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With new high schools, District is learning from its mistakes





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Superintendent William Hite has been criticized for putting forward new educational models at a time of fiscal stringency. His critics are short-sighted.

If the entire focus of the School District is "death by a thousand cuts," literally and figuratively, we miss the opportunity to use external resources as leverage to fund the design of sweeping academic changes that will give thousands more kids a better chance at entering and completing college and finding employment in careers that provide family-sustaining wages.

The School Reform Commission's public policy and strategy meeting on Monday, May 5, addressed what I consider the most exciting and positive work of the School District at this otherwise depressing, and even frightening, time. The first part of the meeting described and elicited feedback on three new high school models, all cousins of the new Workshop School, which opened in September after two years as a pilot program.

After a year of planning by talented experts from both inside and outside the District, the three new project-based, open-admission high schools will open in September and have attracted more than four times as many applicants as they have seats available. Clearly they are addressing student interests, a critical first step in making schools effective.

And although they will siphon motivated students from our ever-faltering neighborhood high schools, they will provide far more engaging instruction and far deeper relationships than their 380 entering students would have enjoyed otherwise. Using many of the principles of the Workshop School in West Philadelphia, as well as practices at Science Leadership Academy, their "hands-on" learning approach resonated with many of the SRC meeting's participants who despair about the absence of rigor, relevance, and relationships in many of our neighborhood high schools.

The creation of these new high schools also focuses attention on the question of what we are to do with the long list of persistently low-performing schools that relegate thousands of students to a bleak educational future. That question was addressed in the second part of the meeting, which presented in very philosophical and general terms how the District intends to improve those schools using existing District talent to shape their redesign from the bottom up.

Previous efforts to turn around low-performing schools this way have faltered for varied reasons -- often a lack of time and support for school staffs to plan a school redesign -- while experienced charter management organizations already had designed and tested their educational models, and thus were far better positioned to take on a turnaround school on fairly short notice.

The District has learned from its mistakes and is now seeking stakeholder input into how to organize a process that will fund and support school teams interested in redesigning their schools. The nuts and bolts of the process remain to be determined, but the District's commitment to an in-house redesign model, its successful search for philanthropic dollars to support their planning, and its stated desire to involve school staffs, parents, students, and community partners in the process are hopeful first steps.

A more timid leader than Hite would have chosen to focus all his attention on the financial situation, ignoring the need to direct some organizational energy to the need to create better options for students --- and more opportunities for motivated and talented staff to reinvent their struggling schools. When our nation confronted the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not spend all his energy on deciding how to cut spending; he opted for a stimulus approach to grow the economy by putting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans to work in building roads and bridges, painting murals, and reclaiming national parks. Like FDR, Hite is making necessity the mother of invention.

Visionary leaders don't put on blinders, narrow their sights, and abandon hope when confronted by daunting fiscal challenges. They keep their eyes on the prize. They find practical ways to maintain organizational momentum.

Opening better high schools this September and implementing redesigned schools the following September will demonstrate that the District possesses both the will and the skill to up its game even in challenging times. Good Renaissance charters, which, through no fault of their own, siphon millions of dollars from District schools, should not continue to be the only game in town when it comes to creating better neighborhood schools.

Debra Weiner is a longtime education advocate who has worked for several nonprofits addressing education policy issues, including college and career readiness. She has served as a consultant to the School District on teacher recruitment and retention and school climate and safety. She is a member of the Notebook editorial advisory board.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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