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Commentary: District-run schools need help to access Partnership funds

By Guest blogger on Sep 14, 2012 02:27 PM

This guest commentary comes from Christine Carlson. She is a public school parent, a member of the Philadelphia School Partnership advisory committee on Great Philly Schools, and a founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Contact us at notebook@thenotebook.org to make a submission.

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Last month, the Philadelphia School Partnership announced that it had received significant new funding, propelling it closer to its goal of raising $100 million so that it can award grants to increase the number of “high-performing seats” in Philadelphia schools. 

PSP’s stated mission is to contribute to the expansion of all high-performing schools, whether private, charter, or District-run. So far, however, the only schools that have been awarded PSP grants have been private and charter schools. 

We can debate whether PSP’s true goal is to privatize public education. But at this point, it is hard to know its intentions because no District-run schools have submitted applications for funds, according to PSP executive director Mark Gleason.

Why is this? One reason certainly is that PSP’s grant requirements make it very hard for District schools to apply.

PSP grants come in three categories: incubation grants to fund new school ideas, start-up grants to cover the cost of starting new schools, and growth grants to increase seats in currently operating successful schools. 

As it stands, charter and private schools are in an inherently better position to meet PSP’s conditions in all three categories. For District schools, even the most successful, figuring out how to apply using these guidelines is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

That’s only part of it. For District schools, it's up to the principals to apply for funds.   This presents its own set of difficulties. Cuts over the last two years have forced principals to take multi-tasking to new levels. In addition to leading their schools, they are now nurses, counselors, and noon-time aides.  It is unrealistic to expect them to take on the job of grant writer as well. 

Concern about PSP donor anonymity also makes some principals wary.

Gleason notes that 5 percent of the funds donated to PSP come from donors requesting anonymity, well below the typical nonprofit ratio of 12 percent of donors over $1 million. 

Even so, these concerns are real. PSP must reach out to principals, offer them greater transparency, and give them the support they need to apply.  

It is also time for the District to identify and embolden principals to be creative and move forward with grant applications. Principals with new ideas should be encouraged to set up pilot programs with an incubation grant. Those in high-performing schools located in small or old buildings should be encouraged to think big and apply for growth grants. Most of all, the District must look to see how these funds can be used in a greater strategic plan. 

The District must be proactive on this because the most effective District principals don’t call attention to themselves. Their prior experiences with a dysfunctional central office have made them keep their ingenuity under the radar in order to avoid interference or repercussions.

School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said at PSP’s announcement that he thinks of the group as facilitating Renaissance school conversions. This is extremely limited thinking. With so many school closures imminent, Ramos should be looking at the bigger picture, beyond present catchment areas. He and the SRC should be visualizing how PSP grants can be used to help optimize the number of high-performing seats in District schools that can serve students displaced by the closures.

If PSP really wants to help all schools, it must look to expanding its grant model to include a realistic way to allow District-run schools to participate in the process. It must look at ways to involve the District in planning outside the Renaissance School scenario. And it must find a way to replicate successful District schools while keeping them community-based and truly public. 

Whether one is for or against PSP distributing funds for schools, $100 million is a significant amount of money. It’s not constructive to complain about a bias against District schools when none have yet applied.  Rather, we should do everything we can to make sure that the biggest chunk of this money goes to our District-run schools. And we must work to make sure that the District itself plays an active role in the process.

 

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 14, 2012 3:29 pm

While I agree with your premiss that the SDP needs a much broader vision, the PSP also needs a broader vision. The PSP was created to expand charter and private/parochial schools - that is their base of support. They are part of the privatization agenda. That said, their criteria for grants needs to change. They need to redefine so called "high performing seats." Why can't a neighborhood high school, yes, with lower test scores, for example, add a magnet program? Why can't a neighborhood high school, yes with lower test scores, include a project based program? Neighborhood high school began a slow death when magnet and special admit schools multiplied - first in the 1970s/1980s as part of deseg. programs and then under Vallas. With the emergence of charters, neighborhood high schools became a school of last resort. This needs to change. They can become vital schools - and not just in the northeast - if the staff is supported in diversifying and expanding their programs to meet the needs of all students. There are very few good charter high schools that are doing much more than test prep. We need real alternatives for all students - not just those who qualify as "high performing seats."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 14, 2012 3:05 pm

It should be added the PSP's max grant of $50,000 per "high-performing seat" makes it impossible for district schools to expand (add wings etc.) without significant additional funding from other sources. They might as well tell district schools they'll pay for tickets to the moon but only a quarter of the way.

Submitted by Mike Wang (not verified) on September 15, 2012 3:10 pm

Christine, thanks for your thoughtful critique. I want to be sure you and your readers know what we've said publicly -- that we are committed to minimizing logistical barriers for District principals. For any principal of a high performing school willing to expand their enrollment to serve kids who are currently under-served, we are happy to simplify the application process and work to find solutions to any other barriers.

-mike wang, PSP

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 15, 2012 6:15 pm

Hello Mr. Wang! I am very interested in what this blog articulates and I am very interested in learning more about your organization.

May I attend a board of trustees meeting to learn more about your collective mission and how we can partner to improve the educational lives of our children?

Thanks,

Rich

Submitted by Ted (not verified) on September 15, 2012 8:15 pm

Thanks for your response and willingness to add what has been said publicly.

