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Top 10 city education stories of 2011

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Thank you for following the Notebook through an incredible year. The Notebook staff will be on break until January 3. But we leave you with a look back at the past year, and eagerly anticipate connecting with you in 2012.

It has been a tumultuous year at the School District of Philadelphia. We have compiled a list of the 10 biggest education stories of 2011, roughly in order of importance. We invite you to post your comments, thoughts, and disagreements over the holiday break.

  1. The departure of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
    It was a wild and woolly ride for Ackerman and the District during her three years at the helm. Her nearly million-dollar buyout caused outrage. More than any other school leader in recent memory, Ackerman divided the city and the educational community in assessing what she accomplished. After her departure, she continued to make waves.
  2. The new School Reform Commission.
    It was not a good year for the old commission, accused of backroom dealing, lack of transparency, and being a rubber stamp for the District administration. The first commissioner to resign, before things heated up, was Ambassador David Girard-diCarlo, the body’s lone Republican, who had forecast a budget “tsunami” in 2010. Gov. Corbett named Pedro Ramos to replace him, though the seat remained vacant for nine months until his nomination was approved by the state Senate. In the wake of Ackerman’s departure in September, chairman Robert Archie, Johnny Irizarry, and Denise McGregor Armbrister quit in quick succession, giving Corbett and Mayor Nutter the chance to name new members – Wendell Pritchett, Lorene Cary, and Feather Houstoun. The new body has made substantial changes in how it does business.
  3. Draconian budget cuts.
    Due primarily to an unprecedented drop in state aid and the end of the federal stimulus, the District was faced with a $629 million budget gap, by far the largest in its history. The pain was spread widely throughout the system. Half the central office staff was eliminated and waves of cuts to schools have persisted well into the school year. The summer was chaotic as teachers were laid off and many then called back, a process complicated by a labor dispute over whether teachers at the Promise Academies, internal turnaround schools, could be spared from the ax.
  4. The scandal over the charter contract at Martin Luther King High School.
    Bill Hangley, Jr. of the Notebook/NewsWorks broke the story that state Rep. Dwight Evans had fought behind the scenes to get the company that had just been awarded the contract to withdraw, opening the door for an organization to which he had ties to operate the school. We then were the first to report that SRC chair Robert Archie was present at the meeting with Evans. But that was only the beginning. Parents were upset their choice for school manager was overruled. When the dust settled, King didn’t become a charter after all. The city’s chief integrity officer issued a scathing report on the incident that ultimately figured in Archie’s resignation and the reconstitution of the SRC.
  5. Cheating on standardized tests.
    The Notebook obtained a state-ordered forensic analysis of the 2009 PSSA tests showing that dozens of schools in the state, including more than 20 run by the District and seven charters in Philadelphia, had statistically suspicious results — such as erasure patterns with astronomical odds of happening by chance. It ordered the districts and charters to conduct their own probes. Philadelphia concluded that 13 of 28 schools flagged in the report warranted further investigation. The state subsequently conducted similar forensic analyses of the 2010 and 2011 results, but has refused to release them and has so far denied requests for access under the Open Records Law. Nor have the findings of any local investigations, in Philadelphia or elsewhere, been released. One of the stories in our continuing coverage, Confessions of a Cheating Teacher, garnered the most visits to a single story in Notebook history and the Notebook‘s coverage gained national attention.
  6. School closings.
    The District began a three-year process to close and consolidate schools, citing the need to adjust its facilities to enrollment declines and demographic shifts around the city. Officials said their aging, often deteriorating buildings had 70,000 empty seats. The Notebook devoted its February issue to the topic and in June obtained a leaked draft report that called for more than two dozen closings – far more than the nine that were ultimately recommended for the first year. A study by Pew’s Philadelphia Research Project of closings in other cities noted that they don’t immediately result in cost savings and can destabilize neighborhoods. Community campaigns have arisen to save E.M. Stanton and Isaac Sheppard, both small and relatively successful elementary schools. The District has been holding hearings around the city to get public input, and one or more SRC members have attended each one.
  7. School turnaround.
    Under Ackerman, the District continued its aggressive Renaissance Schools initiative to turn around low-performing schools, primarily by converting them to charters. The providers were required to serve the same neighborhood students, and there is some evidence that this is happening. The biggest turnaround provider, Mastery Schools, wants to scale up even further, although there is as yet no indication that more schools will be converted come September. The District’s internal turnaround model, Promise Academies, became a source of tension and plans for major expansion were scaled back.
  8. Hope Moffett.
    Perhaps nothing better illustrated the conflict that accompanies “turnaround” than the saga of this young English teacher at Audenried High School who almost lost her job when she loudly and persistently opposed turning the school over to Universal Companies. The District saw its opening when several of her students traveled to District headquarters during school hours to attend a protest. Accused of endangering her students’ welfare, she was exiled to “teacher jail” with intent to fire her. The PFT came to her defense and she won her case.
  9. The defeat of vouchers.
    Gov. Corbett, aided by Philadelphia Democratic state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, pushed hard for legislation that would give students in low-performing schools a voucher to attend private or parochial as well as out-of-district public schools. It would have had a big impact in Philadelphia, but failed to gain legislative approval. It may still come up again next year.
  10. The Great Schools Compact.
    As the year came to a close, the District, city, two charter organizations, and the Philadelphia School Partnership announced an initiative with the goal of eliminating 50,000 seats in poor-performing schools – public and charter – while increasing “high-quality” seats. The plan is meant to improve the relationship between the District and charters and replicate best practices from both. The incentive for the District and charter operators to make nice was a seed grant and a crack at a larger grant from the Gates Foundation, which seemed intrigued by Philadelphia’s intention to include parochial schools in the mix.

We don’t want to overlook the Inquirer’s series on school violence, which has focused attention on this issue and helped bring about changes, including the appointment of a new state safe schools advocate. Several student groups are working to improve the climate in their schools through the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools.

Here’s wishing all a happy and healthy 2012.