Ackerman Out, Challenges Ahead

So it happened. After weeks of speculation, Arlene Ackerman is officially out as Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.

When I heard the news, I was stunned. I expected it eventually but not this close to the beginning of school. The timing says to me that maybe it really wasn't about the children after all. But that's a whole other issue.

My husband, in contrast, wasn't the least bit shocked. He has expected the news for quite some time. He barely batted an eyelash in the midst of it all.

A mix of public and private funds were used to buy out Ackerman's contract. The total package was worth a whopping $905,000. Of that, $500,000 is said to be public funds and the rest is said to be private funds. The source of those private funds remains unclear. Rumors are that it was a mix of local businesses but I haven't heard anything further.

With Ackerman out, the Acting Superintendent is Dr. Leroy David Nunery II. I'm going to say early on that I feel pretty good about that decision.

First, Nunery is local. I'm not sure why Philly feels compelled to constantly chase foreign talent. Our City has lots of great folks, let's use them. Nunery went to undergrad at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and has his Ed.D. from UPenn. So he's familiar with the City, he knows the landscape. I think that's important.

Nunery is also an SDP insider. I know that we decry insiders as being too entrenched in the system but I don't think that's always a bad thing. Nunery has been through the latest budget crisis. He knows the scale of the problems we're facing. I think having experience in those areas counts for something. I think it counts big.

Finally, I've met Dr. Nunery and I have to say, I like him. No, I haven't ever sat down and had a beer with the guy, so I can't tell you what he's like outside of the walls of the SDP. And my interactions with him have been largely limited and restricted to one or two issues. But I like his attitude. I feel like he listens. I think he understands the concerns of parents and teachers. He feels approachable in the way that a lot of the community felt that Ackerman wasn't. That's hugely important.

I don't know what the future holds for Philadelphia schools. But I feel very differently about it today than I did even a few days ago. And that's a good thing.


A Dispiriting Quiet

I've been quiet, I know.

It's not that I haven't been involved in the fight for public education in Philadelphia or that I haven't had anything to say. I've been plenty busy and I've had lots to say. I just haven't felt comfortable writing it all down.

And that's part of the problem in Philadelphia these days. As parents, we feel powerless. We feel silenced. We feel as though we are just accessories, not working parts, to the public education process.

I get the challenges we're facing as our kids enter school this fall. I've educated myself on the issues.

My response? I've written letters, made calls, marched at rallies and attended meetings. I did everything that our school asked us, as parents, to do. I did everything that our School District asked us, as parents, to do. And I did everything that our City Council and Mayor's Office asked us, as parents, to do.

And yet, with the first day of school less than three weeks away, I feel that we've taken a trillion steps backwards rather than a single step forward.

Let's forget test scores for a minute. Other than test scores, how are Philadelphia public schools better today than they were last year?

They are not safer. They are not less crowded. They do not have better teachers.

In fact, I would argue that with the budget cuts in place - and the drama orchestrated by the leadership at the SDP and the SRC - school are far less safe, they are far more crowded and the number of energetic, qualified teachers has dropped.

And I'm a cheerleader for Philadelphia public schools. I am that parent who has, for years, been advocating that things are getting better and that they will continue to get better. For the first time in a number of years, I question whether that's true.

Ackerman's Removal Seen As Imminent

From the Inquirer today: Ackerman's Removal Seen As Imminent (by Karen Heller)


Bomb Threat at SDP

An email from H&S earlier today:

Late Saturday evening, The School District of Philadelphia's webmaster received a highly unusual threatening email that targeted the life and safety of schools Superintendent Dr. Arlene C. Ackerman and staff at 440 N. Broad Street on Monday at midday. The email addressed to Dr. Ackerman was immediately provided to the District's head of safety, Chief Myron Patterson, and the Philadelphia Police Department, where a full investigation is being conducted.

PPD officers and detectives, including a bomb dog, conducted a perimeter and internal search of 440 N. Broad early Sunday morning and found no evidence of an explosive device. Officers will resume the search prior to the building opening tomorrow. Additional safety measures were also put in place for Superintendent Ackerman.

District personnel are reminded to remain vigilant at work at all times, but especially tomorrow. If employees see anything that may seem unusual, they should notify law enforcement immediately. Employees who have additional concerns should contact their supervisor for more information. A safety support team will be
provided on Monday.


NJ School Cuts Found to Be Unconstitutional

Interesting article on Philly.com this week about Gov. Christie's budget cuts... A Superior Court judge has ruled that the cuts were unconstitutional due to the magnitude and distribution of the cuts. Most of the cuts, under the formula, affected children in poorer districts.

There's no word yet on the "fix" in the budget. NJ, like PA, doesn't have a lot of wiggle room.

However, it will be interesting to see what, if any, impact this has on Gov. Corbett's planned cuts for Pennsylvania.

