May 22 — 12:20 pm, 2014

Much reform, little progress

Interviews with school system veterans find that few are upbeat about improvement.

feb20 src Photo: Harvey Finkle

In the past two decades, Philadelphia’s education landscape has changed tremendously. 

The state took over the District’s governance. Charter schools proliferated. Dozens of neighborhood schools were closed, including such landmarks as the 99-year-old Germantown High. 

Despite the state takeover, the District’s financial condition has only become more desperate.

State and federal pressure to intervene in schools with consistently subpar performance mounted; standardized testing became the major driver of school rankings.  

Overall, families today have a wider variety of choices, including high-performing charters, more specialty District schools, and alternative schools for dropouts and near-dropouts.  Groups of parents and students have become more vocal and involved in understanding the system, driving change, and demanding their rights.   

Student proficiency as measured by the standardized tests is higher now than in the 1990s. But many of the teachers, policymakers, administrators, and advocates we interviewed wondered whether the gains are meaningful and worried that the singular focus on tests has harmed education. 

“If there’s this narrow definition of reform … that it’s all about testing kids, we’ve lost a lens for understanding what transforming the learning experience … should look like,” said Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, who has worked for 25 years on improving neighborhood high schools. 

With more high school options and second-chance schools, graduation rates have gone up. But the number of students attending and finishing college is still disappointing. 

And in both test scores and graduation rates, there are still wide gaps in achievement among racial and ethnic groups.

All these changes have happened within larger shifts – demographic, political, social, and economic. Philadelphia has become the country’s most impoverished big city, with 13 percent of residents – an astonishing 200,000 people – living in deep poverty, or on less than $9,700 for a household of three.  

As income and wealth inequality have worsened, the dividing lines in this region by race and income are starker than ever. Philadelphia school enrollment is mostly Black and Hispanic and low-income, while the surrounding districts are mostly White and middle- or high-income. Spending gaps between wealthier and poorer districts have never been bigger. Philadelphia schools struggle harder to overcome the effects of concentrated poverty – all while the District’s funding base has crumbled.

As the District, with no taxing power of its own, copes with structural deficits, pleas to City Council and Harrisburg for recurring, predictable sources of revenue have gone unheeded. Political leaders seem unmoved by schools without nurses, libraries, counselors, and basic supplies, even when overburdened principals personally plead for help.

“What’s really disappointing when I think about the last 20 years,” said Diane Castelbuono, who during that time worked for three superintendents and the state Department of Education, “is that while I think we’ve done a much better job defining a high-quality K-12 education … we have actually done much worse on delivering that kind of quality for low-income students, students of color, and students whose first language isn’t English.” 

Although good teaching is critical, the teachers’ union and the District are still stuck behind old battle lines, while teacher morale sinks. Charter schools, meant to seed innovation, compete with the District in an often-ugly fight for a shrinking pot of money.

“Charters have made a lot more parents happy. They feel their children are safe and you do see some academic gains,” said David Hardy, founder and CEO of Boys’ Latin Charter School. “But I don’t think we’ve managed the charter process enough to get out of charters what we should. We should be using them as incubators, where the good things we’re doing are taken back to the District. But that is not happening.” 

For this edition, the Notebook asked people who have been active in Philadelphia education for at least 20 years the two questions: “Do students have better opportunities today than they did then? Is the system better?” Here are excerpts from the conversations.


Rochelle Nichols-Solomon

Then: Working with the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, an effort to transform neighborhood high schools

Now: Director of post-secondary success for FHI360, a national nonprofit human development organization. (She is also a member of the Notebook board.)

“Today I don’t have to make the argument that all kids need to be prepared for some formal education beyond high school. … We know that’s imperative. And our understanding of what that preparation looks like has shifted. It’s not only academic, but how to organize oneself, study skills, [and] understanding of finances.

“But if you looked at what percentage of high school students have access to high-quality, highly supported opportunities for post-secondary success, with an environment, resources, coursework, and continuity, my sense is that has not grown.

“Twenty years ago, we were interested in school transformation, not just people in the schools, but families and communities.” 


