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For Stanton supporters, a genuine hearing

By Timothy Boyle on Dec 12, 2011 09:32 PM

“We have made no decisions; there are no deals.”

With that statement, School Reform Commissioner Wendell Pritchett made clear what Saturday’s facilities master plan meeting was about: dialogue. It was evident in the tone of the meeting and the ease with which District leadership and the public spoke to each other that listening is indeed taking place.

Saturday marked the fourth of 17 meetings between the District and the public. It was the first of four in the South-Central Planning Region, where two school closures are proposed – E.M Stanton Elementary and the Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology. Parents, students, and community members representing both schools came out for answers about why their schools were targeted for closure.

The spacious auditorium of South Philadelphia High School was not packed for the event, but supporters of the two schools who did attend were passionate and informed. After a PowerPoint presentation of the District facilities master plan theory of action and specific recommendations by Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd, the audience was split into two groups, one to discuss the High School for Business and Technology and the other for E.M Stanton.

SRC member Lorene Cary joined staffers from the office of capital programs to speak with the roughly 25 people who came to support Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology in a separate classroom. I stayed in the auditorium to hear the dialogue about E.M. Stanton.

Clad in yellow

The group Supporters of Stanton has been present at SRC meetings since August, and about 50 parents, students, and community members attended on Saturday. They had marched into Southern wearing yellow and holding placards touting the school’s many years of achieving AYP, or adequate yearly progress.

This is not the first time the community has coalesced around the school. The District tried to close E.M Stanton in 2003 but backed off.

What was truly remarkable about this meeting was the relationship Supporters of Stanton has with the very people who want to close their school. For over an hour members of the group asked questions and gave their personal testimony about why the school was important to them.

“If you give us time, people will come to Stanton,” a parent of a 2nd grader at Stanton promised. “We are well positioned to be the next Meredith or Penn Alexander in the School District of Philadelphia.”

A graduate of Stanton who also has a 1st grade son in the school proclaimed that “Stanton made me what I am today. Not every school has heart, and Stanton has heart.”

A husband of one of the teachers at Stanton thanked the District leadership for the new tone between the groups. “This is a far cry from the deep, dark days of Queen Arlene,” he said, in referring to the former superintendent.

He went on to ask what the plan is for transferring the various partnerships the school has built over the years. Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery took the microphone in response, “I feel for you... culture inside the school is what matters the most... We are trying to figure out what to do.”

Not a done deal

For anyone thinking the closings are a foregone conclusion, District leaders repeated multiple times throughout the meetings the phrase “There is no deal.”

Commissioner Pritchett said it most emphatically after a community member asked if the closing of Stanton had anything to do with making way for more townhouses that are currently going up around the school. In the most genuine exchange I have witnessed between an SRC member and the public, Pritchett told the audience, “I understand, personally what you’re going through.” He explained that there are plans for Rutgers-Camden, where Pritchett is chancellor, to consolidate with other South Jersey colleges.

Pritchett concluded his comments by saying, “I really appreciate your being here; thank you for your commitment.” Floyd echoed the commissioner's view, stating, “We don’t get this kind of turnout for other schools.” Nunery and Floyd also repeatedly said “there is no deal” while fielding questions from the audience.

Over the course of the meeting it became evident that the members of Supporters of Stanton were on a first-name basis with those running the meeting. Both Nunery and Floyd commented that they had spoken with certain members earlier. Exchanges remained cordial and even warm. At the conclusion of the meeting, members of Supporters of Stanton mingled and chatted with School District personnel.

The most interesting revelation at the meeting was that the District is prepared to seriously consider facilities proposals from the schools themselves. Floyd told the audience that another school had submitted a facilities proposal of their own that the District will share with the school community at a future facilities master plan meeting. It’s encouraging that the person coordinating the process would state publicly that the District is not only taking counter-proposals from schools, but allowing the school communities to weigh the proposals for themselves at future community meetings.

After going to three previous rounds of facilities master plan meetings and being disappointed with the lack of two-way communication, I left this meeting feeling optimistic. For the first time since I’ve been active in the goings-on of the School District of Philadelphia, I felt like I was working for a first-class district. Of course, not everything has changed; we still have serious problems to fix. I do feel, however, that we have an active, thoughtful group leading the facilities plan.

Check out the Notebook's compilations of all its coverage of the facilities master plan and of the community meetings being held to review the recommendations.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 10:16 pm

I started at Stanton 20 years ago and it does have heart and soul. However, Gamble has the hook up down there and everybody knows the dye has been cast. It's always about deals and money, of course, so the dialogue is just for show.

Submitted by SOS 60 on December 12, 2011 10:52 pm

Thanks, Tim. Did you get the photos I sent you yesterday?

Submitted by SOS 60 on December 12, 2011 11:03 pm

Yo, Anonymous, give it a rest.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 13, 2011 7:27 am

Where is the City, the Council members, in this dialogue? The reasons for loss of enrollment cited in the SD's fmp need to be examined more closely. There may be little that can be done about declining birthrate, but loss of enrollment to charters can be challenged (this was part of the premise of charters after all). In addition if the City finally addresses it's burdensome tax structure, there might be welcome growth... and perhaps the funds to maintain some of these aging structures. Shouldn't the capital expenditures be considered part of the City's responsibility, as roads and infrastructure are after all?

In the proposed charter compact (which frankly is pretty "hoky", but that is another discussion), "successful" schools are promised increased enrollment. Is this taken into account in the fmp? Where is this increased enrollment to be housed? What makes a successful school after all? Is there not a better way to effect "mandatory reorganization" than closure?

