School & District Management

Community Groups Looking to Run Phila. Schools

By Karla Scoon Reid — February 06, 2002 13 min read
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Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.

Progress is difficult to find here among the boarded-up houses and abandoned businesses—the sad skeletons of once-vibrant communities.

Yet even as renovated homes and new strip malls signal small steps toward revitalization amid the disintegration, local leaders in Philadelphia say the public schools, long plagued by financial and academic woes, are the linchpin in reviving their neighborhoods.

“I know we can do better,” said Marshall Mitchell, a native of the city and the founding director of the Overbrook Educational Development Corp. “We must do better for our community.”

Now, Overbrook and other community organizations might get that chance.

In a nationally watched move last December, the state of Pennsylvania took over the country’s eighth-largest school district. As part of that shift, nonprofit community groups will run clusters of low-performing local schools in partnership with for-profit school-management companies or other organizations by fall.

So far, six community groups have been named as potential partners in a report by Gov. Mark S. Schweiker. Their leaders represent an eclectic mix of possible education chiefs: two African-American Democratic lawmakers, a civil rights advocate, a minister, a former education company executive, and an award-winning record producer turned entrepreneur. Together, they could oversee more than 60 of the city’s 264 schools.

Labeled as power-grabbing opportunists by some public school advocates, they nonetheless stand defiant. Frustrated by failed attempts to improve schools, and exhausted by their own efforts to work with the school system, these community leaders say they must intervene to end the “miseducation” of Philadelphia’s children. They say reinvigorated schools would drive the economic rebirth of these neighborhoods.

Backed in some cases by multimillion-dollar budgets, the groups predominantly serve African-American or Hispanic residents and either run charter schools or have had some experience founding such schools.

“We can’t do worse than what [the school district] is doing,” said Jeremiah White, the executive vice president of Universal Companies, a local community- development organization that wants to manage a cluster of schools. “We have a vision, a mission, and the commitment to the community.”

Partners in Education

The state took control of the 200,000-student district on Dec. 22 in an attempt to restore financial stability and improve academic achievement.

Gov. Schweiker’s takeover plan calls for private companies to manage district operations and groups of schools—what would be the largest- scale privatization of a school system in the country. More than 30 entities have applied to take on at least part of that role, including Edison Schools Inc., the nation’s biggest for-profit manager of public schools.

In addition to joining partnerships to run the school clusters, the community organizations would coordinate support services such as after-school programs. It’s unclear, however, how the community partnerships will operate.

The School Reform Commission, a five-member panel jointly appointed by the Republican governor and Mayor John F. Street, a Democrat, to replace the school board, met for the first time in late January and has yet to offer guidelines for the groups.

Carey Dearnley, a commission spokeswoman, said the board had not decided whether community partners would select their own education management companies from an approved list or the commission would pair them.

So far, there has been no shortage of candidates. Top school-management firms, including Edison, Mosaica Education Inc., and Chancellor Beacon Academies Inc., are courting the community groups and meeting with residents.

Other than Universal Companies, which has a prior relationship with Edison, no organization is a partner with a private company. And some groups stressed that they weren’t sold on selecting Edison.

While opposition to Edison’s involvement in Philadelphia’s schools has been virulent in some quarters, local critics also are skeptical about the community partners.

In particular, concern centers on whether the community groups have the capacity and know-how to help revamp faltering schools. Some also wonder if they truly represent the communities they claim to serve. And others question their financial and political motives, alleging that they have turned their backs on the public school system.

“As well-meaning as the [community partners] may be, there’s blood in the water, and the sharks are circling,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “They see that there’s going to be money there.”

Still, the proposed community partners believe they have little choice: Whether it is for-profit or nonprofit management, they say, a drastic change is necessary for meaningful improvement in Philadelphia’s schools.

“The system never would have changed unless it was educationally imploded,” argued Democratic state Rep. Dwight Evans, who is working with the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. to oversee schools in Northwest Philadelphia.

He cautioned, however: “We’re not switching from a public monopoly to a private monopoly.”

Damaged Image

Watching classes dismiss at Overbrook High School from his sport-utility vehicle last month, Mr. Mitchell of the Overbrook Educational Development Corp. said his mother’s alma mater—along with its surrounding community—is “at best a shadow of what it used to be.”