I appreciate the points Christine made in her blog. It helped clarify some ideas for me. I have often felt that while PSP says it is open to all types of school, its short history shows a different track record and demonstrates different priorities. Christine's critique points to an aspect of the reasons behind this, and I am glad these ideas have been brought to this public forum.

My hope is that PSP also thinks deeply about how it defines "high performing schools."

There are neighborhood schools that are building positive, well-rounded, and safe educational environments for Philadelphia students. The children in these schools are often students who were not accepted to magnet schools and did not enroll in charter schools; some have been asked to leave magnet and/or charter schools. Whether we like it or not, neighborhood schools have become labeled as the place where students are forced to go when they have no other options. Despite this stigma and challenges that come with it, students are still finding positive learning environments with the support of dedicated teachers, community supports, committed families, and dynamic principals. However, when simply looking at the test scores, these schools may not appear as high performing.

The rhetoric to promote schools with "high performing seats" potentially oversimplifies the challenges that our schools face and the complexity involved in educating children who live in under-resourced communities. If PSP is dedicated to supporting the intellectual, social, and emotional development of ALL children in Philadelphia, then they will need to find ways to support educational programs in ALL schools. This is not to say that there are not problems we should address in neighborhood schools. While it is also my belief that too many charter schools place too much emphasis on basic skill development, employ short-sighted and behaviorist disciplinary structures, and do not address critical thinking, I also recognize they are not going anywhere. I believe that educational options can help our system grow, develop, and innovate. PSP has the unique (and rare) opportunity to heighten the nature of the discussion and recognize the multiple dimensions of schools in order to support children in different ways from both within and outside the current system.

Simply labeling some schools as "failing" and creaming more students from neighborhood schools will not solve the problem. My hope is that PSP's definition of "high performing schools" is broad enough to recognize the ways in which many schools are growing and working despite the tremendous challenges they face.

While I am a regular reader (and member) of the Notebook, I do not typically post comments. I do not write this with incidieary intentions, but with the hope of continuing to raise the public discourse around the role of PSP.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on September 15, 2012 9:01 pm

Ted, excellent points all. As you know, the magnets can only create so many "seats"--they certainly are not willing to alter their criteria. There ARE many neighborhood schools that are beloved by their communities, considered safe and welcoming, and serve children of ALL levels of ability and family circumstances. These children deserve a high quality education just as much as children who can make the cut at magnets and charters. Perhaps the PSP could visit these schools to see WHO we educate and HOW we do it. What we DO NOT do is exclude certain types of students.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on September 15, 2012 10:42 pm

Mr. Wang - Rather than reiterate Ted's post, please read it. I work at a neighborhood high school that is not considered filled with "high performing seats" but we have a well rounded program. Over 50% of our students either have an IEP and/or are ELL. Our scores will never match those at Masterman, Central and SLA because we are open admission and serve all students in our catchment. Mastery nor Masterman - or any other charter and magnet/special admit - can claim to serve ALL students.

Until the PSP gets over its mantra of "high performing seats" based on test scores, it will continue to be exclusionary and for a select group of SDP, charter and parochial schools. (I'd also like to know how a parochial school is determined to have "high performing seats" since they do not have to administer the PSSA/Keystone tests.)

What will PSP do when the charter, parochial and magnet schools will not alter their admission criteria / "creaming" and "counseling out"? Then, will you redefine "high performing seats?"

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 15, 2012 10:14 pm

Mr. Wang,
Has your organization given any consideration to expanding their mission to include private schools beyond parochial schools?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 18, 2012 9:02 am

Christine, thank you for speaking out as I don't think you would have written this unless you really had to in order to get the point heard by PSP. Please pay very close attention to what actions Mr. Wang and others at PSP, if any, take in response.

Submitted by Mike Wang (not verified) on September 15, 2012 6:27 pm

Rich, I'd email you directly but don't have your email address. Email me at mwang@philaschool.org and we'll set something up.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 15, 2012 6:12 pm

Hi Mike: My e-mail address is rich@democracyineducation.com.

Thanks

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on September 16, 2012 4:14 pm

Mr. Wang - Rather than reiterate Ted's post, please read it. I work at a neighborhood high school that is not considered filled with "high performing seats" but we have a well rounded program. Over 50% of our students either have an IEP and/or are ELL. Our scores will never match those at Masterman, Central and SLA because we are open admission and serve all students in our catchment. Mastery nor Masterman - or any other charter and magnet/special admit - can claim to serve ALL students.

Until the PSP gets over its mantra of "high performing seats" based on test scores, it will continue to be exclusionary and for a select group of SDP, charter and parochial schools. (I'd also like to know how a parochial school is determined to have "high performing seats" since they do not have to administer the PSSA/Keystone tests.)

What will PSP do when the charter, parochial and magnet schools will not alter their admission criteria / "creaming" and "counseling out"? Then, will you redefine "high performing seats?"

Submitted by garth (not verified) on September 17, 2012 8:25 pm

I also wonder what would happen if a school like Masterman, a high-performing school without any doubt, applied for this type of grant. There's definitely some parents there who could somehow find a way to properly apply for a grant. But could a pro-charter crowd ever allow any funds to go towards expansion of a good performing but way over-crowded school? That seems unlikely to me, but maybe that's worth a shot. Expansion of a intensely crowded public school seems to me like a tactic some school should try, just to see what happens.

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