Standardized Tests Challenged by PA Mom

My kids have been ridiculously stressed out about the PSSAs. My oldest child had nightmares about failing and told me that she was scared that she was going to be "held back" if she didn't do well.

For the record, both of my kids made honor roll last reporting period. They are at or near the top of their respective classes. And, as I've mentioned, one of them receives special services for gifted kids. My point? They're bright kids.

But the pressure to well on these darn tests is enormous. It's not only the students who are graded: the schools, the teachers and the principals are graded. And the tension is palpable.

That's why, when I saw this article about a mom opting out of the tests in State College, PA, I was intrigued.

I actually believe that standardized tests serve a purpose. Progress (or lack thereof) needs to be measured in some way.

I just don't know that relying on a mere two weeks out of the year is the best way to do it. And I'm not sure how indicative it is of their progress, even under the best of circumstances. The enormous amount of stress it puts on our children is certainly not conducive to best measuring how much they've learned.

I'm not sure what the answer is, really. I know that, at some schools in other states, they test as a measure of progress but do not use the results as the primary determination of whether a school is successful. Rather, they look to a numbers of indicators. Maybe that's the direction we should be headed?


Finally, it's closing time | Philadelphia Public School Notebook

In case you haven't been following along, the SDP is considering closing a number of schools. Here's one article about the closings, Finally, it's closing time | Philadelphia Public School Notebook and another, this one looking at the scale of empty schools.

Report Cards and Effort

Report cards were handed out last week. I am fortunate in that my kids are good students so they received excellent marks. Barring the occasional off day, they're well-mannered and polite, so there were no big concerns there. I left the conferences pretty satisfied. My kids are learning and they're happy. What more could you ask for?

It is, however, always interesting to hear the perspective from other parents about report cards. I have friends with children on both ends of the achievement spectrum: those whose children struggle and those whose children excel. Both present interesting challenges in a public school setting.

Predictably, parents at either end tend to believe that the grass is greener on the other side. A friend whose child is struggling with an IEP wants more attention, firmly convinced that only the "smart kids" are rewarded in class. Of course, a friend whose child is seeking entry into the gifted program is fuming that her child's special needs aren't taken as seriously as those who are struggling.

I can't say that I've had either experience. I have no complaints, at least not about the level of services my kids receive. One of my children is in the gifted program and we've been thrilled with how creative and proactive the curriculum has been. My other child is a step or two behind where we'd like to be for math but the teacher is very aware of the situation and is monitoring it along with us.

I do think that your individual experience has a lot to do with your child's teacher and the support service team at the school. But I also think it has a lot to do with the parents. I was surprised to hear, after a friend complained incessantly about the lack of attention to her advanced child in the classroom, that the parent has not voiced her concerns to the teacher or to the principal. She believes it won't change anything and she further believes that it's not her job to tell the teacher what she feels the teacher should already know... I see her point, kind of. But I still don't get it.

So much of our children's experiences in school is dependent upon how we parent. And although I suspect many parents will argue vehemently with me, I believe that many of our "failing schools" have a correlation to parental involvement.

No, I'm not saying that an involved parent will necessarily have it easy. And I'm not saying the converse either. I realize that you can't connect the dots to say that involved parents always equal successful schools and students (yes, there are good parents at failing schools). But I do firmly believe that involved parents make a difference.

I think back to my friend whose child has a form of autism. When it was clear that the services being offered to his child were not sufficient, he went to the teacher. When that didn't work, he went to the principal. And when that didn't work, he went to the administration. And eventually, his child received the services that he needed.

Sometimes, it really is all about perseverance. That makes me wonder if the key to bettering our schools isn't being more forceful about what we want as parents. It's a theme I've been focusing on a lot as I think about the direction of our own school and the closing and consolidation of schools in the district... I'll have more on this tomorrow.


An Important Change in the Official School Calendar for Wednesday, February 2

Wednesday, February 2, will be a regular school day for all students and staff. This is an opportunity to make up one of the three instructional days the District missed due to recent snowstorms.

Staff and students are to report to school, as usual, and assume regular class and work schedules. All services and supports normally provided to schools and students will be in effect. The Professional Development programs regularly scheduled for that day will be re-scheduled.


Parents Camp Out for Kindergarten Spots

As if it wasn't clear enough that parents in the City crave quality schools, here's a great story about parents camping out in the cold for spots in... kindergarten:


Open Houses and Coffee Hours

Many Philadelphia schools now offer Open Houses and Coffee Hours where parents can find out more information about a potential school. If you have any information about upcoming events, please post them below. I'll also be posting as I find out information.


Kindergarten Registration

Kindergarten Registration for the upcoming school year (2011-2012) opens for many schools on Monday, January 24, 2011.

(Note: According to anecdotal evidence, schools have some discretion with respect to this date. I don't know whether this is true. I do know that this is the first day of registration at my school and several surrounding schools. If you're not sure, check with the school in your catchment for the specific date.)

