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From the archives: Focusing on reading, math, and science

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 piece is from the Spring 2001 print edition:


by Ros Purnell and Paul Socolar

In this issue, the Notebook speaks with current and former District leaders, principals, teachers, and parents about what lessons they would draw from the experience of "Children Achieving," the school reform plan that guided the District for six years.

The school board and District leadership are discussing their evaluation of the District’s reform efforts as they make decisions about structure, budget priorities, and who will be hired to lead the District.

"The District now needs to narrow its focus, re-prioritize based on data-driven needs, build on what works, and … eliminate noise," says Deidre Farmbry, who now oversees all the educational programs and policies of the School District.

The Notebook recently interviewed Farmbry, who assumed the new position of Chief Academic Officer (CAO) at the beginning of the school year, about the strengths and weaknesses of former Superintendent David Hornbeck’s Children Achieving agenda in Philadelphia.

"The major obstacle to the agenda was its scope," Farmbry said. She commented that the 10th point of Children Achieving, which urged a comprehensive approach, "drained the energy of people of good will," adding that the District simply did not have the capacity to "do it all at once."

Farmbry said that the District’s emerging agenda in moving forward will be anchored by its new Educational Empowerment Plan (developed last fall to meet state demands for improved test scores) and by learning from successful practices in the system.

Since taking office, Farmbry has said that she will be identifying what is working well and trying to replicate it across the system.

Commenting on the goals of her work, Farmbry said, "We should continue directing all of our efforts to heightened student achievement, particularly in reading, math and science." The District’s Empowerment Plan focuses on improvement in these three subject areas.

She said the District’s goal should be "student self-sufficiency" — successfully guaranteeing students access to "productive activity" after high school.

New community partners found

Farmbry, who was Roxborough cluster leader during Hornbeck’s administration, said the most positive aspect of the Children Achieving plan "was the extent to which nontraditional partners such as the religious institutions answered the call to become involved with public education."

"Another positive aspect was its open acknowledgement of diversity and programs to support sensitivity and a ‘no excuses’ platform for all children achieving," she added.

Farmbry cited as significant changes in Philadelphia during the past six years the ones made to advance the Children Achieving plan. The District changed in "its organizational structure, collaborative outreach, array of instructional options and focus on professional development," she said.

The CAO commented that the District’s 22 clusters provided "more articulated services to schools" in the areas of instructional support, community outreach, equity and special education monitoring, and school-to-career coordination.

Inside of schools, she cited the development of small learning communities, which broke schools into smaller units and supported "strategic planning and student evaluation through a process called the comprehensive support process or CSP."

The new developments in instruction she highlighted were "the growth of English language learners and the mandate for inclusion." She also noted ”the drive during the past six years for every school to adopt a research-based reform model or to develop a ‘home-grown’ model."

She added that through the Teaching and Learning Network, "more tailored professional development was offered at the cluster and school level, including individual classrooms through coaching."

"The summer months became more significant over the six years as one key time for districtwide professional development," Farmbry said. Many of the topics covered in summer institutes were aimed to support use of the District’s new Curriculum Frameworks, she said.

Farmbry’s views will play a key role as the School District grapples with how to balance its budget, makes its transition to a new structure — with a new CEO and a CAO — and considers new ways to organize its supports for schools.

The old plan and the new

The 10 points of the Children Achieving program, adopted in 1995, were as follows:

  1. Set high expectations for everyone.
  2. Design accurate performance indicators to hold everyone accountable for results.
  3. Shrink the centralized bureaucracy and let schools make more decisions.
  4. Provide intensive and sustained professional development to all staff.
  5. Make sure that all students are ready for school.
  6. Provide students with the community supports and services they need to succeed in school.
  7. Provide up-to-date technology and instructional materials.
  8. Engage the public in shaping, understanding, supporting and participating in school reform.
  9. Ensure adequate resources and use them effectively.
  10. Be prepared to address all of these priorities together and for the long term — starting now.

Some of the major points of the District’s Educational Empowerment Plan adopted in November 2000 include:

  • Forming a District committee to "develop a uniform curriculum to be … mandated throughout the District."
  • Maximizing the time devoted to the "core subjects" of reading, math, and science at all schools.
  • Reducing class size to 17 in all K-3 classrooms.
  • Providing summer classes and extended time to all students at risk of failing in grades 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12.
  • Phasing in K-8 programs at more elementary schools and converting some middle schools to K-8.
  • Developing a District school safety plan and procedures for minimizing the impact of "chronically disruptive students."
  • Developing a teacher recruitment and retention plan for implementation.
  • Exploring the creation of new magnet schools and providing more student transportation.
  • Revising the guidelines on composition and responsibilities of school councils and developing local school councils at all schools with low test scores.
  • Activating the "School Support Process" at schools where test scores are lagging, using a team of District staff and community representatives to assess needs and develop a plan.

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