Wednesday, November 12, 2014

This Is About Your Tax Dollars-Part 1

Two weeks ago I received an email about a proposal that would change the allotment of tax dollars in our school district. Since then, I've talked to many residents about it--parents, non-parents, my councilwoman--and to educators in other districts where it's been tried before attempting to write this Diary entry. It's a lot of information, so I'm splitting it into 2 days.

A man named Tom Gradowski emailed me that he and his partners were applying to open Humanus Academy Public Charter School in our district. Phase one would be a brick-and-mortar school in Norristown, phase two would be a statewide cyber school. The B&M school would draw students not only from Norristown but from Methacton and Upper Merion. He thought I'd might like to express my thoughts about the venture.

The proposal Mr. Gradowski sent me had some interesting comments, so I asked him a bunch of questions. It said that NASD "has been consistently ranked as one of the lowest performing school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." I knew that wasn't true, but even so, I went to to double check. It's fairly easy to find schools ranking lower than Norristown--Chester, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and in lots of the smaller districts. Remember yesterday I said N-town High ranked 61.7? Dismal yes, but way better than the ranks in the 30s through 50s of many of the high schools in the districts above. We're nowhere near one of the lowest performing districts.

So I asked him what his source was. He said "PDE data and other sources" and said it was not up to date (which pretty much disqualifies his supposed data right there). He didn't say what years he was talking about (his use of the word "consistently" above would indicate that he thought we were one of the lowest districts for many years running). I could find no evidence of his claim, for any set of years, at all.

The very next sentence read "Unfortunately, NASD has struggled to meet the diverse educational and personal needs of its almost 7,000 students. Of the entire district, approximately 72% of the student population is composed of minority students, and nearly 70% of all students receive free or reduced price lunches." So I had to wonder what exactly he sees as unfortunate--that we struggle or that we have minorities or that some kids get lower-priced lunches (which is not a school district program, but paid for with Federal funds). Frankly, I think Norristown's diversity is an asset and not unfortunate at all. As Gotwals proved this year, poor minority kids are just as capable of learning as anyone else.

I asked if Humanus had any experience running a school, public or private, anywhere else? I'd already found out, and he confirmed that Humanus is a for-profit corporation, incorporated in Wyoming in 2012. Their HQ is in King of Prussia. They provide Special Education staffing for public schools in 14 states, including PA. They've only been in business since 2007, have 50-100 employees, and take in about 5 million in annual revenue. But experience running a school? No. The charter school would be listed as non-profit.

He sent the names and resumes of the team that would run this proposed school. The CEO of Humanus, James Stewart, was listed as have 20 years of executive-level experience in healthcare staffing firms. If you go to, you can read that most of his jobs before Humanus were as a wellsite geologist and asbestos consultant. The document assured me that Mr. Stewart had "developed a personal interest in the needs of academic institutions and their students." (I have a personal interest in a lot of things--astronomy, for instance, but I don't profess to be qualified to be a rocket scientist.)

Only one member of this team seems to have any educational experience at all--Stacey L. Cruise. She has a Masters in Education Administration and is apparently working toward her doctorate in the same area. She has apparently only been an administrator, and only of charter schools.

I asked what educational experience any of the team had, specifically classroom experience or public school experience.  Mr. Gradowski sent me another name--Darlene Beasley--who he said would be their principal. He said she was a "certified turn-around specialist" and "successful educator" in the Philadelphia schools. Ms. Beasley, I found out, was principal at Barry Elementary. I couldn't find test scores during the years she was there, but their latest ranking is 56.6, with math, reading, science and writing scores all in the 20s. (N-town's lowest elementary ranking is Whitehall at 74.9, whose lowest individual score is reading at 52.3.) Ms. Beasley, as far as I could find, has only been an administrator, never a classroom teacher.

That's enough to digest for today. I have more information, which I'll post tomorrow, along with how charter schools effect districts and insights on how charter schools are working out in other districts..

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