TOPICS > Education

Rescue Mission: Philadelphia Schools

December 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: As principal of one of the worst performing schools in Philadelphia, Aaron Starke will try anything to get his kids test scores up.

AARON STARKE: Who’s ready to ace the test today? ( Kids cheer )

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On a recent school- wide test day at Kenderton Elementary, Starke used music to inspire the kids. ( Music playing ) ( rapping )

AARON STARKE: We’re Kenderton kids…

KIDS: Nobody kids around.

AARON STARKE: And we got what it takes to ace the test, right?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But he’s going to need more than music to improve his school’s performance.

AARON STARKE: Are you ready for school today?

STUDENTS: Yeah!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The students here are so far behind, score so low on standardized tests, that Kenderton Elementary has the dubious distinction of being named a “distressed school,” along with 65 others in the city. That’s one-fourth of the whole school system, a system where three-quarters of the students live in poverty.

TEACHER: Two points…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last December, the state of Pennsylvania took over the entire school system, and in an unheard of experiment, implemented not one reform plan, but many. Hiring private companies to run public schools is nothing new, but in Philadelphia, six different organizations were contracted to fix two-thirds of the distressed schools. The other one-third were reorganized by the district itself. Kenderton was one of the 20 schools given to Edison Schools, the nation’s largest for-profit education management company, with 150 schools nationwide.

AARON STARKE: I want everybody focused on testing…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Edison hired 28- year-old Starke to be principal.

AARON STARKE, Edison Principal: My kids have new books, they have new curriculum, they have new materials, they have new computers. I often try to look and say, “what happens if the Edison program was not here?”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you think the answer is?

AARON STARKE: I’d probably be going back to a closet, pulling some textbooks off… ( blows ) …blowing off the dust, and bringing them into the classrooms. Or, you know, I guess the same old, same old.

STUDENTS: I believe I can fly…

TEACHER: Very nice.

STUDENTS: …I believe I can fly…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Music is a big part of Edison’s curriculum. Kenderton teacher Ezechial Thurman agrees with that philosophy, because he thinks it helps kid learn.

STUDENTS: I believe I can soar.

EZECHIAL THURMAN, Edison Teacher: They’re saying, “look, the process that the children go through in music and in art and in drama and even in physical education, it’s all part of their development, and it’s a vital part of being successful in school.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some teachers aren’t happy with Edison. Ted Kirsch is president of the Philadelphia Teachers Union.

TED KIRSCH, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: When you talk to the teachers, there’s no change. The computers that were promised are not there, supplies are not there. And so, we question from the very beginning, “if you’re going to institute changes, when are they going to begin?”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Kirsch says there is another big problem caused by Edison, because it fired non-teaching assistants, who were responsible for discipline in the middle schools.

TED KIRSCH: The facts today: Weapons offenses that we didn’t have before. We have teachers being assaulted, we have pupils being assaulted. We have a general decline in discipline. That’s a serious problem.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Newly hired school district CEO Paul Vallas admits things got off to a rough start, but said only in a few Edison Schools.

PAUL VALLAS, CEO, Philadelphia School District: Edison came in and they got rid of many of the support services that the schools have, many of the support staff. Well, I had to go in and restore them all. So, I had to overturn a number of Edison’s personnel decisions that I felt destabilized the schools. You know, I also had to assign additional security, and in some cases, I had to assign mentors, and in some cases, I had to basically send support teams in to work with the schools and to help get the schools reorganized.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Vallas says he’s keeping an open mind about Edison, even though the company’s record has been questioned elsewhere. Just last month, school officials in a neighboring district said test scores in Edison Schools there had actually gone down. And in Texas, the Dallas school district announced it would drop Edison because of poor results. In spite of all of this, Edison CEO Chris Whittle remains confident the company will succeed.

CHRIS WHITTE, CEO, Edison Schools: We’re the 35th largest system of schools in the United States. And compare that to any other major system. Our rate of gain is the best in the nation, and we’ve tracked that for many years. Do we have sites that aren’t as good as we would like? Absolutely. We’re not perfect, we don’t claim to be. But if you look at us system wide, we’re immensely proud of the results. And I’ll go a little bit further. We challenge anyone to show us an 84,000-student system of largely-disadvantaged children that’s performing, that’s gaining at the same rate that we are.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Philadelphia is also giving some other for- profit companies a chance to see if they can improve test scores.

SAM HOWARD, Administrator, Chancellor Beacon: One of the things that we’re trying to do is promote safety, and a wholesome learning environment.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sam Howard is the director of school operations for Chancellor-Beacon Academies, which was awarded five schools in Philadelphia, and has 73 schools nationwide. The biggest changes they’ve made in the schools, so far, have been physical.

