Friday, July 11, 2008



TIME TO BREAK OUT the beakers and Bunsen burners. The School District of Philadelphia has again become a laboratory for another experiment in education reform.

The hypothesis: An infusion of $42 million in federal money announced this week can turn around seven "persistently violent" schools, even though none of the money is used for increased security or police.

The Philadelphia schools scored a big one. Only 18 schools from across the country applied for the $49.5 million U.S. Department of Labor grants. Nine grants were awarded; seven went to Philadelphia schools - with a push from Sen. Arlen Specter.

One reason the competition was light: The school had to be "persistently violent." But that negative label, as defined by "No Child Left Behind" guidelines, isn't one that school principals or their districts find flattering. So that may have led to such schools being under-reported. (Call us cynical, but with millions of federal dollars available, we bet more cash-strapped school districts will miraculously find persistently violent schools.)

The School Reform Commission and new CEO Arlene Ackerman have wasted no time shaking things up at the district. The district's mixed-provider education model, considered experimental six years ago and closely watched by education experts, was recently modified; the district took back some schools from privately managed organizations and has put charter schools under more scrutiny.

Just this week, three top district officials left - interim chief academic officer, chief accountability officer and deputy chief academic officer. On top of that, the district eliminated more than 200 academic-coach jobs.

And the federal money comes as student test scores continue to rise, having crept up for 6 consecutive years, and as efforts to reverse the 50 percent dropout rate continue. The Department of Labor grants will create programs to address some of the complex issues that make kids drop out, and that could reduce chaos in the schools.

Rather than more cops, there will be more teachers, smaller class sizes, more college and career guidance and mentoring. There will be internship programs that could lead to jobs.

There's a lot at stake. With Philadelphia the recipient of seven of the nine grants, the federal government will take more than a passing interest in what happens here and will closely track its success or failure. Plus, the influx of federal money will essentially bring the cost per pupil at each school to $12,000, the average cost recommended by the state's costing-out study. So, we'll get a chance to see if the money really matters.

THE BIG CHALLENGE will be what to do after grant money runs out in three years.

The true success will be if the district can duplicate and incorporate the successful programs and initiatives into its budget and not leave them hostage to the fickle federal-grant process. And there will be the test scores, both a tool and a necessary evil.

It's fine to have a safe school, with kids preparing for jobs or college. But if its students can't read, it doesn't do anyone much good.

We hope this $42 million is spent thoughtfully and pragmatically. The future of thousands of our children is riding on the outcome.

Phila. School District lays off 200

By Kristen A. Graham

Inquirer Staff Writer

Call it Arlene Ackerman's opening salvo.

More than 200 Philadelphia School District staffers received layoff notices this week, a move the new schools chief hopes will begin to de-centralize the district and move resources into classrooms.

The employees were all academic coaches, mostly veteran educators who supported teachers in a variety of roles, from technology to mentoring new teachers.

The 218 coaches will be eligible to apply for other jobs within the district, and Ackerman said she did not expect anyone to be laid off completely. The notices come one month into Ackerman's tenure, as she begins to address "incoherency" in the district.

Similar shake-ups will happen in other departments throughout the summer, said Ackerman, who previously ran the Washington and San Francisco school systems.

"This is not the only resource that I'm going to take a look at," Ackerman said. "It's just the beginning."

The academic-coach position was too nebulous, a catch-all, and not all coaches were based in schools, said Ackerman, whose background is in instruction. Some coaches worked 10 months a year, some worked 12, and there was no common training.

"When I asked what these coaches do, people would sort of shrug their shoulders and say, 'Well, I don't know.' We need to be more intentional in terms of how we use those coaches," Ackerman said.

She called the district "top-heavy and with no real rhyme or reason for why it's organized the way it is" and said that she wants "new job descriptions that clearly define what the coaches are doing, how they're going to be trained, and what kind of measurable outcomes we expect."

And though all coaches will be invited to re-apply for a yet-to-be determined replacement position, which could be advertised in a week, there will be fewer coaching spots in the future.

"We're reducing the number significantly, as we will be reducing the size of central office again in terms of other positions," Ackerman said. She has not yet figured out how many coaches she will need, she said.

When the certified letter came to her home Monday, Tara Ardary, who has 14 years in the district, was stunned. She thought her job as a school-growth coordinator - a type of coach - at Edison High might change, but never dreamed it would be eliminated.

"School is out of session, and now everyone's eliminated? The letter said we were demoted, and now we have nobody to talk to," said Ardary, whose job includes helping teachers focus instruction and teaching them how to interpret data.

Now she's not sure if she should wait or apply for a classroom job.

Cyvi Levin has worked in the district for 20 years and been a coach for five years. She's a school-growth coordinator based at Frankford High and worries that a reduced number of coaches will hurt schools.

"I don't know if the students of Philadelphia are going to be best served by providing their teachers with fewer supports," Levin said.

Ackerman said that although the move was not made to cut costs, the district does have a deficit - currently about $5 million in a $2.3 billion budget - and resources will be carefully monitored.

"We're in the business of education here, which means that we need to think strategically and thoughtfully about how we use taxpayer dollars," she said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents most of the affected coaches, said he was not surprised by the shake-up.

"This is the kind of thing that happens each time a superintendent takes over," Jordan said. "It's not unusual. We have to wait and see what Dr. Ackerman's plan is."

Though Ackerman wants to streamline the central administration, she will also move to re-open two regional offices - Southwest and Central East - that had previously been shuttered, and to create new regional offices for early-childhood education and alternative schools, she said.

"It seems to me that we need to provide services to parents where they live," Ackerman said. "Plus, I'm trying to bring everything together so that we have no people working in isolation."

The moves come amid many changes at the district. Interim chief academic officer Cassandra Jones left the district Monday, and her job will be temporarily filled by Ackerman herself. LaVonne Sheffield, the well-respected chief accountability officer, recently left for New Orleans, and top finance and operating positions will also be turning over.

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