

I would love for this to be a normal school year.

I would relish the opportunity to teach my classes of middle school students without a mask covering my face and obscuring my voice.  


I would enjoy being able to see the expressions on their faces as I welcomed them to class and got to know them.

 

But I am not stupid.  

I know that doing so would not be worth the cost.

The pandemic is not over – not in Pennsylvania. Covid-19 cases are on the rise in my community and an increasing number of children have gotten sick, been hospitalized or died. 

Forgoing masks would risk more. It’s just not worth it.

Only a month ago child Covid cases numbered in the zeroes or low single-digits each day in my home of Allegheny County, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. During the past two weeks there have been as many as 30 to 40 new child cases a day. 


 
Some of these are kids 11 and younger who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are  those 12 and older who have not been vaccinated. And a few are break-through cases among vaccinated kids, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, clinical director of infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 


 
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are recommending everyone in schools – students, staff, visitors, etc. – wear masks whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. 


 
As a school director, why would you take a chance with the children in your care? 


 
There are so many questions I have about this situation that all seem to boil down to variations on that one


 


Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, an independent pediatrics practice with several locations in the region, put it this way: 


 
“We’re here to ask one question to school districts not doing universal masking: Why is your situation safer [without a mask mandate] than what is recommended by the AAP and the CDC?” 


 
Why is it safer to forgo this precaution?  


 
Wearing a mask is not all that hard. We all did it throughout most of the last year and a half. 


Why is it so hard to just continue doing it a little while longer? 


 
I asked a similar question of Bryan Macuga, Assistant Superintendent of Steel Valley School District where I work.  


 


He mentioned at a district wide meeting that the new health and safety plan approved by the school board makes masks optional this year. I asked him why.  


 
He refused to give me an answer. He simply said that’s what’s been decided and would say no more.  


 
Superintendent Ed Wehrer was there at the meeting wearing a mask to – as he put it – “model” that behavior. Wehrer said he was empowered by the school board to mandate masks if it became necessary. He hasn’t done so nor did he find it necessary to answer my question, either. 


 
I can’t imagine it.  
 


If these leaders really think it is better not to mandate masks, why not explain their reasoning. We may agree or disagree with them, but they can’t even show us the courtesy of a straight answer to a fair question. 


 
Whatever their reasoning, most Allegheny County school directors must disagree with it.  


 
The majority of the county’s 43 school districts – 70% – have mandated masks in their schools. It’s heartening to see so many school leaders putting children over politics this way. I just wish I lived and worked in one of their communities.  


 
Only 13 county districts are making masks optional and most of those are clustered on the southeastern border with more rural (and Republican) Westmoreland County. 


 

I don’t understand how ideology makes people risk the lives of their own kids.  


 


Masks and vaccines should not be political.  


 
They should be the purview of science and reason


 
Throughout the rest of the state, the situation seems even worse.  


 
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Of 474 that submitted health and safety plans by July, only 59 reported plans to mandate masks for the 2021-22 year. This number is certainly higher now as districts changed their plans based on increases in Covid cases through August. But the situation is still incredibly frustrating. 


 
This week Gov. Tom Wolf called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a motion to mandate masks in Commonwealth schools.  


 
However, Wolf is a Democrat and the legislature is controlled by Republicans so this request was soundly rejected.  


 
It’s unclear whether Wolf will try to do this on his own under his authority as governor especially since voters just limited his ability to do so in a referendum in May.  


 
Politics. Stupid politics while our children are in danger.  


 
Elections have consequences but so do boneheaded decisions by elected leaders.  


 
The choice to make masks optional needlessly puts so much in jeopardy.  


 
Not just healthy and safety but the ability of schools to function well.  


 
One of the major takeaways of the last pandemic year was how ineffective and frustrating remote schooling is. Even under the best of circumstances in-person classes are far superior.  


 


However, refusing to put in place safety precautions like universal masking puts in-person learning at risk.  


 
If Covid infections are high enough, schools must close and go back to remote instruction.  


 
Why would school directors risk that?  


 
If their main concern is academics, why not install the kinds of provisions that at least allow for the best method of instruction?  
 


There seems to be a cynical calculus here – various games of chicken with local government against higher state and federal authorities.  


 
Republicans refuse to legislate safety precautions. Democrats often are too afraid to do so.  


 
The result is our current fractured map of diverse reactions to the same disaster.  


