This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia is exploring the hiring of several private companies to serve as “transition managers” for schools in its “Small Schools Transition Project,” a multi-million-dollar initiative scheduled to culminate with 26 new or reconfigured high schools by 2008.
These new schools are being created primarily by converting middle schools to high schools, by turning branches of existing schools into separate schools, and by replicating charter high schools.
The School District experiment with putting schools under private management already involves 45 schools, but only one is a high school. A December 22 Reuters wire service story stated that Vallas in an interview, “predicted half of Philadelphia’s schools will be run by private companies or universities within four years.” A School District spokesman said the statement was inaccurate, and that Vallas had intended to convey that more than half of schools would have an outside partner, but not necessarily a school manager.
Joseph Jacovino, Project Manager for SchoolWorks, said his Massachusetts-based educational consulting group had submitted a proposal “to be involved in the partnership agreements,” for small high schools.
“My understanding is that if the resolution goes through, we would be partnering with Bartram Motivation and Bartram Human Services,” he said.
If approved, the SchoolWorks contract would be a limited partnership that would last three to four years, according to Jacovino. He added, “I believe the schools would then manage themselves. They’re still part of the District. We would just help them get established.”
“We’re not doing anything yet, but we’ve had conversations,” commented Gary Solomon, assistant vice president of educational partnerships for Princeton Review, another firm expected to be involved in the transition project.
In a phone interview from his Chicago office, Solomon said the firm was “absolutely” interested in participating.
Meanwhile, two Philadelphia middle schools being converted to high schools are already managed by New York-based Victory Schools – FitzSimons and Rhodes. The schools are adding a new high school grade each year and are on course to becoming “small” high schools prior to the 2008 date, according to Ben Wright, Victory Schools Philadelphia superintendent.
Details of “Philadelphia 2008,” the title that Vallas said had been given to the project, are expected to be released this month, when Vallas said the District would submit the Small Schools Transition Project management contracts to the School Reform Commission for consideration.
Vallas talked briefly about the project after the December 15 School Reform Commission meeting, where the SRC approved a $60,000 technical assistance contract for Next Step Associates, run by former District administrator Cassandra Jones, to oversee the project.
According to the District’s Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton, Next Step will act as “project manager” overseeing such issues as “enrollment, college partnerships, AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate).”
“One of the things we wanted to be certain of is that we had someone showing that those components were in each one of the high schools,” Thornton said.
The District initiative comes amidst renewed calls from education advocates to break up the District’s large neighborhood high schools. Evidence has shown that small schools produce better learning environments than do large urban high schools, resulting in fewer violent and disruptive incidents, better student performance, lower dropout and suspension rates, more teacher control, and less anonymity among students and between teachers and students.
A majority of Philadelphia high school students are enrolled in schools of 1,500 students or more. Although some local small schools advocates have maintained that small schools should carry 400 or fewer students, the District has said its new and reconfigured high schools will typically be limited to enrollments of between 800 and 1,000 students, but with some smaller schools.