Within minutes of the final bell, fists fly between two students in the middle of the street. A growing crowd of cheering teenagers circles the combatants. Nine police vehicles quickly appear, and officers twirling nightsticks disperse the crowd. The fighting students leave school in handcuffs, heads bowed, and are driven away in police vehicles.

Years ago, parents fought to send their children to Overbrook’s schools in West Philadelphia, said the Rev. Albert J. Campbell, the pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Overbrook High School counts basketball Hall-of-Famer Wilt Chamberlain and actor Will Smith among its alumni. The neighborhood is still home to a who’s who of African-American leaders, including former Mayor Wilson Goode.

Today, however, parents with the economic means send their children to private schools in the area, Mr. Campbell said.

“We have assumed that education would just happen,” observed the minister, who is a founding director of the educational development corporation with Mr. Mitchell. “I’m almost embarrassed by the level [the schools] have sunk to.”

But, he added: “We feel it can be turned around.”

While the Overbrook Educational Development Corp. was founded late last year in reaction to the looming state takeover, its organizers stress their ties to the community and their educational experience. Mr. Mitchell is a former Edison vice president and a graduate of a neighborhood school. His partner and neighbor, Gail Hawkins-Bush, was the principal of a city charter school.

While the development corporation’s “office” for now is a table at a local Holiday Inn restaurant, the group hopes to renovate an old neighborhood home as its headquarters to help run schools in Northwest Philadelphia. Mr. Mitchell declined to reveal the group’s financial backers, but hinted that two “Fortune 500" companies might be signing on.

Start-up organizations like the Overbrook Educational Development Corp. worry some people in Philadelphia.

“You can’t replace something that’s bad with something that still doesn’t keep parents and the community involved,” said Carol Hemingway of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.

Ms. Hemingway, who is the president of the local ACORN board, said that most Philadelphians don’t understand the state takeover.

Bigger Plans

South of town, Universal Companies won’t watch another reform effort from the bench.

Running schools is a natural extension of Universal’s extensive community-development plan in Southwest Philadelphia, Mr. White said.

Less than a decade old, Universal was founded by music producer Kenneth Gamble, who purchased his childhood home in that part of the city in 1977. Not long ago, the same block had been frequented by prostitutes.

Now, Universal security guards are posted on street corners near the organization’s new charter school campuses and Universal’s headquarters.

The roar of bulldozers represents a portion of $230 million worth of the organization’s housing and retail developments under way in the community. Universal also provides job training, business development, and social services.

Mr. White said the nonprofit organization’s goal is to sustain itself without relying on foundation grants and government funding.

“We understand how to put together talent,” he said. “We’re not just a do-good nonprofit.”

Universal started a charter school in 1999 that has 460 students in kindergarten through 5th grade enrolled in a school-to-career model curriculum. Universal had plans to work with Edison to run a group of schools in Southwest Philadelphia before the state takeover and will likely build on that relationship in this new effort.

“The only way to do something now is to be inside the game,” Mr. White said. “When I’m in the game, I’ve got control of the outcome.”

Buying Expertise

Several of the potential partners are newcomers to the city’s education plight. But not Mr. Evans, who represents a Philadelphia district in the Pennsylvania legislature. Even critics of the state takeover admit that he has remained true to reforming the city’s schools in his 22 years as a public officeholder.

Driving through his community and past a few public schools last month, Mr. Evans said that low student performance sends his residents searching for better schools in a nearby suburb north of the city.

Although the $9 million Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. has pumped more than $40 million into new development in Northwest Philadelphia, to Mr. Evans, education is the final piece of the revitalization puzzle.

Strolling through the hallways of an old supermarket that has been remodeled into West Oak Lane Charter School, Mr. Evans boasts about the friendly, child-focused environment housed within its cheerful, multicolored walls.

One of the school’s founders in 1998, he wants to replicate the 600- student elementary school’s can-do atmosphere in a newly formed “network of neighborhood schools,” giving their leaders the flexibility to lead and parents the access needed to help their children succeed.

