Troubled Pa. Districts Eye Dramatic Changes

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Eleven low-performing school districts in Pennsylvania are poised to send their systems in 11 different, and potentially radical, new directions.

Under a recent state law designed to jump-start improvements in academically troubled districts, the districts will hold public hearings over the next few weeks on their proposed improvement plans.

So far, one district's draft plan would ask private contractors to run its schools, while another suggests that management and fiscal reviews would help. A third wants teacher-training programs to include parents.

The proposals were spurred by the Education Empowerment Act, signed last spring by Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican. The law targeted the districts with low mathematics and reading scores on state exams in 1998 and 1999.

Specially appointed "empowerment teams" in each of the 11 districts labeled as low-performing have been working on the plans since last summer. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok must approve their ideas within 30 days. Most proposals are expected to reach his office next month.

While the statute has been challenged in several lawsuits, it makes the state an interesting laboratory for the nation because each district is choosing a different strategy.

Stakes for improvement are high. Any of the districts that doesn't raise its scores by July 2003 will be taken over by a three-person control board named by the state.

Some observers wonder, though, if the state is expecting too much, too fast.

"It probably is important to give more time and more resources to facilitating this effort," said Jim Turner, a managing director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, a nonprofit firm in Pittsburgh that does research on public policy. "But you have to start somewhere and learn from it" he continued. "I'm cautiously optimistic."

In an interview last week, Mr. Hickok said: "We have to give it a chance to work."

Bids To Run Schools

While some distressed districts are working closely with state assistance teams, the secretary added, others are ignoring them.

"To me, what remains the biggest disappointment is that you have a lot of people seeing this as a badge of dishonor, rather than a chance to do things differently," he said. "That's a shame."

One of the most dramatic plans is likely to come from the long-troubled Chester-Upland school district near Philadelphia. The 6,400-student district's finances have been managed by a state panel since 1994.

The new law placed all of the district's operations under state control, because 68 percent of Chester-Upland students scored in the bottom quartile of the 1998 and 1999 state exams. That intervention has withstood court challenges.

Statewide, districts with more than 50 percent of their students in the bottom quartile were targeted for intervention.

Now, the 11 school officials, community leaders, and teachers charged with drafting Chester-Upland's improvement plan want to adopt new achievement goals for the district and ask private companies to bid on running its 10 schools.

"We've had at least five superintendents in the last 10 years and multiple attempts to fix problems in a piecemeal fashion," said Charles Gray, a local juvenile-court official and the chairman of the Chester-Upland empowerment team. "No one can deny that this system is not working for our kids."

A final version of the plan is expected next month.

Life has been at least as tumultuous in other empowerment districts.

The district school board in Harrisburg, the state capital, successfully sued to block a provision of the law that would have allowed the mayor to appoint a new board to lead the 8,800- student system. The state has appealed that decision, and a final ruling is pending.

In an effort to move the district in a new direction, the school board in October fired Superintendent Lucian Yates III, who was in the second year of his three-year contract.

Harrisburg's empowerment team likewise has moved ahead. It is likely to propose a plan that would broaden an existing district program that aligns the local curriculum with state standards. The program includes exams to track the progress of students in grades 1 through 11.

The team is also expected to endorse management and fiscal reviews before the district hires a new schools chief. It does not, however, back the idea of private contractors running schools.

"The community really wants to be in control of its schools," said Rich Askey, a panel member and a music teacher who is also the president of the local affiliate of the National Education Association.

Elsewhere, the Duquesne city schools were hit with a double whammy. In October, just months after the 960-student district was targeted for improvement because 70 percent of its students scored in the bottom group of testers statewide, it was declared "fiscally distressed" by the state.

First- year Superintendent JoAnne Wells remains optimistic that the $2.5 million deficit in the district's $11 million budget for this fiscal year, and its academic maladies, can be remedied.

While a state-appointed commission will make financial recommendations over the next several months, the local empowerment team is considering ways to raise parent involvement in the Duquesne district.

"Parents need to be involved in planning and making policies for the district," Ms. Wells said. That includes, she added, inviting parents to attend teacher-training workshops.

The largest district required to write an improvement plan, the 210,000-student Philadelphia school system, is scheduled to release a draft to the public next week. Officials there were keeping a lid on the details last week.

"There are several hot issues still under consideration," said Diane Castelbuono, the lead staff member on Philadelphia's empowerment team. "They are thinking outside the box and taking the freedoms allowed under the law very seriously."

To help carry out their plans, the districts will receive state grants ranging from $519,000 in Duquesne to $16.4 million in Philadelphia.

The increased state role does not sit well with everyone.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, an NEA affiliate, is waiting for a hearing on a lawsuit it filed last summer seeking to have the law thrown out. The state union is also hopeful that the legislature will hold hearings on the empowerment act.

Wythe Keever, the spokesman for the PSEA, said the group was unimpressed with the amount of aid the state is providing, which he said amounts to 50 cents per day, per child in the targeted districts.

"At most, the law seems to be giving an appointed official in Harrisburg carte blanche to test conservative theories," he added of Secretary Hickok's role.

Vol. 20, Issue 12, Pages 18, 20-21

Published in Print: November 22, 2000, as Troubled Pa. Districts Eye Dramatic Changes
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