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District inviting educators, others to redesign schools

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

The Philadelphia School District is launching a school redesign initiative, inviting applications from teams of educators, parents and outside organizations, including community groups and universities, to overhaul existing District schools.

"We’re doing this now because we see a tremendous opportunity within the school system in the city to provide space for really talented and passionate people to help us with transformation efforts in specific schools," said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn in an interview.

He said the so-called School Redesign Initiative is an opportunity to act on ideas to create community schools, among other transformative models. The District is seeking a letter of intent from interested teams by Aug. 19 and will choose 10 teams by Oct. 10.

But although design teams will receive about $30,000 each to support expenses for a year of planning — money that is all but committed by philanthropies that Kihn said he could not yet identify — there will be no additional funds to implement the plans. The schools would open under redesign in September 2015.

"These will be District-managed schools, and the brief for anyone who is interested will specify that they must operate within the current District budget," Kihn said — a budget that currently isn’t enough to fully staff all schools. Many lack librarians, full-time nurses, or enough counselors.

Superintendent William Hite has said that without additional funds, class sizes in high school could soar to above 40 students.The District is still struggling to secure at least $93 million more to reach this year’s paltry level of school funding, but authorization for a local $2-per-pack cigarette tax that is supposed to raise about half that amount is still being tossed around in Harrisburg.

But rather than this situation being a disincentive for working on school redesign, Kihn said that "our belief is the opposite."

"There are lots of educators within the system who are looking for ways in which to continue to help support improvement efforts," he said. "This is an incentive for people with passionate ideas to continue to work within the system."

Kihn said that District leaders met with focus groups and talked to different groups over the last several months and have been in touch with the University of Pennsylvania Design Lab, Philadelphia University, and others. Oxford Mills Mall said it would provide space for teams to meet.

"We’re trying to engage lots of people acoss the city to support design teams," Kihn said.

The initiative was greeted with a degree of skepticism.

"Anytime there is an opportunity for more teacher voice, that’s a good thing," said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan. "However, with such limited resources for schools, it just seems like an odd time to suggest to people to dream a dream of what school can look like. I am not opposed to a different-looking type of school, but at least give them enough resources so they can at least offer the very basics for kids."

Jordan said that the PFT is very interested in community schools, in which traditional school buildings are also used as community centers and locations for medical and other social services. The concept has been implemented with some success in Cincinnati.

But although he said his staff had been invited to meetings to discuss redesign, he wasn’t given a heads-up about the announcement.

Likewise, Kathleen Melville, the communications director of Teachers Lead Philly and a teacher at the Workshop School, said that her organization had had "conversations in the past about teacher-led schools and about different models for school transformation. But this is the first I’m hearing about the School Redesign Initiative."

Still, she said, "It sounds like a step in the right direction. It jibes with my sense that the current administration is open to giving teachers a little bit more control over what our schools look like.

"Teachers have phenomenal ideas. But ideas can only go so far if we don’t have the resources to implement them. … Now our schools are criminally underfunded, and it doesn’t look like that will change."

Retired teacher Lisa Haver, of the education activist group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, said she sees this as one more experiment and a potentially destabilizing force for schools and children that have already undergone upheaval.

"What we should be doing is getting our schools what they need," she said. "Our kids need enough teachers in our building, librarians, counselors, and a full-time nurse."

Kihn said that 140 schools will be eligible for the initiative — those that fall in the bottom two tiers in the state’s new evaluation system, the School Performance Profile.

Now, the District’s favored method for school turnaround is to convert schools into charters under its Renaissance Schools initiative. This year, it changed the system to let school communities vote on whether to remain a District school or become a charter; in the past it had designated the school for charter conversion and gave the community the opportunity to choose the provider.

However, in both cases, Muñoz-Marín in Kensington and Steel in Nicetown, the community voted against charter conversion.

Kihn said that the District is in the process of "doing a thorough review of what we learned this year" and has not yet decided the future of the Renaissance program.

Promise Academies, the in-house turnaround program that started under Arlene Ackerman, has been plagued with problems. The schools were given additional resources to support longer hours and other programs, but lack of resources left the model in disarray.