But West Oak Lane and the other four charter schools associated with the potential community partners or their leaders aren’t posting stellar test scores themselves. Indeed, some of those independent public schools are performing below their regular public school counterparts.

That point is emphasized by opponents of the state’s plan. And running one charter school, they say, doesn’t make anyone an education expert.

The Rev. Luis A. Cortés Jr. of Nueva Esperanza, a Hispanic community-development organization that may oversee a group of schools, agreed that he is not an education specialist. But he also noted that Nueva Esperanza’s charter high school is educating former public school students who are as many as three grades behind academically.

The impetus for the creation of the charter school, Mr. Cortés added, came from the organization’s discovery that residents were being turned down for home loans because they had defaulted on community college and university loans after dropping out. So, Nueva Esperanza decided to open a charter high school, which, in its second year, has 325 students in the 9th and 10th grades.

An outgrowth of a religiously based civil rights group, Nueva Esperanza, or “New Hope,” evolved into a community developer emphasizing Hispanic ownership of homes and businesses in Northeast Philadelphia. The $6 million organization boasts a housing and mortgage- counseling program, a 150-acre campground, job training, and a new higher education center.

Nueva Esperanza will call on other community organizations to provide after-school tutoring and other social services, Mr. Cortés said. What’s the key difference between the current system and bringing in community partners?

“We’re the neighborhood,” Mr. Cortés declared. “We can buy people who know education. I’m not going into the classroom and teach. That’s not my job.”

Purchasing that expertise could be costly. And that makes some takeover opponents wonder whether those dollars will end up in the hands of private companies and community organizations instead of the classroom.

State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Democrat whose West Philadelphia Coalition, an umbrella organization for several community groups, wants to oversee a cluster of schools, countered that the school district power struggle has always centered on money. At this point, he said, as long as the schools improve it doesn’t matter who gets paid.

The difference in Philadelphia now, Mr. Williams said, is the pressure that the business community has placed on local and state politicians to reform the public schools to increase the pool of educated entry- level workers.

Although some charge that Mr. Williams and Mr. Evans are being used by Republicans who don’t have the city’s best interests at heart, both state lawmakers believe they’re working to raise student achievement in the city’s schools. African-Americans, they added, aren’t a monolithic voting block.

Mr. Williams said that if Republicans are planning to fool him and Mr. Evans, that’s OK, because “the Democrats already fooled us” by allowing the schools to run into the ground on their watch.

No Turning Back

As more community organizations contemplate jumping into the fray to manage schools in Philadelphia, some observers are doubtful that any group can effectively run the schools here.

“I don’t believe a lot of them can do it,” said Marilyn H. Rivers, the executive director of the Women’s Christian Alliance, a child- and family-service organization in North Philadelphia.

The alliance operates a charter school and a child-care center, but Ms. Rivers said the organization could not undertake such a complex endeavor as running a group of schools at the expense of other successful and necessary programs.

Most of the possible community partners dismiss such assessments.

“I don’t care what they think,” said Emanuel V. Freeman, the executive director of Germantown Settlement, shrugging his shoulders.

The oldest organization vying for a partnership to run schools, Germantown Settlement was founded in 1884 by Quakers to help new immigrants find work. But in the 1970s, African-Americans became involved in the organization, and now it focuses on social services and on leadership and workforce development.

The group runs a 512-student charter middle school in a former Catholic church and convent. The school’s curriculum revolves around a “micro-society” program, which involves students in creating and running their own “city.”

“I’ve been here since 1971 dealing with the same issue,” Mr. Freeman said. “If people don’t think that’s perseverance, I don’t know what is. Do we wait another 50 years?”

But Ms. Goodman of the teachers’ union said those involved in the takeover are so fixated with trying “anything else,” they aren’t considering what does work— smaller class sizes, for example.

The union also is concerned that if the state-led effort fails, the system will be in disarray, with its institutional knowledge dismantled, unable to be reassembled.

A determined Mr. Campbell of the Overbrook organization believes that “if the only Plan B available is to revert to the old way of doing things, that’s intolerable and indefensible.”

“There won’t be any turning back,” he predicted, “because the benefits of the reform will be so clear.”

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Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Community Groups Looking to Run Phila. Schools


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