Charter Schools as an Option

There's an interesting read in today's Notebook about charter schools. I'll admit that it caught my eye from the very beginning with this statistic:

In 13 short years, the charter school movement in Philadelphia has grown from nothing to a network with 67 schools and more than 36,000 students, financed by $400 million in taxpayer dollars.

Counted together, they would be the second largest school district in Pennsylvania.

I'll just say out of the box that I am not a fan of charter schools. When we were exploring our options outside of private schools, we checked into a number of the charter schools. I was a bit shocked at what I found.

**Let me just say, upfront, that this is not meant to imply that all charter schools are bad. I know they are not. This is just a recitation of my experiences with charter schools in Philadelphia.**

I guess it's important for me to point out that I was never enthusiastic about the prospect of sending my children to a charter school in Philadelphia. I have regarded them with a mixture of mistrust and skepticism since before my oldest daughter entered school. I got it honest.

As part of my job, I often get phone calls from people looking for information. A few years ago, I got one of those phone calls. It was the principal of one of the "best regarded" of the new charter schools and she was a little desperate. Her school, it seemed, had some issues. They weren't the kind of issues that were making the news (and no illegal activity was involved) but they were serious. Basically, the school was imploding. Parents were unhappy, teachers were unhappy. She was reaching out for help. I couldn't help her but I gave her some names of folks who might be able to point her in the right direction. I hung up the phone and thought about that call. And it frightened me a little. Where was the support for charter schools if I'm the one getting these calls?

A year or so later, when driving my daughter to her private school, we passed by a charter school in one of on the more downtrodden areas of Philadelphia. While I thought I would see the positive results of charter schools in low-income communities (one of the publicly touted reasons for the existence of so many charter schools), what I saw was more alarming than what I've seen at any public high school: hoards of ill-behaved children descending on a school. The children and their parents had seemingly no regard for anyone else. They darted in and out of traffic and terrorized pedestrians. The parents parked their vehicles in the middle of the street. And on more than one occasion, we saw an increased police presence nearby. It was not encouraging.

That same year, a messy virtual fight broke out on a popular message board about a local charter school which was having problems. Those involved lobbed all kinds of accusations about the faculty, safety and facilities at the school. At least part of it was true: there were serious facilities issues related to safety.

I was surprised to learn, in the midst of all of this, that many of the teachers at charter schools were not certified. In some cases, parents did the hiring, which appeared to hinge more on whether the applicants agreed with the "mission" of the school than whether they were well-qualified.

Despite these experiences, I did not completely dismiss charter schools out of hand. Along with another friend (who ended up sending her children to private school), I investigated a few of the more highly touted charter schools. More often than not, I was completely unimpressed.

For starters, the "lottery" process at more than a couple of schools appears flawed. One charter school runs a lottery that is suspiciously guarded enough - and held at completely unreasonable hours - that one can't help but wonder about the real agenda. A few phone calls about their admissions process were never returned. And a friend whose children got into the lottery was disturbed to note that while the open house was overwhelmingly a mix of minorities and white children, she did not note one single minority who was admitted the same year as her children.

Another phone call about admissions lead to almost a "mini interview" over the phone about my family and my children. I was just calling for a brochure (it was never sent).

As a result of the uneasy feelings that I had about charter schools (and which many of my friends shared), I did not apply to a single charter school for my children. My options came down to our local public school or continuing at the private school where my oldest child was enrolled. My husband had zero interest in any of the charter schools for our children. And I wasn't willing to be a guinea pig in a system that appeared to have little in the way of accountability.

Since that time, there have been a number of public criticisms of many charter schools; others, admittedly, have gone on to be lauded. Specific concerns have focused on the lack of oversight, mismanagement of funds and a failure to make academic improvements. In many cases, the focus on the "mission" (translation: agenda) of the school has created an unwelcome, unhappy atmosphere for many in the community that some charter schools purport to serve. In others, money is being tossed around without any apparent supervision - at last count, there were at least 18 schools reportedly under federal investigation for potential mismanagement of funds (statistically, that's more than a quarter of existing charter schools in Philadelphia).

