This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Despite an uncertain fiscal future, the School District under Arlene Ackerman is pressing ahead this year with major new initiatives called for in her reform blueprint, buoyed by an eighth straight year of test score increases and more schools meeting federal achievement goals.
Superintendent Ackerman has also been busy remaking her cabinet and restructuring the chain of command to the schools by eliminating regional offices. The summer has been marked by high-profile hires, job switches, and departures at the District’s top level, as well as significant principal turnover. A Notebook analysis discovered that more than 100 schools have replaced their principals since June 2009 due to reassignments, resignations, or retirements.
Less visible, but potentially far-reaching, is the beginning of a new system of teacher evaluation called Peer Assistance and Review in which specially trained teachers will work with new teachers and ones rated unsatisfactory.
Another initiative is designed to tackle widespread student misbehavior by instituting in-school suspension. Now, the major punishment for school code violations is banning students from school, which causes them to miss academic work and doesn’t address the misbehavior issues.
Although the District has garnered national attention and scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice for attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, District officials say that violent incidents citywide have dropped 29 percent over the past two years.
The District is also adopting a new curriculum called Imagine It in low-performing Empowerment Schools – from the same company as the remedial math and reading curriculum that has caused consternation among some teachers for its highly scripted nature.
But Ackerman is confident these programs are working. She noted that 158 schools reached adequate yearly progress targets in 2010, the most since 2004, including 10 that never made it before. For the first time ever, more than half of students tested proficient in reading and math.
“These dramatic gains have given us greater assurance of how we’re going to continue to meet the challenges,” she said at an August School Reform Commission meeting.
Besides mandating the remedial curriculum and providing staff supports in Empowerment Schools, Imagine 2014 has reduced class size in grades K-3 and brought in 150 more counselors for middle and high schools.
Along with changes in curriculum and new services for parents and students, the school year also starts with uncertainty, as the administrative restructuring and upheaval require much sorting out about how to navigate the new system. Sweeping changes are also taking place at the 13 schools converted to Renaissance Schools and Promise Academies.
Restructuring of the administration began with Ackerman’s promotion of Leroy Nunery, former chief of institutional advancement and strategic partnerships, to the new number-two post of deputy superintendent. That was followed by a major reshuffling of Ackerman’s top-level staff and elimination of the regional office structure.
In place of the regions are nine “academic divisions,” based in the central office, each of which is headed by an assistant superintendent. Five of the divisions oversee elementary schools, and there is one each for high schools, middle schools, alternative schools, and Promise Academies.
Amidst the restructuring in August, the District experienced two sudden departures: James Golden, chief of school safety, who left, he said, for another opportunity, and Lisa Mastoon, Ackerman’s third chief communications officer, who quit after just two weeks.
Support for teachers
The first phase of the Peer Assistance and Review program (PAR) program – which will consist of 15 consulting teachers – will begin this school year in 45 Empowerment Schools. It is jointly managed by the District and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The consulting teachers will work in different schools, maintaining a teacher- consulting teacher ratio of 16:1, said Dee Phillips, special assistant to the PFT president. There are plans to expand PAR to half of the District by year two and the entire District by year three.
“We are going to drill down deep so that these teachers do get on the right track so that the struggling diminishes,” Phillips said. “If you help teachers, you help our students” improve achievement.
The Office of Teacher Affairs operating since May at District headquarters supports the orientation of new teachers and provides resources for all teachers. It does not address contractual, disciplinary, or employee relations matters, but rather offers workshops, weekly seminars, and professional learning opportunities.
Students will find new offerings as well, honors classes in every high school and the new in-school suspension program. Fifty-three schools were identified in the 2009-10 school year to participate, and phase one began in January with 18 schools.
Those schools chosen had “the highest out-of-school suspension rate, a high number of incident reports over a two-year period, and average daily attendance numbers that could be positively affected by a decrease in out-of-school suspensions,” said Tomas Hanna, associate superintendent of academics.
Each school has a dedicated space with an in-school suspension monitor, who staffs the room along with counselors. Students receive support for both academics and behavior. When students have completed the program, a counselor conducts a conference with the student, parent, teacher, and others to assess whether the supports have worked. Students receive credit for academic work completed in the program. To date, about 7,500 students have taken part.
Meanwhile, for grades K-6, the District spent $8 million to purchase the Imagine It series, curriculum materials produced by SRA, the publishers of the Corrective Reading and Corrective Math remedial programs. Imagine It has a structured routine that covers all components of literacy, and provides additional teacher support and assessments.
Kensington Urban Education Academy, the fourth small high school to grow out of the former Kensington High School, opens in September with a focus on social justice and preparing students for teaching careers.
The academy will inherit the space in the old high school on Coral Street, formerly used by Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Expected enrollment is 100-125 incoming 9th graders, but the school will grow a grade each year.
“It’s going to be a training ground for us to grow our own teachers,” said Principal Michelle Burns, with an emphasis on teachers of color and bilingual teachers. The school is looking for a university partner, Burns said.
Kensington CAPA is moving to a $42 million, state-of-the-art facility on N. Front Street this fall. The move culminates years of organizing by Youth United for Change for a new building.
Willard Elementary is also getting a long-awaited new facility this fall. A handful of other schools have completed major renovations and additions including Franklin Learning Center, Lankenau and Motivation High Schools, as well as Barratt and Bluford, Bridesburg, Kearny, and Penrose Elementaries.