Retirements Changing Face of Philadelphia Schools

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The Philadelphia public schools will begin a new year this week with dozens of new principals, hundreds of new teachers, and many new faces in the district's top management team.

Because of a state early-retirement incentive, 2,200 employees of the school district retired last year, more than four times the usual number. Among them was Superintendent Constance E. Clayton, an 11-year veteran who was the dean of major urban school superintendents.

At the same time that it struggles to acclimate new schoolpeople and administrators, the district also will be under pressure to shore up its efforts to restructure its 22 comprehensive high schools.

Since 1988, the Pew Charitable Trusts have donated more than $16 million to help support the restructuring project, one of the most ambitious and closely watched attempts in the nation to reinvent troubled urban high schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 18, 1992.)

A report released by Pew last month on the progress of the high school initiative concludes that "ground has been lost'' in the attempt to break the schools down into smaller "charters'' of teachers and students organized around an instructional theme.

Although the number of charters increased significantly during the 1992-93 school year, the report says, "lack of charter integrity and conflicts among various parties over the direction and governance of reform have stalled further promotion of these entities at the school.''

Moreover, the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, an organization created to develop the charters, will shift its emphasis this year from launching charters to providing professional development for teachers and encouraging parental outreach.

It will now be up to the district and its new management team to figure out how to institutionalize the charters, which now exist alongside the traditional high school model. Roughly half of the students in the comprehensive high schools are assigned to charters.

Rotan E. Lee, the school board president, said he is "resolute'' in his commitment to the initiative and will seek ways to make it work through collective bargaining with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"We have to begin to develop the kind of relationship and trust that allows for sufficient flexibility to facilitate the whole notion of decentralization,'' he said, "and allows us to begin to address the downsizing of larger schools into workable charter systems. I believe we can do that.''

A Moment for Reform?

The board has named Theresa R. Lemme, a veteran district administrator, as acting superintendent and selected a firm to launch a national search for a permanent replacement.

The unusual amount of turnover had prompted the board to request the Pennsylvania school-employee-retirement system to allow Ms. Clayton to serve as acting superintendent through Nov. 30 without losing her retirement bonus. The request was denied, however.

In addition to the superintendent, five top administrators retired. The district also lost about 1,000 teachers, many of whom taught in the high schools.

In anticipation of the early-retirement legislation, the district began recruiting teachers last fall, said Connie McCalla, the executive director of human resources. She noted that Philadelphia had not hired new high school teachers in 15 years.

Because the city's schools lost $30 million in Chapter 1 funding, as the result of population declines reflected in the 1990 Census, some of the teachers who were formerly paid with federal funds will now replace retiring teachers who were paid out of the regular district budget.

Ms. McCalla said the district has hired 90 percent of the teachers it expects to need and will hire others when the final enrollment is known.

In addition, 84 schools will start the year with new principals, 35 of whom have never been principals or program directors.

The turnover among people at all levels of the system is viewed as both an opportunity and a challenge.

"This is either a wonderful moment for reform or very sleepy,'' said Michelle Fine, a senior consultant to the schools collaborative. "There is concern that this year there could be further losing of ground, but others are saying that this is the moment, in the midst of chaos, to assert a strategy.''

Ms. Fine this year will be a consultant to the Teaching and Learning Collaborative, a network of charter teachers and parents working on curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The network will be housed in six high schools, two of which will have full-time staff members assigned to them.

Each school will be a "laboratory'' on a different topic and will be linked with national groups concerned with the same issues.

Institutionalizing Charters

The report on the high school restructuring notes that comparisons of the academic performance of students in charters with those in regular programs look promising. But it is difficult to make the comparisons, the study says. Students move in and out of charters, which also have fewer special-education students than the school as a whole.

Finding ways to stabilize teachers and students in charters has emerged as a major issue. The teachers' union has resisted attempts to make the charters autonomous schools because the change would disrupt teachers' seniority and transfer rights.

The report also notes that a consistent curriculum appears to be "the exception'' in charters.

Robert Schwartz, the program director for education at Pew, said the report's sober assessment was not surprising.

"It's pretty clear we're bumping up against fundamental qustions of institutional change,'' he said. "This is no longer some modest project off to the side, and some of the initial enthusiasm and momentum have begun to wear down.''

Vol. 13, Issue 01

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