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December 2011 Vol. 19. No. 3 Focus on District Leadership

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Not looking for a savior this time around

The District's next superintendent may be asked to build on what exists rather than create a grand new plan.

By by Paul Jablow on Nov 23, 2011 03:12 PM

The School District of Philadelphia should not be waiting for Superman, or Superwoman, but looking for a new leader who would be – in the words of one knowledgeable education insider – "hitting the ground learning."

The city should regard its recent experience with three big-name outsiders as cautionary and consider someone for the superintendency with a feel for Philadelphia and a predisposition for building on what exists rather than starting over.

That is the picture that emerged from a series of interviews with local and national education figures familiar with the travails of big-city school districts in general and Philadelphia in particular.

As District officials prepare to launch a search for a permanent successor to Arlene Ackerman, some maintain that the next leader need not be an educator.

And rather than someone coming in ready to impose his or her plan, many said the new head of the District should model a form of leadership to be used throughout the system – one based on collaboration and building "bench strength" rather than on personal loyalty and a predetermined agenda.

"It's less important that someone come in with a playbook," said Pedro Ramos, the new chair of the rebuilt School Reform Commission who will likely lead a search. "The 'top down' model continues to prove unsuccessful. ... We're looking for someone who has a track record of attracting and motivating and empowering good people."

Ramos, an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, said that the job requires someone who knows how to support teachers and principals and retain and encourage talent.

Shelly Yanoff"We've had our share of superheroes," added Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "We need somebody who thinks the most important people we have are principals."

The new leader will face big challenges: restoring public confidence in a District battered by budget woes and influence-peddling that did in the prior SRC and superintendent, working with a brand new commission, implementing controversial initiatives like school closings with a shrunken staff – the list goes on.

"We need someone who wants to be a part of this community if they aren't already, not a hired gun" said Gerald Wright, who has two daughters in the system and is active in Parents United for Public Education.

Debra KahnFormer school board member Debra Kahn talked about a "calming presence." Teacher union leader Jerry Jordan warned against hiring someone determined to "eliminate a lot of what's in place." Public interest attorney Michael Churchill said the District doesn't need a "visionary," but someone who can "build on what's been done."

History of outsiders

Each of the last three permanent (as opposed to interim) superintendents – David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas, and Arlene Ackerman – came from outside with established plans and agendas. All three left embroiled in controversy and disappointment.

"Each paid little attention to learning the local context," said James M. "Torch" Lytle, a former superintendent in Trenton and high-level administrator in Philadelphia who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "None of them worked on an agenda that built on where the city is and where the organization is. There is a difference between hitting the ground running and hitting the ground learning."

Whoever is hired, he said, "It's going to take time to stabilize the system. They're going to have to build bench strength, and you don't do that in six months."

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer and one of two executive advisors to the new SRC, wants someone who understands the city and is willing to see educational improvement as part of a bigger agenda.

Jerry Jordan"I don't think we need to look every place else first," she said. "We need someone who sees this as a citywide issue. It's not just making the District shine; it's making the city shine."

She also wants someone with experience grappling with severe budget cuts and multiple sources of funding.

Given the complexities of the job, Shorr and Ramos are taking a serious look at abandoning the superintendent model and going back to having a chief executive officer and a chief academic officer, the structure that existed under Vallas.

"It's in the air," Shorr said.

Ramos said it is "tough" finding a person "who can lead and manage at that scale of complexity and who [also] has an educational background. … I don't know that you need a superintendent's certificate."

Regardless of the structure, said Lytle, it is paramount that the new leader develop the right kind of relationship with the School Reform Commission.

The function of the SRC, he says, should be "to set goals and parameters and not to be directly involved in management ... more like a corporate board than a school board."

Search will not be short

Ramos expects to hire a search firm and for the process to last awhile. Many good candidates, he said, tend to come in at the end of the search because they want to be sure that they really want the job and have a good shot at it.

While the goal is obviously to have someone in place on or before the start of the 2012-13 academic year, he said, "You keep going until you have the right person."

That person will not be easy to find, as Philadelphia now has a reputation for chewing up its school leaders and spitting them out. While nationally the average tenure of big-city superintendents is increasing – from about two years in the 1990s to three-and-a-half years now – the recent history in Philadelphia has been the reverse. Hornbeck lasted six years, Vallas five, and Ackerman just three.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that school boards have become more sophisticated about the cost of rapid turnover, not just in terms of disruption but in terms of payouts, as Philadelphia discovered with Ackerman's nearly $1 million severance.

The pool of people willing to take on the country's largest and generally most troubled districts is shrinking, Casserly said. Of the few out there, the competition among districts to recruit the best is stiff.

"The job," he said, "isn't much fun anymore."

About the Author

Freelance reporter Paul Jablow is a regular Notebook contributor.

Comments (73)

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 4, 2011 6:46 am

Good article. Let's hope the wisdom expressed here is kept in mind for the long term.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 4, 2011 9:15 am

I would like to add that besides looking to see what's already in place, it is also important to look at what is already working. It seems that success stories are undervalued, underanalyzed and as a result an unused resource. Finally I would hope that the paralyzing effects of "office politics" that I have seen all too often, might be alleviated somewhat by establishing a team (that includes the principal) rather than individual evaluation of teachers. Hopefully having a system of evaluation acceptable to the Teacher's Union would keep us in the running for the "Race to the Top" Federal funds that might be granted to districts rather than States in the future.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 4, 2011 10:40 am

There are too many strings attached to "Race to the Top" funds, which is why some states have pulled out of the race, and some have never joined it. I'm a NBCT and I don't want Arne Duncan telling me how to teach. Nor do I want any more unfunded mandates coming down from above.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 4, 2011 5:05 pm

Grant money aside (which I would concede often creates more problems than solves..just look at the mess we're in now), what do you think about having team evaluations that include the principal rather than just individual teacher ones? Do you think this might encourage more mutual support and investment in each other?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 4, 2011 9:57 pm

When you speak of team evaluations, do you mean all members of a team observe a single teacher at the same time? I would love it if teachers invited their fellow educators into their classrooms, without an administrator present, NOT for evaluative purposes, but to get constructive feedback from those who are also 'in the trenches'. When I was a new teacher, I asked for feedback regularly, from teachers who I respected and admired. That's how I improved my craft. I think that principals should give newbies and veteran teachers opportunities, if desired, to sit in on each other's lessons. I know some veteran teachers who would benefit from that! PAR was put in place to provide support for struggling teachers, but maybe if we had a chance to observe each other, informally, there wouldn't be a need for PAR.

