A Private Mugging At Chancellor Beacon

Posted: April 18, 2003

IT WAS A lot like those muggings in Northern Liberties to hear the folks at Chancellor Beacon Academies tell it.

They were just going along minding their own business when this tall guy in glasses swooped down on them. All they know is that, by the time they came to, they had been separated from their belongings.

Wasn't hard to pick him out in the lineup. It was Paul Vallas, Chief Executive Officer of Philadelphia schools. The chief executed Chancellor Beacon this week in what I hope will become his spring cleaning routine.

Chancellor Beacon is the first of the private managers Vallas has pulled the plug on. The for-profit Florida firm runs five of the city's most troubled public schools. Or they do until June.

"Like an ambush," is the way Chancellor Beacon CEO Octavio Visiedo described his dismissal in an interview with Daily News reporter Mensah Dean.

Vallas feels the company was a non-factor in their five schools. He says they didn't lower class size or create enough after-school programs even though they spent hundreds of dollars per student above what the district spends in most public schools.

Visiedo questions Vallas' "true agenda." Some folks in Harrisburg who engineered the state takeover as a way to push privatization may question that, too. But they can relax.

He was just as remorseless in his attack on failing district-run schools as he was on Chancellor Beacon. He's downsizing public high schools, creating smaller boutique high schools, reassigning principals and, if he can get away with it, eliminating every middle school in the district.

It's not always pretty. Vallas is anything but delicate. But at least the mixed bag of public and private programs he and the School Reform Commission are running are all being judged the same way.

If it looks like it's working, no matter who runs it, they stick with it. If not, they pull the plug.

The state's "reform" of Philadelphia public schools was cobbled together by people working from an agenda. The state Education Department, fresh out of ideas and tired of being asked for more money, just threw up its hands and decided to turn the entire system over to Edison Schools, Inc.

Almost as dumb was the reaction of entrenched unions and suspicious parents whose automatic reflex was to oppose anything that smelled like privatization.

The thing got so contentious that it freed up the School Reform Commission to do its own thing. It divided the district's 85 poorest-performing schools equally between the district and five private providers to see who could get the job done best.

Then it instituted a national search for a man who could run this hodgepodge. Vallas, fresh from making friends and enemies in Chicago, jumped at it.

"He's come in as an extremely strong leader," SRC member Sandra Dungee Glenn said. "He has a vision and a plan. But his focus is just on things that work."

Glenn, a mayoral appointee who had a gut-level distrust of privatization, is coming around.

"I've had to move away from my total non-privatization stance to what works," she said "I like the single-sex approach of the Victory Schools. I like Universal's approach to parental involvement."

It's too early to judge any of these programs fully.

But six sets of educators working from six different agendas should yield something worth saving.

Whether we ever develop the will to fully fund the ones that do work remains to be seen.

As for the others, they need to be on the lookout for a tall guy in glasses. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com

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