In the end, it appears that we are left with a mixed bag. Some charter schools are getting it right. Some charter schools are clearly not. But fixing those that aren't appears to be fraught with difficulties, including an unwillingness to ask tough questions (some of which were addressed in the Notebook piece linked above). I firmly believe that the failure to intervene in those schools that are making the wrong decisions - about admissions, agenda, faculty and finances - will continue to taint the reputations of all charter schools in Philadelphia.

I have a number of friends who send their children to charter schools and most of them seem happy with their choices (I have, for example, only heard terrific things about Independence Charter). And great for them. I am just hopeful that charter schools are creating environments for children to succeed. I just fear that many are more focused on creating environments for adults to succeed.


How to Save Philadelphia Schools

So here's my advice for Superintendent Ackerman when it comes to saving Philadelphia schools: hire an art teacher for my school.

I'm totally serious.

No, this isn't a rant about how important the arts are inside schools. But it is a rant. It's a rant about saving Philadelphia schools.

We all know that funds are limited at the SDP. And we all know that there will have to be cuts and budget tweaks. We know this because we are constantly reminded about it. But as Ackerman pushes forward with her Imagine 2014 plan (you can download the plan here), I'm a bit worried about how those cuts and budget tweaks will affect our schools. And by our schools, I mean my school.

I'm not going to be altruistic here. I'm going to be selfish. I think that's part of my job as a parent: to care most about my child. That's not to say that I don't care about other children. I do. But I'm not so obnoxious as to purport to get up every morning worried about the success of every child in the Philadelphia School District. I don't. I get up every day and think about my children.

I made the decision to put my child (now children) in public school in the City because I believe in the idea of neighborhood schools. I want my children to go to school where they live. I chose to live here for a reason - well, for a million reasons. And I want my children to love the City as much as I do. I don't want them to live in a car. I don't want them to have to give up play dates, clubs and sports in order to catch a bus back home. I don't want them to think that the keys to their success can only be found in walled up buildings "somewhere else."

I believe that their success can start here, in the City, in the neighborhood where they live. And I, along with similarly minded parents, have fought to make this happen.

That's why I am listening to some of what's happening at the SDP and holding my breath a little. While there is a lot of shared optimism about the future, there are also a number of shared concerns. Specifically, my fellow parents and I are worried about this particular goal, which is one of the keys of Ackerman's platform:

Ensuring the equitable allocation of all District resources;

It's not the goal itself that worries me - the notion of equitable allocation is a great one. Rather, it's the interpretation of the word "equitable" that gives me pause.

Don't get me wrong. I firmly believe that all children should have access to good schools. But equitable isn't the same as equal. Equitable means fair. Those are very different things.

In other words, don't tell me that we can't have an art teacher at my school because you're putting security cameras in other schools. Don't take away our libraries so that other schools can have metal detectors. Don't spend so many resources trying to prevent other schools from becoming worse that you prevents ours from getting better. We would do well to heed the words of Michelangelo, who said, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

There, I've said it. Let the judging begin.


The Story of Education Reform

On my nightstand right now is a book about a transformation of a Chicago school, How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance. Anyone familiar with this one?


LaGreta Brown Steps Down; Calls for Ackerman To Be Next

So, you're not going to hear a defense of LaGreta Brown from me. There's just so much about her that I find troubling, not the least of which is the fact that she did not maintain her professional credentials when she knew that it was a requisite for her job. The whole thing reeks of entitlement.

But what you're also not going to hear from me are calls for Ackerman's head. I've seen a number of stories (and comments on blogs and forums) screaming about Ackerman's supposed lack of oversight in hiring Ms. Brown by not checking her credentials. I have to say, I think that anger is a bit misguided.

I've hired a number of people in my day. Many of those that I've hired are professionals who require a certain level of credentials in order to maintain their employment. The funny thing is this: in all of the interviews, resumes and references, I have never insisted on viewing credentials. As professionals, I have assumed that if you're applying for a job, you are telling me the truth and you are qualified to do the job. As part of the job, my hires are expected to maintain their credentials; I don't insist that they demonstrate this proof to me. I assume that professionals will act... well, in a professional manner.

And it's not just me. I've been on a number of interviews over my career and I've been hired quite a few times. Not once have I been asked to show my credentials, nor proof of my degrees. I've been asked about them, yes, but never required to prove that they exist. Again, I believe that a certain level of trust exists in the professional world.