I don't know about you, but I get some of my best ideas from classroom teachers, not from the IRFs (or whatever they're called now), principals, or walkthrough teams. I find it frustrating to be evaluated by others, who, on the basis of a snapshot of my teaching, decide whether I get a green, yellow, or red for my performance. We all have lessons that don't go as well as we planned, for any of a number of reasons. The GOTCHA mentality that pervades the District really irks me. Members of the walkthrough teams can't even seem to agree on how they want things done! It's not uncommon for teachers to get conflicting feedback. I'm all for mutual support. Wouldn't it be nice if we got that from all levels of administration, not just from each other?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 4, 2011 10:37 pm

I agree with you. The whole evaluation process is very subjective by the principal, furthermore, in those observations if the principal doesn't sit through the whole class period, how can he/she accurately evaluate the lesson if he/she doesn't stay until the end. The walkthroughs are a real joke and a total waste of time, a way to justify someone's job for doing nothing that really helps learning. All these former educators do is look at your walls, desk, and distract students while the teacher is delivering instruction. How could they accurately assess how teachers are delivering instruction if they don't stick around for the entire day? I guess they couldn't call these visits walkthroughs then, they would be named probably school wide evaluation.

As for the red, yellow and green scoring, I am insulted. A teacher is a college educated individual who also must continue education beyond a BA/BS, this arbitrary assessment of a teacher's performance is ludicrous. Teachers are the only college educated professionals treated in this manner.

Until those who take on the endeavor of preparing the future populace of this city realize it takes all of us working together, teachers, school staff, principals, those essential folks working in central offices, and the superintendent, the dog and pony show will just have different ring masters conducting business as usual and children attending the schools will continue to be under served by the district.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 5, 2011 11:14 am

Just for the record. In August of 2008 I addressed the SRC with Dr. Ackerman present about the need to "change the administrative culture" of ths school district. I explained the resons why and that it it is the reason behind high teacher turnover and low productivity.

What do you think happend? Under our School Code you are "Professional Employees." You are more often treated like factory workers and many times like children. You certainly are more often not given the respect that is due you as professionals. And I say that as a former administrator in the district.

I have often written that the school district has turned into an "unhealthy organization" since the misguided state takeover has taken away our moral compass and professionalism in our organization.

The cure can be found only in the processes of Democracy. That is all I have to say for now. I just wanted to put forth those ideas into this conversation because they are things that need to change. Otherwise there is little hope for us as a professional community.

I say this as I am presently working to prepare to make certain the new SRC reads every word of that address in the not too distant future. I guarantee you that will happen.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 5, 2011 2:19 pm

Mr. Migliore I agree with most all of your comments and certainly appreciate the herculean task you have taken on to fix the broken system. I'm a little puzzled as to how the State takeover would have caused this rather disjointed, "me first" culture. The teachers at the school which my kids were at, are feeling "unlucky" now that it is on the list of proposed closures; however, I remember that 4, 5 years ago when the school started losing enrollment, only a handful of teachers were willing to reach out to parents. The majority were narrowly focused on what the admin wanted them to do, and there was plenty of jockeying for importance going on, not looking at the larger picture. Only one teacher ever made it to the Home and School meetings. Anyway, my point is we must find a way to make the ideals practicable. Probably all can agree on the ideal of a Democracy, but to make this happen, there must be some concrete doable action proposed. This being said, it is refreshing to hear your idealism continually offered in the comments here. I can appreciate the time it takes to do this!

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 5, 2011 2:33 pm

It was the management mentality that was first imposed upon the district by Paul Vallas with his shock and awe BS which first changed the climate. He summarily removed principals and others if they were "on the radar." That is management by "threat and intimidation." It is destructive of the "community of our schools" and school system.

That is how the "write 'em up disease" got started in our district.

Our district was never like that prior to the state takeover. Our school district "family" had most often been led collaboratively, for example -- Deidre Farmbry. Show me one credible program on leadership that does not advocate for collaborative and collegial practices.

The mangement by threat and intimidation was worsened by Arlene Ackerman. Our district, like schools with negative leadership, became toxic. If you read the vitriol on this site for the last year, you see the symptoms of a toxic, unhealthy oranization. it is characterized by "us vs. them" behaviors. The "me first" is a product of negative synergy.

That filtered down from the top. A leader's style, or mentality as it often becomes, filters down through the organization he or she leads.

Toxicity is caused by poor management. It is almost always blamed on the teachers.

We need to grow as a community and get over the adversarial processes of an era long gone. Otherwise there will be no Great American School System.

The first thing anyone can do is have the Courage to Speak Up. The second is to use your constitutionally granted freedom of association and gather together like some young leaders have already been doing in our district. Change comes from many people leading change. It is better to do it peaceably and persuasively.

I try to lend some positive leadership because, in my experience and studies of leadership, that type of leadership works better. I do this, like many others, because we are saddened by what our district has turned into.

There are though, many wonderful schools doing their thing for children. I bet that those wonderful schools are "good school communities." That seems to be the common denominator of Great schools.

