This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As news of violence and disarray at Bartram High School dominated Philadelphia headlines, national education researchers were downtown at the Convention Center, discussing the theory and practice of a “portfolio” school reform strategy that relies on management changes – converting low-performing schools to charters or closing them.
And although many have tied Bartram’s troubles to the budget cuts that sharply reduced staff levels at the school, Philadelphia School Partnership head Mark Gleason does not agree.
“It’s not about funds,” said Gleason, whose organization controls millions in private dollars that it distributes to replicate, improve, or expand well-performing schools. He made his remarks as he talked informally with a group of educators at the American Educational Research Association convention earlier this month.
“Bartram was a dangerous school three years ago, and it’s still a dangerous school, with less funding. It’s not a more dangerous school,” Gleason told the group.
Told later of Gleason’s take on funding, Superintendent William Hite shook his head in wonder.
“There’s more to it than resources,” said Hite, as he stood in Bartram’s auditorium after a boisterous community meeting called to discuss the crisis. “But resources are required.”
Since reports of the violence and “chaos” at Bartram first emerged, Hite has poured new resources into the cavernous Southwest Philadelphia school: new staff and administrators, new training for disciplinary procedures, and new building upgrades, including fresh paint, security cameras, and smoke alarms.
District officials have long argued that District schools like Bartram lack the funding needed to offer a top-quality education. Hite’s most recent “Action Plan” calls on the city and state to come up with new funding – hundreds of millions of dollars – to support a wide range of “evidence-based” improvements across the District.
“We don’t have enough resources in the schools,” Hite said.
But for now, Hite faces a precarious budget that sharply limits the District’s ability to intervene.
In recent years, the District’s main strategy for improving struggling schools like Bartram has been to shut them down or turn them over to charters. It has closed several neighborhood high schools, including Germantown and University City, and converted three – Gratz, Audenried, and Olney – to charters. Altogether, 20 District schools have become charters, and 30 schools have closed.
“We’re going to continue working to turn around our lowest-performing schools, and whoever can do that the fastest is who we’re going to work with,” Hite said.
Bartram: more violent – or safer?
One thing that is not an option for Bartram is to “dump” it, Hite said.
“There are 1,200 students that call Bartram their school,” he said, “As superintendent – and last I checked, I’m still superintendent – it’s my decision to make sure that we provide the resources [they] need.”
Hite was referring to the most controversial aspect of the “portfolio” strategy – the belief that schools that struggle excessively should be closed and replaced, rather than showered with new investments.
After his presentation, he told a group of educators and reporters who gathered around him in a hallway that school districts shouldn’t be afraid to shut down low performers.
In choice-based systems that “push responsibility and accountability down to the school level,” a natural selection takes place, Gleason said: “Great schools rise and thrive,” while struggling ones “are not allowed to exist on the taxpayer dime.”
He cited New Orleans, now almost entirely served by charters, as a success story. Philadelphia needs a similar approach, he told the group. “I don’t know a lot of people who would voluntarily send their children to some of these schools that we have in Philadelphia,” he said. “The only people who go to those schools are people who have no other options.”
“So why don’t they get fixed?” asked one educator. “Why don’t they get funds? Why don’t they get resources?”
“Because it’s not about funds!” Gleason replied, to a chorus of protest.
Asked later to clarify his thoughts on Bartram, Gleason wrote in an email that he knew little about what led to the recent violence. “I’m not close enough to what’s gone on in the school to comment on specific, recent incidents,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, Gleason said that while Bartram’s budget and staff have gone down, key indicators have gotten better.
“It’s still far from an acceptable learning environment, but even so, academic performance and safety have improved,” he wrote, citing District data to argue that there is no simple correlation between a school’s available resources and the state of its climate and academics.
He said that Bartram’s test scores had actually increased slightly while its per-pupil expenditures were declining. And he offered District data showing that there were fewer violent incidents this year despite the reduction in personnel at the school — notwithstanding the headline-grabbing chaos – 12 incidents per 100 students in 2011 and just 8 per 100 students so far this year.
“The number of serious violent incidents in that school was higher three years ago when it was at its peak staffing levels,” Gleason told the educators. Reporters were also present, and the conversation was recorded.
A ‘human rights violation’
In his panel discussion at AERA, Gleason said that Philadelphia’s fiscal crisis has been caused by “overspending” its resources, primarily because it failed to shrink staff to match enrollment declines over a 10-year period.
He said this right after Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s education adviser, described the problem as a failure by the state to distribute education aid through a predictable funding formula that takes into account a district’s enrollment and student needs. (Gleason said he would endorse such a formula, but that Philadelphia shouldn’t expect a “windfall” from it.)
After Gleason spoke, Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, called the lack of basic needs and services in schools a “human rights violation.” Hite reiterated that students tell him “they don’t all feel they have access to resources and quality individuals who believe in them. It is a revenue issue.”
It is hard to dispute that Bartram has undergone hard times. A longtime principal who had brought stability left in September. Her replacement, a newcomer to the city, lasted all of two weeks. The school had some funds for a “restorative justice” program – an approach to discipline based on student responsibility and peer adjudication led by a national organization – but was unable to implement it.
“We don’t know what happened,” Hite said.
At the school’s community meeting, parents, students, and staff members weren’t buying the notion that resources are not the main issue. Staff and program cuts, they said, led directly to trouble.
“Of course money is a problem,” said Penda Diawara, a bilingual counselor who works in several West Philadelphia schools. “We need more staff in the hallways, more staff in the lunchrooms. Our kids get bullied all the time.”
“You start losing programs, the kids have nowhere to turn,” said Robert Hooks, whose granddaughter is a “straight-A” senior. “You end up with a bunch of kids selling drugs.”
District officials do not yet have an estimate of how much they’ll spend this year on extra services for the troubled school – or how that will affect a looming end-of-year deficit of nearly $30 million.
Hite said it was essential that the school improve – somehow. “I see this as delivering on a child’s civil right to an education. That doesn’t change with influxes of revenue, or money, or anything. They still have that right,” Hite said.
“We’re going to educate them with what we have, but do we need more? Yes,” he said.
But Gleason said that despite Bartram’s lean budget, the school has no excuse for backsliding this year, even if it can’t expect to be a top performer in the portfolio.
“It would be a stretch to expect all District schools to be ‘competitive’ this year, when so many have not been competitive in the past,” Gleason wrote. “But it would be fair to say I expect all District schools to find ways to improve even in a budget-constrained environment.”
Additional reporting by Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.