So while I may question a number of things about what happened at South Philadelphia High - and while I may be shocked at Ms. Brown's appalling lack of judgment and character - I refuse to draw the line back to Ackerman. I don't think it's fair or accurate. Ms. Brown is responsible for misleading those at the SDP. It is her professional responsibility to remain certified and her professional duty to alert her superiors if there is a problem with her credentials. Her choices to do neither say a lot about her - and her alone.

Parents work to rejuvenate a public school | Philadelphia Inquirer | 04/14/2010

I somehow missed this article last month:

Parents work to rejuvenate a public school | Philadelphia Inquirer | 04/14/2010

It's a terrific inspiration!

(Hat Tip: Philly School Search)


South Phila. principal resigns | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/13/2010

South Phila. principal resigns | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/13/2010

Could You Imagine?

This isn't a political blog. It was never meant to be. It was just me, kind of rambling on about my experiences with my children in public school in Philadelphia.

But... (dramatic pause) Then I saw a mailing from Bill Morris. If you don't know who he is (I didn't either, really), he is running for State Representative for the 194th District. And here's what his mailing said:


Parents of children attending private schools decided to send their children to public schools. The consequences would be enormous.

* State and local budgets would explode

* Real estate/school taxes would go through the roof

* There would not be enough facilities to hold our children

* The burden on home owners would be unsustainable

The piece went on to talk about the "major educational catastrophe" we're surely facing - and then touted a tax credit for private and parochial schools.

Whew. Where to begin?

Let me say, for a start, that I'm not opposed to private or parochial schools. I believe that they may be the best option for some kids. So, I don't want this to be interpreted as some kind of statement that since I send my kids to public school that I think it should be the only choice. I don't. I actually started out by putting my daughter in private school and I understand the reasons that a parent might opt for private and parochial over public. So, my rant isn't about the choice to send your kids to somewhere other than public school.

I'll also say that while I'm not a big fan of tinkering with taxes for special interest groups, I am not opposed to the idea of offering tax credits for the payment of tuition to private and parochial schools. Tax credits are a much better option than vouchers and I understand that some offset for tuition would be a welcome change for many families.

So, to be clear, I'm not opposed to private and parochial school options and I'm not opposed to tax credits to help families pay tuition. What does bother me about this piece is the "alarmist" tone. The bold and the caps in the block quote? That's not emphasis added on my end: the text is like that on the mailer. It's clearly intended to get you thinking about all of the terrible things that would happen if more parents opted to put their kids in public schools. Gasp! Taxes will skyrocket! Budgets would be unmanageable! Our kids will be squeezed out of their classrooms! In other words, "catastrophe" - that's his word, not mine. Imagine the horror.

But I'd like to present an alternative view...

Could you imagine if... parents of children attending private schools decided to send their children to public schools? The consequences would be enormous.

* Student funding to the City would increase since much of funding is linked to school enrollment.

* More families would choose to stay in the City, which would provide a solid middle class revenue base: more people paying less taxes, not fewer people paying more.

* Empty classrooms would have a use and under-utilized facilities would not be allowed to simply sit and crumble.

* The sense of community from supporting neighborhood schools would bring communities together and increase property values, like it does in many of our near suburbs.

I wish, as a City, we'd stop trying to focus on the lowest common denominators. Scaring folks away from public schools isn't going to help anything and, quite frankly, I find it offensive. Perhaps a little focus on fixing problems instead of exaggerating them would go a long way. Could you imagine?


Truancy Calls

I've gotten two calls now from the Philadelphia School District's Office of Attendance and Truancy regarding the new crackdown on truants. You'd think that, along with the calls, it would have gotten some press. However, I haven't seen a thing in the papers about it. No emails. No mention in the weekly parent newsletter.


At any rate, as I understand it, the party line is that they're cracking down on truancy as part of a continued effort to keep kids in school. Apparently, every day, 12,000 Philadelphia students skip school. Yowza.

But I don't think it's really about a continued effort to curb truancy. I think it's about stopping flash mobs. It's difficult to justify stopping a group of kids who may (or may not) be up to no good - unless they're clearly truant. Problem solved.