Our hope lies with you, and others like you, our community.

Submitted by Miss Math (not verified) on December 5, 2011 8:42 pm

I could not agree with you more regarding the toxic atmosphere of this school district. It has become beyond enduring. My blood pressure is lately way above normal, and my doctor wants me on anti-depressants. For these reasons, I've decided to hand in my resignation on Friday and leave at the end of the month. I've noticed that this makes me Number Four on this site over the past few days. And we all seem to be Math, Science or Special Education teachers. Why is this? In any event, I'm going back to Seattle, where I taught for many years and where I was once very happy.

Good luck to all the colleagues I leave behind. You deserve so much better than what you have here in Philadelphia. May each of you find your own happiness and professional fulfillment. God bless you all.

Submitted by Another Science Teacher (not verified) on December 6, 2011 5:44 am

Make me Number Five.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 1:15 pm

Number Six.

Submitted by Anne Tenaglia (not verified) on January 12, 2012 4:50 pm

Make me #7. My doctor told me that I need to change jobs if I want to avoid going back to the hospital for heart problems. I will retire this year after 35 years. The atmosphere in this school district stinks and it began with Vallas.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 5, 2011 6:47 pm

You can't force the SRC into anything, especially something against their agenda.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 6, 2011 7:11 am

That is true. That is why we have to hope that our new SRC and Lee Nunnery are independent thinkers and learners with the best interests of students and our school community in their hearts. If not, we will have more of the same -- 'Meet the new boss -- same as the old boss."

The SRC members who resigned, resigned becuase of the "public outrage" of what they let happen or caused to happen. So we can sometimes force them to do what they do not want to do. Neither the mayor nor the governor can force them to resign unless malfeasance occurs. The lawsuit is another way to make them do things. Helen Gym, along with the reporting of the Notebook, helped lead both of those efforts that resulted in positive change.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 8:38 am

Your optimism, if that's what it is, is commendable. However, Nunnery is not change, not even close. The people need to band together as a voting and demonstration block and force these varmints out. All this stealing from the poor by the rich, is nothing new, of course. Charters and vouchers are just trendy ways to rip off the money designed for the poor under the ridiculous guise of school choice. Choice is the last thing the poor and lower middle classes will have if these farces are allowed to go on without REAL accountability. Needless to say, accountability and transparency are the end of the line for these corrupt ventures so the pols behind them, want neither and will defend their rights to operate in the dark. All clear thinking people should ask WHY or be ashamed of themselves for being stuck on stupid.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 6, 2011 9:14 am

I do not disagree with anything you say. The followers will see the true character and leadership of Dr. Nunnery over time. He seems to say the right things, but followers look to be shown.

There is no reason for any school to operate without full openness and transparency except for wrongdoing. That is why the SRC and the General Assembly must mandate full public accountability and scrutiny of all schools, especially charter schools.

Part of the SRC's responsibility is to protect our children and our community from self-dealing charter operators. Even the legitimate charter operators, and there are many, understand that and realize they also need to help.

As Diane Ravitch said to me, "These people {the privateers} have money and they are giiving it legislators."

As to my optimism, I assure you it is based on hope tempered with reality. I have been disillusioned often over my career. But hope is better than the alternative. Our New SRC members do seem to be good people. They are certainly bright people.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 1:11 pm

Mr. Migliore,

EVERY charter had its genesis the same way--with a politician supporting an operator of some sort. That ALONE should scare us. I contend that NO charter school is worth a damn IF it hides facts from the public. Also, I know of NO charter school that has voiced the desire to show its cards. Name one, please. By the way, when I say accountability and transparency, I mean the EXACT STANDARD DEMANDED from the traditional Public Schools, no intramural variation. The bottom line, is that you and I have 2 different realities. Mine is based on experiences. I assume yours are as legitimate. Of course, charters give the pols money. They call that kickbacks in South Philly. Again, that alone, should give you serious pause. Like yourself, I am a veteran educator, pushing 62. There MUST be a moratorium on all charters until the playing field is even. Don't hold your breath.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 6, 2011 2:20 pm

Exactly, that is why every charter school should publicly account for every dime it receives and for every person who receives it.

It is also why, if they are to be public schools, their boards of trustees must be elected by the parents of students enrolled in them, and of course, I believe the teachers should vote, too.

if they are to be separate LEA's from the district, they need to be governend like every other school district in Pennsylvania -- with an elected board of trustees.

Otherwise, they are not public schools and their loyalties are not to the students.

The essential question for every school and school district is -- Whose School Is It?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 3:00 pm

By your standards, honestly, the better charter operators are more "public" than the SDP. (I.e. parent councils that actually have some voice, financial transparency, teacher collaboration on decisions, etc.)

This is why I think the public/charter debate, especially in Philly, is so detached from reality. If you are looking for true "local" control, then an enormous bureaucracy that runs 200+ schools is about the last place you'd find it. If the SDP had structures that were superficially democratically controlled (i.e. elected board, etc.) it still wouldn't actually be controlled by the people. In a District as large as Philly, the school board would be a purely political body. With the amount of money at stake on both sides (vendor contracts for businesses, wage/benefits for union workers), there's really no way the school board wouldn't be controlled mostly by political interests (unions, education management organizations, vendors, etc.) So, unless common parents and students got together and formed a giant lobbying group, they'd have very little voice. That's just political reality.

The only places where elected boards show loyalty to students are places where the District is small enough that it's not a purely political office (i.e. because there isn't enough $$ at stake to make it worth being the school board unless you care specifically about education). Somewhat ironically, right now in Philly, the place that comes closest to that are the better-run charters that listen closely to the parents (and by parents, I mean the ones that actually send their kids to the school, not the ones that set up demonstrations and call the newspaper). Philosophically, I strongly support the idea of community public schools. However, I'm not really sure how to achieve that in a District like Philly without breaking it up such that the unit of control is actually at the community level.

