School & District Management

Vallas’ Big Plans Raise New Hope for Philadelphia

By Catherine Gewertz — May 14, 2003 10 min read
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It’s 7:45 a.m., and Paul G. Vallas is standing in a small crowd of teachers in a school cafeteria, a plastic-foam coffee cup in his hand. But he hasn’t taken a sip; he’s answering a flood of questions about how he plans to rescue one of the most troubled school districts in the country.

Yes, he tells one teacher at Anne Frank Elementary School in the city’s northeast corner, class sizes will be smaller. Yes, he tells another, the district will help her pay for courses she must take to gain initial certification or be recertified.

The head of the Philadelphia schools reels off a list of improvements in the works: a new, standard curriculum with extra doses of mathematics and reading; summer school and extended-day classes for struggling students; a middle and high school overhaul; expanded early- childhood programs; better accountability; stepped-up teacher training and recruitment; and a $1.5 billion, five-year project to build and repair schools.

And he’ll do it all, he says, on a balanced budget.

“I have at least a dozen number-one priorities,” says the public-finance whiz who headed Chicago’s public schools for six years. “What that means is we’ve gotta move on 10 things, 12 things, at once. So fasten your seat belts, and make sure you’ve got your shoulder harness on.

“I don’t want to have to say, ‘Give me 10 years.’ I want to transform this system in two to three years.”

Wasting No Time

Mr. Vallas, 49, got to work so quickly, and with such characteristic intensity, that he practically left skid marks when he landed in Philadelphia as the school district’s chief executive officer 10 months ago. Each of his dozen-plus initiatives is a multipronged and complex undertaking.

In a city whose hopes for better schools have soared and fallen with successive superintendents, he has simultaneously created a buzz of excitement and raised many a skeptical eyebrow. He knows he risks Philadelphia’s ire and heartbreak if he fails to deliver. But he insists that doing so much is not only possible; it’s absolutely necessary.

“Revolutions occur during periods of high expectations,” the former college history major said during a recent interview amid stacks of papers in his office. “I’ve certainly put my head on the chopping block, haven’t I? But I’m not proposing anything that can’t be implemented.”

Few would disagree that this district of 210,000 students needs help, and lots of it.

Two-thirds of its children come from low-income families. Nearly six in 10 of its freshmen never make it to graduation. The very best scores on a national standardized test last fall showed 10th graders reading at the 40th percentile; the worst showed 3rd graders doing math at the 21st percentile. Classrooms bulge with 30 or more children. Buildings are in disrepair. Teachers leave too often for suburban schools.

Philadelphia is still raw from the state’s decision in December 2001 to assume control of the district, replacing the school board with a five- member panel appointed by the mayor and the governor. Many are still angry at the panel’s decision to let seven outside organizations—including three for- profit companies—operate 45 of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

It was into that fray that Mr. Vallas stepped when the panel chose him to lead the district, and his response has been an all-encompassing campaign to bolster what works and jettison what doesn’t.

He and his team are concentrating particular attention on middle and high schools, which they see as dysfunctional caverns where too many students are lost.

They plan to phase out middle schools in favor of K-8 buildings. There will be more “themed” academies within high schools, as well as more small high schools to be built. Hundreds of lightweight courses have been wiped off the books, replaced with fewer, more rigorous choices. Freshman academies will offer intensive help to ease 8th graders’ transition.

In a city that has long cried for more money, some wonder how Mr. Vallas can pay for all his visions. With marker in hand, he explains that his five-year plan has the district’s $1.8 billion budget balanced through 2008, largely through shifting what he considers excessive spending to new projects and tweaking programs so they qualify for more federal aid.

Keeping Focused

Not surprisingly, Mr. Vallas’ staggering agenda has spawned both enthusiasm and concern.

Rochelle Nichols- Solomon, who spent many years researching and helping the city’s schools with the Philadelphia Education Fund before joining the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development recently, said many good ideas are in the air, but she worries about the district’s ability to fully absorb so many changes.

“I worry about coherence. I worry about fragmentation. I worry about capacity,” Ms. Nichols-Solomon said. “How are we going to move it all at once?

“There is an attention-deficit disorder in the system,” she said, “and you have to keep people focused on why we are doing all these wonderful things. What is underneath it all? What is holding it together?”

Jolley Bruce Christman has analyzed the tenure of David W. Hornbeck, the nationally prominent educator who was the superintendent here from 1994 to 2000. In a 2002 study, she and co- author Tom Corcoran found that his ambitious vision, while successful in some ways, largely stumbled over its own complexity and lack of support and resources.

Ms. Christman, a principal investigator at Research for Action, a nonprofit Philadelphia group, said she was pleased with Mr. Vallas’ attention to rebuilding the teaching corps, and his skill at seeking input and setting a cooperative tone. But it’s too early to tell, she said, whether the huge system will yield to significant change.

