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Funding crisis threatens spread of innovation

By Benjamin Herold for Education Week on Jun 12, 2014 01:19 PM
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Education Week

Students leave Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy at Beeber. The school, which replicates the hands-on, technology-rich model of the original SLA, will add a class of 125 new 9th graders in 2014-15.

Nearly a year after Superintendent William Hite committed millions of dollars to expand Science Leadership Academy and two other pioneering District schools here, the investment in hands-on, technology-rich instructional models has stirred hope and experimentation across the city.

But the tentative flourishing of innovation is at risk of being overwhelmed by a massive funding shortfall that has cast doubt on the superintendent's ability to safely open schools in September, let alone spread promising new models across the 131,000-student system.

"It's frustrating as hell," Mr. Hite said in an interview last month. "We're trying to show that we know what works, and here we are a year later, still begging for the status quo."

Fueled by strong parent demand, SLA's new second campus is poised to double in size, to 250 students. Final preparations are also underway to bring three unconventional new high schools on line, and small bands of educators are soaking up the new ideas and bringing them back to their neighborhood schools.

Faces of Change

Philadelphia educators experience hope, disappointment when pursuing hands-on, technology-rich school models. Hear what five of these educators had to say about their efforts.

Gianeen C. Powell
Principal, James G. Blaine Elementary School

Daniel E. Ueda
Teacher, Central High School

Lisa J. Nutter & Dana A. Jenkins
President, Philadelphia Academies Inc. & Principal, Roxborough High School

Grace J. Cannon
Executive director, Office of New School Models

Andrew A. Biros & Joshua D. Kleiman
Teachers, Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts

The positive momentum, however, has not persuaded state lawmakers or the city teachers' union to heed Mr. Hite's pleas for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. In late May, at the superintendent's urging, the governing School Reform Commission refused to endorse a budget that called for steep class-size hikes and a fresh round of cuts. The city schools are again bracing for severe shortages of everything from paper to nurses—a sensitive issue after the recent death of a boy who had fallen ill at a school without a full-time nurse on duty.

To many observers, Philadelphia's plight offers yet more evidence that large urban districts are incapable of bringing innovative educational models to scale. Even when the money is there, those observers say, a thicket of problems—labor strife, dysfunctional bureaucracies, crazy politics, leadership churn—prevents sustained investments in the instructional expertise of teachers and principals.

Mr. Hite is playing his cards as well as could be hoped for, said Steven Fink, the executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

But a poor hand is still a poor hand, Mr. Fink said.

A faithful replica

Inside SLA@Beeber, as the new Science Leadership Academy campus is known, small scenes tell the story of the 21st-century education on which Mr. Hite has gambled.

On a beautiful May afternoon, Caleb Hughes and a group of fellow 9th graders linger at the school after hours, playing soccer in the hallway and finishing a video-editing project for physics class.

"His personality is really coming out, and he's really learning to take ownership for his grades," said Renee Hughes, Caleb's mother.

Ms. Hughes' eldest son attended SLA's decorated flagship campus. She described SLA@Beeber as true to the original: intimate and demanding, with caring teachers who push students to work together and juggle multiple deadlines.

Seats in the incoming class at SLA@Beeber—like the original, highly selective—filled up quickly. So did eight new staff positions. Despite a hectic school year, six of seven current teachers—all but Karthik Subburam, whose difficult transition to project-based teaching was chronicled by Education Week in March—will return.

"The beautiful thing is that what they fell back on when things got tough—collaborating with people, sharing successes and failures, reflecting all the time—is the same process we ask our kids to work through," said Christopher D. Lehmann, SLA's founding principal.

For a district desperate for something to build on, the successful replication of SLA has been "gigantic," Mr. Hite said.

But such enthusiasm is quickly muted. Many Philadelphia educators say the district's budget woes have sucked the life from creative, hands-on instructional practices already in place. While the superintendent talks about giving educators the freedom to innovate, many city principals and teachers feel abandoned, rather than empowered.

Take Marilyn Quarterman, the principal of Ellwood Elementary, a K-5 school.

In early May, she joined roughly 100 people at a roundtable discussion on new school models, hosted by the School Reform Commission, the District's governing body. She came hoping to gather information that might help prepare students for the city's new high schools.

Her curiosity quickly turned to frustration. While Mr. Hite has directed attention and resources to innovation, Ms. Quarterman said, Ellwood Elementary has been forced to limp along without a functioning library and with only a one-day-per-week nurse and a half-time counselor. Its playground surface has grown dangerous from disrepair, she said, and one of her best teachers is leaving.

"My expectation is that [innovation] sounds good now and will probably do well for a while, and then it will go away, as everything else does in Philadelphia," said Ms. Quarterman, a 27-year veteran.

In responding to such sentiments, Mr. Hite is in turn energized about breaking "the cycle of disbelief" surrounding the district, defensive about the decisions he has made, and angry that he has been forced to make such impossible choices in the first place.

The unfortunate reality, said Mr. Fink of the University of Washington, is that's how it goes in most big-city districts that try to bring innovation to scale.

"Making deep instructional shifts can't be done on the cheap," he said. "I don't see the social and political will to do this, and it's a shame, because kids are getting screwed."

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Comments (5)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 12, 2014 3:50 pm
Why would teachers accept concessions to promote this "innovative" "reform" agenda? Hite and the SRC want money to "transform" the schools, i.e. get rid of veteran teachers and the union.
Submitted by anon (not verified) on June 12, 2014 9:34 pm
and just what part of my last comment did the censor police at the notebook find objectionable? happy 20th birthday indeed. your trigger happy editors are keeping busy stifling free conversation.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 12, 2014 10:39 pm
Dr. Hite is no savior. He is a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy where marketing and privatization rule, not education. The innovation school models impact how many students? Innovation for the select few. What about everyone else? How about transforming the district? I said this at the SRC meeting and I'll say it again. Give school staff, parents, and students an entire school year to come together to talk and begin to plan for what their school needs to educate every single child. There is a wealth of stakeholder knowledge, expertise, and skill that is being trampled upon. Chaos reigns as teachers are put out of schools in the name of transformation. Instead of drawing upon each school community to come together, outside interests are brought in that cost lots of money. Grants from corporations and PSP get them started. Who pays when that money runs out? Karel Kilimnik
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 13, 2014 8:58 am
You are absolutely right Karel! When I walked into the district in 1975 innovation was the normal practice in every school I knew. It was part of our culture until the state takeover of our schools and the imposition of Act 46. There is no shortage of innovative ideas within the teaching ranks from the old folk who have years of practical experience to many of the new generation who are willing to devote their lives to Philadelphia's school children. Such groups as TAG are an example. They advocate for teacher led schools as professional learning communities. In opposition to that are those who want to return to the archaic and failed "factory model" of imposed managers, top down management, and entrepreneurs who want to privatize and profitize our schools and turn them into McWalmart schools. They want to eliminate democratic governance and democratic leadership in our schools. Such practices stifle innovation and student centered education. Prime examples are PSP, The Gates Compact Committee, PhillyPLUS, Students First (which really means Corporations First), the Broad Academy, the Commonwealth Foundation, etc. They all want to circumvent mandatory democratic practices embodied in our laws such as the PA Sunshine Act. I advise Dr. Hite and will continue to advise Dr. Hite and his leadership team to distance themselves from those organizations and their misguided ideologies, and lead us toward student centered and "schools as communities" centered leadership and governance.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2014 8:02 am
I agree. It is time for all to understand the real intent behind the use of words like "transformation" and "innovation".These are nothing but code for getting rid of teachers. All teachers need to be informed of this. Do not wait for leadership from the PFT.

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