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Troubled Pennsylvania District Summons Experts' Advice

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Four nationally known educators have agreed to join a local task force charged with reviewing educational programs in one of Pennsylvania's lowest-achieving school districts.

The appointment of the panel is their latest step, school officials said last week, to address the problems facing the Chester-Upland system. The 7,000-student district outside Philadelphia has traditionally ranked last in the state in reading and mathematics scores.

The outside experts named to the task force include: James P. Comer, professor of child psychiatry, and Edmund Gordon, professor of psychology, both of Yale University; Floretta McKenzie, an education consultant and former superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools; and Asa G. Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State University.

The panel, which is expected to hold its first meeting this month or in June, will also include representatives of the school board, the administration, parents, and the community.

The district's problems had earlier prompted a parent-initiated group,8Citizens for Educational Renewal, to pursue the possibility of a lawsuit to force improvements in the system.

Lawyers for the Delaware County Legal Assistance Association who met with the group found no legal grounds for a suit, according to Michelle Terry, a lawyer with the association. Instead, Ms. Terry said, the lawyers last year sought the assistance of the state secretary of education, Thomas K. Gilhool.

The secretary acted as a negotiator between the parents and school district, she said.

A review of the district's problems by prominent outside experts was one of the steps urged by the parents, Ms. Terry said.

But Donald F. Tonge, vice president of the school board, said last week that the board had planned all along to appoint a task force to review an improvement program now nearing its fifth year of implementation.

More than four years ago, he said, the board contracted with a consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of the district. That study, Mr. Tonge said, resulted in a 64-point reform program that the board has funded at $1 million a year.

Mr. Tonge conceded that the district had faced major internal problems, a high dropout rate, and low test scores.

"It just needed to be completely overhauled," he said.

But the district recently has been showing signs of improvement, he maintained. While still ranked near the bottom in standardized scores among Pennsylvania districts, he said, Chester-Upland is no longer in last place. Last year, he said, it showed the largest percentage improvement of any district in the state.

Mr. Tonge said the task force would report to the school board on which portions of the current reform program are working, which are not, and what changes need to be made.

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