School & District Management

Philadelphia Leader Seeks Faster Change By Closing Schools

By Dakarai I. Aarons — March 02, 2009 6 min read
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The superintendent of the Philadelphia district has unveiled a strategic plan for the nation’s eighth-largest school system that includes giving some schools more autonomy, inviting principals to replicate successful schools, and closing some underperforming schools and replacing them with schools run by outside managers.

While the draft plan released last month has received generally positive reaction among those active in the city’s education efforts, community groups say they want to hear more in the coming weeks about the district’s priorities, especially the plan for schools that would change management.

The five-year plan, with an estimated total price tag of $50 million, calls for changes in most of the district’s operations, from giving all teachers professional development in teaching English-language learners to targeting pivotal transition years in which students are most likely to fall behind. The district’s annual budget is about $2 billion.

The city-state School Reform Commmission, which governs the district, is expected to vote on the plan, called Imagine 2014, at its April 15 meeting. The district plans to hold a series of community meetings in the next month to get feedback, as well as “listening sessions” with key groups.

‘Sense of Urgency’

Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the Philadelphia public schools, listens during a meeting at her office last week.

Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman said she was motivated in developing the strategic plan by the data she examined after taking the helm of the 167,000-student district in June 2008.

While test scores had been increasing over the past six years, Ms. Ackerman said, she was alarmed by the high dropout rate and the yawning achievement gaps between white and affluent children and their minority and less wealthy peers.

“To me, that’s unacceptable that almost half of our young people won’t make it out of 12th grade,” she said last week in an interview. “What motivated me is a sense of urgency like I’ve never had it before. We can’t continue to make excuses about why we can’t educate all children well.”

The most controversial part of Ms. Ackerman’s plan includes closing underperforming schools and replacing them with new schools, with some run as district-run charters and others run by outside organizations with demonstrated records in school improvement. Other big-city districts, such as Chicago and New York City, also have been aggressive about closing schools.

But the issue is particularly charged in Philadelphia, which became a center for experimentation with private management of schools after a state takeover in 2002. The School Reform Commission appointed to run the district contracted with outside groups to manage 46 of the city’s worst-performing schools. Thirty contracts were awarded to for-profit companies and 16 to nonprofit groups, including universities. (“Phila. Panel Taps Temple University, Others to Run Troubled Schools,” April 17, 2002.)

Widespread debate has ensued since then about the efficacy of the approach and whether it has been worth the additional cost to the district.

Some studies have said the schools under outside management have not performed any better than district-run schools, while an analysis released last month said schools run by for-profit companies outperformed district schools. (“Private Management in Philadelphia District Found to Yield Payoff,” Feb. 25, 2009.)

Given the city’s history, the immediate concern about seeking additional outside managers prompted the district last week to release a fact sheet differentiating the new proposal from the top-down way outside managers were chosen under the “diverse provider” model seven years ago.

Ms. Ackerman said the district plans to open 10 schools with outside managers, dubbed Renaissance schools, in 2010. The process will start this summer by identifying schools and proposals. In the fall, Ms, Ackerman said, parents and communities will be given the opportunity to examine the choices and have a say in picking the models that might work best in their schools.

Last week, a group of about 50 students demonstrated in front of district headquarters against the idea of closing schools.

Going Around Union

Arlene C. Ackerman, the leader of the Philadelphia public schools, is proposing new management for low-performing schools.

Jerry T. Jordan, the president of the 16,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the idea of turning more schools over to outside hands is the primary sticking point in a plan that otherwise “captures what it is that children in all schools deserve to have.”

Instead of contracting out school management, he said, the district should expand its own internal restructuring model, which reduces class sizes and links the participating schools with a core curriculum.

“The teachers in those schools felt a shared responsibility for improving them,” Mr. Jordan said. “That’s what we believe needs to happen. We know what works and we have the effective track record.”

Ms. Ackerman said she didn’t believe many of the district-run schools had improved quickly enough. She said she views the proposed Renaissance strategy as a way to secure faster change, namely by gaining the ability to move teachers free of contractual requirements with the teachers’ union.

“Until we negotiate different arrangements in the contract, I’m looking for an accelerated way to get things done,” she said.

Eva Gold, a founder of Research for Action, a nonprofit group that has done extensive research on Philadelphia’s school improvement efforts, said that while the draft plan includes many things her group’s research supports, she wants to see more detail on the district’s main priorities, its plans for improving the transition to high school, and more specificity on what innovations it hopes to gain from the Renaissance schools.

“I think the breadth of this document is an indicator of how much serious work we have to do to build a really strong educational system,” Ms. Gold said.

And before any schools receive new managers, she said, the district needs clear criteria on what is expected of outside groups in managing the schools and in ensuring that parents and communities are given a real voice in the process, something that Ms. Gold said did not happen seven years ago.

Community Dialogue

A longtime education activist, Helen Gym, said she wants to see the plan clearly articulate what the baseline will be for resources and expectations in all Philadelphia schools. Right now, she said, “there is no floor.”

“One of the things we feel like we have a chance to do right now is have a community dialogue about what it takes to turn our schools around, and what lessons we’ve learned over the last seven years in privatization and charter management and how we can apply what we’ve learned,” Ms. Gym said.

While Imagine 2014 will take five years to implement, a host of changes will begin next school year, Ms. Ackerman said. Middle and high school students will move to an eight-period day that will provide more time for electives and allow students to explore potential career interests. “Looping” will be used in middle schools so that math and English teachers keep the same students for more than one year, to create continuity.

An early-childhood center will be opened to help prepare children for the transition to kindergarten, and a “parent university” will be included to train their parents.

Over the longer term, Superintendent Ackerman wants to move to a weighted-student funding formula, which she said is aimed at making sure resources equitably follow students to their schools.

Also in the works are plans to locate out-of-school youths and get them to return to complete their studies, with centers to be opened in areas of the city with the highest dropout rates. Welcome and transition centers will be opened to help families of English-language learners make the transition into schools and the larger community.

Ms. Ackerman said her strategic plan isn’t filled with frills, but with the basic ingredients needed to ensure all students receive a high-quality, equitable education.

“I think the time for experimenting is over,” she said. “We already know everything we need to know about educating children well. We just need the political will to do it. There’s nothing in this plan that is bells and whistles.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Philadelphia Leader Seeks Faster Change By Closing Schools


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