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Facing Challenges, Phila. Board Assumes Higher Profile

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The Philadelphia school board is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda that, along with a recent court order, could bring wide-ranging changes to the nation's sixth-largest school district.

The board currently is facing three major challenges. It must hire a superintendent to replace Constance E. Clayton, who held the post for a decade; negotiate a new contract with the teachers' union; and respond to a court ruling that the district has treated its minority students unfairly.

In tackling these tasks, the board has assumed a higher profile than in the past, when it tended to take a back seat to the forceful Ms. Clayton.

Since Ms. Clayton retired last summer, the board has "developed a much stronger role,'' observed Christine Davis, the executive director of the Parents Union for Public Schools.

"Everybody, including the board, feels that this is a time of major change in Philadelphia,'' Ms. Davis said. "We need to seize the moment, take the opportunity, and really go with that change.''

The board last month released a series of contract proposals that it hopes to negotiate with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The search for a new superintendent has identified four leading candidates, some of whom have national reputations as reformers.

At the same time, Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith has named a seven-member panel to recommend sweeping changes in the school system. The judge ruled in February that the district shortchanges black and Hispanic students, particularly those who attend racially isolated schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

The panel includes two superintendents, two foundation grantmakers, two representatives of higher education, and one expert on desegregation.

"I've not seen a panel in my 20 years of experience with school desegregation with this kind of diversity of people,'' said James D. Dixon 2nd, a member of the panel and the monitor of the federal desegregation order in St. Louis.

Rotan E. Lee, the president of the Philadelphia board, said that while district officials disagree with some of the judge's assertions, they will not appeal the case. "Her basic motivation has been education reform,'' he said, "which is the basic motivation of the board.''

Strategy of Openness

In trying to bring about improvements in the district, board members have pursued a more open strategy than in the past, said Floyd Alston, the panel's vice president. Under Mr. Lee's leadership over the past 18 months, he said, the board has tried to reach out to the community, to be more aggressive about getting information out, to visit more schools, and to hold more community meetings.

Since Ms. Clayton's departure, Mr. Lee has taken on many day-to-day responsibilities in running the district, Ms. Davis noted. But Mr. Lee said he will cut back when a new superintendent is hired.

"I don't think that when you have a strong superintendent, the kind of role that I have had to play would have had to happen,'' the board president said.

Mr. Lee confirmed that the board is considering hiring David W. Hornbeck, a prominent education consultant and former state superintendent in Maryland; John Murphy, the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools; Mary Lee Fitzgerald, a former education commissioner in New Jersey; and Arthur Walton, the deputy commissioner of education in New York State.

Mr. Lee said he considered the four to be strong candidates, but left open the possibility that others could be considered.

Finalists will be reviewed by a 45-member community panel, and the board hopes to make a selection by June.

Reconstituting Schools

At the end of August, the court-appointed panel is scheduled to release its reform recommendations. Also at that time, the teachers' union's contract expires.

Some of the changes the board is seeking in the teachers' contract address issues raised in the desegregation lawsuit, although board members say their proposals were not in reaction to the decision.

"We have no choice but to do some dramatic things to ultimately impact student achievement,'' Mr. Alston said. "That's the bottom line. Hopefully, we will have the union as our partner.''

The board is seeking the right to reconstitute the staffs of schools that do not improve over a three-year period, a longer school day and longer work year for teachers, changes in the seniority system, and greater flexibility for schools in deciding which teachers will work in their buildings.

The panel also is proposing greater control over the assignment of teachers to better balance the experience levels of school faculties. One proposal would allow the district to assign the most experienced teachers to meet individual schools' needs, while another would limit transfers to schools with too many or too few experienced teachers.

'Control Over Teachers'

Ted Kirsch, the union president, said he viewed the proposals as aimed not at reform, but at achieving "control over the teachers.''

"Nothing in their proposal addresses the problems in schools,'' he contended. "We don't have supplies. Transferring a teacher isn't going to get kids more books.''

In its counterproposals, the union is calling for collaboration with social-service agencies, expanded full-day kindergarten, alternative schools for disruptive students, and more textbooks, materials, and supplies.

The union also wants more professional-development opportunities for teachers, more remedial help for students, and more challenging high school courses.

Mr. Kirsch disputed assertions by the judge and the board that schools with needy students tend to have less experienced teachers. A survey by the union, he said, found that in 263 of the 265 schools in the city, at least 40 percent of the teachers had been teaching 10 years or more.

The district will need more money to offer teachers in exchange for radical reforms, Mr. Lee acknowledged. The system is facing a deficit of $25 million next year.

"If you're going to tell somebody to give up something or change, and you offer them nothing, how far are you going to get?'' he asked.

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