Is the School District's plan perfect? No. Are there parts that concern me? Most definitely.
But in a situation where there are no easy choices, I believe it's not productive to "just say no" to the entire plan when considerable parts of it sensibly address the harsh reality of our situation.
The district calls for closing a significant number of schools. I can only imagine how painful it would be if my child's school were closed, but there are too many seats in too many buildings for too few students. With hindsight, it's easy to see that if the district had consolidated neighborhood schools as the number of students attending new charter schools swelled, we wouldn't be in this predicament. What's important now is that the district empathetically works with the families and communities surrounding the closing schools to find the best solutions for all involved.
Decentralization of the district's administration is also important. From what I have seen, the vast majority of the central office's employees have good intentions, but they are unconsciously enmeshed in a culture in which compliance trumps strategic thinking, and they are powerless to serve students or parents, or, more importantly, to help schools succeed. Changing this mind-set will not be easy and will most likely require significant changes in structure and personnel. To be effective, staff must be moved out of the central office and into the schools. And, though this may sound harsh, new staff will need to take the place of those who cannot transition to a new way of thinking.
The job of the principal of my children's elementary school, and other principals in the district, has been hindered by rigid centralized processes. Giving principals the flexibility to operate their schools in a way that would best meet the needs of their school communities will improve performance. By dividing schools into three tiers of performance levels, the district's plan allows for this flexibility. Principals of the highest performing schools will gain increased autonomy, while those with less experience will have access to supplemental professional development and support.
Achievement Networks are the most controversial part of the district's proposal, and the element of the plan that concerns me most. They entail placing schools in small groups that will be run as if they composed a smaller district. Many public school activists are equating the formation of these networks to the privatization of public education because groups of schools could be managed by outside not-for-profit or charter school organizations. I am wary of this myself.
However, my experience with the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition, a group of 12 neighborhood schools in and around Center City, underscores the positive synergy that can be generated when school communities with similar goals collaborate in a smaller group. If the SRC remains true to its word that this part of the plan has yet to be developed, and that the community and principals will play an integral part in designing the concept, these Achievement Networks could offer an opportunity to convert the School District from a massive enterprise into smaller chunks that allow all schools to improve and be the best that they can be.
Increased charter-school enrollment also concerns parents who value the important role neighborhood schools play in supporting strong communities. Enrollment in charters has been increasing steadily since their inception in 2001, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. I empathize with those parents who do not see their neighborhood school as an option, but wonder how charters — at least the ones where students are selected by lottery — offer a real choice. To me, true choice means that all parents have a choice of good schools, including the one in their neighborhood, and that charters are open to all children, not just a select few.
While advocating for Philadelphia schools has been a frustrating experience, this year it has also become a divisive one. I feel isolated from my fellow advocates, but believe that parents should take a closer look at the portions of the plan that show promise. Rejecting the entire plan may be the easiest path, but building a wall between the school administration and parents could be costly in the long run.
By agreeing to hold off voting on the five-year restructuring plan and accepting parent and principal input, I believe the SRC has met us halfway. Our children and the city would be better served if parents were to take the energy and enthusiasm being used to unilaterally object to the proposed changes and direct it toward finding a viable solution that will give us a school system of which we can all be proud.
E-mail Christine Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.