If School Reform Commission officials were caught a little flat-footed during a recent community meeting at Enon Baptist Church in which more than 2,500 people attended, then they should be prepared for a Tuesday May 22 meeting at 6:30 at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 12th St. and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
SRC officials can expect the same sort of probing questions they received from attendees during the Enon meeting; only this time several other organizations are taking part, including Occupy Philly, ACTION United and the Service Employees International Union, which represents the majority of school district employees not covered by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The Bright Hope meeting represents the next in a series of community-orchestrated meetings, in which neighborhood leaders gather with other concerned stakeholders to discuss the School District of Philadelphia’s plan. Although not an officially sanctioned meeting of the SRC, district officials are often invited — and often do attend.
The meeting is bound to revolve around District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s drastic reorganization blueprint, which calls for the closure of 64 schools, the privatization of crucial scholastic and academic services and a complete restructuring of the programs and offices at district headquarters downtown, among other measures meant to bring the district to a state of solvency.
“We are facing an education emergency in Philadelphia. Outside consultants are proposing to destroy the Philadelphia Public School System and cut thousands of living-wage jobs,” said activist Rita Addessa in an email to supporters, which cited other blueprint moves such as turning many of the remaining public schools into private charters. “The proposal does not talk about things that are known to work in improving education: lowering class sizes, [having] a highly qualified, experienced teacher in every classroom, and clean and safe schools.”
Also up for discussion will be District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon’s own plan for academic restructuring, which will alter not only the way principals run and manage their schools, but the way teachers deliver instruction as well.
“Officials have laid out their plan, and folks are unhappy, but we really haven’t heard a lot about an alternate vision,” said Roland Ferguson, of the Southwest Chapter of ACTION United. “That’s what we are going to do on Tuesday. People not only want to hear about the proposed changes, they want to make sure the needs of their children and their neighborhoods are being considered in the process. We’re going to lay out an alternative to the plan that includes the priorities of the community, parents and students.”
Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor D. Kevin R. Johnson will lead the meeting, during which members of the community will present photos, drawings and essays from area public school students depicting what they believe a good school should look like and include.
School funding is bound to be a hotly-contested issue, especially given Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s recent remarks, where he essentially blamed school districts throughout the commonwealth for fiscal mismanagement; Corbett also claimed that many school districts are sitting on reserves that they could tap into in order to save crucial programs.
School district officials have denied the district has any surplus or reserves, and confirmed that it is still experiencing a budgetary shortfall for the current year — and is still predicting a major gap for the next academic year.
“We reject the notion that there is no money for schools when they are building new prisons,” Ferguson said. “We need our officials to be listening to the community and looking for creative solutions, rather than trying to solve the funding crisis on the backs of students, or by outsourcing jobs.
“The people that work in the schools are parents and neighbors too.”
Pencil sketches of Tupac Shakur, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, watercolor portraits of landscapes, and images of abstract design debuted on May 17 at the Education Center Atrium. The School District of Philadelphia Office of Academic Enrichment and Support held a reception for the 2012 Annual Young Artists Exhibition.
More than 1,500 pieces of work from 150 schools representing kindergarten through 12th grades are included in the exhibit.
Penny Nixon, chief academic officer for the District gave remarks, and the Lindback Foundation was recognized for its contribution of $50,000 for the purchase of art supplies for the public schools.
Sixth-grader Atiyyah Abdul-Hakim and her mother Tyreina Cardwell gazed at three quilts suspended off a wall. Each quilt displayed a child playing. With the help of her classmates in room 102 at Lingelbach School, Abdul-Hakim described the three-week process it took to stitch the quilts.
“It was so much fun. It took a whole lot of work though,” Abdul-Hakim said.
This young artist is also an active poet.
“I like both [quilting and poetry], but my favorite is creating the quilts because it’s fun, we can do it together in my class and have fun with each other,” Abdul-Hakim said.
As Cardwell snapped a few pictures of the quilts, she explained her sentiments of seeing her daughter’s creativity through art.
“This is amazing. I’m glad she got the opportunity to be able to do something like this. It’s beautiful,” Cardwell said.
Also giving remarks at the reception was Emilee J. Taylor, teacher support specialist in art education. As an art teacher, Taylor served in the District for 32 years.