 
In short, it may take a larger disaster to break the political gridlock.  


 
Certainly kids will get sick. Without a doubt they will bring the virus home to parents, friends and family.  


 
But will the net result be bad enough to force – and I do mean FORCE – lockdowns, quarantines and remote schooling? 


 
I don’t know the answer. And neither do anti-maskers, but they are recklessly betting that the consequences won’t be bad enough to force their hand.  


 
Honestly, in a sane society this careless attitude endangering children and families would be enough to bring condemnation and shame.  


 
But in our broken system it will take a true catastrophe of epic proportions. Judging from last year, mask optional districts will do whatever they can to obscure the level of damage their policies are doing and stay the course unless the explosion is so big as to be impossible to hide.

We’re talking kindergarten classes full of Covid patients, tiny tots attached to ventilators, lawsuits and funerals in equal measure.
 


I don’t know if it will come to that, but if it does, we know who to blame.  


 
Any disruptions in education, any illnesses, any long-term effects must be laid at the feet of the decision makers who could have protected us from it but refused to do so. 


 
They have a responsibility that is being ignored.  


 
I can only hope that one day they receive the justice their actions today make them so richly deserve.


 

The following is a list from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of public school districts in Allegheny County and their position on universal masking for the 2021-22 school year (as of Wednesday, Aug. 25): 


MASKS REQUIRED 


Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships) 


Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township) 


Bethel Park 


Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms) 


Clairton City 


Cornell (Coraopolis, Neville Island) 


East Allegheny (East McKeesport, Wall, Wilmerding, North Versailles) 


Fox Chapel Area (Fox Chapel, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, O’Hara, Blawnox, Indiana Township) 


Gateway (Monroeville, Pitcairn) 


Hampton 


Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree) 


Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village) 


Moon Area (Crescent, Moon) 


Mt. Lebanon 


North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action. 


Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon) 


North Hills (Ross, West View) 


Penn Hills 


Pine-Richland 


Pittsburgh Public Schools (Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver) 


Quaker Valley (Sewickley, Leetsdale, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Hills, Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, Haysville, Glenfield, Leet, Aleppo) 


Riverview (Oakmont, Verona) 


Shaler Area (Shaler, Etna, Millvale, Reserve) 


South Fayette 


Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe) 


Upper St. Clair 


West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale) 


West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker) 


Wilkinsburg 


Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins) 


OPTIONAL 


Baldwin-Whitehall 


Brentwood 


Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott) 


Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer) 


Duquesne City 


Elizabeth Forward 


Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison) 


McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak) 


Plum 


South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln) 


South Park 


Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead) 


West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)   

 


 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

McKeesport Superintendent Gets 5 Year New Contract A Day After Resignation

McKeesport Area School Directors voted at a special meeting on Tuesday to give Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman a new five year contract – a day after he had resigned from the position.

A video of the entire five minute meeting was published on Youtube by the Pennsylvania district located just south of Pittsburgh.

The five board members who voted in favor of the new contract were Board President Joseph Lopretto, Vice President Diane Elias, Ivan Hampton, Jim Poston and Tom Filotei.

In fact, they were the only school directors at the meeting. Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order. Dave Donato was absent.

Holtzman’s new contract goes from July 7, 2021, to June 30, 2026.

Solicitor Gary Matta explained on the video that according to the state school code, the board couldn’t extend Holtzman’s old contract because he had more than a year left on it. The only way was for him to resign and then be given a new contract.

However, much about Holtzman’s performance and his new contract remain unclear.

The board had not yet completed an evaluation for the Superintendent for this school year and much about his new contract was not disclosed.

Many are speculating that this move was done to circumvent a change in power on the board after November.

Three of the five school directors voting for Holtzman’s new contract will be stepping down from the board in 2022.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. The other two board members – Lopretto and Elias – will be up for re-election in two years.

With five new candidates still in contention for four seats, much could happen politically.

Even if Matthew Holtzman, the Superintendent’s brother, wins a seat on the board in the fall, he wouldn’t be able to vote on the Superintendent’s contract because it would be a conflict of interest.


There is also a question about whether this week’s special meeting was legal at all.

On the YouTube video, it is announced that the meeting was advertised as being about “personnel.” Nothing more.

While that is true, it certainly goes against the spirit of the Sunshine Act. Most districts at least give the public a chance to comment on renewing a Superintendent’s contract.

