Phila. district asks for proposals for overhauling education

Posted: July 24, 2014

If you have an idea for overhauling a city public school, the Philadelphia School District is listening.

Officials on Tuesday announced the "School Redesign Initiative," inviting teachers, principals, universities, and community organizations to propose turnarounds of their own design.

That's a shift for a system that has relied heavily on charter conversions to reform struggling schools. Schools slated for redesign would remain part of the district and would continue to employ union-represented teachers.

As many as 10 schools could be transformed beginning in September 2015.

Successful teams would receive grants of up to $30,000 - to be raised through donations - to plan the overhauls, although teachers on redesign teams would have to do the work on their own time, and schools are not guaranteed bigger budgets to make the changes.

For a district where the ongoing budget crisis has cast a shadow over everything - including whether schools might open on time - it's a big step. But it's a necessary one, said Paul Kihn, deputy superintendent.

"It's really important that there be an outlet for all of the energy that we feel and hear about, even amid the financial turmoil of the district," Kihn said. "If we want to attract and keep all of the really terrific teachers and principals that we have here, they have to have an outlet for their energy and passion."

For a decade or more, the district has attempted school turnarounds with varying degrees of success. Some in-house turnaround schools - "Promise Academies" - still exist, but those overhauls were directed by the central office and have lost resources over the years, as the district's money woes have grown.

Officials said School Redesign Initiative schools would be different.

"We have a moral obligation to ensure that all schools are providing a high-quality educational experience for our students," according to a district document. "For too long, and despite many well-intentioned efforts by hardworking individuals, we have not met our obligations. Increasing the availability of high-quality learning experiences for children is our fundamental priority."

Ryan Stewart, the district's executive director of the Office of School Improvement and Innovation, said the effort is a response to employees' wishes, and is guided both by other districts' work in this area and by lessons learned from current and failed district turnarounds.

"There have been calls for more opportunities for teachers to step up and take leadership roles," Stewart said. "We want to create that platform to ignite and excite local educators to do this work."

Teachers have been invited to submit turnaround plans in the past, but all have been rejected. Kihn and Stewart said the new process is designed to help teachers succeed.

Teams must submit letters of intent by Aug. 19, but will have until Oct. 10 to formulate proposals, and will have district support to do so. Final selections will be made in November.

In addition to the grant funding, successful teams will receive work space, connections to experts, and networking opportunities, officials said.

Those eligible to apply include current school leadership teams, teacher-led teams, collaborations among school families, community organizations, or universities in partnership with educators, and other groups.

All teams must have at least one member who is a principal or holds valid Pennsylvania principal certification.

Applications may be submitted for any district school except current Promise Academies, but funding will only be granted for the district's lowest-performing schools.

The new initiative does not mean the end for charter conversions and Promise Academies, officials said. Those options will still be open to the School Reform Commission.

As so many things in the district do, the program hinges on Harrisburg legislators' signing off on a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that would yield the district millions. Lawmakers return Aug. 4 to decide the tax's fate.

Without that money, Kihn said, "everything comes into question."

Reaction to the announcement was mixed.

Teacher voices need to be heard and incorporated into school design more, said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. But he remains skeptical.

"I find the timing of this very strange," Jordan said. "It comes at a time when the district doesn't have sufficient resources to provide all the children in all of our schools the programs and services they need to get a high-quality education."

Timothy Boyle, a teacher at Chester Arthur Elementary, said his early reaction was that the program appeared to be a "home run. This is what people in my position have been asking for."

An eight-year veteran of the district, Boyle has seen reform efforts come and go, and he knows there are possible pitfalls to the program: How do you give your all to your teaching position and plan an ambitious school turnaround? How do you make a transformation work without a guarantee of additional money?

Arthur doesn't fall into the category of target schools for the program, but he's still intrigued.

"This is a really attractive option for me personally," Boyle said. "This is work that I'm interested in."

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