“This has always been one of the highlights of our program for art education in the school district because it showcases all the efforts of art work that our schools can create,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s mother is an artist. Growing up, she and her sister learned several techniques from their mother such as printmaking. Taylor said parents should continue to encourage their children to continue their involvement in art.
“Many of the parents have no idea just how much work our children create,” she said. “I think just this experience is very encouraging and exciting for the kids and its always great to see how their eyes get big and bright when they see special works they created themselves.”
The Young Artists citywide art exhibition will be open to the public free of charge from May 17 to August 31. Exhibit hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays. The exhibit is closed on Sundays.
Increasing the level of financial transparency, upgrading communications between all levels and departments, establishing a dialog with parents, and improving the quality of education are at the top of the agenda for new School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr.
Hite said during a meeting this week with The Tribune Editorial Board he will present his road map on just how to accomplish those goals when he publishes a report detailing his plans in roughly 90 days.
“The next 90 days or so will be spent really looking at every part of the system, trying to engage the public in a process to talk about what they want to see in the system, and what things we do well and don’t do well, and getting into as many schools as possible,” Hite said. “Really try to determine the structures and systems in place.
“At the end of the 90 days, after I have gotten all the information, I want to then tell everyone, ‘This is what I’ve found, here are all of these plans, and I’m going to try to make sense of all this stuff, here’s what I’m going to do about and here’s how you hold me responsible.’ The plan is what I plan to do about it, and how people can hold me accountable for it.”
Hite referred to sorting out several overlapping documents: the Five-Year Reorganization Blueprint, the FY 2012–2013 school budget and the recently released Five-Year Financial Plan. All of these documents were drafted by the district’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, who will most likely stay on as chief financial officer, Hite said. Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon appears to be staying on as well.
While Hite’s tenure as superintendent of the Prince Georges County Public Schools system led to that district having a budget surplus upon Hite’s departure earlier this year, Hite said PGCPS shares many similarities and challenges with Philadelphia’s school district.
“It is a tremendous challenge, but I didn’t see it as something that is much different than what many urban districts are facing across the country,” Hite said, referencing the recently-concluded strike by Chicago teachers, and the similar conflicts with school districts in Los Angeles. “In the last three years, [at PGCPS] we’ve had to lay off 1,300 individuals and cut over $300 million out of our budget.
“So many urban districts are struggling with some of the same issues. I like to describe it as the ‘new normal,’ and gone are the days where we’ll see millions in stimulus flow through. We’d most likely see five percent, 10 percent increases over the previous year’s budgets. I think now is the time when we’re really talking about doing more effective things with what we have, and controlling what we have a lot more efficiently and effectively.”
A way to do that is to advocate on behalf of students for more money at the state level. Hite repeatedly mentioned that advocacy is one of his strongest suits — and that he would personally get involved in that process.
“On the other hand, I believe that [state public education officials] have to see an improved product and an improved system to which they’d want to invest - which means [the school district] has to be a lot more efficient, a lot more transparent and a lot more effective with the monies we have,” Hite said. “I think you have to prove your worth to some degree at first, and that’s the other side of it. So that it’s an advocacy on one side, but on the other side, it is a description that we are putting this house in order and moving as much money as we can to support students in schools and in classrooms.”
Hite, who knows former superintendent Arlene Ackerman well, and is aware of the controversy her tenure and subsequent departure caused, understands that his administration will face close scrutiny, especially if Hite doesn’t reach the more easily attainable goals — which could produce tangible, if tiny, gains. But Hite said if the goals are set up properly, and with the right focus, then students would be among the first to embrace them.
“Naturally, my goals are centered around making sure that students have the types of opportunities beyond high school, and the skills to do the things they want to do once they leave high school, whether that means moving into the work world or into higher education … there’s 140,000-plus students still being educated in this city, and so one can’t give up hope, because then we’re giving up on the students here,” Hite said, noting that he’s used to answering questions about the high turnover rate for superintendents. Hite was the seventh superintendent of PGCPS had during Hite’s 13 years there. “So I think when you start to get at all those structural issues, all of the inefficiencies, all of the disbelief and all of the skepticism, one at a time. And I think you start dealing with those issues one at a time.
“If individuals don’t have faith that the school system can deliver on something, then perhaps we don’t try to do a hundred different things and not deliver any. Perhaps we try to do one or two, and do it really well — so we are actually delivering a product.”