So here's the plan: kids who are out on the streets between certain hours (I believe the hours are 9am to noon, but I could be mistaken since there was so much information in the call) must have an immediately verifiable reason in writing (like a doctor's appointment card or - and I love this example that they gave - a court summons) and photo ID. If the child can't provide an immediately verifiable reason, then the police can issue a $25 ticket which will be mailed to the home.

I love this idea. But I am not convinced that it will work the way that the District hopes that it does. Sadly, it will only really affect kids who are already worried about what their parents think and I'm not sure those are your truants to begin with. I think the kids who are out and about during school hours probably don't care about a ticket, or what their parents think. And I'm not sure that the parents care about the ticket either.

Yes, I sound a little bit jaded. The irony of that is that I'm generally pretty optimistic - annoyingly so. But back in my retail days, I called enough parents about shoplifting teens to know that all too often, bad behavior is learned or at the very least, tolerated.

To be clear, there already is a "do not skip school" rule on the books. It's just not being enforced the way that it should. I don't know that a ticket or two is going to solve that problem. And assuming that it would, perhaps a little more publicity would be in order?

Prom Gown Give-A-Way

State Representative Vanessa Lowery Brown has announced a Prom Gown Give-A-Way on Tuesday, May 11, 2010, and Wednesday, May 12, 2010, between the hours of 4:00pm and 7:00pm at the Greater Bibleway Temple, 1461 N 52nd St, Philadelphia. That's at 52nd & Warren St. near Lancaster Avenue.

Preference will be given to the ladies of the 190th Legislative District, however, we will accommodate all attendees until all gowns are given away. If you're not sure which district you're in, you can check here.


High School Student Internships Available

The City of Philadelphia is offering paid summer internships in a number of departments and time is running out for the high school students who are eligible. The deadline is Friday, May 7th.


Contact Information:
714 Market St.
Suite 304
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: 267-502-3742
Fax: 267-502-3801
Email: youth@workreadyphila.org


A Deserved Reputation?

I recently saw a comment thread about Philadelphia schools that left me speechless. One commenter said that any parent who would send their child to school in Philadelphia was more or less guilty of abuse.

Seriously? This is how we've come to view schools in our city?

While there are stories like the Howe/MLK beatings that send chills down my spine, I think it's important to remember that it's not fair to paint every child in Philadelphia with a broad brush. There are fantastic, amazing kids that go to Philly public schools. And they don't all drop out or flee - or worse. They go on to have wonderful, meaningful lives. I count among them many of my friends.

There are more than 160,000 children in Philadelphia public schools this year. It's the 8th largest public school system in the country.

Are there going to be problems? Yes there are.

Is there room for improvement? There's a LOT of room for improvement.

Does that mean that we give up? Of course not.

Part of living in a community means investing in that community - whether it's your time, resources or energy. It is very easy to throw your hands in the air and say that there's nothing that can be done. But that's both foolish and selfish.

When you look at neighboring school systems that are thriving, you do see a number of factors that set them apart. And those factors do matter. Yes, you're going to expect great things from kids who started off with some advantages. And when there's adequate resources for books and teachers, yes, you should expect high test scores and accomplishments.

But what else do those kids have that our kids don't?

Perhaps a little bit of faith in the kids themselves.

Kids in those school systems are expected to do well. Those communities don't just shrug their shoulders and assume that nothing can be done. They work to get it done. And that means strong involvement from parents, teachers and the wider community.

I've watched what can happen when parents decide that a school is worth the investment - in fact, if you look, you can see it all over the City, from Greenfield to Masterman to Sadie Alexander. It doesn't take years and it doesn't take millions of dollars. It merely takes commitment and hard work.

So for all of those naysayers who are willing to say terrible things about parents who care about the Philadelphia schools (and I'm betting most of those critical folks have never even set foot inside of one), I would say that you're wrong. We don't send our kids to public schools because we don't care or because we're lazy - in fact, I would say that it's quite the opposite. We send our kids to public school because we see potential in the children of this City. We understand that there's a lot of work to do - but rather than sit on the sidelines and criticize, we're willing to roll up our sleeves and get things done.