Unfortunately, there are very strong interests on both sides that oppose that. From the business side, vendors love the SDP, because they can get giant contracts by convincing only a few people to buy their service (see Kaplan's multi-million dollar contracts, for example). On the other side, the Union loves a large district because of the enhanced political clout, as well as more powerful collective bargaining than if each community unit were negotiating its own teacher's contract (see what happened in Chicago, when the teachers in some schools tried to democratically choose to modify their own work terms from the District-wide contract).

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 6, 2011 4:58 pm

Good comments -so very true. So then these $$ interests should be opposing the charter movement which would in essence eventually break up the SDP/shrink it?

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 7, 2011 8:24 am

Your points are very perceptive and very accurate. There are no easy answers.

I could very well argue that all schools should be charter schools with boards of trustees elected by the parents and teachers who are "residents" of that school.

In that way we would have "community centered schools" and not "principal centered schools" or "charter CEO centered schools."

The ideal is to make "student centered" schools.

How do we do that?

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 8:32 am

Look at Cook Wissahickon, what is working there, and how they got it to be. It is not a special admission school, but it is accomplishing things that parents are looking to charters to do. There are those who would like to discourage success stories, brush over them. Take a good look before the bureaucracy undermines it...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 10:04 am

ALL SCHOOLS need to equally monitored. By the way, Public Education is a right in our constitution, not a slick way to rip off the poor through fake schools. Until we deal with that issue, money will talk and all else will walk. Don't you find it curious that these "operators' migrate to the inner cities where hopelessness and fast money can be made. A variation of the slum lord mentality, feeding off the most marginalized among us just to make money. Elmer Gantry would be proud.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 7, 2011 12:05 pm

Oh, I find it more than "curious" that "privateers and operators" have focused on inner cities, the poor, and the undeducated to gain control of schools. Perhaps you have missed my comments on Vahan Guregian and his shenanigans with "his" charter school in Chester and now his charter school management organization.

How much has he contributed to Corbett? How much to Hardy Williams? Senator Piccola? All voucher advocates. Oh yeah, what happened to the answer sheet testing scandal that he is involved in with his Chester Community Charter School? Has anyone heard about "further investigatuions."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 12:09 pm

Mr. Migliore----You and I are certainly NOW on the same page. Brothers under the same flag. Charters give freedom of speech a bad name. I know exactly what they really are and I respect them not. Scum bags is a term that comes to mind. Elmer Gantry B.S.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 2:07 pm

If by "varmints" you mean the mayor, SRC, governor, and the President, then go for it, because that's pretty much what it would take to reverse the school reform movement. And I'm not sure who you'd elect to replace them. If you don't like the current trends in education, then just imagine a Rick Perry-guided education system.

Nunnery is not much change on a lot of substance, and that's the point. Change every 3-4 years is the problem with the SDP. The exact course you take matters somewhat less than just picking one and doing it well. Just as reformers are misguided seeking the "silver bullet," I think the other side (traditional teacher union/public model) supporters are misguided thinking that if we'd just hire the right Superintendent, the culture of the District would magically improve, etc.

Also, a radical "change" away from the direction of charters, etc. isn't going to happen. It's just not. I'm not particularly comfortable with the way the 'reform" movement is going, but when the mayor, SRC, governor, President, Sec. of Education, and most high dollar business leaders from about as wide a spectrum of political leanings as you can get are all behind one pathway, the likelihood that Philly suddenly departs from that direction is nonexistent.

So the continuation of many "reform" elements (i.e. turnarounds, charters, etc.) is pretty much inevitable. The question is have it with a leader who's going to see it through him- or herself (and thus actually care if it turns out well because he/she will still be here), who gives at least some respect and listens to teacher/parents/students or bring in someone who things they can fix it all tomorrow, spends 3-5 years and wastes a bunch of money, only to leave the District in continued chaos?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 3:01 pm

Obama has been a disgrace but look at the alternatives--Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich etc., not an ouch of decency among them. Hopefully, people will enmasse demand accountability and transparency and the charter house of cards will be exposed as the charade it is. IF charters begin to be transparent, then real comparison's can be drawn. Don't hold your breath. For anyone to claim, "some charters run better than others," is so silly as to not even deserve a response. If the statement is, "some charters hide better than others," then we can all agree. At this point, all we know is that charter operators make Ackerman type money while "supporting" the pols who put them there in the first place. Neither of those facts should give us comfort.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 5:41 pm

I believe the slithering types will be caught and this charade will have run its course. Elmer Gantry and the snake oil ilk will have a relatively short shelf life, hopefully. Clear thinking people not on the take will demand better and the shell game will be exposed. Otherwise, the poor will be hopelessly poor with no real chance to aspire out of their situation kind of like the caste system or the serf system of yesteryear. People with a conscience will hopefully win out.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 4, 2011 11:10 pm

Thanks for your reply. I do understand why the Teacher's Union would object to having the evaluation system as it is now, used to rate a teacher's performance. The objections are the ones you have raised. It is indeed not impartial or fair.
Actually by team evaluations, I meant having a politically separate body evaluate school staff as a team and not individually, that is the performance together would be rated. This would still have to be largely based on the achievement of the children. And unfortunately until better tests can be developed, the written exams we currently have would still need to be used. The school would have to evaluate its student body and set realistic goals still working towards acceptable standards. How well the goals were met should be a major factor. If staff were evaluated as a team, it would be to everyone's benefit to support and help each other, and most importantly the principal's leadership skills would be reflected. I would hope this would also be motivation to resolve inevitable differences of ideology and communication issues within the team. The team would also benefit by how well they are able to involve parents/caregivers and the community. If a team is consistently not meeting its goals, I feel the leadership should be held responsible/accountable rather than changing the entire staff. It would be the principal's responsibility to accurately evaluate his/her teachers' strengths and weaknesses and obtain any needed professional development. Finally, I believe in merit pay for all members of the team. If we are going to extol the value of the free market system and look to charters to improve the system, then we must be consistent, and reward jobs well done.
Again thanks for taking the time to reply. I wanted to ask the opinion of someone "in the trenches" as to if this might work or not. Not that I'm in a position to put it in place. I just believe that changing the perspective to recognize the influence of coworkers and leadership in effective teaching is a better way to implement change than "shaking things up" by creating charters or other punitive measures.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 5, 2011 4:35 pm

What are thoughts on Leroy Nunnery? I know he worked for Ackerman, but he was actually in Philly schools long before she showed up.

