January 5 — 2:31 pm, 2012

Hoping to glimpse the future of city schools, Nutter and SRC head to Denver

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/Newsworks

Could there someday be a single lottery for all of Philadelphia’s charter schools? 

What about more charter school programs for students with severe disabilities?

How would Philadelphia taxpayers feel about charter school operators being included on School District bond initiatives?

All the above are strategies currently being implemented or explored in Denver, where Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and city educational leaders are visiting Thursday in the hopes of  learning more about its efforts to promote greater collaboration between the school district and charter schools. 

The visit, funded by the William Penn Foundation, was spurred by Philadelphia’s recent adoption of a “Great Schools Compact,” signed by city, state, District, and charter leaders. In late December, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made Philadelphia  one of 14 cities across the country to receive a $100,000 planning grant and have the opportunity to compete for millions more to implement a new cooperative District-charter arrangement.

“The Compact is a transformational opportunity for Philadelphia’s schools, and I am looking forward to seeing how it can best be implemented by cities,” said Nutter in a press release announcing the trip.  

During his inauguration Monday, Nutter announced that education and public safety would be the cornerstone issues of his second term. The compact, which calls for replacing 50,000 “low-performing seats” with better options over the next five years, has emerged as the focus of the mayor’s revamped education agenda. 

Unanswered, however, is how it will be possible to move ahead with this plan within the context of the District’s worst budget crisis in memory. The crisis could mean drastic structural changes in how the District operates on a number of fronts.

Lori Shorr, Nutter’s chief education officer and an "executive advisor" to the District and School Reform Commission, said the District’s position of being required to relentlessly cut its budget while significantly improving educational quality will require creative thinking.

“We need to make this a fiscally sound district at the same time as we increase the number of ‘high-quality’ seats,” said Shorr. “That’s why we need to rethink how we do work.”

‘The power of coming together’

In Denver, district and charter leaders are now in the second year of work on their “District-Charter Collaboration Compact.” Denver received a $100,000 planning grant from the Gates Foundation in December 2010 and, like Philadelphia, will be competing for millions more for implementation.

Education leaders there say the push from Gates has helped catalyze difficult negotiations between the District and the city’s 33 charter schools, all of which are participating in the compact. Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the chief of innovation and reform for Denver Public Schools (DPS), said she hopes to share with the Philadelphia contingent “the power [of] coming together across perpetual divides.”

Tangible results thus far from the increased collaboration include progress on issues like how students are enrolled, special education, and resource sharing, said Whitehead-Bust. She touted Denver’s new “unified enrollment system,” called School Choice, as one of the group’s flagship efforts.

“We’re taking what historically has been 63 separate [district and charter] enrollment processes for families to navigate and unifying them into one singular process overseen and managed by the district,” said Whitehead-Bust. 

Parents seeking admission into one of Denver’s 33 charter schools for next school year will participate in a single lottery run by DPS later this month, she said.

One of Denver’s leading charter operators, meanwhile, said another tangible example of the progress brought about by the compact is a change in the policy for how DPS makes its facilities available to charters.

Instead of being year-to-year, charters’ leases of DPS facilities can now be tied to the length of their charter agreement, said Chris Gibbons, the CEO of West Denver Prep, a network of four charter middle schools currently serving roughly 1,100 students.

Gibbons, who will also address the Philadelphia contingent, said Denver’s compact represents a “good faith effort in making charter schools a fundamental strategy in whole-district reform.”

Both Whitehead-Bust and Gibbons said that DPS and Denver charter operators have also been negotiating about ways to support charters in providing more “center-based programs” for students with severe special needs, as well as strategies for sharing more DPS resources with charter schools. Charters could be included in a major bond initiative that DPS is considering sponsoring next fall.

“We’re really looking at equity of resources,” said Whitehead-Bust.

A grain of salt

Not everyone is a fan of the Denver Compact. 

Andrea Merida is a member of Denver’s sharply divided seven-member elected school board. She described herself as part of a three-person minority supportive of “collaborative, sustainable reform” as opposed to what she sees as a more corporate-driven approach.

Merida worries about the fact that the Denver Compact – which was never put before the school board for a vote – and its potentially far-reaching policy implications, are being driven by a private foundation. And she said that information about the requirements attached to the Gates money have not been “properly divulged” to DPS board members.

“It’s exactly this kind of subterfuge and lack of transparency that is plaguing the corporate [school] reform movement,” said Merida. 

She is also concerned about how efforts like the new unified student enrollment system will impact families. Without an adequate transportation plan, Merida said, many of Denver’s poor and immigrant families will not be able to take advantage of the new system.

“I think folks in Philadelphia really need to take all these reforms with a grain of salt and dig under the surface to see if they are appropriate for public education,” she maintained.

Merida said she was not invited to address the Philadelphia contingent during its visit.

Looking to learn

Mayor Nutter will be joined during Thursday’s trip by two members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, representatives from the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, and by Shorr.

Denver was selected as a destination not only because of the work done through its compact, but also because of its adoption of a common accountability metric, which Shorr said was a model when Philadelphia developed its School Performance Index.

“They started down a road of creating a metric you could use across different [types of] schools,” said Shorr. “I was impressed by that.”

Many Philadelphia charter operators remain dissatisfied with SPI, though. So a key priority of the Philadelphia compact will be identifying a new metric that everyone can agree on. The document signed in December commits them to doing so by May 1.

Shorr also said the Philadelphia contingent will seek to learn more about DPS’s efforts to decentralize some functions of its central office.

In recent years, DPS has moved aggressively to allow district-run and charter schools to opt out of a range of services that have traditionally been provided by the central office and obtain them elsewhere. These include services for special education students, purchasing, food service, and professional development. Schools can now opt to buy those services directly from private third-party vendors.

“That’s something we’re interested in given the budget crisis,” said Shorr.

The District is still seeking cuts to close a $629 million shortfall for this year, and the situation could be even bleaker in 2012-13.

Though she doesn’t yet know how, Shorr said the city will just have to find a way to move forward with its education reform efforts despite the financial hard times.

“I still believe our schools are underfunded, there’s no doubt about that,” said Shorr. “But I don’t see any tea leaves that are saying in the near future there’s going to be an increase in public revenues into the public school system.”

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