Gleason, Wang: Debate over school closings asks the wrong questions
by thenotebook on Mar 06 2013 Posted in Commentary
Thursday's School Reform Commission vote on the recommended closure of nearly 30 schools will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future of the city's public school system. In advance of the vote, the Notebook asked prominent Philadelphians to offer their thoughts, using new data and maps on school attendance patterns in the city as a starting point.
by Mark Gleason and Mike Wang
Far more important than the question of whether schools should close is why some neighborhood schools work -- even when serving the same students with the same funding -- and others don’t. We don’t need to look far to answer this question and don’t need to engage in some hypothetical debate over models, governance, theories, or systems. We need only to look at the dozens of successful neighborhood schools in Philadelphia and find the common threads: focused leaders, resourceful and committed teachers, and the conditions that enable these educators to thrive.
As long as there have been schools, parents and caregivers have pursued the best schools for their children. Whenever possible, nearly all prefer those schools to be close to home. But they will look elsewhere when a good education is not available nearby.
For decades, some Philadelphia families have sought out scholarships to attend private schools, while others with means have paid tuition, moved to a different neighborhood or fled the city altogether for a better local school. More recently, an increasing number of families of all backgrounds are choosing charter schools. Four in 10 of the students who live in neighborhoods with schools recommended for closure have already left in pursuit of something better. The data show that parents and families weighing their options are rarely motivated by a particular type of school; rather, they simply want the safest, highest-quality schools for their children.
There are many reasons for families to be worried about school closings. But the real challenge facing Philadelphia is the number of neighborhood schools that families find unsuitable. Parents know what’s missing in such schools. At the Feb. 21 School Reform Commission meeting, parents from James Alcorn School pleaded with SRC members to address inconsistent leadership and an environment not conducive to learning. Alcorn is among the city’s lowest-performing schools; 55 percent of students in its attendance zone have opted into charters or district schools outside of the zone.
Conversely, at schools where enrollment is high, parents know what is working. “We have a challenge with outbursts with my youngest son. The teachers made a special meeting for me to meet with all of the teachers at once, and we came up with a plan to help my son,” says Gia Calloway, mother of four students attending Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Elementary. “I get a weekly report with feedback on how he's transitioning between classes. … [The teachers] took this time out of their whole day to sit down and talk to me, and make things work for my son. Just for my son. And that shows that they care about him. That they think he has the intelligence to succeed. That they see in him what I see in him.”
At Douglass, which until three years ago was one of the city’s poorest-performing schools, enrollment has increased by nearly 60 percent since 2010. There, economically disadvantaged students learn and achieve at high levels despite the poverty-related challenges they face every day. The same happens at dozens of other neighborhood schools -- some run by the District, some by charters, and some by the parochial system. At these schools, there is a focused principal who is accountable for building a great team of teachers and staff, ensuring the safety of children, partnering with parents, and achieving academic results, no matter what challenges students bring to school. These leaders, more often than not, have the flexibility and the imperative to make budget, curricular, and staffing decisions based on student needs.
Families aren’t the only ones who leave for better schools. The city’s charter schools are filled with former District teachers who moved on in pursuit of working environments that foster collaboration and provide regular coaching and feedback. The culture in these schools revolves around student expectations and teacher effectiveness rather than an outdated 200-page labor contract. Such environments exist in some District schools, too, but cumbersome work rules and a lack of accountability for school leadership hinder them in many. Even within the District, the best teachers tend to gravitate to the schools where strong leaders have created high expectations.
We can and must create these conditions in every school. The question now is whether we can muster the will to do so. In the process of closing schools, we must figure out how to get more resources into the hands of great principals and great teachers to do what they do best. We must pull back from policies and rules that have no bearing on student achievement and hold school leaders responsible for managing teachers as partners and professionals. We must face the challenges of poverty openly and honestly, but without lowering expectations for children.
Closing schools would be less painful if we had enough outstanding schools to enroll every displaced student. The discontent voiced by families amid these closings must be a reminder that we have an obligation -- and the opportunity -- to ensure there is a great school in every neighborhood.
Philadelphia parents Mark Gleason and Mike Wang are the executive director and managing director, respectively, of the Philadelphia School Partnership. PSP is a nonprofit organization working to expand the number of high-quality schools in Philadelphia.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.