I'm not interested in general platitudes about agenda, and so forth. I'm interested in thought on how he's actually running the District.

I have basically no opinion on him, which, in itself might be a good sign. He's basically been in charge for 4-5 months (depending on exactly when Ackerman stopped actually running things), and says really reasonable things in public (which may not mean much, but it's more than we had with Ackerman).

If he's a solid administrator, it would seem to me that perhaps sticking with someone who is both connected to Philadelphia and intimately familiar with the SDP might not be a terrible idea. Partly to avoid another cycle of reform where someone comes in.

Ackerman made mistakes, but I think her leadership style and approach were a lot worse than many of her initiatives, which might work if implemented well. (Promise Academies are an example -- the model itself has a ton of potential if it's used right to build a collaborative staff, offering enriching activities, etc.; instead it was actually used in most cases to intimidate/overwork teachers out the building and waste everyone's time [and a lot of the District's money]). In any case, the absolute last thing the District needs is for someone to come in and decide to change everything (again). We have Imagine 2014, etc., right now, and, as much as possible, the next leader should try to build from what we have. Ackerman's legacy may not be ideal, but a third iteration of "dramatic reform" in a decade is not good for anyone. Since Nunnery was a part of building many of Ackerman's initiatives, perhaps he'd focus on fine-tuning them by building on what currently exists in the District rather than scrapping everything and trying to put his stamp on everything, which is the very likely approach of an big-time administrator hired from outside the District.

Any thoughts on Nunnery?

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 5, 2011 5:27 pm

The school district is in a financial crisis right now. What better time for him to show his vision and leadership skills? My impression is that he's cautious. I'm not happy with the proposed cuts. Chipping away at such things as Nurses and Instrumental Music, which are already far too sparse doesn't impress me at all. Besides showing a lack of understanding of the importance of these services, it doesn't show any originality of thinking or backbone. Could the recent charter pact have been used to preserve school buildings as school buildings, that is could a charter rent a building that might be considered for sale and conversion to another purpose? Frankly I think there will be a time if systemic problems are addressed as Mr. Migliore is trying to do, that there will be a reverse trend away from charters. Has he taken thought to what is driving the trend towards charters? Many of the charters don't have an Instrumental Music program or Athletics, because... they don't have the collective resources... Passivity in a leader is not a good thing. After Ackerman, who exhibited hostility, it might seem refreshing, but I would look at his decision making as a gauge.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 5, 2011 6:06 pm

One last thought. I agree that Ackerman had good ideas. Promise Academies as constructed now are unfortunately unsustainable and another example of outside imposed reform. The ideas are good however as they address the dreams (which are fueling the flight to charters) of parents/caregivers and these need to be noted. In order to make these a reality, the implementation has to be internal. Something that we would hope could happen with more internal support for school staff.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 5, 2011 8:03 pm

The problem for Dr. Nunnery is that nothing has changed on the ground. The same programs and people that Ackerman had doing her work are still there and still following the same protocols. Take for example, in high schools, the regional walk thrus. They started under Ackerman and continue today with the same person and serve no real purpose other than to intimidate and inspire fear. Considering the massive budget cuts still taking place, it is impossible for Dr. Nunnery to justify this outrageous expense! Again, if Nunnery really wants the job, he would have to change what if feels like on the ground and stop continuing the ineffective, divisive policies of his predecessor.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 6, 2011 4:52 am

I agree. Why are some of these things still in place? There have been some constructive suggestions posted on what could be cut instead of ELL, Psychologists, Nurses, Instrumental Music, etc. Dr.Nunnery needs to gather, consider, and try these suggestions, before proposing devastating cuts.

Submitted by SDPTeacher (not verified) on January 12, 2012 6:00 pm

Nunery spend most of a public meeting, where scores of parents hoped to have his attention, texting nonstop. Parents left the meeting complaining about having felt "disrespected."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 5, 2011 6:28 pm

I have just one question for you, how would you accurately quantify merit pay? Test scores? Now we know how flawed those can be. What would be the tools you would use to accurately award merit pay for teacher's performance? These arbitrary fly in and out of class/school evaluations? Now these can be very, very subjective and if the assessor doing the evaluation don't know what real teaching is without a script then how can any validity be assigned to the findings? All the time the buzz words like "Merit Pay" get thrown around without any real, concrete form of accurately implementing the tactic. For once, the individuals using these sound bites must also provide a serious solution in conjunction. Otherwise it just wasted words on a page.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 5, 2011 6:51 pm

There's really not a good way to fairly evaluate individual teacher performance right now, and thus individual merit pay would be contentious and divisive. I would want merit pay to be awarded on a team basis to go equally to all members of a school's staff. In the free market world, businesses give bonuses. A district's budget should include an amount awarded to schools that can show the most meaningful improvement in their children's academic achievement. Yes it would have to include the current standardized tests. As far as I know there is nothing however stopping a district from developing its own supplemental standardized evaluation to more accurately assess a child's progress. Unfortunately with the meager budgets that districts have to work with, bonuses probably could only go to a set number of teams each year.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 5, 2011 7:01 pm

I've always had trouble equating or associating education with running a business. As an individual who is looking at this from both sides, educating a child is not the same a producing a widget. Widgets can be quantified and are measurable by units. Children are not widgets, one cannot produce them on a production schedule nor can educating children go on a balance sheet. This mixing of the two entities is a play on words and ideologies that do not work well together. Horbeck's attempt at making the district flow as a business and Vallas' attempt to continue the practice have both proven dismal failures. So equating the process of education with managing a business are apples and oranges.

