May 28 — 11:00 pm, 2003

Independent school proposals shelved for now

Local groups collect $2 million in grants but plans go nowhere.

Seven community groups received grants totaling $2 million from former Governor Mark Schweiker last year to plan the transformation of 80 traditional public schools into "independent schools." But as of now those plans are going nowhere.

The independent school concept was conceived by the Pennsylvania legislature in 2000 as a way for parents, teachers and administrators to take control of a school and be free of certain school district regulations. As of yet, there are no independent schools in Philadelphia.

Each community organization receiving a grant from the state’s Department of Education was given $25,000 per school to research the possibility of converting schools or clusters of schools into independent schools. The seven funded groups were Foundations Inc., West Philadelphia Coalition, Community Connections Services and Developments, Laboratory School of Communication and Languages, Nueva Esperanza, Universal Companies, and Germantown Settlement.

Those organizations submitted copies of their plans to the state Department of Education and the School Reform Commission (SRC), but so far, the SRC has not expressed interest in any of the independent school proposals.

"The School Reform Commission has decided not to pursue the possibility of independent schools at this time," Deputy Chief Academic Officer Ellen Savitz told the Notebook.

Last summer, the SRC abandoned its own plan to convert five District schools into independent schools.

Last year’s awarding of the planning grants was met with strong suspicion by some in the Philadelphia community, who viewed the grants as a political payoff to reward certain groups that supported former Governor Schweiker’s position in his negotiations with the mayor and the School Reform Commission over the takeover and privatization of schools.

There was no public "Request for Proposal" process for selecting the seven organizations for the grant awards.

Many also questioned the governor’s assertion that the grants would empower parents and teachers at the schools targeted to become independent. Critics said staff and parents at many of the schools were not aware that the applications covering their schools were being submitted to the state Department of Education.

The strongest opposition came from a group of Mt. Airy and Germantown parents called the Concerned Northwest Parents, who wanted to block Germantown Settlement from having a hand in controlling neighborhood schools. Germantown Settlement received $425,000 to study the possibility of 17 schools becoming independent.

In a strongly worded letter to Auditor General Robert Casey, the Concerned Northwest Parents said of Germantown Settlement’s independent school plan, "Germantown Settlement has done virtually nothing to justify such an expenditure of public money." The parent group argued that many of the recommendations made in the finished proposals were nearly identical across many of the schools, suggesting that there was not enough attention paid to the differences among schools.

Two of the schools on the list to be studied, Henry and Widener Memorial, formally notified Germantown Settlement that they did not want to pursue the independent school status.

There was less neighborhood controversy over some of the other organizations that received awards.

"We held community forums and solicited everyone’s input when creating our plan, which was extremely valuable in helping to shape our school reform strategy for the schools that we are managing this year," said Rotan Lee from Universal Companies. Universal, which already is involved in managing three District schools, received $325,000 in planning money.

"We hired researchers, consultants, brought the community together to improve our schools, created a solid plan, but when we submitted the grant to the District, that is where it ended," said Rev. Ernest McNear, who spearheaded the process for Community Connections, who received a $100,000 grant for a plan for schools in Strawberry Mansion.

Rev. McNear said that his organization met with CEO Paul Vallas about the plan but there appeared to be little interest in implementing the recommendations.

With $2 million spent and little being done to create independent schools, some continue to question the validity of the entire process.

"At a time when our schools lack basic needs from books to teachers to equipment, for the governor to give away millions of dollars in the name of education was flat out irresponsible," said Helen Gym of Asian Americans United.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism