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With new high schools, District is learning from its mistakes

By Debra Weiner on May 6, 2014 01:02 PM

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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Comments (11)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 6, 2014 2:43 pm
At least this is commentary. My experience with this push in the district for high-performing seats has been that we allow less qualified students into magnet schools. These schools are then forced to either lower their standards since magnet school principals refuse to let students who fail to meet standards fail so they force teachers to pass students who don't deserve it. These students learn they can't fail and won't be held accountable so don't do the work it takes to improve and to learn. This is all reflected on the standardized test scores after school size increases. They should make pretty clear that it's not seats that are high performing.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 6, 2014 2:19 pm
Wow. You could substitute the word student with teacher and that's what we have today!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 6, 2014 3:12 pm
The District has learned that it has to redirect attention from resource-starved schools and that it has to appear to get stakeholder input. First, let me say that these new schools sound like wonderful learning experiences for incoming students. But why not locate them within an already existing school? Will they include a school library with a certified school librarian or will they rely solely on technology? I was at the meeting last night and noticed that the agenda did not include a Q & A section. As I raised my hand I was told by a District employee to put it down. I kept it up and asked anyway but somehow they could not find room for attendees to ask questions in front of the entire group. Two of those schools showcased last night were presented as Resolutions to the SRC in February as School A and School B. Once again I tried to get more information but Mr. Green told me no questions were to be answered. Two months later we have this full-blown presentation - what's this say about transparency and stakeholder input? There is a $3 million grant for these schools for the first three years and then guess who pays? Each year gets more costly as they add a grade. And what happens to our other schools not being graced with any grants? If you really and truly want stakeholder participation instead of the staff at the District Office of New School Models, then here's an idea. Begin a year-long process involving teachers and other school staff, parents, and students under the leadership of a skilled principal who meet to dsicuss and explore what Innovations would work for their school community. This is a multi-year process that takes time to create, nurture, and sustain. This is what real change looks like. Karel Kilimnik
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on May 6, 2014 3:30 pm
While the "new" schools are intriguing, the fact is neighborhood schools take any students, at any time, without question. We will get students into late May and june. Just as the Workshop only takes students who "fit," the other schools are looking for students who have enough interest to apply. This will NOT solve issues in neighborhood schools. (Mastery, the king of "turnaround," sends "problem" students from Gratz to a discipline school at another location. District schools can't dump over 100 students at a time.) The Workshop started in 2001-2012 (not 2012-2013). It only took students that "fit." It took very motivated seniors who were already on their way to college. This was their justification for opening. Now, they have one of the lowest teacher to student ratios on the city. (There are 9 teachers for 88 students.) I assume the new schools will also have a favorable ratio while we are being threatened with over 40 students in a class. The SDP needs to invest in all of its schools equitably. The "flavor of the moment" too quickly leaves a bad taste and they are onto the next "favor of the moment."
Submitted by Barbara McDowell Dowdall (not verified) on May 6, 2014 4:14 pm
I am sad to see longtime progressive and effective supporters of public schools join Superintendent Hite and the SRC in abandoning struggling schools for the shiny new, I mean innovative, school programs. Every existing school would love to have its "stakeholder input" sought and to actually benefit from the district's "stated desire to involve school staffs, parents, students, and community partners in the [redesign] process." Neither donor dollars nor legislative bodies show concern for the students and parents quite literally left behind. I clearly remember David Hornbeck telling Girls' High parents and alumnae that foundations (most notably Annenberg at the time) would not contribute to existing programs, only to something "new." 1999 Democratic mayoral candidate John White offered a radical view of city schools during the primary campaign: "Every day in every school, something good happens." In 2014, we might say, "Every day in every school, many good things could happen if the students were provided a well-maintained and appealing physical plant, small class sizes, teachers with experience whose suggestions were valued, resources that include a professionally staffed and resourced library, classes in music, art and drama, a full lifetime sports program, nurses and counselors and a wide variety of professionally supervised extracurricular activities. Would this (and the students) not be worth such an approach while we await the thrilling arrival of "sweeping academic changes."
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on May 6, 2014 8:26 pm
Many of the so-called progressives have taken money from the Phila. School Dictatorship (FACTS Charter, Wissahickon Charter, SLA, Workshop, etc.) They are selling themselves to the privateers.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on May 6, 2014 5:11 pm
