Closing eight schools as part of its larger facilities plan was certainly not easy, politically or emotionally, but it was a decision that was necessary for the future of education in Philadelphia. To invest more money in teachers and expenses that drive student learning, we must reduce the cost of the public school system’s aging buildings.
But in voting to keep Stanton and Sheppard open, the SRC demonstrated a nuanced approach, addressing financial concerns while still prioritizing academic results. In a city with far too many schools that aren’t delivering high-quality results for families and children, Stanton and Sheppard have demonstrated success in preparing their students for college and post-secondary education.
The members of the School Reform Commission recognized that, if we are to be successful in efforts to give more students the opportunity to attend a great school, those schools that have demonstrated success must be given the opportunity to build on that foundation.
While the School Reform Commission now faces the challenge of finding other ways to address the facilities concerns that still exist in the two schools, its decision to keep them open is another signal that we have a new SRC in Philadelphia: one committed to making policy decisions and allocating resources on the basis of student learning and achievement rather than political or other adult concerns.
How did this new determination on the part of the School Reform Commission come to pass? Many deserve credit. Start with Mayor Nutter and Gov. Corbett, who together appointed an SRC full of members committed to putting student needs first, even in a tough political job, and who all share a common goal of providing a high-quality school option to every child. Credit the William Penn Foundation, for providing the funding for a critical analysis of the district’s fiscal deficit and structural impediments at a time when turnover in leadership made it hard for an internal assessment — and when the SRC desperately needed additional perspective to begin addressing hard fiscal and structural challenges that lie ahead.
Also deserving of credit is Thomas Knudsen, who has stepped in as chief recovery officer at the district and directed the effort to deal with the fundamental problems head-on.
The SRC and the city’s education system still have a long, long way to go before we realize the vision of a great school for every child and many more tough but necessary decisions lie ahead in the coming weeks and months. But with an SRC that acts on its commitment to quality schools and accountability — and makes decisions based on student achievement — we will get there.
Helen Cunningham is executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund, a charitable foundation making grants in the fields of arts, education, and community programs in Philadelphia. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit organization that invests in the creation and expansion of great schools in Philadelphia.