Hornbeck Setting Sights on a New Course for Phila.

By Peter Schmidt — November 23, 1994 11 min read


A teacher has adorned the wall of a classroom at Chester A. Arthur Elementary School here with a memorial to Michelle Cutner, a girl killed by a stray bullet while walking home from 1st grade.

As Michelle’s former classmates, now 2nd graders, sat in the room one recent morning and struggled through a reading lesson, they were in danger of becoming casualties of another sort. They too risked being robbed of their futures--not in the path of gunfire, but in a school system that, in view of many Philadelphians, has fallen far short of meeting their needs.

In an effort to stem its flood of educational casualties, the 207,000-student Philadelphia school district is undertaking one of the nation’s most ambitious reform projects for urban schools.

Working with a team of education experts appointed by the state judge in the district’s long-running desegregation case, Superintendent David W. Hornbeck has vowed to turn this school system, the nation’s fifth largest, “on its head.” Both he and the seven-member team have put forth plans to overhaul its governance, break up its centralized administration, and infuse its schools with parent involvement, new money, more teacher training, and a firm belief that all children can and should achieve at high levels.

Mr. Hornbeck has been candidly discussing the district’s problems in meetings around the city in an effort to incite popular support for his revolution. While he hopes for widespread community backing, he also has hedged his bets, asking Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith to demand radical reforms in the desegregation order she is expected to issue within weeks.

“Historically, school-reform initiatives have been too little, too late, and have been done too timidly,” said Mr. Hornbeck, a former Maryland state superintendent and education consultant who was an architect of Kentucky’s dramatic statewide reforms.

“That sort of incremental, piecemeal approach demonstrably does not work,” he said in a recent interview.

“We need,” he said, “to get on with the business of change.”

Discouraging Numbers

While the 2nd graders at Arthur Elementary were being quizzed on their basal readers, Mr. Hornbeck met with the school board to discuss some of the school system’s grim statistics.

The district’s data show that less than a tenth of its elementary, middle, and high schools post overall test scores at or above the national average; nearly half of its 9th graders fail that grade, even though standards are low; and nearly 30 percent of high school students drop out.

“The schools have not measured up,” Mr. Hornbeck told the board.

“But,” he added, “clearly, neither have public officials, the media, parents, the corporate leadership, or the wider citizenry.”

The court and the superintendent have asked for input from these groups in weighing their reform proposals. Judge Smith also had sought wide representation on her panel of experts, appointing two superintendents, two foundation grantmakers, two representatives of higher education, and one school-desegregation expert.

Almost all of the team’s recommendations were embraced in briefs filed last month by various parties in the desegregation case.

There had been little such agreement last year, when a separate team of experts, appointed by Judge Smith’s predecessor, caused an uproar by recommending that the court order Philadelphia to implement mandatory busing and require its neighbors to adopt voluntary busing plans.

Judge Smith ultimately rejected these measures, which had been endorsed by the lead plaintiff, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, but were strongly opposed by the district and by a coalition of parent and community groups that had intervened as plaintiffs. (See Education Week, 04/28/93.)

The new court panel has urged the use of magnet schools and other voluntary measures to racially integrate the district. About three-quarters of the schools are racially segregated; more than half are severely so.

Most of the panel’s recommendations, however, focus on creating the conditions necessary to boost the educational achievement of all students, especially members of minorities.

The superintendent last week expressed confidence that improving the district’s schools will, in itself, help diminish racial isolation by drawing white children back into the system.

The district’s current enrollment is about 63 percent black, 10 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian, and 23 percent white. By comparision, white children account for nearly 80 percent of the 75,000 students enrolled in the city’s private and parochial schools, according to a recent analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.

Radical Consensus

The changes the court panel recommended, as incorporated into Mr. Hornbeck’s reform agenda and endorsed by the various plaintiffs in the case, include:

  • Closing the district’s six regional offices and downsizing its central administration, to insure that more money flows to schools. The central office would be reorganized to become more service oriented;
  • Implementing school-based management throughout the system, with elected local school councils of parents, teachers, and administrators selecting principals and staff members;
  • Asking principals and teachers to work additional, compensated weeks so they can benefit from professional development;
  • Reducing teacher-student ratios and creating smaller “learning communities";
  • Providing full-day kindergarten and prekindergarten; and
  • Developing alternative schools and other programs for the most disruptive students, while working with juvenile-justice agencies to reduce crime in schools.

Most of these reforms initially target the most racially isolated schools and would be implemented within three years.

Chicago, the nation’s third largest school district, has also embraced a set of radical changes designed to ratchet up student performance. But some of the ideas now on the table in Philadelphia--such as creating smaller learning communities and systemwide professional development--go beyond the Chicago reforms.

The Philadelphia district has asked that Judge Smith not dictate specific reforms, but instead set a timetable for the district’s implementation of its own plans. The district’s lawyers have argued that it needs such flexibility to bring all of its stakeholders on board and to honor existing contracts.

Lawyers for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission have urged the judge to give the highest priority to those reforms most likely to bring about immediate racial desegregation. In court documents, they argue that the relevant question is not whether the reforms will improve the school system, but, rather, the extent to which the reforms will remedy unlawful discrimination and its effects.

