Nutter taking aim at low-performing Philadelphia schools

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos with Dunbar Elementary sixth grader Samuel Smith IV. SRC members and Nutter will visit Denver to see its schools.
SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos with Dunbar Elementary sixth grader Samuel Smith IV. SRC members and Nutter will visit Denver to see its schools. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 04, 2012

The city and the Philadelphia School District will move aggressively on a pledge to eliminate 50,000 seats in the lowest-performing city schools, Mayor Nutter promised Tuesday.

Nutter and members of the School Reform Commission will travel to Denver this week to examine how schools work there. Denver has decentralized many of its school operations and was one of the first cities in the United States to sign a compact promoting cooperation between its school district and charter schools.

Philadelphia recently adopted its own "Great Schools Compact," winning $100,000 and the chance at millions more from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One of the key tenets of the compact is transforming 50,000 seats in failing public schools through school closings and charter conversions.

"Reform, restructure, replace. That's where we are. That's where we're going in public education in Philadelphia," Nutter said at a news conference at Dunbar Elementary, a district-run Promise Academy, or turnaround school.

Nutter, who took the oath of office Monday for his second term, has again identified education as a priority of his administration.

The mayor and others have talked about fostering a "system of schools" that uses a mix of traditional district schools and charters, which operate with public money but are run by independent boards.

"It's time to end any notion of contention between the district and the charter-school communities," Nutter said. "This is our chance, this is our opportunity, and we need to grab it."

Nutter underscored that the compact represents a turning point.

"We can use the Great Schools Compact to begin a new chapter in our city schools," he said.

Nutter, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos, SRC member Wendell Pritchett, and others will spend Thursday in Denver learning about the challenges and successes that city has had since it adopted its compact a year ago.

The William Penn Foundation will pay for the trip. It was arranged by the Philadelphia School Partnership, an organization that aims to raise $100 million in five years to add seats in high-performing schools in the city, whether district, charter, or private.

Ramos said Denver made sense as a model because it has a mix of traditional district and charter schools; because of its compact; and because it has strong partnerships with charters and other outside organizations.

Denver "is not perfect, but learning some lessons," Ramos said.

The group also considered visiting New Orleans but decided that it was less analogous, since changes were spurred by Hurricane Katrina.

Traveling with Ramos, Pritchett, and Nutter will be Lori Shorr, city education secretary; Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership; and Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Though much emphasis has been placed on reform through charter conversion, Ramos said officials had not abandoned the idea of district-run turnaround schools.

District officials recently closed the central office that oversaw its Promise Academies, shifting responsibilities for the schools to other places.

They also have ended Saturday school, cut an hour's instructional time one day a week, and made other trims.

Though early Promise Academy indicators show some progress, the schools remain controversial, the legacy of former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman. Even though the Promise Academies have experienced cuts, the schools still receive extra per-pupil funding.

Ramos emphasized that the cuts were made for financial reasons.

"The responsibilities have been reorganized, not eliminated," Ramos said. "Despite some of these changes, our intention is to continue with the agenda."

The new SRC members - Pritchett, Lorene Cary, and Feather O. Houstoun - want to continue the model, Ramos said.

But more changes may come. This will be a year to "continue to develop" and "further strengthen" Promise Academies, the chairman said.

Nutter, who later chatted up students and visited Dunbar science and computer classes, said that despite enormous budgetary pressures, the city and the district must still press on with Promise Academies and other changes.

"We still have a school system to run," the mayor said. "We have to do everything we can, even with limited resources, to support these young people."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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