As for the district coming up with evaluations, as I stated earlier, these measures are flawed and skewed to suit a purpose. Those administering the evaluations themselves have forgotten how to effectively teach a class of students of differing learning levels and who have varying degree of home issues that impact on their learning on any given day.

Unless an individual actually teaches a class in the district under of the conditions and obstacles I've describe and more, then that individual doesn't truly understand my objection with equating business with education.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 6, 2011 4:25 am

You have made some good points. In support of what you have said, I agree that for example paying a child to do his/her homework or get good grades works against/interferes with good learning. Unfortunately part of the world we live in is material. Good business practice accounts for intangibles; Good education accounts for the material world. Walk through evaluations as well as written tests do give only an incomplete picture. Here I would agree with Mr. Migliore, it is the management that decides how these evaluations are used. Perhaps merit pay would not be feasible. I don’t think in teaching that the teacher is learning him/herself, but rather doing the physical, redundant, tedious tasks necessary to engage and facilitate learning in others. Therefore I don’t believe (political considerations aside) that merit pay would be harmful, rather the opposite.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 1:54 pm

Then I challenge you to go into a classroom and walk a day in the shoes of a dedicated educator then tell me whether or not merit pay is feasible or doable. As I stated before, amazingly those who do not understand the scope and depth the art of teaching requires along with all of the obstacles and challenges faced seem to have solutions that are pie in the sky and looks good on paper, put the execution is never certain nor real.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 6, 2011 1:57 pm

Merit pay is not proposed as a solution. Teamwork is. I have been in the classroom (the whole time and several times) so I see the challenges. Merit pay, perhaps we should not it call it this and just keep to the recognition lists and "prizes" each year is what I feel would be appreciation that can be shown. You are a dedicated educator. Most of the teachers I know are. A few are not and "drag the ship" so to speak. I have seen this "with my own eyes". How do you propose to deal with the few who are not?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 5:03 pm

A series of true and honest evaluations by the principal and by colleagues who can offer genuine feed back to enhance the craft. The negative climate that has been the rule for many years have turned evaluations to a negative tactic, a gotcha mentality. The teachers who are as you say "drag the ship" do so because many teachers start out on their own with no support anywhere. Then they are hit with the expectation to perform miracles in the classroom, all the while only having the ability to affect one of the three aspects of their students learning. The other two thirds, the parent and the student are outside of a teacher's circle of control. I believe that if they had a mentor, and the honest evaluations I describe, those dragging the ship will then toe the line.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 6, 2011 7:25 pm

By "drag the ship" I don't mean teachers who could improve their craft, I mean ones who go out of their way to discourage initiative in their colleagues. Ones who put them down behind their backs. I have someone in mind, who had an almost Rasputin like relationship with the principal. I don't believe she's unique, because I've gotten almost immediate understanding when expressing my frustration. If the performance of the principal and all the other teachers were included in any evaluation of an individual teacher, then I believe the evaluation would be more accurate. You have indicated that support from the principal and colleagues can help. If it can be acknowledged that individual performance depends on team performance, then perhaps there wouldn't be a place for that "gotcha" mentality?

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 2:52 am

I have just two additional comments. I think one should look at Cook Wissahickon school to see that parents are not completely outside teachers'/a school's influence ("control" is not what's wanted). Second, I agree you must not confuse business with education, but we have tried "glorious" academia neglecting business, with Ms. Ackerman, and that wasn't the most happy experience.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 12:04 pm

Ackerman is a poor example for anyone to follow. Her heart was truly not in it. She was always out for herself and her current actions screams that loudly. The problem with the district today is that it has become a huge, ineffectual bureaucracy that no longer fulfill its purpose of providing a quality education. Ackerman's conduct was just as dysfunctional as the district's. What needs to happen is those who are truly serious about children learning look at the entire picture not parts and apply band-aids to those parts to make it look like children are achieving. Teaching is a calling, not a way to enrich oneself. Ackerman and those like her are cancerous in a system established to providing quality education. She had opportunity to turn things around, instead she allowed them to fester and made worst by her own personal take on things and management style.

Our district has suffered more than a decade under their tenure, Hornbeck, Vallas and Ackerman. We need real change from within. This culture of lack of commitment to the task of preparing our future society needs to be eradicated. Once the community at large, parents and community leaders, teachers, school and district staff, and students themselves adopt the mentality that a quality education can be achieved with everyone's input will children start to learn across the board without using polar tricks and cooking the books to make it look as though kids are achieving.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 7, 2011 1:53 pm

I Love this comment....

It is the Truth and so well said.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 1:30 pm

O.K. agreed, though I would have to say I have observed in too many instances what I would call "academic disconnect". Again good education is happening at Cook Wissahickon; they are consistently improving their kids tested skills (I know the objections, but no one objects to Hill Freedman, Masterman,Central having good scores) WITHOUT being special admission.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 4:20 pm

"Cooking the Books," is code for Charter Schools.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 4:35 pm

Cook Wissahickon is not a charter school. Levering School "cooked the books" in order to make AYP: It also is not a charter school. SDP is "cooking the books" saying Title I is going to the poor children... We should just label it a charter also.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 6:35 pm

How exactly did Levering actually "cook the books"? Not sure what you are saying.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 6:25 pm

After not making AYP for 3 years (3 years ago), the number of Special Ed students fell below (population attrition) the 40 required to make a subgroup, and thus they were able to leave them out... making AYP that year; the most recent year (last year) their stats are pretty much unchanged, and you see that they needed all the assists "Safe Harbor", etc. to "make it". I would not call that an honest improvement. Would you like to know how the SDP is cooking its books in regards to Title I?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 6:42 pm

I know who you are, "Ms. Cheng."