SAM HOWARD: Anything that was of an unsafe nature, we’re in the process of taking care of. You know, because it makes for a better learning experience for the children.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chancellor-Beacon consciously has not made many personnel or curriculum changes yet. Instead, it wants to extensively test the students before determining what course of action to take.

SAM HOWARD: It’s, “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time. So, we’re starting with this bite and we’re moving our way through. And we will get the educational component in the same condition that we’ll have the building in when it’s ultimately repaired.

SPOKESPERSON: Saturday, all the paint’s coming to paint the lockers.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Officials at Victory Schools, another private management company, also spent much of the summer overseeing physical changes at the five schools they’ve been awarded. Victory has nine schools nationwide. Unlike Chancellor-Beacon, Victory is also making sweeping changes in the academic arena. At Fitzsimons Middle School, one of the worst schools in the city, 95 percent of the teachers were asked to leave, and two new principals were brought in. Victory also separated the boys and girls into separate academies.

SPOKESPERSON: What we’re going to do is we’re going to teach reading pretty much over the whole day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At training seminars this summer, Victory teachers learned that virtually every class would teach reading.

SPOKESPERSON: I know it’s not going to feel real comfortable to begin with, but we can keep doing what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep having kids who can’t read.

TEACHER: Come on guys, everybody, what word?

STUDENTS ( All ): Show.

TEACHER: What word?

STUDENTS ( All ): Jump.

TEACHER: What word?

STUDENTS ( All ): Yell.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Watching these teenagers learn basic vocabulary and grammar makes clear the enormous challenge ahead. Regina Johnson teaches at Victory-Fitzsimons Middle School.

REGINA JOHNSON, Victory Teacher: During elementary school, they missed some things that they should have had. There’s gaps in their learning. We have to go over what an adverb is, how do you use an adverb, what’s a noun, what’s an adjective. Just simple things that we might take for granted, they might have missed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lynn Spampinato makes no apologies for the overwhelming emphasis on literacy.

LYNN SPAMPINATO, Administrator, Victory Schools: We talk all the time about the drop-out rate, and the drop- out rate in high school, but I really believe the drop-out rate happens… the drop-outs happen in middle school. They may not physically leave, but when you walk through a building and see children who have been in public education for seven years, and they’re reading on a first-grade level, hope is missing from their lives. And so, we have to take that focus on literacy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yet another model is being tested at the 21 schools being restructured by the district.

SPOKESPERSON: I’ve been going around, and I am liking what I see in the classrooms.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Robin Cooper, principal of L.P. Hill Elementary, says a major component of the restructuring is professional development. Every other Wednesday at 1:00 in the afternoon, classes for the students end, and begin for the teachers.

ROBIN COOPER: It helps the student when you ask them, “well, why are you learning this?” “What is it that you’re doing?” You cannot accept, “well, I don’t know why we’re learning it,” or “the teacher told us we have to do it.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In addition to these seminars, the restructured schools have put in academic coaches and a rigorous test-prep plan. At L.P. Hill, 30 minutes of every day is spent on practice tests. Principal Cooper says the pressure to improve is enormous.

ROBIN COOPER: I know for the teachers they are feeling the pressure. So some days are good days, and some days the teachers are overwhelmed. So, I have to figure out how to, you know, bring it all together so that they don’t feel so overwhelmed, but still understand that we’re working against a timeline, and that if we don’t move the scores of the children and make sure that our children are working towards their grade level, then there is someone out there that can do it for us.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 67 distressed schools in the reform effort are all getting significantly more money per pupil than the other schools in Philadelphia. The union complains with that kind of investment, any school could do better.

TED KIRSCH: If you put the dollars in the right place that we know what to do and we can be successful and we don’t have to have profiteers in this process.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: CEO Vallas says he won’t hesitate to terminate contracts with schools that don’t see improvement. In the 1990s, Vallas was credited with turning around the public school system in Chicago. He has an extensive list of reforms he now wants to institute system-wide in Philadelphia, but says he is willing to give the private companies a chance.

PAUL VALLAS: I just want accountability. And whether it’s the private schools or the traditional public schools, I mean, they’re going to be evaluated the same way– on academic performance, on attendance, on their ability to reduce the truancy rate, on graduation rates, on public safety– and we’re going to evaluate them the same way, and we’re only interested in what works. And those private managers that run successful schools and move those schools forward will have their contracts renewed, and those that don’t will have their contracts and their charters revoked.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All students in Philadelphia were tested in October. The first chance to see whether any of the experimental schools improves come in the Spring, when the kids are tested once again.