In order to attend kindergarten in Philadelphia public schools, your child must be five years old before September 1. If your child is six years old by September 1 but hasn't attended a full year of kindergarten, you can request that you child be assigned to kindergarten instead of first grade, if space is available.

To register, you'll need:

  • Proof of child's age, such as, in order of preference: Official Birth Certificate, Baptismal Certificate, Passport of Foreign Board Child, Other Document Evidence (adoption papers, court placement record, hospital record, institutional home record, social service agency record, or alien number and I-94 number)
  • Proof of address, such as parent’s driver’s license, voter’s registration card or recent utility bill.
  • Immunization records

It might be helpful to call ahead to find out what you need and the best time to stop by to register (I would suggest, for example, that Monday morning as school opens is not the best time).

You can also check out the SDP web site for more info about new students.

Students Run Philly Style

Did you want to sign up for the Broad Street Run and miss the cut off? Did you think to yourself that you wanted to do something a little less ambitious? Consider Generation Run!

Generation Run is either an 8k run (that's about 5 miles) or a .8k walk (about a half mile).

What does it have to do with Philadelphia schools? gener8tionrun is the signature fundraising event of Students Run Philly Style, the only program in Philadelphia that helps youth go farther through mentorship and long distance running:

  • Almost half of Philadelphia’s children are overweight or at high risk for becoming overweight. Students Run students addresses childhood obesity by getting students off the couch and into a healthy lifestyle.
  • In a city where almost 7,000 juvenile arrests were made in Philadelphia last year, Students Run combats soaring youth violence by providing students with a safe after-school activity led by strong adult role-models in the form of our running leaders.
  • After training for something as difficult as a marathon, getting an A in History doesn’t seem so impossible anymore! The self-esteem, goal-setting and discipline our youth learn through running translates into improved performance in the classroom. Now that’s something to be proud of!

So what are you waiting for? Help out this great cause by running or walking in April. It's just $35 to run or $15 to walk (other rates available for teams and pairs)


8K run starts at 8AM
.8K walk immediately follows 8K start

I hope to see you there!


Imagine Great Schools

From the SDP:

Today, the School District of Philadelphia announced the second round of community meetings as part of the “Imagine Great Schools” facilities master plan. This initiative, which is a key component of the District’s five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014, was created to provide a roadmap for the District to review its educational program offerings and facilities to determine necessary rightsizing adjustments and help guide where future investments need to be made.

During the first phase of the “Imagine Great Schools” plan, the District looked to a diverse group of stakeholders to participate in feedback sessions and community meetings to comment on the “must haves” for all schools in the areas of educational program, facility improvements, and safety, comfort, and cleanliness. More than 700 people attended the seven community meetings generating a great deal of feedback in each area of discussion. All resulting comments were compiled and closely analyzed by the District.

Simultaneously, the District initiated a comprehensive process of gathering a variety of data, completing demographic and enrollment projections, and drafting guiding planning assumptions and principles. As a result of these processes under the first phase, the District determined that it must take four critical actions:
  1. Review educational and program offerings to identify inequities and disparity. Determine a strategy for future program delivery supported by academic rationale and data;
  2. Begin reducing the number of “empty seats” through building closures, program consolidations and co-location;
  3. Develop a future capital program that addresses deferred maintenance in existing District facilities; and
  4. Develop a plan for surplus real estate and opportunity for community engagement.

The second phase of community meetings seeks to delve further into “must haves” for all schools, initiates the process of prioritization among stakeholders, and begins to build the roadmap for addressing these four critical actions. Similar to the first round, the next ten meetings will take place in various regions of Philadelphia in an effort to accommodate as many community members as possible.

Dates, times and locations for the first seven meetings are as follows:

Tuesday, February 1st
Penrose School
2515 S. 78th Street
5:30 pm: Registration
6:00 pm: Meeting begins

Wednesday, February 2nd
Kensington CAPA
2051 E. Cumberland Street
5:30 pm: Registration
6:00 pm: Meeting begins

Thursday, February 3rd
Germantown High School
5:30 pm: Registration
6:00 pm: Meeting begins

Saturday, February 5th
High School of the Future
4021 Parkside Avenue
9:30 am: Registration
10:00 am: Meeting begins

Tuesday, February 8th
Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences
7100 Henry Avenue
5:30 pm: Registration
6:00 pm: Meeting begins

Wednesday, February 9th
South Philadelphia High School
2101 S. Broad Street
5:30 pm: Registration
6:00 pm: Meeting begins

Thursday, February 10th
Samuel Fels High School
5500 Langdon Street
5:30 pm: Registration
6:00 pm: Meeting begins

Dates and locations for the last three sessions will be announced at a later date. If the District is closed on any of these dates due to inclement weather, the meetings will be rescheduled. For more information, please visit the District’s “Imagine Great Schools” initiative web site at www.philasd.org/fmp.