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 6:51 pm

Sounds like the mafia to me.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 7:40 pm

Then also think about this: there were kids who were getting SES (who really benefitted)... tutoring, a free computer. Dishonestly making AYP, led to them losing these services. Perhaps that wasn't a consideration. It's more important for you to serve yourself after all... is the impression from your rather silly comment.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 7:04 pm

Your comment is actually a great illustration of what I was up against when I tried to "save the school" 4, 5 years ago, when the enrollment started to fall. Besides being probably the only parent who took the time to read the School Improvement Plan (looking for stats to get good PR for the school btw - shall I write what I found there?), I also went to significant community members to try and get involvement. Funny how rather than being welcomed, I was targeted. Are you perhaps the senior person who sent the School policeman after me to keep me from "wandering the halls" as I sat for a few hours in what I hoped would be the start of a uniform exchange? It didn't matter that I'd been volunteering already over a year, with clearances. He was pretty nasty. No wonder parents left. If you are that person, then you've helped create upheaval that might not have been necessary. But God/Universal Good works in funny ways... AMY NW may be a real blessing in the end.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 8:17 pm

I should clarify that I was indeed welcomed by individual teachers who wanted to improve what Levering could offer the kids. Teachers that now have to be force transferred. Most all of them in fact were open to grant possibilities and working with the community.

Submitted by Helen Gym on December 8, 2011 10:20 am

Hey folks: The serious issue about school closings is exactly that. A deeply serious issue. When people insert private innuendos or background information that NONE of the rest of us understand (or deeply care about when folks just lob accusations) it undermines an effort to give voice to a broad range of people and shed light on exactly what Levering is going through - rather than personal resentments people harbor. I care deeply about Levering and am very interested in knowing what a wide variety of people think about the impact of potentially closing the school and whether the options offered are viable.

Also note that the Notebook commentary policy does not permit people to harass or defame others. Comments like that may be deleted (and actually, just were).

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 8, 2011 11:54 am

And yes in the discussion of a possible future superintendant, school closings are an apropos topic. Obviously at one time, the underutilized schools were needed; I still feel the leadership of Philadelphia is not doing enough to encourage businesses to locate here. People will move to where they can find jobs. Philadelphia has so much potential. A good superintendant should indeed understand the City and how the schools relate; try and understand what is driving the reconfiguration/exodus to charters...perhaps a lot of the closings may not be necessary if a "deal" can be worked out, e.g. charters can rent school buildings. The timing is not predictable, some depends on what the City can do to reform its tax structure. Some depends on what the SDP can do to reform its bureaucracy to foster more of the positive things that are already being done (again, I cite Cook Wissahickon). So a leader must see the potential/have vision, and be able to inspire efforts in a positive direction.

Of course on a personal/sentimental level a school closing is hard. I still feel Levering is lucky in that the building is not actually being shuttered/sold to developers. I might even have proposed a renaming of AMY NW to AMY NW @ Levering, if that would help the understanding of the proposal.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 8:59 pm

Those statistical "assists" come from the state (I'm sure you realize).

As for federal monies allocated for individual schools' budgets, principals (do they not?) decide how they will spend those funds. Not sure of the rules (are there any rules?) for how Title 1 or Title 2 funds can be appropriated in a school. It would seem that the norm is for most schools, if not all, to spend those federal dollars on extra teachers. It's pretty easy to check individual schools' budgets and see the line items in their budgets for those Title 1 and Title 2 monies: Instructional Reform Facilitators, Teacher Leaders, Lead Teachers, RCS (reduced class size) teachers, additional specialist teachers, etc. I think more consideration should be given to student needs being met first when working with those monies, and what looks good on paper (i.e.,a school's budget), doesn't necessarily equate with educational adequacy and efficiency once the school year starts. How does this Cook school you talk about so much handle their budget? How do they use their federal monies?

Are your thoughts on Title 1 just from your experience at Cook? Explain more about Title 1.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 9:28 pm

Actually I was at Levering, so it says a lot that I support Cook Wissahickon now. I have not read Cook's documents, but I was following through on what PIRC had to offer and found Cook listed as one of the participating schools in Solid Foundation (you can see a link from PIRC's site) which has a program (a cost I believe about $1000.00) that analyzes and helps build a school's parent communication and involvement. There is 1% of a school's allocated Title I that must be spent on parent involvement, so that is easily covered (each school at the time I was researching was getting a minimum of $100,000 in Title I -it is more now.)

More on Title I: You are correct, Title I money is where the principal has the most say/direction. The Operating Budget is/was (when I went to budget training) set by State requirements. The key to Title I spending is the School Improvement Plan. The spending is supposed to support the SIP, a collaborative plan with teachers and parent input on how to remedy deficiencies as analysed by the PSSA scores. Other than that the only requirement is that it can't be used for core curriculum (which is a common stipulation for grants, because they don't want to displace the normal operating budget.) For Levering, the African American subgroup was not making adequate progress in Literacy. When I read the SIP, I was looking for a coordinated plan to specifically address what must surely be cultural "blocks"/issues. I found only technical terms, and no concrete plan. Ironically enough the 3 years that Levering did not make AYP, it spent the bulk of its Title I on a "Team Literacy Leader". As you noted, this position became "Instructional Reform Facilitator" (in Levering's case it was the same person). Apparently she was indispensable to the principle (it seemed to me she was more of an Administrative Assistant, though technically you can't hire an AA with Title I)... I do SO agree with you regarding the use of Title I. It is supposed to go to the kids. Professional Development is only 1 to 2 or 3% (max if school doesn't make AYP). Title I is designated to be "enrichment" for the poor who can't afford things that middle class kids would get,things such as books, arts exposure, etc.... to try and level the playing field. Not once did I see our funds spent on things the kids could take home, though this was suggested several times. We didn't bring any kids to the theater with it. One year, I believe some was spent properly on supplemental Art supplies. If a school doesn't use all the allotted funds, the excess goes back to the District's pool of Title I.