Given all the challenges facing the district, it is fair to question Hite’s motives for even considering the job in the first place. But beyond these problems of today lies optimism of a better public education tomorrow, and Hite said that’s why he came here.
“I am interested in making a difference for all children, and I see this as a tremendous opportunity. The fact that we have no money, the fact the schools are low-performing, the fact that there’s a high dropout right, the fact that Latino males are dropping out faster than anyone else, the fact that many of our schools are in disrepair — we have to think differently; and that’s the opportunity part of it,” Hite said. “I tell staff members that this will be tough, but I appreciate their work. I acknowledge them. I want to hear them, and I want to get to see them in their classrooms as much as possible. This is how we begin a dialog, knowing we can’t continue down the same path.
“This not about me,” Hite continued. “This is about all those young people we educate, and we all have to believe in them.”
Philly students challenge the public at chess
After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP) hosted its “Chess in the Summer” event on July 26 at the Shops at Liberty Place Atrium, 1625 Chestnut St. Participants of the Philadelphia Youth Chess Challenge played informally with the Center City lunch crowd. Chess sets were provided.
Senior graduates celebrate accomplishments at Ben Franklin
In the auditorium of Ben Franklin High School, 550 North Broad St., students received their high school diplomas on July 27. These students completed the requirements to graduate through the District’s 2012 Senior Center summer program. Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon spoke at the commencement, and South Philadelphia High School Principal Otis Hackney emceed.
Science sessions at the library
Philadelphia students entering second- through sixth-grade participated in GlaxoSmithKline’s “Science in the Summer” program. This year, students studied oceanography. Certified instructors taught the free course. In partnership with the Franklin Institute, the two-day sessions ran in 26 libraries throughout the city. Since 1986, GSK has provided this science enrichment course to elementary students in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, reaching more than 100,000 students. There are also programs in North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and the Baltimore area.
WorkReady Summer Expo showcased youth talent
More than 400 youth participated in the WorkReady Summer Exposition at the Pennsylvania Convention Center August 9. Teens shared how their work experiences impacted their summer and their lives. For six weeks, the youth completed their work-based learning projects and portfolios that demonstrated their mastery of 21st century skills. Each project and portfolio was presented in one of eight categories: 21st Century high-tech careers and career exploration, The arts, culture and beautification of our communities, business and entrepreneurship in the global economy, civic engagement and social action, education and mentoring, health and wellness, internship portfolios, saving the environment and going green.
Philadelphia Student Leadership Conference
Students representing over 25 Philadelphia schools and several community organizations attended a free leadership conference at the Community College of Philadelphia on July 25. The conference featured 13 leadership workshops and speeches by three distinguished guests: state Rep. James Roebuck, former ’76er Ollie Johnson, and executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission Jamira Burley. The conference was hosted by the Student Leader Union, a completely youth-run, non-profit organization that gives leadership training and opportunities to middle school and high school students.
Kindergarten mixer at Please Touch Museum
The Please Touch Museum welcomed almost 1,400 people including close to 500 future kindergartners and their families to celebrate the beginning of their journey into school on August 4. During the event, guests were able to explore the museum, make art in the program room, interact with real kindergarten teachers and watch the Pinky Prepares for Kindergarten show in the Please Touch Playhouse. Guests also had the opportunity to connect with local resources like the Free Library of Philadelphia, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Ed Snyder Youth Hockey Foundation. The event culminated with a kindergarten-themed pep rally in Hamilton Hall. Finally each kindergartener received a backpack filled with books and school supplies.
The reaction to the School District’s release earlier this week of the controversial Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools has been mixed, with many local and state elected officials either willing to give the plan a chance, think only a few elements of the plan will work, or wish to scrap the plan altogether.
The blueprint, crafted by the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and submitted to the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, calls for sweeping changes — chief among them a complete reorganization of district headquarters, the closure of 64 public schools, and austerity measures which require a multi-million dollar union give back.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a privatization component — called “Achievement Networks” — which will provide certain services to the schools left standing. Overall, if every element of the plan falls in place, district officials believe these measures will lead to a balanced budget at the conclusion of the five-year plan.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, co-chair of the education committee and herself once an elementary school teacher, praised the SRC for turning its full attention to the matter, and urged patience as the details of the plan are worked out.
“The School Reform Commission released a bold plan that would dramatically alter what education looks like and feels like to young people in our city. Whether this paradigm shift is the appropriate course of action remains to be seen, but as leaders, it deserves our full attention and respect—we cannot be dismissive about this new budget reality facing the School District of Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “The devil is always in the details. That notion will absolutely apply as we analyze the data and hear from school district officials as well as those who would be impacted. What does this do to class sizes? How do we make sure our students are not treated like numbers? Will the leadership of localized ‘Achievement Networks’ look like Philadelphia when it comes to diversity? These are the preliminary questions I will be asking.”
Knudsen and SRC chairman Pedro Ramos have repeatedly stated that the organization itself, and businesses participating in the Achievement Networks program will face tight scrutiny, and can be replaced if their products and outcomes are unsatisfactory.
“We need fundamental change and focus on the children and their needs,” Knudsen said the day the blueprint was released. We are righting the ship financially, and finally addressing the change we need to make. But it’s also about a process that is not simple.”
Complicating the process is the blueprint’s plan to shave $156 million from personnel, in the form of a restructured wage scale and benefit program.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who says the union membership already did its share of sacrificing when the district asked for several cuts over recent years, released a scathing statement, accusing the district of gross mismanagement.
“This restructuring plan has nothing to do with raising student achievement,” Jordan’s statement said. “The district provided a business model, not a research-based plan for turning around or supporting schools. By closing 64 schools, and transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable, neighborhood schools and into charter, cyber-charter and private schools, the School District of Philadelphia is saying it no longer wants to be in the business of educating children. It would rather manage a ‘portfolio’ than do the hard work my members do every day educating children. This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools, and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs.”
The blueprint also calls for $122 million in cuts to the district’s overall operations, and a $149 million reduction in public charter school funding; that reduction would equal a 7 percent loss in per-pupil funding.
Knudsen cited New York City’s public school reformation as an example of school reform that works, but education expert Diane Ravitch said that “New York City has not had any great success.” Ravitch, in town earlier this week for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that “New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
“They’ve gone through four reorganizations,” Ravitch said. “New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about.”
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under several administrations, called plans for privatilization an “abdication of public responsibility.”
“I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” Ravitch said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The blueprint as presented also raises other concerns. Knudsen said that even if the SRC adopts the plan, the district — or whatever remains in its place — wouldn’t actualize any savings until fiscal year 2013; and most of the plan hinges on the $90 million-plus the district is slated to get through the equally controversial Actual Value Initiative – or AVI. These are revenues from an adjusted real estate tax plan. However, AVI is now bogged down in council, and it’s hard to say if or when the school district will receive those funds – or if will be in the $90 million range school officials hope for.
City Council President Darrell Clarke had general praise for the SRC taking this important step, but was careful to note the limits of council’s power in overseeing the district’s spending.
“Some aspects of it make some sense, some are of some concern, but the reality is that things have to change - and they have to change dramatically,” Clarke said. “You have to deal with teachers, and you have to deal with structures.”
Emphasizing that he expected the plan to change, Clarke said he supported its basic premise, and the fact that it laid out a long term plan for the district.
Clarke lauded school commissioners for being open to suggestion from council.
Council is in the process of analyzing Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget, going over it line by line, which includes the assumption that the school district will receive about $94 million more in property tax revenues this year as the city moves toward a property tax system based on full market valuation.
With council expected to give an increased allocation to the district, Clarke expects members to exert more influence on how that money is spent.
That has not always happened in the past. Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from council. But, many council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with council.
“With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line,” Clarke said, adding that with new, more cooperative commissioners, he expected the SRC to include some of council’s suggestions.
“They’ve listened to our concerns and listened to our suggestions to this point,” he said.
Ultimately, spending decisions must be made by the SRC.
“Our role is limited,” Clarke said. “We’re simply viewed as the person who is supposed to say ‘aye’ when it comes to the school district budget. That’s essentially what we’ve been.”
While city council debates the merits of the blueprint, State Representative Dwight Evans can do little more than shake his head at this current mess. Evans urged for school reform almost two decades ago, when he submitted both the “School Reform and Accountability Proposal” and drafted a school reform bill for the House in 1997. The blueprint Knudsen submitted bears striking resemblance to many of the suggestions Evans either made through his proposal, or through the Neighborhood School Network intuitive.