At Strawberry Mansion High School, hopes are high. This sprawling school of 1,400 in a dilapidated central-city neighborhood has had a history of academic struggle, but is starting to show rising test scores. The hallway floors gleam, and its walls burst with colorful student art. Teachers gathered around a table recently expressed excitement about Mr. Vallas’ plans.

“We’ll all be using the same books and the same curriculum,” said Robert Bosco, the math department chairman. “That’s great, because we’ve had problems with kids’ being in very different places in the scope and sequence.”

Lois Powell Mondesire, the energetic principal, has heard doubters grousing about the all-inclusive agenda. But she sees change. She is thrilled that the school is finally getting a new roof after years of leaks. And the library is actually staffed with a librarian.

“People have been saying, ‘How’s he going to do it?’ Well, he’s doing it,” Ms. Mondesire said of the district’s CEO.

That excitement has not penetrated some other places. At John Bartram High School in the city’s southwest corner, adult hall monitors give up trying to shoo noisy students into class after the bell rings; scores of them are still hanging out in the bare, beige hallways. Metal bars cover every pane of glass on interior doors and hallway windows.

Teachers at Bartram High have a sense that change is coming, but know few details. Three thematic programs will be spun off into separate schools. The main three-story brick hulk, with more than 2,000 students, is phasing out its small learning communities, but no one is sure what will replace them.

Teacher Jason Lafferty, on a break in his empty social studies classroom recently, said he thinks Mr. Vallas is “on the right track,” but that the school feels so out of control sometimes that he is concerned. At least the learning communities enabled teachers to know students better, he said.

Downstairs, Reneé Gordon reflected on 31 years at Bartram. She is by nature bubbly and optimistic, but she said the cycles of change have worn her down.

“Every day there are directives,” she yelled over the hallway noise. “People can’t function in constant flux. It seems like they keep throwing out everything to see what works. I’m skeptical.”

She wants to see a greater emphasis on holding students and parents accountable for student behavior, she said.

Vi Curry, a regional legislative representative for the Philadelphia Teachers Union who has joined Ms. Gordon in her office, said she’d like to hear Mr. Vallas address how to build a stronger corps of school principals.

“Without good leadership, nothing else you do matters,” Ms. Curry said.

‘Can He Deliver?’

Ms. Curry isn’t the only one who wants Mr. Vallas’ ear. Criticized in Chicago as having imposed change from the top down with little community advice, he is fast building a reputation in Philadelphia for listening and responding at all levels.

Everywhere he goes, he scribbles notes in a tiny pad and hands the pages to aides. People tell stories about picking up the phone and finding, with shock, a Vallas aide on the other end, following up on their concerns. And yet some parents and community members complain that too many programs are being implemented without consideration of their opinions.

Mr. Vallas’ policy of zero tolerance for student misbehavior is a case in point. He and other district leaders have boasted that record numbers of disruptive students are being suspended.

But Wendell A. Harris, the vice president of the district’s Home and School Council, an umbrella group of local school parent-teacher organizations, worries that the policy is creating an underclass of students whose lives will be profoundly changed by being shunted into an alternative education system.

“If he had asked parents to begin with, we could have told him that we need more intervention instead of marking these kids forever as discipline problems,” Mr. Harris said.

In a sunny center-city office, community activist Shelly D. Yanoff tempers her enthusiasm for Mr. Vallas’ reform plan with a sober recognition of how hard it is to make real change penetrate to the ground level in a big urban system.

Nonetheless, she said, “parts of his vision make me gasp” with joy, like making more neighborhood high schools into magnets.

“He brings a strong sense of good management to the district, which is politically and educationally very welcome,” said Ms. Yanoff, the executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. “His ideas seem right, and everybody lusts for them to be successful. But that means people in charge of implementation have to know it, own it, and make it work.”

Making it work will be easier with the support of the Philadelphia Teachers Union, a 21,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Ted Kirsch, who has spent 42 years in the district, 13 of them as the president of the union, said he can’t recall a time of more harmonious relations between the union and the district leader. The two men call each other often to exchange ideas, he said.

“He’s coming in with programs teachers and parents have advocated for years,” said Mr. Kirsch. “He’s putting the money in the classroom and he’s focusing on kids. After all the fights we’ve been through, I’m excited again about making change. People are saying, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance.’ Now the next question is, can he deliver?”

Michael D. Casserly, for one, believes there is a good chance Mr. Vallas can. As the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for urban districts, Mr. Casserly has seen many a big-city district struggle against tough odds to make its schools better. Two teams he dispatched at Mr. Vallas’ request to study Philadelphia’s plans came away impressed, he said.

The district chief has brought focus and cohesion to a fragmented curriculum, designed a sound strategic plan, built strong community relations, and installed a skilled administration, Mr. Casserly said.

“Given the last few years, and so many folks who have given up on the system or claimed it was a typical and helpless example of urban education being unable to get its act together, the district really stands a very good chance of proving the skeptics wrong,” Mr. Casserly said.

“I think there’s a reasonable chance he’s going to make this thing succeed.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.


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