February 2 — 5:16 pm, 2010

When collaboration worked

The Alternative Education Task Force showed that the District can have authentic community participation in system reform.

November 12, 2007, was Veterans’ Day, a day that few of the people in the room at 440 N. Broad Street were required to work. Yet, 60 advocates, educators, community activists, parents, juvenile justice liaisons, attorneys, service providers, and other stakeholders gathered for a seven-and-a-half-hour “retreat,” to begin reshaping the delivery of alternative education in Philadelphia schools.

Dramatically redesigning a field of local education isn’t generally a project left to so broad, varied, and inclusive a group – despite frequent rhetoric from District officials about the importance of “partners” and “community voice.”

But the sheer numbers gathered at the table, and the real and dramatic action that followed their work, stand as a testament to authentic community participation in education.

This process should be emulated when the District looks to integrate community participation into new initiatives, including Renaissance Schools.

Cassandra Jones, interim chief academic officer in 2007, embarked on a change in alternative education following troubling testimony on discipline schools. I provided that testimony. And I delivered it with a prop – a plastic pencil sharpener confiscated from a student and deemed a weapon worthy of a discipline-school assignment.

It was yet another in a litany of complaints about discipline placements in Philadelphia – unnecessary weapon classifications (a piece of fruit, a fingernail file), the negative impact of transferring violent and nonviolent students to the same place, wildly varying compensation among providers. It all added

up to an indictment of the District’s failure to address dramatically disengaged students upon which Jones finally felt she had to act.

“That did it for me,” Jones explained then.

And so she assembled the Alternative Education Task Force, explaining in the notes from that first meeting that “15,000 students per year have either dropped out of school, are in disciplinary schools, are in juvenile justice placement sites, or are attending school less then 50 percent of the time.” The goal of the day was to make recommendations to the District and the School Reform Commission on the best strategies for reconnecting these students to education programming that results in graduation and post-secondary preparedness.

For weeks, the group tore apart aspects of the system. It examined data trends on expulsions, studied discrepancies in payment amounts per provider, and looked at case­loads of special education students.

The task force members followed rubrics and scribbled on white boards, became group facilitators, and listened to everyone’s perspectives from inside and outside the District.

We formed subgroups to more closely examine school-based interventions, dropout re-engagement, and programs that would target the hardest-to-serve students.

Then the chief academic officer accomplished a feat no one used to Philadelphia’s layers of political influence and sweetheart contract deals could ever have anticipated. She wiped out all contracts of disciplinary providers and assigned the task force the role of proposing what types of services would replace them.

A month later, we outsiders ventured into an unfamiliar area – drafting “requests for proposals” seeking educational providers. The RFPs had details about school models (school within schools, accelerated schools, restorative schools) and their various target populations, school size, teacher/student ratios, and staffing.

Once providers began applying, we found ourselves reading two-inch thick proposals from around the country. Where once we’d viewed discipline school students as the domain of CEP (Community Education Partners), we were soon considering numerous providers and models – computer-based or portfolio/work-study based, and some with track records dealing with juvenile justice students or pregnant and parenting teens.

We were allowed to grade the written proposals. The providers then had to do live presentations, and we were able to flag organizations that knew how to write a good proposal, but could not answer hard, probing questions.

We boarded buses to visit the providers, which included institutions in Delaware County and Bucks County and other Philadelphia sites. We watched them walk their talk.

At every turn, we expected the District to halt the discussion, to take decisions out of the Task Force’s hands and move into its own mysterious, baffling process. But apart from a frustratingly slow pace of acting on final recommendations, for the most part, the District didn’t do that.

And finally one Wednesday, about a half-dozen of the Task Force members sat at a School Reform Commission meeting looking at each other and asking, “Did you ever think this day would occur?”

The SRC actually postponed the vote. It would take another week, but in the end, the process was completed, and we all felt like real stakeholders.

Coming from many different backgrounds and points of view, our task force had scanned the landscape to find the best possible models – models designed to work in particular situations, with particular students, in particular environments, and at particular speeds.

Those who worked with the District, those who worked for the District, and those who advocated for various constituencies served by the District could honestly examine what was best and worst about a particular area of schooling. We worked together to transform it into something with a more effective reach, and with a stronger accountability structure in regards to finances, safety, and moving kids toward graduation.

We had seen that broad collaboration resulting in real reform is possible.

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