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Commentary: GreatPhillySchools is about empowering families

By the Notebook on Nov 2, 2012 04:03 PM

by Sharmain Matlock-Turner

For many years, I have witnessed how parents and caregivers in Philadelphia truly crave more information about our city’s schools. As evidence, in just two weeks, more than 10,000 Philadelphians have visited GreatPhillySchools, a new website for families to learn more about nearly all  of our city’s K-12 schools. As part of our longtime commitment to empowering families, the Urban Affairs Coalition is proud to be a partner in this citywide effort with the Philadelphia School Partnership and many others.

Most of the information on GreatPhillySchools was already available to policy makers and search-savvy parents. But accessing it required a lot of work, including searching multiple websites and sifting through large databases. This challenge is what initially prompted UAC to produce our annual charter school directory, and then compelled us to participate in the development of GreatPhillySchools. The site takes the same data that is used by policy makers, and much more, and presents it in one easy-to-access place so that parents can find and compare schools.

In developing this resource, every decision was made based on what parents said they want to know. The process began with focus groups of parents and caregivers who provided critical input on the site’s design and content. Their feedback helped us create a survey that asked schools for information that parents want that is hard to get, such as school safety statistics, up-to-date contact information, and parent engagement opportunities. The development of the site was, and continues to be, guided by an Advisory Council comprising the most important stakeholders -- parents, teachers, and civic and school leaders.

There are great schools of every type in Philadelphia, and no one type is right for every student. GreatPhillySchools provides a starting place for families to compare different kinds of schools and to get more involved in supporting their school. The site includes descriptions, maps and enrollment facts, as well as school performance ratings covering academics, safety, student engagement and college-enrollment rates for nearly 400 public and private schools. Families will also find articles explaining the differences between types of schools and advice on comparing them. Although the site already contains a lot of information, we don’t see it as a finished product. We will be working to improve it continuously and plan to add more information to help parents get more involved in their child’s education. We will keep adding content as resources allow and as we gain additional feedback -- including from users of the site and hopefully you, too, because we welcome input and suggestions from Notebook readers.

We all know that no rating system is perfect; in some respects, the ratings on GreatPhillySchools are dependent on the ways data is reported and collected. But the ratings will be updated and improved as new and better data become available. More important, users should avoid making snap judgments on any school based solely on the information on GreatPhillySchools. Before choosing a school, we advise parents and caregivers to take a closer look by visiting and spending time in schools they are interested in. The ratings are designed as guideposts to help parents start their school search. The site includes contact information and links to every school's own website (if it has one). It also offers suggested questions to ask when visiting a school and timelines for attending open houses and school fairs and for scheduling visits.

Ultimately, GreatPhillySchools will only be useful if we can get it into the hands of the people who most need this information. GreatPhillySchools works on any device that has Internet access, including mobile phones. Understanding that many families do not have Internet access, I encourage you to visit your local KEYSPOT: Powered by the Freedom Rings Partnership; the KEYSPOTS are computer centers with free Internet access located in city recreation centers, community-based organizations, libraries, and other public establishments. We are also publishing corresponding print guides by the start of 2013, and working with community partners to distribute more than 20,000 copies of each guide -- a version with elementary and middle schools and a version with high schools.

Parental and community support is critical to the success of our schools, and access to information has for too long been one of the greatest obstacles to involvement. By empowering families with information, GreatPhillySchools takes us a big step closer to ensuring that every child in Philadelphia can attend a great school.

Sharmain Matlock-Turner is CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.

This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to 

READ: Parents deserve a better measure of school quality

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Comments (21)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 2, 2012 6:03 pm
I enjoyed your commentary because it does state an ideal we should strive for and you acknowledge some the difficulty in rating schools. However, as Helen Gym expresses, there are many flaws in our data collection processes which raise crucial and critical issues as to the validity, reliability and credibility of our data and indicia we use for rating schools. For any organization to argue that their ratings are accurate and valid, they have to build their credibility. They must demonstrate their objectivity and that they are unbiased. In this era of mistrust, organizations that are funded with their private donors, must overcome the initial presumption that they have an agenda of privatization and are therefore biased. This is because so many organizations have been created for the purpose of pushing the privatization of public schools and we are all wary. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. When credibility is lost or never gained by a leader or anorganization that purports to lead, the leader or the organization loses its power to lead. We all realize we need an open honest and transparent school evaluation system. But we can never change the fact that -- Credibility is earned.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 2, 2012 9:07 pm
Ms. Matlock-Turner writes that "Before choosing a school, we advise parents and caregivers to take a closer look by visiting and spending time in schools they are interested in." (It should say by visiting and spending time in schools IN WHICH they are interested, but I digress....) That said, this comment assumes that parents know what to look for in a school, e.g. what good teaching is. There is no consensus on what good teaching is among policymakers and educational experts, so how can one expect parents to know for what they should look when thinking about a school? Even the Danielson framework, a Framework for Teaching, has many complexities and nuances to it. It is not a checklist. Rather, there is a rubric and then lengthy chapters on each rubric which describe the nuances of Danielson's 4 domains of teaching: Planning and preparation, Classroom environment, Instruction, Professional responsibilities. A system of school choice puts too much of a responsibility on parents. Inevitably, the children who--for no fault of their own--come from broken or unstable families will end up in the bottom heap of schools, the dumping grounds. What about parents who cannot speak English? Parents who speak a less common language, like Amharic (Ethiopia) or a language of India may be at a huge disadvantage, particularly if they come to the U.S. among the first wave of immigrants or refugees from their country. What about children with severe disabilities who need life skills instruction? Even in the School District of Philadelphia, life skills programs are concentrated at certain schools. Public schools should provide a high quality education for all, not just for children who have engaged parents. Public education should be a PUBLIC GOOD. Unfortunately, Americans have for decades been resistant to truly public schooling. A prime example of this was busing for the purpose of desegregation. In order for education to be more equitable, there would have to be 2 conditions: First, education funding would have to be consistent across districts in a state. This would require most education funding to come from the state. Second, schools would need to have a mix of students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and races/ethnicities. However, equitable education is a complex issue. Many people, including some teachers, send their own children to private schools because they want their children to receive the best education. My parents sent me to Catholic school, although when it comes to voting, they are strong supporters of public education. Also, where I grew up, the closest school was the Catholic school, not the public school. That said, if we want to improve public education, there has to be collective public will. People cannot be retreating to their fiefdoms--exclusive charter schools and magnet public schools--and expect that the system will be equitable for all children. And people who have never sent their children to public school or attended public school--e.g., Bill Gates--should not have the right to dictate the direction of public education simply because they have millions of dollars to "donate."
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on November 2, 2012 9:29 pm
Yes, Ms. Matlock does destroy The King's English in her article. She also does that on WURD Radio. I am an avid listener with Bill Anderson but not when she takes the Mike. In any case, not to be too coarse but Ms. Matlock is a shill for the 1% Group so enough said about her motives.
Submitted by EWF (not verified) on July 26, 2013 9:13 pm
I don't like this woman AT ALL. She is dangerous.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 2, 2012 9:33 pm
None of this has to do with educating kids in any serious way. It's ONLY about using a business model ON those kids to make money for the already rich "providers" and the pols who helped them open their charters. As my Pappy used to say, "That's all there is, there ain't no more."
Submitted by Please (not verified) on November 2, 2012 9:52 pm
I worked one year at West Oak Lane Charter (a joke where lies abounded - see Dwight Evans) before leaving and teaching at a real school in the School District of Philadelphia. This lady was very "involved" in that school but it was a disaster. Anything with which she is affiliated, I would distrust and avoid.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 2, 2012 11:42 pm
Please--I couldn't agree with you more. Lie after lie after lie is what charters are about. Yes, I also agree about Dwight Evans--Just a farce all the way around.
Submitted by mobile app marketing (not verified) on July 26, 2013 4:26 pm
Thanks for the good writeup. It actually used to be a entertainment account it. Glance advanced to more delivered agreeable from you! By the way, how could we keep up a correspondence?
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Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 3, 2012 12:11 am
Please, Could you elaborate on why you consider West Oak Lane Charter to be a joke where lies abounded? I'm curious. Thanks. EGS
Submitted by Please (not verified) on November 3, 2012 10:44 am