At that meeting last night, I sat across from one of the former Creighton teachers who, two years ago, wrote and presented to the SRC a teacher-led and -designed innovative plan in a futile effort to save their school. I was there when the SRC rejected the plan and handed Creighton over to Universal. I would not call what happened at 440 last night a public meeting, especially since those running it did not allot any time for discussion or questions from the group as a whole, even after a request from the audience. Questions had to be submitted on index cards to be answered...sometime. I would characterize it as another infomercial designed to sell a new product, in this case, three new “innovative” high schools, in the same way that “blended learning” and other programs have been sold at the SRC”s Strategic Policy and Planning Meetings. I would not say that the “district had learned its lesson” about getting stakeholder input, particularly because the SRC voted to approve funding for these three schools months ago. (At that meeting, Karel Kilimnik asked Dr. Hite to explain what these schools were about. She was told that her question would not be answered. The SRC voted to approve with no discussion.) I had a few questions which I was not able to ask. What will these schools cost over the next four years, as they add a grade each year? Where will that funding come from? Will these schools be fully staffed with full-time nurses, counselors, and librarians? Those of us who have spent time in the classroom know that given the right climate, created by a principal who is a true leader, teachers in any school can be innovative. In fact, we have spent years trying to figure out how to be creative in a district with scripted curricula and abominations like Corrective Reading and Math. Support staff, the ones who are left, struggle to develop and maintain “deep relationships” with students in schools without basic services. I didn’t hear an explanation of why three new schools had to be created and funded in order to bring back innovation. Dr. Hite told City Council, on the morning of this meeting, that there was nothing left to cut in the district’s budget. He foretold of classes with over 40 children. Last night, I was told that these new schools would have between 20 and 30. One may agree with Dr. Hite’s decision to create these schools, and the SRC’s to fund them, as long as it is understood that the funding will come at the expense of the students of already existing schools. The same schools which someone will eventually label “failing”.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 6, 2014 10:01 pm
Lisa, As a current SDP teacher, I want to extend my appreciation to you for all that you do advocating for our public schools. I grow tired of the term "innovative." After 4 years of budget cuts, it would seem to be "innovative" if there would be stabilization of the current system. Teaching, by its nature, requires its practitioners to be innovative. Many teachers are highly creative individuals. Furthermore, it's necessary to be innovative because no two students are alike. What works for one child will not necessarily work for the next. Innovative seems to be a term for giving management complete, unbridled authority to do what it wants. At this point, I think we all have to consider whether innovative is even that important given that schools don't even have the basics. How about the District allocate enough money to provide each teacher with at least 3 cases of copy paper? That way, I wouldn't have to buy the copy paper on which I print IEPs!
Submitted by Lisa Haver on May 7, 2014 12:34 pm
Thanks, EG. One of the many issues that could not be asked was who are these management companies and how did they come to be chosen by the district. Karel mentioned that she was told by Green to sit down when she asked what "School A" and "School B' were in February, just minutes before the SRC voted to fund them. Just a couple of days later, there was an extensive interview with Dr. Hite about those same schools in Ed Week. The district in now way has learned by its mistakes about parent engagement. Look at how blatantly they cancelled six meetings on the new "school report card" when parents very vocally told them at the first one. hey didn't want it--and asked how the district could even afford it. As long as the district has those choreographed meetings with the requisite 'small groups", and no time for questions that are not written by district staff, we cannot take their claims of transparency seriously.
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on May 7, 2014 3:27 am
Vallas drained neighborhood high schools by creating boutique small schools - he nearly doubled the number of high schools. Vallas also stripped most high schools of their internal magnet programs . (Washington and Northeast are the exceptions.) Then, with the rapid expansion of charters neighborhood high schools were left high and dray. Hite's "innovative" small high schools are another tool to destroy neighborhood high schools. The stats speak for themselves. Why isn't Hite honest and admit he wants to only have neighborhood high schools to warehouse the students who his "innovative" schools will not accept? Workshop had 92 students and they are down to 88. What happened to the 4 students? Are there more that didn't "fit" and were "returned" to their neighborhood high schools?
Submitted by tom-104 on May 7, 2014 11:08 am
It would be laughable if it were not so alarming in its blindness for Debra Weiner to compare Hite to FDR. There is nothing progressive or even reformist in what Hite is doing to the children of Philadelphia. On Monday we were treated to the spectacle of Hite and Green talking about "amputations" to the public schools of Philadelphia in testimony to City Council. Monday evening they held court (no questions allowed from the peasants) about the three proposed "innovative" high schools. It's as if he and the SRC have a split personality. They don't. What they have been doing is managing (and mismanaging) two school systems: downgradeing the public schools of Philadelphia as they build up charters. Once they leave they will leave behind two school systems, one for those privileged to be admitted into the charters and the other for students left behind segregated in separate and unequal schools.

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