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Phila. Leaders Join Call for Overhaul of Schools

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Local leaders were demanding an overhaul of the Philadelphia school system last week in response to a scathing report that proposes drastic and comprehensive change.

The sweeping indictment of the district is the work of a seven-member, court-appointed panel of education experts. It describes almost all aspects of the district's operations as characterized by "an attitude of helplessness and resignation" that deprives its students of the education they need.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith ordered the report in connection with the school system's long-standing desegregation case.

While acknowledging that the 207,000-student district faces many of the same complex problems confronting other urban school systems, the report nonetheless takes it to task for using these obstacles "as excuses for its failure or refusal--over 23 years--to provide equal educational opportunities and a high-quality education for all students, especially in racially isolated schools."

"Although we did find individuals and professionals throughout the system trying to make a difference, school staff consistently used external obstacles to justify inaction and poor student achievement," says the report, submitted to the court this month.

Gail Tomlinson, the executive director of the Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia, a local advocacy group, said last week the report "put in one place and put publicly" the problems of the district, for which everyone "from the student in the classroom to the legislator in Harrisburg" shares blame.

Michael Churchill, who as chief counsel for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia represents seven civic and community groups that intervened in the desegregation case, said the experts' report gets at the heart of what is wrong with education in the school district.

State legislative leaders and the three candidates for governor, however, called the report unrealistic.

"How about the other 500 school districts in the state?" asked Republican F. Joseph Loeper, the majority leader of the state Senate.

"We have been unable to adequately meet our obligations in funding for the last several years for the state's entire education program," Senator Loeper said.

Neglect and Damage

The panel that wrote the report was made up of two superintendents, two foundation grantmakers, two representatives of higher education, and one expert on school desegregation. Judge Smith had established the panel after ruling in February that the district has been shortchanging black and Hispanic students, especially those in racially isolated schools. (See Education Week, April 13, 1994.)

The panel's report--based on input from thousands of people, including educators, parents, and community leaders--faulted virtually every aspect of the district's operations. Among its conclusions, it found that:

  • Most district students are not pushed to perform at high levels, especially if they have been categorized as low achievers and tracked into low-level classes. The results include low test scores and high absenteeism and retention rates.
  • Despite plentiful research documenting the importance of early-childhood education, the district's goals and plans "pay almost no attention" to it, and such programs have been cut from racially isolated schools where the need is greatest.
  • The district's primary desegregation strategy has been to set up magnet schools with disproportionately high caps on white enrollment and place them in predominantly white neighborhoods, compounding racial isolation and sending minority areas the message that they are an afterthought.
  • The district severely lacks equipment and supplies and has failed to adequately and sensibly maintain its buildings.
  • The district's organization is dysfunctional, with an unwieldy central command being "perhaps the single greatest cause of its teaching and learning failures." Reforms are implemented slowly, and accountability is lacking. Only 10 of 10,769 teachers received "unsatisfactory" ratings in the 1992-93 school year, but nearly one in four 1st graders were not promoted.

The panel issued an extensive list of recommendations, none of which are binding. They include calls for reduced class sizes, an extended school year, more magnet schools, reductions in the central bureaucracy, and a system of rewards and punishments for district employees.

Discussion Begins

Rotan E. Lee, the president of the school board, noted last week that many of the recommendations overlap with both a 10-point reform plan recently laid out by the new superintendent, David W. Hornbeck, and the reforms called for in a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Hal A. Moss, a union spokesman, took issue with a panel proposal to establish local school councils with the power to hire and fire teachers. He described such a step as potentially "disastrous" and "punitive toward the employees."

Public hearings on the report are scheduled for next month.

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