Nilsa Gonzales

Then: Principal of Dick Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Now: Chief academic officer of Camelot  Schools, an alternative education provider, after serving as a high-level administrator under several superintendents. 

“Over the years, parents have become more engaged. There are school councils and more mechanisms to get involved. And while I was not a charter proponent, I agree that there are more opportunities for parents to select what they want and more choices for students who are not ‘brainiacs.’ 

“A big loss is bilingual education. It’s gone. More students are dropping out due to language barriers. We should be teaching all kids to speak two languages. It’s a missed opportunity.”


Jamira Burley

Then: Starting kindergarten at Pennell Elementary. 

Now: Graduate of Overbrook High School and Temple University, executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission.

“When I was in school, there was more opportunity for one-to-one attention. The principal helped me with reading. Now, I see that teachers are constantly pressured to make students ready for tests instead of ready for life. That creates a hostile environment in schools. 

“Success stories are the exception, not the norm. I was one of the lucky ones. In every step of my school career, when I faced adversity, somebody recognized the problem. I am one of 16 and have 10 older brothers, and none graduated high school. It took 10 to not graduate for me to graduate, so that shows … how young people are falling through the cracks. 

“Politicians always have so many excuses not to give money to the schools, instead of understanding the reasons why they have to. They benefited from an education – how can they not provide [it to] young people?” 


Germaine Ingram

Then: General counsel under Superintendent David Hornbeck.

Now: A performance artist and former eight-year board member for Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS).

“Twenty years ago, the mantra was, ‘You can be anything you want to be; if you work hard, there will be opportunities for you.’ We felt we had the capacity to alter the course positively for the vast majority of kids. I really question that now.” 

On charters: “It was really challenging to be on the board of a charter school with people who are public education activists. … The FACTS board felt at odds with their charter school colleagues [who] saw themselves in mortal battle with the District. 

“[We started FACTS because we felt] after years of trying to work with the District to address the needs of immigrant children, it was best to start a charter with the hope that the … best practices we might be able to develop would be incorporated by the District…. But the District treated FACTS like just one part of a great unwashed community of charters raping [its] resources. Now the members of the FACTS board can’t believe that the charter school movement is hurting the capacity of the District to manage its resources well … and it doesn’t feel like anyone is trying to figure out how to address that.”

On the teachers’ union: “The PFT has been far behind their colleagues across the country in working with districts to address the challenging issues of teacher assessment, compensation, standards, tying professional development to education needs, and allocating teachers in a way that best serves [student] needs. Over time, if there had been more collaborative discussion how to utilize seniority, it might not be such a difficult and volatile issue now.  

“[But] I don’t know how the PFT could accede to taking less money for doing more work and taking more risks.”

On a lack of good school leadership: “We’re having the wrong conversation. The conversation has to be how to build trust in schools.” 


Diane Castelbuono

Then: Policy adviser to Superintendent David Hornbeck.

Now: Vice president for community impact for the United Way. In between, she worked for former superintendents Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman and as Pennsylvania secretary of elementary and secondary education.

On standardized tests: “Proficiency rates have increased across every grade and demographic group. But that provides an incomplete picture. There are other criteria. In the suburbs they demand schools that are safe and nurturing, offer AP and IB programs. Children can learn a foreign language, have art, music, and athletics, and an environment to help kids develop academically and athletically as well as character, grit and passion. By those criteria, [have opportunities for Philadelphia students increased]? Absolutely not. 

“What we’ve done as a society, we’ve given people choice, but within certain parameters. Charter schools changed the life trajectory positively for some kids. But I’m not sure it turned out to be the game-changing reform some hoped it would be. If you had a choice between sending your child to a Philadelphia charter or to any public school in one of the high-performing suburbs like Lower Merion or Radnor, with a beautiful building, challenging academics, art, music, football, tennis … having the ability to have a free neighborhood public school like that – that is a real choice. That will be a game-changer. We haven’t gone that far.” 


Debra Kahn

Then: Member of the Board of Education.

Now: Executive director of Philanthropy Roundtable; in between, she served as Mayor John Street’s secretary of education.

