In city schools, signs of hope

Posted: July 18, 2013

By Janine Yass

For some of us who call the Philadelphia area home, the education crisis may seem like a tragic but distant concern. The reality, though, is that our region depends on the success of Philadelphia's schools and their ability to provide all students with a strong education.

The recently concluded legislative session focused on education dollars - if there are enough and how to wring more during this summer's contract negotiations - but there is a much bigger story than just the dollars and cents.

To fully understand what is at stake in Philadelphia's education crisis, and why, amid the gloom, there are reasons to be hopeful, spend a few hours visiting the city's lowest- and highest-performing schools, which are often found in the same neighborhoods, serving kids of similar backgrounds and challenges.

In the most struggling schools, you'll find few children reading and doing math on grade level. Roughly half graduate in four years from high school. These schools are reinforcing the cycle of poverty that holds so many of our children back, rather than breaking it.

In the best schools, you see what's possible when great leaders and educators act on the belief that all children can learn at high levels despite their challenges: record graduation rates and academic achievement on par with suburban schools. Educators in great schools find a way.

As a citizen and philanthropist dedicated to bringing educational equality to all children, I've seen struggling schools transform over the past five years. Three years ago, the Philadelphia School District launched the Renaissance program, an initiative aimed at improving its most violent, persistently failing schools. I toured some of the first schools selected for turnaround, and it was a devastating experience. Students were disengaged, academic rigor was low, and there was very little evidence of instruction and learning. The hallways were littered with trash instead of filled with proud displays of student work. Philadelphia's kids and families deserve better.

Today, entering the same school buildings, you find a far different learning environment. Public, nonprofit charter organizations have created safe havens of learning. The schools that left me speechless and heartbroken only a year ago now take my breath away. Talking with students at one turnaround school, Young Scholars Frederick Douglass in North Philly, I heard observations like: "I feel safe to come to school now," "My teachers help me learn and push me to do my best," and "I have to go to class and have homework now, but I love it."

It's not just students who experience the power of a high-quality school: Whole neighborhoods do. During the first year of new management under the nonprofit Aspira, a police officer visited the principal at Olney High School to thank him for the dramatic positive change in the neighborhood. He said local police were receiving fewer calls from shop owners, who were now opening their doors to students instead of closing early to keep kids out.

The Renaissance initiative is just one example of why I believe there is a new direction for Philadelphia's schools. A new School Reform Commission and superintendent have also recently taken bold steps to focus resources on student achievement. These steps include:

The difficult decision to cut hundreds of administrative jobs and close dozens of under-enrolled and under-performing schools.

Expanding the highest-performing public schools so they can serve more students.

Proposing reasonable changes to labor agreements (the system's biggest cost) in order to invest more in the students and schools most in need.

The district is still in financial crisis, and we have a long way to go, but right now is a critical turning point for the city's schools. Education, community, and philanthropic leaders are joining with elected officials around a common vision and strategy. Crisis and collaboration create a historic opportunity to accelerate the transformation of our schools and truly give all children the opportunity to receive a high-quality education.

In the aftermath of the recently approved budget, I hope state and local policymakers will look deeper than the dollars to understand what is really working in successful schools and take the bold but necessary steps to replicate these successes. To my peers who are unsure about investing in city schools or whether there are reasons for optimism, I say go visit these turnaround schools. Investing in great leaders and educators who are changing lives is making a real difference right now. These schools - and students - are defying the odds.

Janine Yass is vice chair of the Center for Education Reform and a board member of the Philadelphia School Partnership. E-mail her at

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