“They have a lot of moving parts…there’s some things the state has to do and some things they have to do locally, and there are some things I am not for. For example, anything that would squeeze the aspect of choice around parents and kids, I would not be for,” said Evans, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement. “It flies in the face of being a child-centered system. Because how can you say, on one hand, these students get choice; but on the other hand, stifle choice for everybody else?
“Those are just two of the criticisms I would have,” Evans continued, noting that he agrees it was time for the district to act, but will fight any cuts to charter school funding. “If this is supposed to be about children and parents and not about a dysfunctional system, then in my view, anything these people try to do on the backs of charters is counter-productive. When you look at the numbers, they are basically trying to use charters to balance their budget.”
Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.
Schools will need to borrow $300M
With the release of its five-year fiscal plan, which would cover operations through the 2016-2017 school year, the School District of Philadelphia has moved one step closer to obtaining the $300 million necessary to close its budget deficit and ensure operations for this school year and beyond.
The filing of the five-year plan is necessary for the district to receive bond issuance assurance from the state’s Public School Building Authority, which will convene a meeting on the matter later this month.
District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen — the author of this final five-year fiscal plan, the recently approved district budget and the five-year reorganization blueprint which was publicized in the spring — said that district hasn’t yet received the funds, but all indications are that it will, as long as the School Reform Commission approves the five-year plan.
“We are confident that we will receive the funds, although there have been no guarantees,” said Knudsen, who noted that he is still putting together all of the required paperwork to complete that part of the transaction. “We need to indicate to the bond holders and demonstrate to them that within the limits we have right now — including the factors that we can control — that we can bring a balance between expenses and revenues.”
The $300 million in debt financing is an unpleasant outcome the district was forced to consider, especially after it received less than the estimated $97 million it was to get from the city in tax receipts from the Actual Value Initiative. The district had factored the full $97 million into its earlier budget forecast.
“In regard to City Council, the difficulty we have there is that we had been anticipating receiving $94 million on an annual basis, and that’s what the mayor had in his budget for us this year,” Knudsen explained. “Of course, we only got $54 million which caused us to rethink our options.”
Obtaining that $300 million will be costly. According to the five-year plan, the district will pay $22 million per year to finance the loan, increasing the district’s debt service by a considerable margin. Knudsen’s plan didn’t spell out how many years it would take for the district to repay the loan.
Although unpalatable, Knudsen said there were simply no other options.
“The last [budget] deficit financing was done in 2001, and generally, deficit financing is not something the financial markets want to support,” Knudsen said. “[Bond holders and investors] are looking for structural balance, where revenues equal expenses.
“Debt financing is something you have to do when the circumstances work against you.”
In the five-year plan, Knudsen outlined the painful austerity measures already undertaken by the district, including closing dozens of low-performing, underutilized or unsafe schools; trimming more than $264 million in various personnel cuts; managing to cut $67 million from the central office’s budget and recouping a further $42 million in deep cuts to school security and police personnel, maintenance staff reductions and the elimination of several support staff positions.
Knudsen’s five-year plan highlighted the recently-completed negotiations with the Service Employee’s International Union local 32BJ — a contract that led to a union giveback of more than $100 million — as a model of how the district can bargain in good faith while fostering a sense of ownership among employees.
That agreement requires SEIU 32BJ members to donate a certain percentage of their wages to the district, with most employees paying in roughly $20 per pay period.
“We recommend asking more of our employees to come to the table and contribute directly to the educational program of the school district, as the members of our largest blue collar union did this summer,” Knudsen wrote in his letter that accompanied the five-year plan, which noted that employee contributions will amount to roughly 10 percent of the district’s budget. “We know this will mean real sacrifices for hard working professionals who are already being asked to do more with less, under difficult conditions.
“We do this because without such assistance, this financial plan cannot succeed, as the bulk of our expenses are in personnel costs.”
An unanticipated hit to the district’s finances came in the form of the hyper-expansion of cyber charter schools, which receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools – with an estimated 38 percent of that money coming from local tax revenues. These cyber-charters also operate without the infrastructure overhead of maintaining several hundred buildings.