Holding a last minute meeting right after a holiday with hardly any information about what is being voted on is not what most people would call good governmental transparency.

If the board had been secure that the public approved of Dr. Holtzman’s performance and wholeheartedly wanted his contract extended, it is doubtful any of these shenanigans would have been necessary.

Whether Dr. Holtzman did a good or bad job in his first contract with McKeesport will forever be overshadowed now by the shady way in which mostly lame duck school directors forced through his new contract.

Voters in the McKeesport Area School District deserve better.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

I Fought the Do-Nothing-Incumbent, and He Won

The best candidate doesn’t always win.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from running for office, it’s that.

This spring, I ran for Allegheny County Council in the Pittsburgh region of Pennsylvania – and got my butt handed to me.

My opponent was a 15-year incumbent, a nominal Democrat known for doing next to nothing, and he promised to do the same upon re-election.

I am a public school teacher, activist and blogger who ran on change and getting things done – education, infrastructure, transportation, jobs, justice.

Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

Wrong.

My opponent took majorities in nearly every community, nearly every ward or precinct. However, it was close in many of them. I even whipped him in a few places – mostly in White Oak and West Mifflin – my home town and his respectively.

But 41% to 58% just wasn’t enough to carry the day.

And if you’re wondering why that doesn’t equal 100%, there were about 1% write in voters, many of whom scribbled my opponent’s name so he could launch a Republican write-in challenge in the general election should he lose the primary.

That’s politics, I guess.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t worked so hard.

Or if I had seen him getting out there, too, and actively fighting for votes.

However, other than a single mailer, some signs and a few ads, he didn’t seem to do much more than he does on council – which is to say nothing.

I definitely outworked him.

I knocked on more than a thousand doors. During Covid. With a pre-existing health condition. I’d be surprised if he knocked on one.

I sent out several mailers, posted signs all over, made more than 1,600 texts, hundreds of phone calls. And I went to more events, rallies and Meet the Candidate Forums.

At the closest thing we had to a debate, the Take Action Mon-Valley Candidate’s Forum – one of only two events he even attended – I mopped the floor with him. I’m not bragging about it. Watch the video. It is an objective fact.

He couldn’t get his camera to work in the Zoom meeting, when he finally got his audio to work, he couldn’t finish his sentences and when he did, he invariably stuck his foot in his mouth.

He literally told an audience of black voters that all lives matter.

That on top of his whining about not having the power to do anything in office so please vote for him.

I actually felt embarrassed for him.

That anyone could watch that forum and choose him is stupefying.

But only a few hundred voters saw it just days before the election.

I offered hope and change. He offered what? A familiar name and incompetence?

When it was all over, he called me.

Actually he returned my call when I offered my concession.

He was still complaining about someone he heard was passing out my cards on election day who he thought should have been committed to him. As if I knew what all of my supporters were doing and ruled them with an iron fist.

They were just a loose confederation of people who wanted more from county government. I wasn’t telling them what to do. Actually it was just the opposite.

But I’ll give him this – he’s a friendly cuss, the kind of guy with whom you’d probably enjoy having a beer.

Just not a person who should be representing people’s interests on council.

And he’s not representing voters’ interests. Not really.

County Council is supposed to be the legislative arm of county government. It’s supposed to be a check and balance on the County Executive.

Seems to me there’s a conflict of interest when year-after-year County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is your biggest donor.


But that’s just how we roll here.

Bias and impropriety grease the wheels of government.

Speaking of which, wasn’t this supposed to be a Democratic Primary?

My opponent and I were both seeking the party’s nomination.

We have closed primaries, which means only party members get to vote on each ticket.

So why are there Donald Trump supporters on the county Democratic Committee?

Really! According to an expose by the Washington Post, Allegheny County’s Democratic Committee is full of countless members in good standing whose social media accounts are full of right wing Trump memes and slanders on prominent Democrats. This includes the chair of the committee, herself.

There are 2,400 elected members – more than my opponent’s 1,800 margin of victory.

Sure, our district was the only part of the county that went to Trump in the last two Presidential elections – though just slightly.

However, nearly every elected official is a Democrat. Has been for as long as I can recall.

That doesn’t make sense.

Democrats don’t fill every legislative seat in districts that lean Republican…

Unless they’re not really Democrats.

Do right wing Democrats thrive here and Progressives like me face an uphill battle because the Democratic Committee has been compromised?