After his recent morning board meeting, Mr. Hornbeck climbed aboard a city-owned tour bus and rode, with a delegation of students, around one of the district’s six designated regions, a depressed section of the city it calls Central East.

Escorted by two security trucks, they rolled over huge potholes and glass-strewn pavement, past stripped cars and building after building with boarded-over windows and graffiti-covered walls.

Car alarms shrieked. A Doberman pinscher barked from behind a high, barbed-wire-topped fence. In the midst of it all, the students pointed out their schools.

Environment No ‘Excuse’

In an urban district where half the children come from families on welfare, where about a fifth are left home alone after school, where 60 different languages are spoken in students’ homes, school officials have often been able to blame children’s environments for their academic failures. Until now.

In the report the court-appointed experts issued in September, they slammed the district for using such obstacles “as excuses for its failure or refusal” to provide its students a high-quality education and equal educational opportunities. (See Education Week, 09/28/94.)

“Blaming low achievement on these ‘powerless to control’ forces is dangerous,” the panel wrote, “because it fosters a lack of accountability and directs attention and scarce resources away from teaching and learning, the heart of the business of public schools.”

Noting that only 10 of the district’s 10,769 teachers were given unsatisfactory ratings during the 1992-93 school year, the court panel has called for the district to begin intensive self-monitoring and evaluation, and to fire teachers and principals found to be ineffective.

The court panel also has called for extra help for the most troubled schools. Those that fail to improve could be “reconstituted,” meaning the wholesale replacement of administrators, teachers, and other staff members.

The district already has won provisions in its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that enable it to reconstitute some schools.

Mr. Hornbeck, whose own salary is based on his performance, also has sought to open the district to far more media scrutiny. He has released reams of data that previously were withheld from the public and many of the district’s own employees.

“I don’t see how you can create the conditions in which all children achieve if a bunch of the partners don’t know what is going on,” Mr. Hornbeck said. “Everybody who is necessary for this achievement needs to know as much as I know.”

The superintendent maintained that the nation’s education-reform movement already has come up with effective strategies for getting poor minority children to achieve at high levels. The key, he said, is getting Philadelphia schools to put them in place.

The Price of Change

The most contentious issues before Judge Smith, meanwhile, are not the reform proposals, but the questions of how much the reforms will cost and who will pay for them.

The district has cut its budget by $130 million over the past three years.

Arthur Elementary, in South Philadelphia, is one of many schools where those cuts are hitting bone.

The school has eliminated its school librarian--a move that Charles Conner, the principal, calls “criminal” given the fact reading scores are low. Its full-day kindergarten, which already had a waiting list, is back to two half-day programs.

“If it is a bad day, or they wake up late or oversleep, parents won’t bring their children” to a half-day kindergarten session, Mr. Conner said.

About one-fifth of the school’s 1st graders have not been to kindergarten, and their resulting lack of social and learning skills puts them at risk of being retained, he said.

Of the approximately two dozen children who attended 1st grade with Michelle Cutner last year, four are again 1st graders. Their 2nd-grade seats are likely occupied by students previously held back in that grade, who account for nearly 15 percent of the class.

The district’s budget cuts have hurt other grade levels, too. Raul Torres, the principal of Edison High School, said teacher layoffs, and the resulting “bumping” and reassignment of staff members, have resulted in “people coming here with the perception that they are only going to stay around for a year or two, so they don’t buy into what you are trying to do.”

In such a fiscal climate, the court panel has called on the state to provide the district with at least $300 million more for reform each year.

The district, meanwhile, has estimated that the team’s proposals would cost $534 million in the first year of implementation and $900 million in the second.

Its lawyers have asked Judge Smith to bring the state into the case as a defendant. The district argues that state officials have fallen far short of their constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education and have imposed funding caps that have cost the district about $100 million in two years.

Lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who represent the coalition of intervening plaintiffs, also have asked the court to enjoin the state, but have accused the district of dramatically inflating its cost projections.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has termed the district’s claim that it cannot implement reform with its $1.3 billion annual budget “inconceivable.” The commission has called for an audit of the district’s operations and opposes bringing the state into the case.

Cautious Enthusiasm

Philadelphia teachers and administrators interviewed this month expressed enthusiasm about the overall prospect for reform.

“This is a great time, particularly this year, to determine your own destiny,” Mr. Conner of Arthur Elementary School said. “If you can find things that work, this is the year to do them.”

Most of the educators, though, cited worries about the specific reform proposals. Many disliked the use of school reconstitution, or questioned whether reform was being pushed on them too quickly, especially given the demands they already face.

Many also wondered whether local school councils would be effective, whether schools would miss the services provided by regional offices, and whether teachers would want to join in the administrative decisions that come with site-based management.

Barbara R. Ricci, a 4th-grade teacher at Arthur Elementary, noted that a long succession of superintendents have failed to change her job significantly in the four decades she has taught in the Philadelphia schools.

“They have proposed all of these changes, and I haven’t seen, over these 40 years, a big difference,” Ms. Ricci said. “It just didn’t filter down to the classroom teacher.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Hornbeck Setting Sights on a New Course for Phila.