“These charters, which are authorized by the Commonwealth, not the SRC, are able to scale up quickly…other districts across the region and country have developed successful models for district-run cyber schools that are much less expensive for districts’ bottom-lines than charter schools,” the five-year report read. “The school district expects to develop this in-house online option for students and anticipates that it will reduce the number of students migrating to cyber charter schools versus the current projections for cyber charter growth, in which cyber charter seats are projected to grow from about 5,900 in fiscal year 2013 to 10,750 in fiscal year 2017.
“In this manner, it is projected that a district-run cyber school would save $14 million over the five-year planning period.”
Although this five-year plan is not a budget, almost all of the recommendations and numbers included therein are nearly identical, but the five-year plan goes several steps further in identifying other revenue streams the district could utilize.
Those streams include the collection of $48 million in delinquent local tax revenues and an additional $150 million, attributable to a liquor-by-the-drink tax and a so-called “unearned income” tax which targets the interest accrued on investments. The plan also calls for the district to recover $28 million from the sale of unused district facilities identified in the Facilities Master Plan.
Knudsen and the SRC believe this level of transparency – releasing to the public the blueprint, budget and this five-year financial plan – coupled with the series of recently-completed community meetings will show the district is sincere in delivering to students the best education possible.
“Everybody in district management understands the difficulties that our financial situation poses. I would say in terms of academic achievement, [Chief Academic Officer] Penny Nixon and [incoming superintendent] Dr. Hite are go to attempt, and I hope succeed in, providing the very best education they can under these limitations,” Knudsen said, “with the understanding that we will be going to all of our service partners in the state and city to seek more revenue.
“We have demonstrated they we are operating lean now, and hope they consider giving us more revenues,” Knudsen continued. “With that, enhancement to the [academic] program would be possible.”
Throughout the constant ebb and flow of school closings and student reshuffling, school district officials must feel as though they’ve caught a cresting wave with this week's announcement that the district is expanding the number of available seats in the highest achieving public schools.
Penny Nixon, the district’s chief academic advisor, joined district spokesman Fernando Gallard and Philadelphia High School for Girls Principal Dr. Parthenia Moore for the announcement, made in front of Girls’ High.
“I am extremely excited to announce some great news about the district’s commitment to expanding high performance seats,” Nixon said. “An unprecedented expansion of 2,272 seats in 19 of the district-managed, high-performing schools for the 2012–2013 school year; and a total of 1,802 additional seats will be available in 11 high schools and 470 [seats] in six elementary and two middle schools.
“This represents one of a set of steps the district has taken to continue to increase the number of high quality school options for students and parents in public schools.”
The eight elementary and middle schools that are both high-achieving and can accommodate that space are AMY Northeast, E.M. Stanton, D. Newlen Fell, Fox Chase Academics Plus, Joseph Greenberg, Albert M. Greenfield, Middle Years Alternative and George W. Nebinger. The 11 high schools are Academy at Palumbo, Carver High School of Engineering and Science, High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Franklin Learning Center, Philadelphia High School for Girls, Lankenau, Philadelphia Military Academy/Leeds, Parkway Center City, Randolph Skills Center, Walter B. Saul and Arts Academy at Rush.
“Four [additional] schools were selected for the Renaissance Schools match process, shifting approximately 3,000 more seats to high performing turnaround teams,” Nixon said. “The district’s goal is to continue to invest in the growth of high performing school options while closing or restructuring low performing schools.”
Moore, herself a graduate of Girls’ High, said her school is more than capable of absorbing the 334 extra students slated to enroll in September.
“Right now, we have the capacity to accept 334 and possibly more students that would come to our school,” Moore said. “We have classrooms that are being used for other reasons, so we have the room in our building to do that. Staff will also be increased to meet the needs of our students.
“I should also say that the rigor we have in our school will not be watered down in any way, shape or form,” Moore continued. “So we can be sure the standards that we have set over these 164 years remain in place.”
The 19 schools were specifically targeting because they all carry a score of 3 on the district’s School Performing Index and can safely manage and teach the extra influx of students. Two of the high schools offer citywide enrollment while nine have special admission policies; all elementary and middle school seats will be made available via the No Child Left Behind School Choice program, district officials said. Parents have until May 4 to submit voluntary transfer applications to any of these schools.
