Ideas for change at schools

New schools board chair takes her proposals to the airwaves.

Posted: August 20, 2007

Sandra Dungee Glenn sat down, put on her earphones, and leaned toward the microphone. It was noon last Thursday, time for her weekly, one-hour call-in radio show, School Days, on WURD-AM (900).

It had been only three days since Gov. Rendell named the Girls High graduate chairman of the board that oversees the 174,000-student Philadelphia School District. She officially takes over next month.

The phone lines at the Delaware Avenue station, which serves a largely African American audience, lit up.

Her listeners wanted to know her priorities, how she would handle her newfound leadership of the School Reform Commission, of which she has been a member since 2002.

Dungee Glenn, stylish in a casual black pantsuit, described an idea she had floated before and that she now hopes to make happen to dramatically alter the way the 270-school system budgets and spends its $2.18 billion annual budget.

She wants the schools serving children with the greatest needs to get more money, those with children living in poverty, those with children who are struggling to learn English.

"That means you will find there are schools in our district where you might be spending more in that school . . . because of the type of student they have to educate," Dungee Glenn told her listeners.

It's called "weighted student funding" and it's sure to generate debate if Dungee Glenn and other commissioners create a pilot program, as she hopes. The approach, begun in Edmonton, Alberta, has been around for 30 years and has been talked about or tried in other urban school systems, including New York, Seattle and Houston, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

After the show, she elaborated.

"It recognizes right up front that you need unequal resources to provide equal outcomes," said Dungee Glenn, who turns 50 next month.

In schools where parents cannot afford to provide the extras - soccer, piano lessons - the district needs to compensate, she said.

"You need to do those additional things for those children," she said.

Dungee Glenn, whose efforts led to the district's 2005 requirement that students must take an African American history course to graduate, told callers of her other immediate priorities. The district must finalize a plan to cover its $80 million deficit and select a new chief executive officer.

Looking to January, when negotiations will begin with the 17,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, she said the district must gain more control in assigning teachers. The last contract, in 2004, gave greater latitude, but Dungee Glenn said more was needed to ensure that each school has a good mix of beginning and veteran educators.

"I think we need to figure out ways to continue to spread the talent," she said.

Listeners - some of whom have been following her show since it began in April 2002 - were eager to hear more.

"Can you get Gov. Rendell to come on the show?" asked Debbie "from the projects."

"I'll be happy to reach out to the governor and invite him to come on my show," Dungee Glenn said.

"How do you feel about elected school boards?" asked Timothy from South Philadelphia. (The commission is appointed: three members by the governor and two by the mayor.)

"In Philadelphia, I don't think it would make a big difference," Dungee Glenn said. "I think if you looked around the country where they have elected school boards, appointed school boards, you would see they run the gamut. Some of them work very well. Some of them are much worse than Philadelphia."

She also told her audience that the new chief executive could be local but does not have to be.

"I honestly don't have a strong feeling," she said. "I want to interview and meet people who are interested in doing this job and pick the best person."

Another caller told her he was sorry she was inheriting the chairmanship when the district is in the red.

"You're in a very, very serious, dangerous position," he warned.

"It would have been wonderful if I could have been named as chairperson when we had a $100 million surplus, but you don't get to pick your time to lead," Dungee Glenn said. "You know, I'm a woman of faith and my feeling is basically I'm here on assignment. This is not about me. There is work to be done on our children. There's been an assault on our children in this city."

Diane from South Philadelphia offered congratulations.

"Madam chairwoman, good afternoon," she said.

"Just Sandra, thank you," Dungee Glenn corrected.

"They couldn't pick another person better for the job."

"I appreciate that, Diane. Thank you."

Last came Renee, a Philadelphia public school teacher from Mount Airy, who had lots of comments and questions - not all of which Dungee Glenn had time for.

"Thank you for being a teacher. Thank you for being a parent. We're going to continue our conversations as we go into the weeks ahead."

Dungee Glenn said she intended to continue the show, giving the public a shot every week to ask questions. The call-in numbers are: 215-634-8065 and 1-866-361-0900.

"One of the things I think has helped me stay focused as we deal with and sort through all these things is the kind of conversation and feedback I receive from the callers," she said. "It does keep you grounded."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or

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