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Hornbeck's Reform Plan Under Siege in Phila.

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Philadelphia schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck is fighting an uphill battle for a comprehensive education-reform plan that lately has run into new obstacles almost weekly.

In the past month alone, one of the city's two daily newspapers gave his efforts an F, a court-appointed desegregation-monitoring committee rejected a critical element of his reform blueprint, and city politicians said they could find no additional money for the plan.

"We've sort of gotten ourselves tied up in knots in this city," said Gail Tomlinson, the executive director of the Citizens Committee for Public Education in Philadelphia, a watchdog group.

Despite recent events, Mr. Hornbeck remained upbeat.

"There has been tremendous progress in the school district," he told the City Council last week at the start of budget hearings. "We are poised to move ahead."

Poor Report Card

Mr. Hornbeck, a former Maryland state superintendent and education consultant who was the architect of Kentucky's massive school-reform law, took the helm of the 217,000-student Philadelphia district in 1994 amid high hopes of reversing its sagging fortunes.

Just over a year ago, he unveiled a 10-point reform agenda, known as Children Achieving. The plan is a comprehensive approach to rehabilitating the city's schools through full-day kindergarten, high academic standards, more professional development for teachers, and local school-governance councils. (See Education Week, Feb. 15, 1995.)

The plan has a $1.4 billion price tag over five years, and Mr. Hornbeck has emphasized that its comprehensive approach makes it difficult to move ahead with some elements while ignoring others.

The business community and philanthropists have been impressed from the start with Mr. Hornbeck's vision, and they have been eager to help out. The district last year received a $50 million challenge grant from philanthropist Walter Annenberg, and the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts provided $8.8 million last fall to support the plan and an additional $1 million to build public support for reform.

But Mr. Hornbeck's critics say he lacks the political and public-relations skills necessary to win the support of city and state lawmakers and the general public.

"Certainly one of the problems of Children Achieving from the beginning has been the [poor] communication of the reforms," Ms. Tomlinson said.

A month ago, the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News ran a front-page story giving the reform plan "An 'F' for Failing."

"A year after it was unveiled, lack of support and money are sinking" the plan, the newspaper said. The paper followed that story with a series of critical articles by columnist W. Russell G. Byers, who is known for his support of private school vouchers. The stories prompted the school board to respond with an opinion article of its own calling the paper's coverage cynical and unfair.

'Vague and Amorphous'

The next bump for Children Achieving came late last month, when a committee appointed by the state judge who oversees the district's desegregation efforts came out against a central element of the reform plan.

Under Children Achieving, the district's administrative regions would be replaced by clusters of elementary and middle schools that feed into a single high school. This is intended to create more teacher collaboration and greater educational continuity for students.

This year, six clusters covering 65 schools are in operation. But the district's 196 other schools operate under the old regional structure, and it would cost an estimated $15.5 million to set up the additional 22 clusters proposed by the superintendent.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith, who oversees the district's desegregation case and often pushes her own reform ideas on the administration, is known to be less than enthusiastic about the clustering concept.

In a Feb. 21 report, a two-member monitoring committee reported to Judge Smith that expanding the cluster approach could cost the district more money than it now spends on administration and would add another layer of bureaucracy.

Judge Smith's approval is required to reorganize the rest of the district into clusters.

Last week, Mr. Hornbeck told the City Council that the district faced a shortfall of at least $148 million in its $1.4 billion budget if it were to fully implement Children Achieving next year. As a result, he outlined delays in some parts of the program, as well as a 15 percent cut in the number of central-office workers.

School-based cuts in such programs as magnet schools, after-school programs, and athletics may also be necessary, he said.

Several key City Council members suggested that they have yet to be won over by Mr. Hornbeck's plan.

"It's too vague and amorphous for us," Council President John Street was quoted in local news accounts as saying.

Mr. Hornbeck, who was not available for comment last week, told city lawmakers that the district faces three serious challenges. Schools must be made accountable for failure, he said. The district must ultimately get more resources to pay for reforms. And "a serious attitude problem" must be addressed.

"Too many school people, business leaders, elected officials, parents, and other citizens," he said, "do not believe that all children can learn at high levels."

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