Don’t Give Us A Complex: Resisting the CBE Takeover of Strawberry Mansion High School

SRC Testimony in Support of Strawberry Mansion High School

As a resident of Philadelphia and a parent of a public school student, I believe it is vitally important that we stand with the residents of Strawberry Mansion and support their efforts to save their neighborhood comprehensive high school. Their demands are 1) no complex 2) give the school an incoming freshman class and 3) restore the resources and programs that have been taken from Strawberry Mansion. Numerous community members came out to last Thursday’s SRC meeting to oppose this plan. Read coverage from the Public School Notebook here or watch filmed testimony here. Below is a three-minute video of my testimony from the April meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. You can read it here.

Unlocking Value at Public Expense

The School District of Philadelphia is attempting to “phase-out” Strawberry Mansion’s comprehensive high school in order to replace it with a “complex.” I suspect the intent is to use the facility as an incubator for competency-based education ventures designed to feed workforce development Pay for Success investment opportunities. Likely candidates include Big Picture, Youth Build, Outward Bound and spin-offs from the district’s CBE “innovation school” models. Competency-Based Education (also known at Proficiency or Mastery-Based education) is being actively fought in many communities in Maine, an early adopter state. As the deadline to implement proficiency-based diplomas there nears, many are speaking out about the tremendous problems with this so-called “innovative” educational model.

The same day as the SRC meeting, I attended the second annual “Break/Throughs: New Ideas for Policy” Conference co-hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s FELS Policy Research Initiative and the College of Arts and Sciences. The focus of the conference was how FELS could “unlock value” from partnerships with local government. One of the panels featured Clare Robertson-Kraft, founder and director of ImpactED. She stated that in June they would be presenting findings from a major research initiative funded by Pew Charitable Trust and Barra Foundation on the district’s innovation schools.


Robertson-Kraft said the event would draw a national audience, but when asked during Q&A if members of the public would be able to attend she deferred, saying that perhaps they could let some of the people attending the workshop know about it. While these “innovation” schools may technically be considered public schools, they are really test-beds for Ed Reform 2.0. Reformers don’t want the public in on this conversation until their “privatized-light” model is firmly established. I sense this June presentation will set the stage for an innovation love fest intended to kick-off a new round of school redesign that involves “public-private” innovation models taking over vulnerable schools like Strawberry Mansion, schools that have been starved of students and deprived of resources.

Workshop School Funders

The diagram above (click here for interactive version) shows some of the grants flowing into the Workshop School, a model being considered for the Strawberry Mansion “complex.” It also shows the funders of the Next Generation Learning Challenges Initiative, the source of the award that allowed the pilot two-year “Sustainability Workshop” to scale into a full four-year high school program. These small schools require significant private investment to operate, which makes them hard to keep going over the long term and likely to reflect the interests of their funders, many of whom push hybrid-blended learning. Digitally-platformed instruction is what the investors must have in place to scale automated evaluation of pay for success contracts down the line.

Priming the Pump for Impact Investing

During Q&A for another Break/Through panel, a member of the audience noted that four blocks away, at the Cira Center, a major social impact investment conference was taking place. “Total Impact,” co-sponsored by ImpactPHL and The Good Capital Project, an initiative of Social Capital Markets (SOCAP), featured national figures like Jim Sorenson. Local presenters included Jay Coen Gilbert, KIPP board member and founder of BLab; Sherryl Kuhlman of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative; and John Moore of Investor’s Circle and ImpactPHL. Impact investors are definitely on the move, positioning themselves to take advantage of provisions in the federal budget that earmarked $100 million to seed the pay for success market.

Susquehanna Foundation Profile 2013-2015

The above profile of the Susquehanna Foundation’s growth in assets shows how social impact capital is positioning itself since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Susquehanna Foundation is one of the funders of the Workshop School. This foundation is a vehicle for Jeffrey Yass’s firm Susquehanna International Group, a venture capital firm grounded in game theory. Jeffrey and Janine Yass are major funders of the Philadelphia School Partnership. Janine also served on the board of the Center for Education Reform, a catalyst for Ed Reform 1.0 and Ed Reform 2.0 initiatives.  Given the $130 million jump in endowment assets that happened between 2015 and 2016, I’m betting that Workshop School and other “innovative” education models will be well positioned to receive additional capital if they can demonstrate sufficient “impact” and generate solid rates of return. The pressure of market forces is why the district is making its moves on Strawberry Mansion now. They need space into which these investment programs can expand.

Merchant banking interests are also ramping up to take advantage of opportunities embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act. One of these is Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners, described on their website as an “advisory and merchant bank at the apex of public and private sectors.” The Ridge of Ridge-Lane is former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. He has assembled dozens of advisors to assist with his P3 (Public-Private-Partnership) plans to extract as much value as possible from the public sector. One of his team members is none other than Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite. Education is one of Ridge-Lane’s four focus areas, so it is not surprising that they have lined up a stable of privatization-minded, tech-friendly consultants like John Deasy, Jack Markell, and Michael Crow.