“When I walked up those steps and seen the beautiful faces of the beautiful young women and I think about the opportunities we will provide … my excitement just skyrocketed,” Nixon said. “This underlines the district’s commitment.”
When School District of Philadelphia Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen unveiled the “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” last month, many critics panned it as short-sighted and incomplete at best — and at worst, an elaborate attempt by the district to patch over its decades of fiscal mismanagement with a five-year plan that includes very little on what the students stand to gain with the plan’s implementation.
But that blueprint wasn’t the only such plan created at 440 North Broad Street.
In what has received little media attention, District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon sent an internal memo to all principals in April, detailing her office’s own reorganization plan. The “Reorganizational/Transitional Proposal for 2012–2013” includes what Knudsen’s plan did not — specifically the details concerning the academic office’s reshuffled priorities, anticipated implications for principals and their schools, and a refocused strategic objectives plan.
“Basically, as the chief academic advisor, every year what I have to do is lay out the academic priorities for our principals and schools,” Nixon said. “It was an internal thing, but we’re going to implement the full plan” for the coming school year.
The 38-page document also redefines the academic office’s functions, one of which is to provide principals with a slew of “Support Services,” which include: accountability, equity and compliance; curriculum, instruction and assessment; school culture, climate and safety; leadership and talent development; and parent, family and community services, along with student enrollment and placement.
One of the more revealing items included in Nixon’s proposal is the creation of “Principal Learning Teams,” with schools being slotted to “teams” or groups, based on geography; coordinators will work loosely with the PLTs and each PLT will meet monthly. Charter, independent and parochial schools will be allowed to become team members as well.
According to the plan, each team must include a neighborhood high school, a feeder-plan assigned elementary and middle school, along with any special admission, Promise Academy, Renaissance Charter School and Empowerment high school in the area.
Nixon’s plan calls for 12 teams.
“It is the academic plan for fiscal year 2012/13,” Nixon said. “It’s been out; the principals have it, and I continue to meet with principals and give them updates, documents and materials. We are planning development, PLTs and really working with the principals around the implementation of the plan.”
Nixon’s proposal does include a few connections with the plan Knudsen introduced. Both plans call for a certain degree of privatization, while Nixon’s model outlines the exact services partners could provide on an academic level.
For example, Nixon’s plan calls for area colleges and universities to help with professional development and student teacher placement, while libraries and museums can assist with SAT preparation, literacy programs and museum content integration.
The plan also calls for area businesses to develop industry pipelines, provide internships and summer employment. The plan proposes further partnerships with college preparation programs, community and enrichment organizations, houses of worship, performing arts organizations, behavioral health institutions, professional sports teams, hospitals and other community enrichment organizations.
Also echoing Knudsen’s plan is Nixon’s call for varying levels of autonomy for principals. Full autonomy will be granted to schools that have “had consistent leadership for the past two years and have either improved their School Performance Index score or met Adequate Yearly Progress,” Nixon’s plan read. “These schools will have full independence in development of their school’s state-mandated action plan for school year 2012–2013.” The plan will also lend more support to the principals and schools that are struggling.
While the plan doesn’t take into consideration the 64 schools that are slated to close if Knudsen’s five-year plan is initiated, Nixon voiced pleasure with the plan, its foundation and what it means for principals and students.
“We’re excited about it, as it provides principals with some of the flexibility they’ve sought over the years,” Nixon said. “We can’t wait to get started on our professional development plan.”
The School District of Philadelphia announced Tuesday that it expects to close 40 public schools next year and eliminate hundreds of district administrative jobs in the next two years under a sweeping reorganization proposal that some fear is a move toward privatization and an abandonment of the public school system.
The district released a “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” which outlines the immediate changes necessary to expand high-achieving school programs, decrease violent incidents in all schools and deal with a projected budget gap of $218 million for fiscal year 2013 and a cumulative shortfall of $1.1 billion over five years if corrective action is not taken,” according to the district’s press release.
Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen outlined a five-year financial plan that includes about $560 million in budget cuts.
“We are bringing money and academics into balance,” Knudsen said at a news conference. “We cannot do one without the other going forward.
The plan would reorganize the district’s academic and administrative structure, severely reducing the size of the central office from 650 employees to about 200. Two years ago, the office had about 1,150 workers.
