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.
The books at Roxborough High's library sit untouched and unread by students. Renovated at considerable expense in 2007, the library was closed three years ago when, due to budget cuts, it became too expensive to keep open. It’s used for meetings, presentations, and small assemblies now.
When I mentioned over the dinner table the fact that in Philadelphia, almost all public school libraries were closed, my 5-year-old granddaughter, who attends a suburban elementary school, almost fell off her chair. “What, no libraries? Library is fun!” Her father, a graduate of Central, was equally upset. He spent the bulk of his lunch periods in the library, either studying, reading magazines, or shooting the breeze with friends.
Farah Jimenez, newly confirmed member of the School Reform Commission, will be the first to concede that the SRC is not the answer to solving myriad problems that plague the District. And it may not ever be.
There are a lot of vehicles through which she could work to help Philadelphia kids achieve, Jimenez told me over a cup of coffee in West Philly last week. “It doesn’t have to be the SRC," she said. "But it is what it is, and it’s my pleasure to serve.”
By an overwhelming majority, the state Senate confirmed Jimenez, executive director of People’s Emergency Center, and City Councilman Bill Green to the five-member board last week. It was no secret that Jimenez, 45, was open to the idea of floating her name as a replacement for Joseph Dworetzky. She views her SRC involvement as “a calling.”
by Sarah Burgess
I recently exchanged emails with a teacher, asking her to spread the word about the Teacher Action Group’s Inquiry to Action Groups, which are starting up this week. These are peer-led study groups that bring educators together to delve into topics relevant to our teaching practice. Small groups meet weekly (for six sessions, each two hours long, plus a kickoff event) between February and April to share experiences, respond to readings, exchange ideas, and develop plans of action.
by Jonathan Cetel
In his recent commentary, Michael Masch, the former chief financial officer of the School District of Philadelphia, seeks to challenge the fact that Philadelphia’s public charter schools receive less per-pupil funding than District-operated schools. His arguments rest on a defense of several of the deductions that the School District of Philadelphia is able to make against its expenditures when calculating the per-pupil allocation to charter schools. Mr. Masch brings considerable authority to the subject, but his analysis fails to consider several important factors.
First, Masch discusses only some of the more than 20 deductions that the state allows districts to make in calculating the per-pupil allocation to charter schools. The deductions he cited for 2011-12, the year he used for comparison, added up to nearly $750 million, but they were not the sum total. Specifically, he failed to mention the “Other Financing Uses” deduction that includes debt service. For the 2013-14 school year, that deduction exceeded $259 million.
by Larry Kalikow
For more than a quarter-century, the School District of Philadelphia has maintained a special-admission, academically superior high school exclusively for girls, the Philadelphia High School for Girls (aka "Girls' High"), without affording equivalent educational opportunity for boys.
On its website, the Philadelphia High School for Girls, for many years, unabashedly described itself as "a public, college preparatory school for academically talented young women drawn from the rich diversity of the city." It has further proclaimed that it provides, among other benefits, an "outstanding academic opportunity," an "unequaled art program," "outstanding AP opportunities" and "superb choices in the sciences, math and languages." Yet, the School District of Philadelphia has no corresponding boys-only school "for academically talented young men." Certainly, the diversity of the city is rich enough, and has been for the last 25 years, to include many such male students.
by Lou Ryan
Philadelphia’s children and teens are facing ever-rising rates of obesity, and the school lunch program could be part of the problem. That’s why the Humane League, a nonprofit animal advocacy organization, is encouraging the School District to implement Meatless Monday.
By providing meatless meals to children just one day a week, the District could not only reduce its students’ risk of developing obesity and other chronic diseases, but also improve environmental sustainability.
by Michael Masch
For years, charter school supporters have been wrongly asserting that Philadelphia charter schools cost much less to operate than District-operated schools, and that charters are being shortchanged, receiving substantially less per-student funding from the School District than the District spends on each student in its own schools.
Among those who have made this assertion are Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, Robert Fayfich, executive director of that organization, and Robert Morano, a board member of the Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton.
Fearful of antagonizing elected officials who support charter schools and wealthy, politically active businesspeople who support charter schools, the School District of Philadelphia has been reluctant to publicly challenge these kinds of claims by charter advocates, even though District leaders have known for years that they simply are not true.
It is time to set the record straight. Here are the facts:
It came in like a wrecking ball ...
I’ve been subjected to hearing my 10-year-old daughter play Miley Cyrus’ song "Wrecking Ball" many times. Some parents hear this song and envision the provocative music video. I’ve come to relate it to the universal enrollment plan being proposed for Philadelphia's schools. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was blindsided.
I consider myself a fairly informed public school parent. I attend School Reform Commission meetings, participate in various workgroups, and faithfully read this publication's morning news roundup. So when the Great Schools Compact, an education-reform initiative that seeks to replace poor-performing seats with high-quality alternatives, released its agreement at the end of 2011, I didn’t recall any red flags about universal enrollment as a plan to privatize the School District’s placement office and assign students to one school.