I don’t know.

I really don’t.

But I guess most people don’t seem to mind it much.

If they did, they missed their chance to do something about it.

For now…


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

How to Vote on Ballot Measures in Pennsylvania’s 2021 Primary Election

Can you feel it?

The primary election is just a few weeks away.

Voters will decide all kinds of things like who will represent their respective parties for school board, judges, magistrates, county council, etc.

However, that’s not all.

There also will be four statewide ballot initiatives. All Allegheny County residents will get a fifth. And Pittsburgh residents will get a sixth.

If you’re like me, you don’t want these questions to come as a surprise on May 18 or before (if you’re casting a mail in ballot).

These queries can change the state for better or worse in dramatic ways, yet for some reason, they don’t write these things in the way everyday people talk.

This is lawyer speak. You have to wear a long black robe and put on a white haired wig (called a peruke) just to understand these things.

But don’t get your gavel in a tizzy.

As a public service, I’m going to translate each question and make a suggestion on how you should vote.

QUESTION 1:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”

Translation: Allow the legislature to second guess the governor and terminate an emergency disaster declaration without just cause

Suggestion: VOTE NO

This is yet another example of the endless far right hissy fit from science denying lawmakers still mad that Gov. Tom Wolf had the gall to close down the state because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. If passed, this would erode the powers of the governor and give them to our gerrymandered Harrisburg legislature.

We have three branches of government for a reason – checks and balances. Robbing the executive to boost a dysfunctional legislature would make the declaration of emergencies and natural disasters a matter or politics not facts.

Emergencies could be terminated at a moment’s notice without cause sending our first responders into chaos. Emergency managers could lose precious time and resources, communities could lose relief and recovery funding from the state and federal governments, all while our chuckleheaded legislature debates reality.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over yet. We’re working overtime to distribute vaccines and combat threats from emerging variants. The last thing we need is a political show prematurely eliminating masking, social distancing and other safety precautions so performative ideologues can win points on Fox News.

QUESTION 2:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

Translation: Limit an emergency disaster declaration to 21 days regardless of the severity of the emergency

Suggestion: VOTE NO

Disasters do not come with time limits. But randomly limiting them all to 21 days again takes power away from the Governor and gives it to the legislature. The only way to extend emergency declarations would be passage of a resolution by the state House and Senate.

Do we really want our emergency responses tied to the endless back and forth of legislators who rarely even pass their annual budgets on time? This is unnecessary bureaucracy so politicians can grandstand while emergency personnel wait for the go ahead to save lives.


QUESTION 3:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”

Translation: Make it illegal to deny or cut short anyone’s rights because of race or ethnicity

Suggestion: VOTE YES

This should be a no brainer. No one should be able to deny a person’s civil rights because of race or ethnicity. Or any other reason!

However, we just lived through four years of a reality TV show President who packed the federal courts with dozens of questionable and unqualified judges who made their careers discriminating against people of color, people of different creeds, religions, etc.

So it makes sense to enshrine equal protection for all at the state level and protect Commonwealth residents from federally sanctioned prejudice especially focused around workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing and healthcare.


Moreover, as a part of the state Constitution, this amendment would stop even our own state legislature from passing any laws inconsistent with it.

QUESTION 4:

“Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”


Translation: Allow municipal fire departments and EMS companies to apply for state loans to modernize critical safety equipment

Suggestion: VOTE YES

Both municipal fire departments and EMS companies with paid employees and volunteer departments and companies would be able to apply for state loans.

This vital funding could be used to modernize or purchase necessary safety equipment for first responders. It would keep fire fighters up to date and able to serve residents – especially those in rural areas. It would make sure every fire department could have up to date equipment.

Question 5 (Allegheny County Only):

“Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205. Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, as set forth below, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?”

Translation: Should we prohibit solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail except in extreme emergencies?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleges that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care. Recent research from Cornell University demonstrates that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.

Question 6 (Pittsburgh residents only):

“Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended and supplemented by adding a new Article 10: Powers of the Pittsburgh Police, containing Section 1001, which shall bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”

Translation: Should we eliminate no-knock warrants?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

This would require all Pittsburgh Police to physically knock and announce themselves before gaining entry to execute a warrant.

No knock warrants are dangerous and often a component of racial discrimination in law enforcement.

