Success amid crisis in Chester

Posted: February 16, 2012

The Chester Upland School District's budget crisis has been national news, partly because of underlying fears that a similar fate could befall other districts struggling with reduced local tax revenues and eviscerated state budgets. While the focus on what went wrong in the district is understandable, we shouldn't overlook what's working in Chester.

Chester Upland has been among the worst districts in the commonwealth for the past two decades, often ranking last among Pennsylvania's 501 school districts in student performance. Last year, only 24 percent of Chester High School's juniors scored as proficient or better in reading on statewide tests, and only 16 percent were deemed proficient in math.

Constant turnover in the district's leadership makes matters worse. Chester Upland has had nine superintendents over the past decade and has been overseen by at least four different state secretaries of education.

It is important to note that the district is not among the nation's worst because the area is impoverished, because its children can't learn, because its parents aren't involved, or because its teachers don't care. There are plenty of talented children, concerned parents, and dedicated teachers in the district. Mismanagement and politics are the real culprits.

That has been proven by the experience of the Widener Partnership Charter School, opened by Chester-based Widener University in 2006. Emphasizing holistic education, the charter school supplements its core curriculum with music, art, drama, physical education, and foreign-language instruction. It also tends to students' social and emotional development.

The school's hallmark, however, is its partnership with parents and guardians, which encourages them to be intensely and productively engaged in their children's educational experience. Also crucial is the support of Widener's faculty and students.

In just six years, the school has had a tremendous impact on the community and the university. Parents who had lost faith in the city's public school system now have hope for their children's future. Students have more confidence in themselves. And their scores on statewide tests meet or exceed state and federal standards.

Moreover, unlike some other charters, Widener Partnership enrolls children through a lottery system, and its demographics are similar to the district's.

The university made the unusual decision to establish its own charter school only after a series of efforts to form partnerships with the district were ignored. One episode in particular illustrates the leadership and political problems that have hurt the school district. Six years ago, when Chester Upland faced a leadership change that left it without a curriculum for the following year, Widener joined local teachers to create one that could have been implemented district-wide. But the new superintendent decided the curriculum was unworthy and discarded it despite months of collaborative work. Today, that curriculum is being used by Widener Partnership Charter School.

The Widener model is expensive, and it would take considerable effort to apply what we have learned across the district, but it works. We invite local, state, and federal officials to visit the school and explore the possibilities.

Simply balancing the budget will not address the real problems facing the Chester Upland School District. We need a solution that assures students a high-quality education and renews parents' faith that their children can get such an education in Chester.


James T. Harris III is the president of Widener University.

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