Finally, although we know the connection; it has not been stressed enough that the proposed cuts to ELL, Psychologists, Nurses, Instrumental Music, etc. are driven by the slowness of the SD's consolidation/better utilization plan. These cuts can only speed the loss of enrollment to charters, and increase the need for further closures. I would think that the better course of action would be to move quickly to effect the working models of successful schools that exist already (definately not thinking of special admission schools). Can there be short term consolidations, freeing the SD to rise to the charter challenge?

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on December 13, 2011 5:11 pm

 After reading Ben's post about Sheppard, the idea of school culture really sticks out. Both school's have supporters that cite the "heart" of the schools as being very important. What has been discussed, but not planned for, is how to transfer or build successful school cultures into receiving schools. I think some expressed intentionalitly around the issue of school culture on the part of the District would go along way toward gaining public approve of FMP changes.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 14, 2011 5:15 am

I agree with you, and was about to post a comment on Ben's article about Sheppard. If it's not possible to retain the building, and acknowledging that leadership and teaching team matter... why not make one of the two proposed receiving schools a K-4 and the other a middle school 5-8, retaining Sheppard's team (the teacher retention speaks a great deal to the quality of leadership)? The community (location, student culture, etc.) will not be entirely the same, but why not keep as much of the culture as possible? Maybe then one of the receiving schools would no longer have to be an empowerment school.

Submitted by SOS 60 on December 14, 2011 2:31 pm

No one has addressed one of the key features of school culture and success: Teachers and support staff and principal leadership, community partners, parents, neighbors. In Philadelphia, unless I have missed something in the teachers' collective bargaining agreement, you cannot transfer teachers, nor can teachers follow their students into another building, let alone transfer "climate and culture." In the best of all worlds where a district's central administrative leadership is stable and at the top of its game and operating effectively and efficiently, it could and would attend to these things. Climate, culture and as one of the Stanton speakers stated on Saturday, "the intangible spirit" cannot be tranferred, in fact it won't be transferred, it will be lost. It can only be recreated over many years, because that is what culture is.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 15, 2011 8:04 am

Yet again, I agree with you on the importance of school culture. Of the factors that you have listed, in my experience principal leadership is the most important. At my school, there was no lack of parents who were willing to give up a good chunk of their personal life/resources, but with a principal that was not a strong leader, those who saw an opportunity for their own gain took the upper hand and blocked effective communication and involvement.

It is not hard to see that a good leader and good school culture foster success in our children. Cook Wissahickon comes to mind and now Stanton and Sheppard as well.

If the schools can't be saved, more recognition and factoring of the culture which they built should be done in determining options. True, it would never be replicated, but its importance should be an ever present consideration. If an entire teaching team can't be transferred, maybe just the principal (and then the teachers can apply to work at that school...)?

Finally I wish the SD's leadership would "connect the dots" and see that this nurturing culture and the growth that it fosters is what parents/caregivers value the most for their children... and would leave for charters to find...

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 15, 2011 9:10 am

I am glad you and the above commenter brought up the issue of effective leadership and effective school culture. They are the two most critical factors in effective schools.

The point I am very interested in and plan to do some writing about is our notion of a "strong" leader vs. "good" leader. What do we mean by "strong leader?" Autocratic, dictatorial, bossy, assertive, coercive, collaborative, inclusive, collegial, democratic, nurturing, laissez-faire?

What do we mean by a "good leader?"

I have done a considerable amount of research on studies of leadership. Leadership styles are normally placed on a continuum from Autocratic (heroic) on the one end to laissez-faire on the other end. "Democratic" leadership is in the middle of those two extremes.

I do not recall leadership being classified in any study of leadership I read as "strong." I do recall one study of effective schools which cited as a characteristic a "strong principal." But by no means was that study about "effective leadership." I want to write an article entitled, "The Myth of the 'strong' Leader."

I believe we need "good leaders" and should use the words "good" and "effective" to discuss leadership. The word "strong" implies the wrong message that autocratic leadership yields the best results - it does not and I know of no researcher who advocates for autocratic leadership. Ackerman was a "strong" leader but she was not a "good" leader. She was terrible and so was her mentality.

What is "effective leadership?" That is the question we must discuss and debate as a professional community.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 15, 2011 12:25 pm

Myself, I often use the terms "strong" and "good" interchangeably. I don't think you can be a good leader without having strength. Really I haven't given it much in depth thought. I can only offer what I saw as ineffective: 1. Lacking discernment as to what is really important or factual even, being unable to prioritize.; 2. Lacking moral grounding, being too easily and readily swayed by the organization pressures.; 3. Lacking vision and a greater understanding.; 4. Lacking the ability to take initiative, basically waiting for things to happen, and "reacting".; 5. Lacking the energy and resolve to be in the "firing line", or unwillingness to "take charge".; 6. Inability to face criticism (Ms. Ackerman.)

So then autocratic, dictatorial, bossy, coercive, laissez-faire might be seen as styles resulting from the above "lacking"s. Certainly all these terms have negative connotations implying disrespect for those led.

Leaving us with assertive, collaborative, inclusive, collegial, democratic, and nurturing. Terms which imply a positive relationship with those being led. I would think that a leader who had such traits as discernment, moral grounding, vision and greater understanding, courage, and an imperative outside of his/her own ego, would utilize these styles.

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