Volume 2 Issue 2
The Philadelphia Context
Obtaining a postsecondary education is increasingly critical for young people. With an increasing number of jobs requiring, at minimum, some postsecondary education, the economic and social disadvantages associated with lack of postsecondary education intensifying, and the number of students aspiring to postsecondary education growing (Callan, 2001; Education Trust, 2001; Heller, 2001; Labaree, 1997), getting students enrolled in college has become an increasingly important goal of educational systems.
On Friday, June 20, 2003, the New York Times reported that, "This was the year that school reform began in Philadelphia. The state has taken over the school system, which had been failing for years and brought in seven outside managers to run 45 of the lowest performing elementary and middle schools." In fact, this was the school year that Philadelphia underwent probably the most radical urban education reform effort of any school district in the country, but it was hardly "the year that school reform began in Philadelphia."
In October 2001, when former Governor Mark Schweiker announced plans for taking over management of schools in Philadelphia, he promised that dramatic intervention would take place at the District's "60 lowest performing schools."
Ever since, references to the system's "lowest performing schools" have cropped up regularly in media coverage and conversation about the takeover. That phrase has been frequently attached to the 86 schools at the center of the District's reform program.
Schweiker's plan didn't name which 60 schools he considered to be the city's lowest performing, but he called for turning over management to private education providers like Edison Schools Inc. at these schools, while other schools would experience less drastic interventions.
On December 23, 2001, Philadelphians awoke to the startling news that their schools were now -- as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it -- "the property and problem of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
The transfer of control, which was reported to have occurred at precisely 12:01 a.m., seemed to plunge the city's children into uncertainty. "We're in [Governor] Schweiker's hands now," a Daily News columnist wrote, with evident apprehension.
So what does it all mean? Over a year later, the Commonwealth does not seem especially involved in District affairs. There is little evidence that Harrisburg views the Philadelphia schools as its "property" -- or its problem. Most of the decision-making seems to be occurring where it always did: in the School District administration building at 21st and the Parkway.
Did the takeover, one might ask, really happen?
"Overwhelming"... "A new start"... "Exciting, but I've never been so tired."
These are some of the ways that principals from schools identified as low-performing and targeted for reform by the School District of Philadelphia describe their feelings about the new initiatives in their schools.
These principals present a complex picture of hope and chaos -- of change and inertia.
Not surprisingly, issues of communication are paramount during this first year of a major change within the District, as the school system shifts to what is being called a "multiple provider model" -- involving outside companies, universities, and nonprofits in managing individual schools.
Teacher turnover increased between June and September 2002 at most of the schools in Philadelphia that were assigned to external managers or subject to special intervention.
This pattern among schools was evident across all types of interventions and managers, including for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), nonprofit entities, the District-run "restructured schools," and schools designated to become charter schools.
The problem of staffing instability was especially severe at the conversion charter schools and those run by three of the external management groups -- Universal, Edison, and Victory. Data on anticipated vacancies for the fall of 2003 indicate that teacher turnover may continue to be a problem next year in the schools subject to external intervention.
America's urban public schools' success or failure will ultimately reflect the will and commitment of educators and policy makers to address historical injustices and educational segregation that mirrors that of society. Urban public schools are a microcosm of American society, which is validated by research, observations, or/and participation in the process of educating twenty-first century urban youth at all levels of schooling. As both an extension and complement to the perspectives on urban education presented in an earlier issue of this journal by Fuhrman (2002), one can posit that large, comprehensive urban public high schools present an extraordinary set of unique challenges to achieving a measure of success in America's educational system.