This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Next Monday, the Philadelphia School District will begin its second full school year under the state-controlled School Reform Commission and CEO Paul Vallas. On August 21, Vallas talked with the Notebook and discussed his plans to strengthen connections with parents by establishing new programs targeted at parents and by providing them with more information. Vallas stopped short of supporting parental involvement in final decisions about teacher and principal hiring. The interview is excerpted below.
In addition to parent-focused programs, District officials say other key changes for the 2003-04 school year will include:
*Reduced class sizes in more than 2000 primary classrooms, with a target student-teacher ratio of 22 to 1 in classrooms with one teacher
*New standardized reading and math curricula and instruction materials
*Double doses of math and reading: 90 minutes per day in reading and 120 minutes per day in math for grades K-8 and 90 minutes per day in both reading and math for grades 9-12.
*Additional professional development for teachers and administrators by implementing half-day school attendance for all students every other Friday starting September 19.
*Mandatory summer school in 2004 for students with inadequate reading and math proficiency.
Notebook: You’ve talked about plans to boost parental involvement in schools. Can you tell us about the District’s plan to set up a help desk for parents at each school?
Vallas: In all our schools, starting with all our elementary schools, we want to give schools [support] to set up a parent help desk. The goal is to help parents who come in who may need help, to provide parents with information, resolve problems for parents, and work with the schools on parent outreach. We want to not only assist parents, but also assist the schools in parent-related functions.
We’re going to recruit at the beginning of the year, probably October. The help desks will be staffed during school hours.
We’re working with the Home and School Council to make sure that all the schools have functioning parent councils that can have input in school decision-making.
We’re also going to be expanding the parent truant officer program. Many of the parent truant officers we have currently on hand have now had a full year’s experience. They’re doing an impressive job. � We anticipate that not only will we have greater numbers, but the effectiveness of the program will grow because of the year’s experience.
Also, we want to begin to create a series of parent patrols in the city. All of our schools should have parent patrols. � Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We’re really going to concentrate on making sure that all of the 45 to 50 schools that we feel need to make more progress in student safety have parent patrols because it’s not only a question of safety within the schools, it’s also a question of safety outside the schools on school grounds, on the routes to and from school.
Notebook: Is that a volunteer-based program?
Vallas: Yes. We’re not going to be able to get into the business of paying every parent who volunteers. Someone in the school will organize the parent patrol and to do the things that are needed to maintain it, to get the parents equipment: identifiable jackets, walkie talkies.
One of the responsibilities of the parents who work the parent help desk will be to help us organize these parent patrols. �
We’re also really working to expand our interfaith partnerships – to use the neighborhood religious institutions as a way of mobilizing parents and people from the community to get involved in the school, doing things like tutoring and mentoring and participating in parent patrols. �
We’re also going to standardize what’s referred to as a "teacher for a day" program, where we’re going to request that parents give us a day a month in the school. We would love to get parents involved here in the classroom on a regular basis.
Notebook: Are there other efforts to reach parents?
Vallas: The other way that we’re going to get parents engaged is to provide them with access to information.
The new curriculum models are going to be really parent-friendly. The reading and math curriculums are all going to have parent homework guides that can show parents how to help children with their homework. �
Every six weeks, parents will be getting reports on their students’ progress. The first of these will come out in late October. � Parents will know as early as six weeks into the school year whether their child is ahead, behind, progressing, or struggling. After that first six weeks, the extended day program will begin, in which children will be provided with more instructional time to help them if they’re deficient in reading or math.
The vast majority of parents, if they only have adequate information, will be much more engaged and much more supportive of what’s going on in the classroom.
We will also be simplifying the report card and looking at rescheduling the parent report card pickup time. In the past it’s been from nine to three, and the more appropriate time is twelve to seven because a lot of parents work. Not everyone has vacation days or personal days to take off. � So, we’re looking to make it easier for parents to go to the schools and pick up the child’s report card and talk to the teacher.
Notebook: Some parent groups have asked the District to ensure that there’s a voice mail system at every school for parents to leave messages for teachers. Is that a goal the District is working on?
Vallas: Absolutely. We’re pretty close to it. � Most of the schools themselves have voice mail, but the question is involving teachers individually in voice mail. � The majority of teachers have email. � All the schools are supposed to have a functioning voice mail machine. � Getting all the teachers � voice mail numbers is obviously a bigger challenge. The bottom line is we’re making some progress there.
Notebook: Where is the District in terms of the idea of "site selection" of teachers (in place last year at 29 schools) and having parental involvement in the hiring of teachers at schools?
Vallas: If we are able to gain site selection in the next contract negotiation, the principals will make a decision about the hiring of teachers.
Notebook: So your idea is not to have parent/teacher/principal committees? � It’s to empower the principals to make the hiring decisions how they see fit?
Vallas: If we ever get site selection, which is a priority of the Reform Commission, then the principals will make the decision regarding the hiring of teachers. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have committees involved. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I leave that up to the school in terms of who they would put on the hiring team. � But I think ultimately the final decision for hiring needs to rest with the principal. � I think it should be recommendation by committee, and then the principal should make that final decision.
Notebook: There’s also been some history in Philadelphia of parents being involved in committees to interview and select principals. � Is that something you’d like to see done?
Vallas: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Home and School councils or local school councils making recommendations. � Ultimately, it’s the CEO’s responsibility to make those final decisions. � And I make those decisions based, obviously, on recommendations from the regional superintendents as channeled through [School Management Officer] Nilsa Gonzales. Right now, a lot of the decisions to hire local principals are influenced by people at the local school level. But that process needs to be formalized. �
For more information about the reforms the District plans to implement this year visit: http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/communications/