November 28 — 12:00 am, 2002

In the new Central Region, lots of changes to take in

Anyone connected to the School District over the past several months has likely become accustomed to an ever-changing reality of new leadership and reform initiatives. But the families, teachers, and administrators in the Central Region should be given special recognition for all of the twists and turns they’ve encountered recently.

Even the definition of the region has changed in the past four months. While the District’s other eight regions remained the same in this second year under regional offices, the Central and Central North regions were collapsed into one in late summer.

This change made the new Central Region the largest in the District. It now encompasses 48 schools, eight schools more than the next biggest region. With geographic boundaries that stretch from one side of town through North Philadelphia and almost clear across the city and with schools ranging from disciplinary schools to special admissions schools to vocational-technical and neighborhood schools, this region pulls students from all over.

While the composition of the region has dramatically changed, so has the structure of many of the region’s schools. Of the region’s 48 schools, 30 opened their doors as "partnership schools" this fall — that’s more schools than the total number in most other regions.

Partnership schools are schools targeted by the School Reform Commission for changes in management or new District-led reform models because their standardized test scores were among the lowest of elementary and middle schools in the District. These schools also receive extra funds.

Fourteen of the region’s partnership schools are now run by outside managers (five by Edison Schools Inc., four by Victory Schools, and five by Temple University), eight have been restructured (meaning they are run by the District but with extra resources and attention), one has become a "transitional charter" school and is now run by a board of directors and headed towards full charter school status, and seven schools received extra funds with no change in management.

The Central Region’s 30 partnership schools account for 63 percent of the schools in the region, a much higher percentage than any other region. Simply put, this is a region where most of the schools have been labeled low-performing.

The Central Region is also one of two regions where the person in charge has changed. Former Regional Officer Michael Clayton has been replaced by interim Officer Desiree Mansell.

Students a force for change

Through the Notebook‘s community outreach project, I have had the opportunity to talk with several organizations and individuals working with schools in the Central Region during this time of change.

These interactions have made it clear that change in the region is not just coming from the top. One exciting trend is that students in the Central Region have also been having their say about how they want their schools to be.

Members of the Strawberry Mansion chapter of Youth United for Change recently celebrated the achievements of the "Making Libraries Work" campaign they initiated last spring after a school-wide survey identified the library as an important issue for students.

As a result of the students’ efforts, Strawberry Mansion’s library now has a full-time certified librarian, new computers, college preparation information, new books selected by the students, and a fresh coat of paint.

Students at Gratz High School are working to reinvigorate a more collaborative approach to professional development at the school.

The students, who are members of the Philadelphia Student Union, are following up on work that was started by the Gratz Student Union chapter four years ago. Those students conducted a survey of teachers that found that teachers wanted improved professional development, more time devoted to it, and more input into what professional development they receive.

The Gratz students now are proposing the formation of a teacher committee on professional development, including teacher representatives from each of the school’s small learning communities and two student representatives. The committee would have a real say in how professional development is planned and implemented at the school.

Meanwhile students from other high schools in the region, including Benjamin Franklin, Dobbins, and Bodine, have taken a more overtly political angle to their work. The student members of Citywide Youth Agency’s law division are advocating for a "Youth Voters Rights Act" that would lower the voting age to 17 in municipal elections. The students have written their elected representatives seeking support and are gearing up for a petition drive in support of the act.

As schools in the Central Region see big changes from top-down mandates, we at the Notebook look forward to seeing these student-led efforts for school change carry on as strong as ever.

Beginning in January, I will be continuing the Notebook‘s community outreach project in the South Region (the former Audenried, Furness, and South Philadelphia clusters). If you are working in or with schools in the area, please let me know about your efforts!

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