Officials said the district’s declining enrollment has left it operating at 67 percent of its capacity. Knudsen said if the district closes 40 of its 249 schools by fall 2013 it will reach 85 percent utilization. The plan calls for closing another six schools each year after that.
The reorganization plan is a major change from the traditional public school system.
Such a change should not happen without significant input from several community stakeholders, including: parents, students, teachers and community leaders.
Before such a proposal is approved by the School Reform Commission, officials should be prepared to answer the following questions:
Where has a similar plan been implemented and what is its record of success?
Some have suggested that New York is such a model. However, Diane Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said if Philadelphia is looking to New York as a model it is looking in the wrong place.
“New York City has not had any great success,” said Ravitch, according to a report in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Ravitch, in the city Wednesday for a conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said, “New York used to boast of dramatic test-score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon said among the district’s goals is to raise graduation rates by 2015 from the current 61 percent to 80 percent. Officials are also looking to reduce violence on campus.
What are the specific plans to achieve these goals?
The plan gives more autonomy to local principals and seeks to expand charter schools; how will these autonomous education officials and charter schools be held accountable?
Under the plan, the district could save $50 million by privatizing some of its services, including outsourcing custodial and transportation functions.
With principals making autonomous decisions and increased charter schools, what safeguards are in place so that contracts are not going to unqualified cronies?
Under a decentralized system how will the district assure parents of stability in schools?
What happens and who is held accountable if this plan fails to produce results? If students are not performing better academically and huge budget deficits remain, what happens then?
The school district will soon announce a set of public meetings throughout the city in May to gather input on the proposed plan. It is important that city residents attend, ask questions and tell school officials what they think of the plan.
With a new superintendent taking the reins in October, along with the School District of Philadelphia’s renewed focus on streamlining operations, Chief Academic Advisor Penny Nixon believes the last step toward improving public schools is to attack any remaining deficiencies in the delivery and absorption of classroom tutelage.
Nixon met with the Tribune earlier this week, where she laid out the district’s successes and many challenges in academics.
“One of my greatest challenges is trying to build a cadre of excellent leaders to run schools,” said Nixon, herself a former teacher. “I believe that schools don’t improve, turn around or do well if you do not have an excellent principal at the helm.
“I am deeply committed to really trying to identify and recruit high quality principals to come and lead our schools.”
But Nixon said attracting those top-shelf principals and educators continue to pose a problem for an industry that experiences a high turnover rate, especially after the third year of teaching. Nixon – who has the authority to assign any principal to any school – says another issue in retaining excellent principals and teachers is the desire of many to transfer out of what they consider bad or low-performing schools.
“The job is very complex. Some days, as a principal, you have to deal with 12 teachers calling out because of the snow, and the nurse calls, saying you have an abuse case here. How do you juggle all of it?” Nixon theorized. “As a leader, you need an array of skills to be a principal, and I think sometimes, people discount what it takes to be an effective leader, because you are also managing kids, managing adults, managing a budget, and managing an instructional program and trying to create [a learning] climate.
“You have to embrace parents in the community as well, which I think requires a different skill set,” Nixon said. “And being able to find enough people willing to do that work” is difficult.
Nixon has spent her entire career in public education, first teaching at Gillespie Middle School for 12 years, before leaving to become principal at General Louis Wagner Middle School. After a few other stops, Nixon joined the School Reform Commission, and was appointed to Chief Academic Officer last November.
Since taking the job, Nixon has crafted a bold reorganization and transition plan, which goes in effect this coming school year. The plan outlines the new capabilities of the academic office, as well as providing methods in which principals can better delegate duties and run a smoother, tighter operation.
Nixon’s plans also detail new techniques for strategically planning whole school improvement, buttressing instructional leadership and increasing and promoting organizational leadership. But Nixon allowed that challenges remain in turning the district around.
“We’ve been real intentional and real serious about leadership,” Nixon said. “But the biggest issue is just being in transition, and we need to have a superintendent who is going to be there for a long period of time. Transition is rough,” Nixon said, noting that she is hopeful that incoming superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. will excel, and after talking to him, feels confident in his abilities. “But the person who has the greatest impact on student achievement is the teacher. So, being able to not only recruit really good leaders, we have to recruit really good teachers who stay.
“It doesn’t matter how much money or how much resources you have, if you don’t have really good teachers and really good leaders.”