School Reform Commission session focuses on turnarounds

Posted: March 12, 2012

Failing schools must be closed and replaced with high-performing options, whether they are charter or Philadelphia district schools, officials stressed Monday night.

Even as it grapples with plugging a massive budget gap, picking a new superintendent, and decentralizing operations, the Philadelphia School District is still moving aggressively toward restructuring. Last year, city, state, and district officials signed on to the "Great Schools Compact," a document that lays out a goal of replacing 50,000 seats in low-performing schools with ones in strong schools, district or charter.

There should be less emphasis on the school provider, officials said, and more on the results it produces.

Already, school turnarounds have affected 14,000 seats, with some schools turned over to charters and others reconstituted by the district.

Still, there is some suspicion of the compact, with critics expressing concerns that decisions are being made behind closed doors and that district schools are underrepresented.

"Who's making decisions? What is in that compact? What do we have to say about it?" Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and education activist, asked at a School Reform Commission meeting on "choice, turnarounds, and rightsizing."

Lori Shorr, the mayor's education secretary and chair of a committee that oversees implementation of the compact's principles, emphasized that the committee is advisory and that only the SRC can make policy decisions.

Long-standing tensions between district and charter schools must end, Shorr said. Both are public schools, funded with the same scarce pool of resources, she stressed.

In Philadelphia, the district's population is shrinking, with 249 schools and 146,090 students this year. Charter schools are booming, with 80 charters and 46,000 students.

The timing of the compact was tied to an application for funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Philadelphia has already received $100,000 from the foundation and hopes to win more.

Some have expressed worries that Gates money comes with strings. But Shorr said that was not the case. "It's not really the Gates compact," she said. "It's a Philadelphia compact. We're not changing what we're doing in Philadelphia just to chase the Gates money."

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who led Monday's meeting, also asked for input on the district's own turnaround schools, its Promise Academies.

Anissa Weinraub, a teacher at West Philadelphia High, a Promise Academy, said she liked the increased support and resources the designation brought.

But there is little room for real innovation and too much emphasis on scripted curriculum and minute details, such as what is hung on a particular teacher's wall, Weinraub said.

"Is that really what we want to be putting our attention and resources toward - do I have the correct thing on my wall?" Weinraub asked.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said he recognized the model needed work. A planned decentralization should help address that, he said.

"We need to figure out a way inside the School District to support creativity in our traditional public schools," Pritchett said.

A number of parents from Mastery Charter schools turned out to praise that organization's turnaround efforts. Mastery runs several schools in the city.

Mastery excels at changing school climate and boosting achievement, parents said.

But Haver pointed out that its teachers often have the luxury of smaller class sizes and more resources than district schools.

Still, Mastery-Harrity parent George Tilghman said, what works must be replicated.

"Our children do not have years to waste in low-performing schools, whether it's charter or public," he said. "There needs to be an urgency."


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

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