Briana Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, during the execution of a “no knock” warrant clearly shows how this practice recklessly endangers human life. Many municipalities now have banned no-knock warrants including Louisville, KY. Pittsburgh City Council also introduced legislation to ban the use of no-knock warrants by Pittsburgh Police officers.

So those are my suggestions for this race’s ballot initiatives.

NO. NO. YES. YES. YES.

And if you happen to be a Democrat living in Allegheny County’s District 9, please vote for me for County Council.

Together we can build a better world.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

But that’s life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate on-line.


It’s far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we’re reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The kids were reticent at first.

With the unreliable schedules of in-person vs remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, “The Outsiders.”

Now we’re speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud.

The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what’s happening in the play.

This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I’ve seen since the pandemic hit last year.

It’s as if they’re starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It’s something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We’re having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler’s genitalia.


(Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests.

That’s weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning.

But whatever.

I’m tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom.

No one listens to teachers. That’s why I’m running for office.

I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I’ll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

“How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?”

It’s like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet’s edges so no one can fall off.

What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they’ll stumble and fall.

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers – test scores, specifically.

You need to hit this score before you’re ready for the next grade. That score’s required before high school. This one before college.

It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can’t look into someone’s mind and see what they’ve learned and what they still need to know.

You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you’re testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be.

And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate – not more accurate.

But let’s be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They’re representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It’s just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn.

Most importantly – children are people.

I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.

We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”

If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.

As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.

It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.

Kids AND their parents.

I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.

So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play.

Have fun.

Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that’s a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that.

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind’s way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer.

And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement.

That way they’ll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won’t be ahead. They won’t be behind.

They’ll just be.

And that’s my prescription for a productive 2021-22.




Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

As District Covid Cases Increase, McKeesport Schools Remain Open Temporarily

Next week, McKeesport Area School District will go fully remote to keep students safe from an ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 at several district buildings.

Two new cases are suspected today at the western Pennsylvania district, says a source close to the school board.

However all district buildings were open, and administrators say classes will continue in-person Thursday and Friday.

On Monday, the district will close for three days while all students learn on-line. Buildings will remain closed through Thanksgiving Break. Classes are scheduled to begin in-person again on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Meanwhile, two staff members – one at the high school and one at Founders Hall – were reported having undergone tests for the virus this morning, according to a source close to the school board.

Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has not yet returned results for these two staff members.

This potentially brings the district total to 21 cases since September – 11 students and 10 staff.

Yesterday, I reported six new cases, four of which were confirmed by ACHD and two which had test results pending.

Since then, one negative test result was returned for a Twin Rivers staff member and one remains pending.

The district’s Covid Tracker on its Website has been updated to include one more case (bringing its total to 15) but district officials have not added the six additional cases reported on this blog over the last few days of which only three are pending test results.

The district Website and Facebook page explain the shortfall thus:

“Our case tracker is live on our website. We receive documentation when a case is confirmed to us by the Allegheny County Health Department. Only after we receive that documentation can we update the tracker.”

However, the county health department does not limit itself so when reporting new Covid cases. It reports a total number and then differentiates between confirmed cases and those pending test results.

For instance, the ACHD reported today that there were 620 new COVID-19 cases in the county. Of those, 506 are confirmed and 114 are probable.

The district should do the same.

Parents cannot wait until cases are confirmed before making decisions about whether to send their children to school buildings or not. The mere fact that additional cases are suspected is enough for some parents to exercise caution.

After all, if your child is swimming in shark infested waters, the mere sight of a dorsal fin might be enough to call him or her back to shore. Cautious parents will not wait to see exactly what shark-like creature is gaining momentum swimming toward their child before removing him or her from danger.

In fact, that’s why many have kept their children in the district cyber program despite a distinctly inferior academic program.

And make no mistake – these are shark infested waters.

Cases are spiking throughout the country, state and county.

The state announced there were 6,339 new COVID cases today – another record for the highest daily increase.

The ACHD is recommending a stay-at-home advisory unless people are going to work, school or need essentials like groceries or medical care.

Given such dangerous conditions, it is surprising the district has only committed to closing buildings for three school days.

The Thanksgiving holiday is unlikely to be a time when infections decrease. Family gatherings and holiday shopping are more likely to do just the opposite.

Many districts are closing through the end of the year or until the end of January – at least.

In any case, the district would better serve parents and the community at large if it were more transparent about exactly what is going on in its buildings.



Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!