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Vibrant debate over District blueprint continues

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

by Oscar Wang

Local higher education institutions met Wednesday to discuss the District’s transformation blueprint and what role universities might play.

The same day, the District hosted the first of five neighborhood-based budget hearings, while community groups continued organizing their own responses to the reorganization plan.

James M. “Torch” Lytle, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, organized the meeting of academics, higher education administrators, and community members. In reference to the transformation blueprint’s plan to turn over networks of schools to outside operators, Lytle said he “wouldn’t do it that way.” But he said that he wanted to keep the door open for Penn and other universities to be involved in any reorganization effort.

Rather than a plan that would rely on outside providers, Lytle, a former Philadelphia School District administrator and former superintendent in Trenton, helped Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon develop another blueprint that would create networks of principals to lead groups of schools. Both plans calls for more school-based autonomy, but there are still many unanswered questions about how that will be implemented, how big the central office will be, and how to maintain instructional quality and accountability.

Knudsen has called Nixon’s plan “transitional” for next year, while SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos disputes outright the idea that there are two plans separate from one another.

Lytle stressed that universities and other city institutions have a “moral imperative” to participate in the process.

“We don’t want to do this without the help of a lot of other people," Lytle said, including other universities.

Taking the plan to the community

The first community-based meeting convened by the District took place Wednesday at Kensington CAPA. It drew upwards of 50 people, according to one participant. Knudsen and SRC member Wendell Pritchett answered concerns that the restructuring plan blindsided the public, was developed without community input, and hasn’t been completely thought out.

While acknowledging the concern, Knudsen reiterated the urgency of taking action because the District is facing a $218 million shortfall next year – perhaps larger if City Council delays or modifies a property reassessment plan that would bring $94 million to the District next year.

Meanwhile, community groups are planning rallies and actions, and gathering petition responses to the transformation plan.

On Tuesday evening, May 8, Enon Tabernacle Church in Cedarbrook will hold a town hall meeting, where organizers expect to draw up to 1,000 people. Also next week, Youth United for Change and Parent Power will convene two meetings for parents to learn about and discuss the plan.

After a meeting on Sunday organized by the faith-based community group Philadelphia Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild, the POWER congregations plan continued advocacy to increase parent and community involvement.

The One Voice Movement is circulating a petition for “educator-led turnaround” in Philadelphia, and other groups like the Occupy Philly Labor Work Group are circulating statements in response to the plan.

The SRC has said that it will not move on the plan until at least the end of May, once the community hearings conclude. As community and higher education leaders continue to raise concerns, Lytle predicted that the final reorganization blueprint will likely be a hybrid of the plans under consideration now.

He conceded, though, that neither plan was ideal. "It isn’t that the SRC doesn’t want this to work," he said. "They would like schools to be better. But they’re desperate for a workable model given the conditions they confront right now."

Oscar Wang, a student at Haverford College, has been a Notebook intern during the spring semester. This summer he will work as a Samuel S. Fels Fellow for the School Reform Commission.

Additional reporting was provided by Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.