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Let's talk about what really makes for a successful school

This guest blog post comes from Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer and executive adviser to the School District.


From the time I was Home and School co-president at Jenks Elementary to now, in my current position, it has been clear to me that there are key priorities that really matter at schools: 

  • Each child should feel safe and cared for by the adults in the building;

  • All the adults in the building, both District employees and community members, should feel that they are a team working toward the same goal;

  • Each student should get what he or she needs to be successful; and

  • Enough resources should exist so that no decision is based solely on what can be afforded at that time. 

In his 2008 inaugural speech, the mayor spoke of increasing the high school graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015 and doubling the percentage of residents with four-year college degrees to 36 percent by 2018. There aren’t many ways to reach these goals except by pursuing the key priorities.

As concerned citizens, our charge must be to keep our eye on the classroom and make sure that the important triangle of teacher-student-curriculum is strong and productive. We need to make sure that students, no matter where they started, are reading or doing math at a higher level than when they arrived and that they are set on a track toward graduating ready for college and career.

With the huge “command and control from a central office” model we have now, ensuring that is pretty difficult. As a parent, I made it my business to know the good teachers, to put my two cents in about how we spent that tiny bit of discretionary money, to organize fund-raising to fix the art teacher’s clay kiln so kids could do engaging art projects. 

I understood the need for these changes better than anyone in the central administration because I was on the ground at the school. That’s why I strongly believe that more decision-making authority should be at the school. 

Current discussions on these issues in Philadelphia are robust, and I hope that this level of passion and engagement sparks an unprecedented level of interest by Philadelphians about how they can be part of a local school’s success. That’s the game-changer this city needs. We need to start talking about public education in these terms – how many successful classrooms and schools do we still need to serve all of this city’s children?

But this healthy debate and conversation about who should and shouldn’t run schools might very well be a moot point if the money issue isn’t dealt with swiftly and responsibly by those who oversee state and local public budgets. This is not only an issue for this year, but for years to come. 

The projected $1.1 billion five-year deficit facing the District is not just a scare tactic. It’s what is around the corner on the long road we all face together. It’s a sobering glimpse at what the policy implications are for the many decisions we have all made together through the years: administrators, elected officials, unions, parents and charter operators. All of these things have led us to this point. We now either knowingly go down the status quo road or collectively build a new one.

How simple it would be if there were just a bad guy to blame. But it is more complicated than that.

The reality is that we have to change together by making the classroom the centerpiece and putting everything else on the back burner. Ideology, status, history, jobs, loved and feared organization structures — all of these pale in comparison to funding properly and supporting 40,000-plus high-quality classrooms every day. 

I am deeply concerned about national and state threats to public education. Let’s have those conversations and how they may or may not apply to different aspects of the changes we are contemplating. But those conversations cannot and must not be a substitute for making sure we have enough money to at least operate schools. Those talks should not take the place of encouraging all adults to do all they can to transform classrooms into the caring, effective places we need them to be as we prepare coming generations to build a safer, healthier, more productive Philadelphia able to compete in this century of change.  

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