Do some research. It's not all in-house secrets. Look at the standardized test cheating scandal - the firing of a whistle blower and the lawsuit that followed - in the early 2000s. Look at Dwight Evans' history and his involvement with the school when it began. Look at the retention and attrition rate of teachers and other staff members over the years. Please...
Submitted by Concerned Phila. (not verified) on November 3, 2012 12:41 pm
West Oak Lane Charter is funded through Dwight Evans Ogontz Ave. Revitalization Corp. It is another charter that would NOT have made AYP in 2012 without the PA Dept. of Ed. making it easier for charters to make AYP. Scores in middle school also dropped. So, this school is expanding - with the help of Dwight Evans and our tax dollars - while School District schools are slated to close. Also, if you look at their web site, there is NO information about applying to the school. How are students admitted? Is there an open, transparent lottery? What is their outreach? What types of diversity (ethnic, academic, income, etc.) diversity is represented at the school?
Submitted by Concerned Phila. (not verified) on November 3, 2012 12:09 pm
The "Great Philly Schools" site is connected to Philadelphia School Partnership. Below is a list of the voting members. There is NO ONE who represents a Philadelphia public school! (SRC members and School District leadership do NOT represent neighborhood public schools - their behavior, comments and votes indicate they wish to destroy public schools). How can this Board in any way represent the voices of families/students in public schools? How can their "Great School" rating system represent anyone other than parochial and charter schools? Dr. Lori Shorr, Chief Education Officer, Mayor’s Office for Education (Chair) Carol Cary, Superintendent of Secondary Schools Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Office of Catholic Education Joe Dworetzky, Commissioner, School Reform Commission Dr. Naomi Johnson-Booker, CEO of Global Leadership Academy Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School Paul Kihn, Deputy Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia Pedro Ramos, Chairman of the School Reform Commission David Rossi, CEO of Nueva Esperanza Academy Michael Wilson, Special Assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 3, 2012 11:39 pm
The people who should be making the decisions about public schools should be elected officials who are accountable to the public. Unfortunately, Philadelphia doesn't have an elected school board, so "school reform" and privatization can proceed without much input from the public. Bill Gates, who DOESN'T EVEN LIVE IN PHILADELPHIA, has more say about the direction of Philadelphia's public schools than Philadelphia's citizens and schoolchildren. This kind of situation is dead wrong and completely antidemocratic.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 3, 2012 11:45 pm
This is not the voting board of the Philadelphia School Partnership. It's the members of the Philadelphia Schools Compact, a group that came together to apply for a grant to the Gates Foundation and to find ways for various Philadelphia schools to work together. The group has no authority, voting or otherwise, over the School District or the Philadelphia School Partnership. The group also has representatives from the SRC and School District. If you are going to push your position or opinion, why must it be done with lies and inaccuracies? This really makes your statement look like propaganda.
Submitted by Cocnerned Philadlephian (not verified) on November 4, 2012 1:20 am
Thank you for the correction - this is the list from the Phila. School compact - This from the web site: "The Philadelphia School Partnership serves as the facilitator of the Compact Committee. The committee was established to oversee implementation of the Compact tenants and action plan, adhering to a results-driven timeline. The committee is comprised of eight voting and two non-voting members. Voting members include:" (then the above list of voting members). This is the group attempting leading the way to close public schools. The Phila. Partnership Board of Directors is much worse - it is predominantly corporate with a few foundation and one cleric. It does not represent public schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 4, 2012 5:06 am
Correction. Forget public schools. This list does not represent educators or educational interests other than the trending dilettante fantasies of the uber wealthy, partisan conservatives and those seeking to undermine public education and public anything. Their board is the perfect demonstration of the face and agenda of corporate ed reform.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 4, 2012 7:41 am
Perhaps when spewing information about uber wealthy individuals, you should publish the salaries of union leadership. You know, the people who keep getting these great contracts for teachers, spend a great deal of time in classrooms, and have ensured true positive change for public education. Most of the people working in the state and local offices are well paid (six figures). The problem is that when union leaders (labor) and district leaders (management) feign antagonism, but are truly aligned with one another, the front line members get screwed. It's too easy to blame this only on the school choice people. The problem is the continued mismanagement of the district and the leaders (labor and management) compliance with mismanagement. Vallas' plan, Ackerman's plan, and now Hite's plan have nothing to do with what's best for kids or teachers. How much influence did we get on the selection? How much influence did Jordan get? Get real - the real enemy of public schools are right under our noses and selling us out everyday.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 5, 2012 2:40 pm
Hey did you know there's a media outlet that believes that those $50,000/year teachers are the REAL free-loaders of American society? Forget Wall Street, forget the corporate CEOs. We gotta get them teachers. You have a whole media outlet in Fox News eager for you to feed off of those 47%ers . Why bother with a dinky outfit like the Notebook? You need a place like Fox which will become the echo chamber of your own lunacy.
Submitted by Jack (not verified) on August 11, 2013 1:07 pm
It's great that you are getting ideas from this post as well as from our argument made here.
Submitted by Flakner (not verified) on February 4, 2014 6:18 am
The main point to be kept in mind is that users should avoid making snap judgments on any school based solely on the information. Once this point is verified, everything will fall in place. Thanks a lot for the update.

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