Ridge Lane Education

Ridge-Lane is targeting four areas for investment: information technology, sustainability, education, and real estate. In his closing remarks for the April SRC meeting, Superintendent Hite noted that Strawberry Mansion has been selected to become one of three energy pilot schools. The program involves making repairs to buildings that would result in improved energy efficiency. An article in the Public School Notebook stated the program would connect students in Career and Technical Education to the building trades, though it was unclear from the article if the intention was to actually employ student labor as part of the program.

Now imagine how a “Future Ready” Strawberry Mansion “complex” might fit into this business model as a Pay for Success venture. All that would need to be done is to set up some coding gyms or cyber-security training for the IT part. The energy pilot and training in trades would address sustainability and education/workforce development, and the real estate angle would come in as they gentrify the East Park area, further marginalizing black residents in this historically-black community.

I think we can safely assume this whole transformation will come with the blessing of the city’s elite. During the FELS Break/Through discussions John Kromer, housing policy analyst, saw the gentrification of the area surrounding Temple University as a positive (no mention of displacement), while Dirk Krueger, Interim Chair of Economics, spoke at length about the close relationship the university’s economics department and graduate students maintain with the research wing of the Federal Reserve. Remember, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve sponsored the Pay for Success “Capital for Communities” event with former Mayor Nutter in 2015.

Selling Innovation

During a recent community meeting at Strawberry Mansion High School, participants debriefed about a tour of the Workshop School that the district had set up to sell them on the idea. But they weren’t sold on it; they want to keep their comprehensive high school status.

The Workshop School started in 2011 when several teachers removed an award-winning Hybrid X automotive program from West Philadelphia High School. That program was then used as a centerpiece for The Sustainability Workshop, a two year program funded as part of a US Department of Energy grant linked to redevelopment of the Navy Yard. In the years following, the school has been sustained via substantial infusions from charter and privatization allied organizations including: the Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn Foundation, and Lenfest Foundation.

The pilot program was brought to scale in 2013 when Simon Hauger and Matthew Riggins, co-founders, received a large award from the Next Generation Learning Challenges Initiative. Look back to the map and you’ll see all the expected ed-tech interests flowing into that program. Considerable grant funding for the school is run through a non-profit called Project Based Learning, Inc. A review of the 990 tax forms for the organization (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) raised some questions for me. Below is a table of select financial measures from when the nonprofit was founded through 2016, the latest 990 filing available through the Foundations Directory Online.

Project Based Learning Inc. 990 2010-2016

My questions are as follows:

  1. How much money can a “public school” accept from private sources before it is no longer a fully-public school? Note the annual budget in 2014.
  2. Why is the board list missing or incomplete (see below)? The 990s indicate that most years there are nine voting members governing the organization, but only six names were ever provided. In recent years Mr. Riggin is the only one listed.Workshop School Board List
  3. If a school operates as a public-private partnership, how are management decisions made and carried out? What is the role of the non-profit board? What is the role of school district staff and community members?
  4. The 990 forms indicate that in 2015 and 2016, eight people were paid by Project Based Learning, Inc. Are these people also employed by the School District? Are they private contractors? Are they working with students? Are there liability issues surrounding that?
  5. Why were the books of the nonprofit kept at the home of the school’s principal up until 2015?
  6. Is this nonprofit set up specifically to serve the Workshop School? There is nothing to indicate that. Instead, it seems like it could become a consultancy for any type of project-based learning initiative or related professional development program independent of a particular school.

Project Based Learning Summary 990

The School District is putting the hard sell on Strawberry Mansion to accept some form of project-based learning model and the “complex” format. It could be an expansion of the Workshop School or some other program or an assortment of small programs. But they don’t want that. They don’t. And even if they did there are serious questions we should be asking about expanding models of education that rely on private investment, particularly as we enter a moment when pressure will be building to adopt Pay for Success financing.

How we pay for our schools affects how education is delivered. Outcomes-based finance will drive adoption of more and more educational technology. This will generate data and isolate students, particularly the students who most need human contact. Please email or tweet Superintendent Hite and tell him “No Complex” on behalf of Strawberry Mansion ( or @SDPHite). We want humane schools. We want publicly-funded schools. We want schools that encourage discussion, engagement, and thoughtful questioning rather than human capital compliance. Thanks in advance!

One thought on “Don’t Give Us A Complex: Resisting the CBE Takeover of Strawberry Mansion High School

  1. Laura H. Chapman says:

    Astonishing how complex and interrelated the players are in taking over public assets, especially schools. The Little Sis infographics with flows of money are a real help. I hope one day to get training in how to use data in this way. The 990s are tedious to examine but what they include and omit can be worth the effort, as this report demonstrates. The huge problem, of course, is that there is no clear path to stop the raids and corruption.

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