It would be interesting to read Cook's SIP. I only know that with growing enrollment, and no special admissions Cook was managing to progressively make AYP each year. They are now at the 80% mark .. over 500 kids. Pretty impressive. I believe in their case, the parent/caregiver involvement is a significant factor. The SIP is supposed to address this component as well.

The individual school budgets were posted online. I haven't looked recently, but it would make an interesting comparison. I did a comparison of Dobson (which has also been making AYP, but does not have the growth of Cook) and Levering. Roughly the difference was that rather than having several SSAs, Dobson had a full time librarian. This of course was 4, 5 years ago. The SSAs at Levering were capable highly intelligent staff; however, they filled more of a support function rather than actually teaching. Both Dobson and Cook provide more enrichment in the Arts (Dobson had Instrumental Music more days), extracurricular activities... At Cook, the parents are the drivers for these. I would seem that Cook's investment in better communication and caregiver involvement really paid off.

Sorry this is so long. I would try and edit it, but I guess I've been writing too much... hope this answers some of your questions. Read your school's SIP.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 8, 2011 7:00 am

As of September 1, 2011, Dobson no longer has a certified librarian.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 8, 2011 8:41 am

That's a shame. Librarians like Nurses, and the Arts are far too underappreciated. It's been several years since I did the budget comparison of Levering and Dobson. At the time, the two schools had comparable enrollment. I just found it interesting the choice made, that is several SSAs vs a certified Librarian.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 7, 2011 9:53 pm

Regarding the statistical assists, I guess I need to stand corrected and say that the State then "cooked the books". Still for Levering to accept this determination, despite the lack of real progress seems to me to be unduly complacent.
Cook has not needed these assists. Their demographics are pretty much the same as Levering's. Percentagewise they have less Special Ed, but working out numbers, roughly the same actual number of Special Ed kids.
It seems to me that many things of value are ignored in Title I; why, I'm not sure. Perhaps the pressure from administration is what causes the resentment. It is especially upsetting to see that "creativity" is offered a school in the Title I budget, and this is not used. Instead, what is perceived that 440 wants is what is done. Charters are obviously a sore spot for many as evidenced by the comments posted; however, Title I is an opportunity not taken, to innovate, and compete with the charters.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 8, 2011 9:10 am

One last technical thing about Title I. The funds must go to the poor children, in this case the criteria is qualifying for free or reduced lunch. If there is at least 40% who qualify (which in Philadelphia is probably all schools), then the school can use the funds for the entire school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 7, 2011 6:56 pm

A POX on both their houses BUT the traditional schools generally admit their mistakes, Charters never do----no $$$$$in that.

Submitted by Ms. Cheng (not verified) on December 8, 2011 9:11 am

You can legally prosecute a charter operator for improper accounting practice and find the exhorbitant unjustified salaries. As far as I know you can't legally prosecute the SDP for not getting resources to kids. It's in that grey area in which the wrongdoing is not clear, and the impact hard to quantify. In the end whether it was from sheer greed or bureaucratic neglect, the result for the kids is the same.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on December 8, 2011 2:37 pm

I also worry about test scores being the measure used and my kids scored unbelievably well on the Acuity this fall. THat is not to my credit. That should be thanks (and I gave a strong nod to ) their first grade teachers. No teacher can take credit for or should they be blamed for scores, since the child is a product of all that has come before, not just during that year.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 8, 2011 3:53 pm

A test score is not an end all. It does speak for critical thinking skills and vocabulary. These are things that are needed to do well on written tests (and hopefully read the fine print on those credit card terms someday...) On PSSAs my first son had scores in the 99th percentile, and my second was barely making proficient. Today my second son, besides playing 4 instruments, has nearly straight A's (an A+ in Mandarin, which scares the heck out of me) at Central, while my first is barely motivated. So test scores are just one dimension and must be treated so.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 5, 2011 9:38 pm

Any word on how Gratz and Olney HS are making out?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 6, 2011 3:19 pm

How can you tell? There is no transparency on which to make comparisons. That's by design, of course.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 8, 2011 2:55 pm

My niece attends the new Olney Charter. The discipline is wonderful. The students are separated by year on different floors, which is good for her. The uniform is pretty drastic, but is equally enforced. I can't wait for test results, though to see how that academics have shifted. She is having a much more successful year and this is her third at the site.

Submitted by debra weiner (not verified) on January 12, 2012 2:05 pm

Our collective disillusionment with superintendents is not limited to Hornbeck, Vallas and Ackerman. When I arrived on the education scene in 1970, Mark Shedd was being run out of town by Mayor Rizzo, as was his successor Matthew Costanzo. Community rage led to the resignation of Michael Marcase in the early 80's. Constance Clayton was the only one of the last 7 superintendents who was not forced out. I don't know whether this is a commentary on the plight of urban superintendents in general or the peculiarities of Philadelphia's education politics. But the SRC is right in focusing on finding a team experienced in turning around a huge, complex public burueaucracy and a leader who is committed to giving schools more autonomy AND accountability.

Even Superman/Superwoman is not smart enough to make the best choices for how to allocate human and financial resources in more than 250 schools in widely diverse communities.

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