In the wake of Gov. Corbett’s budget cuts in 2011 and the release of the Boston Consulting Group’s school transformation blueprint in 2012, which promoted school closings and expanded private management, many in Philadelphia have aggressively challenged the School Reform Commission’s leadership of city schools.
Using the tactics available to social movements, hundreds of activists have worked to educate the public about the issues facing our schools. Protests have demanded full and equitable funding, opposed mass school closings and charter expansion, and decried attacks on the District’s unionized workforce.
by Samantha Osaki
April 16, 2013, seemed to be a day of unmitigated success for Dimner Beeber Middle School’s community. Initially slated to close as part of the Philadelphia School District’s downsizing process, Beeber was spared because, according to Supertintendent William Hite, an alternate proposal put forward during a community meeting to reshape the school had urged the School Reform Commission to rethink its decision.
Though two other factors (safety concerns surrounding the death of a high school student and the co-location of the Science Leadership Academy, a touted magnet school, in Beeber’s building) may have been enough to save the school regardless of the community’s efforts, parents were indispensable. According to Beeber teacher and education activist Sam Reed, parents were critical to "the preservation of the nature of the school [as] a place that’s by and for the people who live" in the Overbrook/Wynnefield area.
I had to go to a national conference to find out what was happening in my own city’s schools. Conveniently, the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting was held in Philadelphia this year, the first time this gathering of 15,000 academics and policy folks has met in our city.
The conference lasted for five days, and at any time there may have been as many as 50 different sessions going on. In deference to the host city and in recognition of how much experimentation is going on in our public schools, a number of the sessions focused on Philadelphia, covering such topics as portfolio management and parent engagement. There were also planned visits to local schools and communities to meet with locals and plan or share research.
My own highlights and "low" lights:
How shocked should we be really?
On Friday, Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason embraced a stunningly blunt description of the District’s “portfolio model” at a session of the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting. Gleason was attempting to explain why the portfolio model depends on school closings in a system where multiple operators run schools.
“So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally. ... you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools,” he said.
The American Educational Research Association conference is taking place in Philadelphia. These are prepared remarks from a presentation on Friday by Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar in a session about "The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia." He was asked to discuss the "portfolio model" and how it has developed in Philadelphia; subsequent comments by Philadelphia School Partnership head Mark Gleason have spurred controversy. [Listen to the entire panel discussion below.]
First a cursory definition: Portfolio school districts rely on a variety of operators of public schools within the city, with the stated aim of providing high-quality learning opportunities … so ultimately every family can choose a slot in a good school. The term is borrowed from Wall Street: You're going to hang on to the successful companies in your stock portfolio and dump the losers. Proponents here talk about replacing “low-performing seats” with “high-performing seats.”
The American Educational Research Association conference is April 3-7 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the downtown Philadelphia Marriott hotel. This excerpt is from a presentation on Friday by Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar in a session about "The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia." The topic was whether there are positive trends in school performance in Philadelphia.
Yes, since the state takeover in 2002, the trends are positive on a number of indicators … and not just test scores. Graduation rates are up – now, finally, two-thirds of students are graduating high school within six years. And more of the graduates are going to college.
But the story of how Philadelphia schools are doing is complicated and much murkier.
One of my granddaughter’s favorite requests to her parents is "read to me." My son and his wife read three books to their children each night before bedtime and make weekly trips to the public library. At 5 years old, one child can explain the word “symmetry.” Their 3-year-old uses words like “specific” in context.
A high school English teacher I know once asked in each of his five classes how many of his students had parents who read to them when they were little. Not one student raised a hand.
Most of these students had caring parents. Most had loving parents. However, in just about every case, each student had parents who worked too hard at low-paying jobs and were gone early in the morning until late at night. Aside from time dedicated to daily chores, there simply was no money, no time, and no energy to buy books or go to the library and then read. Reading to their children is a luxury the families can’t afford.
After listening to the mayor’s budget address on Thursday, I had to wonder the last time elected officials had visited our schools to do some real fact-finding.
In case a reminder is needed, our schools are barely schools anymore.
Is it fair to send our children to schools where the student-to-counselor ratio is 1,200 to 1? Or where a school staff person balances insulin-shot injections, phone-call duties, and administrative filings because we’ve eliminated so many nurses, office staff, and assistant principals?
While there's been quite a bit of discussion lately about “failing schools" and “low-performing seats" -- indeed, the two phrases have become synonymous with public education -- there has been little discussion about how schools come to fall off the curve. Sometimes this happens gradually, and sometimes quickly. I saw it happen at my school. And it wasn't because of failed teachers, but because of failed leadership.
When I began working at Roxborough High School in September 1999, the school had an enrollment of more than 1,300 students. Classrooms were filled to capacity. For many students, Roxborough was their safety school, the school they went to when they didn't get accepted into magnet schools. No school can be perfect, but we were one of the better comprehensive high schools. Kids wanted to attend Roxborough. Parents felt comfortable sending them there.
That all changed when, five years later, a new principal began what I call a reign of error. Within weeks, the kids were telling teachers they were in charge of the school. And, indeed, they were.
It is hard to find someone in the system who trusts the current School District budget. It’s doubtful that more than a few fully understand it.
The District's budget is in many ways a masterpiece of obfuscation, with a design that dates back to former CEO/Superintendent Paul Vallas, who was an accountant by training. The current version fulfills the District’s obligation to publish an annual budget. But the document’s design features and the survival climate created by the continuing financial crisis have given central administration almost complete control over allocation decisions.