“More students have more advantages and more opportunities. There are great charters and schools like Science Leadership Academy and the Workshop School. But the cost-benefit analysis, with charter pitted against the District, is where nobody wanted to be. Arguably a lot more families have a lot more choice, but people don’t necessarily have the choices they want.”


Dolores Shaw

Then: Parent and organizer with Eastern Philadelphia Organizing Project.

Now: Grandparent working on expanding early childhood opportunities.

“Unless parents are able to create sustainability at their local schools, none of this works over a long period of time. We had some successes in keeping schools open, like Taylor. But the victories were not always educational. The success story is that some were kept open, not that they were made into better schools.” 

“I have a four-year-old grandson, and I’m trying to figure what opportunities are available to him. It’s a sad state of affairs. … I’m starting to wonder if there will even be kindergarten [for him].”


Dennis Creedon

Then: A District employee assigned as director of education at the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Now: An assistant superintendent in charge of a region; in between, he supervised arts education in the schools.

“At one time, we had orchestra and/or band in every high school and middle school. By the ’90s, arts were already in decline. Then as testing became much more critical in how education progress was monitored, in many areas of the city, principals would drop music and/or art and hire reading or math specialists to increase scores. But without the aesthetic experience, relaxation, and the cognitive development that arts and holistic education brings, scores did not necessarily go up.

“During the Paul Vallas era, there were 45 to 50 schools that didn’t have any art or music, but there was a teaching artist in each of those schools for a two-week residency. Through that, principals saw the [benefits], and we saw arts and music teachers being hired again. When Sandra Dungee Glenn became chair of the SRC, it ordered all school budgets to be reexamined, so every child would have one or the other.

“I think we’ve turned a corner in people understanding that there is a direct correlation between arts education and mental health and trauma. Arts is a natural healing device that lets students reconnect with school and with hope.

“But now we are in a crisis unmatched by anything our schools have ever experienced. … In the present budget reality, there may be no money for art supplies, and I don’t know if we can retain instrumental music. I’ve never seen it this bad.”


Matt Mandel

Then: New teacher at Morrison Elementary School.

Now: Award-winning teacher at Baldi Middle School, his alma mater, with National Board certification, and member of the PFT executive committee.

“Twenty years ago we had a more holistic education. But as we started focusing on using test scores as the only barometer of success, things got worse. These kids need more. What we give them is less. By punishing, shaming, labeling, and narrowing the curriculum to focus on tested subjects, we’re not giving them a better education.

“If you want to help the majority of students, you have to support kids and respect the teachers working with them. Teachers are really interested in collaboration, in making a difference, but they also want to make a good living and feel respected and appreciated. It is tough in an urban schoolroom; people work like a dog and then are made to feel like they are part of the problem.

“If the SRC’s creation was to have solved fiscal problems, at what point …  can we label it a disaster? A teacher couldn’t last … with that record.”


David Hardy

Then: An administrator at Community Academy, at the time a contractor taking students who were dropouts or near-dropouts.

Now: Founder and CEO of Boys Latin Charter School.

“There’s a wider range of options than there was 20 years ago. You’ve got Mastery, KIPP, Freire, CHAD, The Workshop School, Science Leadership Academy, as many creative and performing arts schools as New York, and two more than Los Angeles. That’s a good thing.

“But they don’t want to put the numbers out there. If they did, you’d see how poorly kids were doing in college enrollment. You’d see Asian kids on top, then White girls, Black girls, White boys, Latino girls, Black boys, Latino boys. It’s been that way for the past 20 years. If you look at college enrollment for Black and Latino boys, it’s half of what Asians are.

 “Our kids [at Boys’ Latin] understand what school is. I got my kids into 130 colleges, and not one asked about the state tests, but we’re giving kids the grit factor, we’re forcing them to be involved in other activities. The kids who get that in high school, they go to college, and they’re fine.”


Philadelphia public schools then and now
1994 2014
204,000 students 196,000 students (131,000 in District schools, 4,000 in alternative schools, 61,000 in charter schools)
87% economically disadvantaged 81% economically disadvantaged
63% African American 56% African American
21% White 14% White
11% Hispanic 19% Hispanic
< 5% Asian 6% Asian
  5% Multiracial/Other
Source: School District website and 1995 Desegregation report

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