This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The District’s new strategic plan is called Imagine 2014, but its message is that creating a “great city system of schools” in Philadelphia within five years is no fantasy.
The plan for getting there, put together by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her administration, is a 64-page package of more than 170 initiatives. Of those, 48 are targeted for action in “Phase One,” which starts immediately.
The biggest chunk of the plan is focused on “student success,” with multiple academic initiatives targeting every age bracket – for instance, providing language assistance for preschoolers learning English, restoring art and music to all elementary schools, personalizing middle schools by creating teacher teams with common planning time, and opening three additional career and technical high schools.
The plan has four other sections: “quality choices,” “great staff," “accountable adults," and “world-class operations.”
“It’s aspirational … but I think it’s doable,” said new SRC chair Robert L. Archie, Jr., after the commission approved Imagine 2014 on April 22. Noting that there was no blueprint before, Archie said, “This is now the [District’s] roadmap.”
“The implementation is still a work in progress,” he added.
The total cost over five years? Still unclear.
Chief Budget Officer Michael Masch said only the Phase One items have been costed out, with an annually recurring cost of $126 million. Masch said these items represent about “20 to 25 percent” of the total. While the cost of implementing the whole plan would grow by hundreds of millions of dollars by 2014, Masch said that the District would be able to pay for it if the pace of growth of the District’s local, state, and federal revenue continues along recent trends.
The single most expensive initiative in the first year is a commitment to reduce maximum class size in kindergarten to 23 and to no more than 26 in 1st to 3rd grades, with even deeper reductions in the District’s lowest-performing schools.
Other big ticket items for the first year include growth in the number of guidance counselors in middle and high schools, more electives and increased faculty planning time in comprehensive high schools, and an expansion of summer school programs, including music, art and dance.
While the SRC voted unanimously in favor, the final version encountered significant opposition from organized groups and individuals, with a majority of two dozen speakers to the panel raising concerns. Groups such as ACORN and Philadelphia Student Union argued that the plan was missing important elements and lacked detail about priorities and price tag.
”I appreciate that passion,” Ackerman said, “but it’s time for us to move on and try to change these outcomes for children.… Every year, we’ll come back and make mid-course corrections.”
But skepticism remains. “Teachers and other educational professionals don’t need mile-long lists of initiatives that are unlikely to be sustained when federal funds run out,” said Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president in testimony to City Council May 12.
Throughout the process, the most heated debate was around Ackerman’s “Renaissance Schools” plan for the turnaround of chronically low-performing schools by putting them under new management. The final version of the plan included greater detail about how communities would be involved in the overhaul of the first cohort of about 10 Renaissance schools.
The six-month process leading up to the vote included task forces, the unveiling of a draft plan, a series of community meetings involving more than 3,000 people, a revised plan, and then yet another set of changes on the eve of the SRC vote.