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Online NewsHour: Making the Grade
Rescue Mission: A look at the Philadelphia public school system.12.11.02
Grading the System: A look at the education reform bill passed by the Senate. 06.15.01
Dollars and Scholars: Spencer Michels reports on a company that runs public schools for profit. 04.10.01
Pass this test or else: High-stakes testing at a high school near you. 05.02.01
Education Reform: New changes possible in schools across the country. 01.24.01
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The Philadelphia Experiment Posted:12.25.02
Students in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are at the center of one of the largest experiments in school reform history that includes using private, for-profit companies to run public schools.
Last year, the state of Pennsylvania
took over Philadelphia schools citing poor test scores and rising dropout
rates. Since then, the city has tried a few different approaches to improve
its educational offerings and boost sagging student scores.
While supporters say the city's school experiment may help create a blueprint for other public school systems, critics feel that nontraditional approaches, like hiring private companies to run the schools, are not the answer.
The governor tries new ideas
For years, Philadelphia students scored below average on state required tests. Then last December, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker decided the state should step in.
He formed a 12-member School Reform Commission to reorganize the way the district is run and hired five private companies known as Educational Management Organizations, or EMOs, and two local universities to run 45 of the city's lowest-performing schools.
In addition to those 45 schools, the district decided to restructure 22 schools itself. The restructured schools received new materials, academic coaches, monthly computerized assessments of students and more intense teacher training.
Finally, the district continues to run 47 charter schools-- publicly funded schools free from many traditional regulations.
Is this the wave of the future?
One of the private companies hired in Philadelphia is Edison Schools, the largest EMO in the country. Edison runs 150 schools in 24 states and was hired to run 20 schools in Philadelphia.
Supporters say EMOs provide resources not offered before. For example, Edison installed computers in 18 of its Philadelphia schools, which include a computer program that provides practice standardized questions and answers. While teachers generally have to wait at least six months for standardized test results, Edison's program provides instant feedback, which in turn helps teachers assess student progress so they can adjust their lesson plans.
Some of the private companies have a stricter discipline policy, longer school days, same sex classes, and sometimes a more rigorous curriculum.
Victory Schools, a company that runs five of the Philadelphia schools, separated boys and girls into two academies and makes sure that teachers teach reading in every class.
Another company, Chancellor Beacon Academies, began by painting and making repairs to the five schools it was hired to run in Philadelphia. The head of Chancellor Beacon Academies says the first step is to make sure students have a more positive environment before they can focus on testing.
Critics and supporters
However, not everyone was in favor of hiring private companies to run public schools. For example, at the beginning of the school year Victory asked 95 percent of the teachers at one of its schools to leave so that it could hire its own staff. The move upset many, including the teachers' unions.
"If you put the dollars in the right place, we know what to do and we can be successful and don't have to have profiteers in the process," Ted Kirsch, head of the Philadelphia teachers' union, said.
But Paul Vallas, CEO of the Philadelphia Public School System, says that he will support whatever helps the students in his city.
"I just want accountability and whether it's the private schools or the traditional public schools, they're going to be evaluated the same way," he said.
Edison president Chris Whittle is optimistic that his company can meet federal requirements and will attract new school systems anxious for change. Although the company has not yet made a profit, it continues to grow and gain new school districts every year.
"We're the 35th largest system in the nation," Whittle said. "Do we have sites that aren't as good as we'd 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."
As its educational experiment continues, much attention will remain focused on Philadelphia. This October, students were given a state exam and will be tested again next spring to measure any changes brought on by the new reform methods.
-- By Raven Tyler, NewsHour Extra
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