The Notebook was created 20 years ago as an in-depth, independent news source serving a grassroots audience. Its initial focus was on providing information to people concerned about Philadelphia public education so they could help reshape and improve the schools.
But as it grew and became widely read, its journalism more aggressively kept watch on decision-makers. Several stories have triggered major changes.
As the nation commemorates the 60th anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is fitting that the Notebook is celebrating an anniversary of its own.
The Notebook first published in 1994, the same year that the Commonwealth Court decided the long-running desegregation case brought by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission against the School District of Philadelphia.
Twenty years ago, Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner’s landmark decision in a long-running desegregation case offered a glimmer of hope that a longstanding inequity could be corrected: The Philadelphia School District, she ruled, must spend more and do more to close the “achievement gap” between Black or Hispanic students and Whites.
In the past two decades, Philadelphia’s education landscape has changed tremendously.
The state took over the District’s governance. Charter schools proliferated. Dozens of neighborhood schools were closed, including such landmarks as the 99-year-old Germantown High.
Despite the state takeover, the District’s financial condition has only become more desperate.
A crowd of some 100 parents, teachers, principals, and education activists braved a brutal rainstorm on April 30 to wage what amounted to a two-hour attack on the School Reform Commission, which was considering the proposed bare-bones budget for the next school year.
Earlier that day and a block away, an 11th grader at Benjamin Franklin High School named Jeremy Rodriguez had been fighting his own battle with the current school budget.
“Some days the teachers just don’t have the energy … they’ll give us a paper and we’ll teach ourselves,” said Rodriguez, 17. “There’s nothing new in the school. … All the books are ripped up.”
When Peggy Marie Savage thinks back over her 20-plus years teaching in the School District of Philadelphia, she whispers one word: “Wow.”
Savage had been teaching for eight years at Richmond Elementary by 1994, but “it felt like I was still brand new,” she said. Her classes were large, as many as 33 children. She had students at both ends of the spectrum – “kids who were really, really gifted and kids you really had to pray for,” whose learning disabilities cried out for evaluation and extra help.
Two years ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the longer school day that SRC Chair Bill Green wants. And although Chicago officials say their “Full School Day” has helped boost graduation rates and test scores, critics point to a growing list of unintended and potentially damaging consequences.
Many people think of the school day as seven hours with a bell schedule that divides it up into eight or nine equal periods. But in Philadelphia schools, what the school day looks like increasingly may vary from one school to the next.
To explore the variety in how the day is used, the Notebook lined up the schedules of 10th graders at five different high schools [see comparison of 5 high schools] – a neighborhood school, a special admissions school, a career and technical education school, a charter school, and a private school – to see what a typical day looks like at each school, both teacher time and student time. We surveyed school leaders about the structure of the day and about their perspectives on how time is used.
Jennifer Davis was in 3rd grade in her home town of Haverhill, Mass., when she was diagnosed as dyslexic.
But her family was solidly middle-class – her father was a realtor – and soon she had tutors and the extra help she needed to catch up.
“I was lucky enough to have a family with resources,” says Davis, who now heads the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning. “What we’re trying to do is create those support systems for all children.”