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From the archives: Commissioner Glenn’s biggest challenge

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

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

This Q&A is from the Spring 2002 print edition:

The Notebook invited the five School Reform Commission members to speak with us individually about their perspectives on key issues facing the School District. Only Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn responded in time for this issue. She was interviewed on Feb. 26 by Notebook Editor Paul Socolar. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Notebook: What do you think most urgently needs change in the Philadelphia schools?

Sandra Dungee Glenn: We need to have our schools do better by our students, particularly as relates to preparing them academically for the lives that they have ahead of them. They need to be able to compete effectively with their peers in the rest of the state and the region for positions in colleges and universities and for the job market. That is our primary mission.

The School District’s biggest challenge, though, is not just talking about how the Philadelphia School District’s children don’t achieve as well compared to their peers on tests but also talking about how underachievement is really related to lack of opportunity. Philadelphia students do not have the same quality of inputs for their education as the very children that we want to compare them to. I call that the opportunity gap.

There’s an opportunity gap when it comes to the quality of teachers that our children have in their schools compared to the students in suburban districts or in schools we point to as good, achieving schools. There are opportunity gaps when it comes to resources. My biggest challenge as a commissioner is addressing what we are going to do to close that opportunity gap.

Are there successful models and strategies for improving urban public schools that you think are important to learn from?

I don’t think I know enough about successful models. There are bits and pieces that are going on in other districts and states that we can replicate here and take advantage of. For example, I was reading about a state where they post teachers’ qualifications on a website. Wherever your child goes to school, you can go up on a website and find out if his or her teacher is certified, what they’re certified in, and their years of experience. I think that’s a good model.

There are also some districts and states that have become much more aggressive in bringing people of color and men back into teaching. Clemson University, for example, has a program called, "Call me Mr." where they have joined with their local school district to bring in another 200 African American men into teaching over the next two to four years. That’s a very aggressive program around diversifying a teaching staff, and that’s a model we can replicate.

There are some things that we are already learning to do well in some of our schools. There are some schools where small learning communities have really been instituted well. I’m learning about the Talent Development model that we have in some of our middle schools and high schools where for 9th grade in particular, it seems to be a big help in preparing incoming freshmen to be more successful in high school.

What do you think are some of the other strengths of the Philadelphia school system?

The School District is beginning to do good leading work around afterschool programs, looking at how to make afterschool programs work with academic programs to support students. Some pieces of our early childhood programs, through Head Start, are very solid in terms of providing literacy skills.

The Balanced Literacy program — and Literacy Interns — has been a very successful model. We need to do more of that and look at how we might be able to use the Literacy Intern model, in particular, beyond our primary grades. Could we use that kind of model for middle school where we have some of our biggest challenges?

One of my concerns is that we not throw out the baby with the bath water. There’s so much attention to all that does not work with this system. And that is appropriate. But we have to carefully sort through those things that are working and make sure we don’t toss them out as well.

What’s your view of for-profit educational management organizations like Edison in terms of what role they may play? Do they have anything to offer to districts like Philadelphia?

I would characterize myself as a skeptic of for-profits, generally. I was at a conference where someone was likening what is going on now in public education to what happened with health care about 20 years ago with the advent of HMOs. In many cases, what we really did was hurt access to health care, quality of health care, and the accountability of health care to patients. My concern is that we not replicate that in education.

This does not mean that we ignore the problems in public education – especially raising the opportunity, funding and resources needed to support public education equitably across the board so that it can work as well In urban and rural settings as it does in suburban settings.

And why does it work so well in the suburbs? Much of it comes down to money and resources. And so, if that’s the real, fundamental problem, then how are these for-profits going to address that?

I consider myself a skeptic, though, because there might be something about for-profits’ approach to education — whether it’s standardizing training or ordering of books — that is useful for us to learn from. So, I can’t say that there’s no role that they could play in public education, but I am skeptical about turning over management of schools and putting them in a for-profit environment.

Do you think parents and staff at a school — or the school council as their representative — should have a say in a change in management at a school?

Yes, I do. But I don’t have an answer for how it should or could happen. It has to be at a variety of levels.

If the district is identifying schools where we think we need to do something different because they’re not serving children well, I think part of what we need input from the parents and staff on is what their perception is of what’s wrong with the school and what they believe is needed at the school. There needs to be input on the prescription. And then there needs to be some input on the choices, or what parents believe are the best options for the school.

The SRC has asked staff to help us define a process that really looks at bringing help where it is needed. This means reversing a lot of what was talked about prior to the SRC coming on board, when there was a discussion of what schools people wanted to have relationships with or to do something different in. Now we are reversing the conversation and asking, "Where do we need to do something different?" It’s really matching the schools’ needs with potential providers, as opposed to a group of providers telling us to turn these schools over to them. That’s one of the pieces of the process that is being shaped at the moment. The partnership schools are just one issue that we need to have input on. The advisory board is a real plan to have ongoing input from our constituencies: parents, teachers, students, and community. We have to figure out how many of each and how do they get selected, but there’s a real intent for that to be the formal structure.

On the informal side, another good thing that has come out of this is that there’s been so much more attention to public education in the last three months than in the last ten years in Philadelphia. The challenge is going to be to sustain that attention to public education in both formal and informal ways. And a lot of that has nothing to do with the commission, has much more to do with people’s intensity and assertiveness in continuing to have their hands in and on the process.

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