Rushed reforms fail our schools

This column by APPS co-founder Lisa Haver was published by the Philadelphia Daily News on Wednesday, October 21, 2015.

Lisa Haver

The school formerly known as Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown landed at the bottom of the list of Philadelphia schools’ Pennsylvania System of School Assessment reading-proficiency scores this year. Math-proficiency scores are 0.3 percent. It pains me to say that, because I taught there for four years in the ’90s. It wasn’t a bad school then. We had a good principal who respected teachers, many of whom had been there almost 20 years. There was a full-time librarian, a full-time nurse and two full-time counselors. A committee of teachers developed a series of innovative project-based curricula.

Roosevelt has made it through serial budget cuts and district neglect. But the most recent, perhaps fatal, wound was inflicted by the School Reform Commission’s decision two years ago to convert it to a K-8. When community members protested that three schools in the same area – Germantown High School, Fulton Elementary and Roosevelt – were on the list of 24 neighborhood schools to be closed in 2013, the SRC came up with a last-minute scheme to add six lower grades in a matter of months. The district provided little support during the transition.

It appears, though, that disruption and failure are not a deterrent to repeating mistakes in the School District of Philadelphia. Superintendent William Hite unveiled a plan earlier this month to reform 15 district schools at an estimated cost of $15 million to $20 million. Some will be part of the Hite-created Transformation Program, in which curricular and personnel changes, including forcing out the entire faculty, can be imposed with no public hearings or vote by the SRC. Others will be placed into the Renaissance Network, which is the administration’s way of giving up on a school it has done little to improve and kicking it to the curb for a private company to pick up. Some will have several grades added at once, as Roosevelt did, changing its mission and climate overnight. Contrary to promises made by Hite at public meetings, two schools will be closed permanently. Enrollment and class size in nearby schools will almost certainly increase.

The hurried approval process will give parents little chance to have any say in the future of their children’s schools. Teachers and staff have been shut out of the process altogether, even though many will be forced out of schools whose communities they have been part of for years. But since the decisions about which schools will be overhauled, and how, have already been made at the top, what purpose do these meetings serve other than window-dressing – until the inevitable rubber-stamping by the SRC?

 Are these radical changes worth the financial and emotional costs to be extracted from those school communities? Looking at the latest standardized-test scores clearly shows that these rushed overhauls do not work.

Hite cites reading and math proficiency scores, which hover around 30 percent, as justification for placing three more schools into the Renaissance program. But the latest PSSA scores show that none of the 21 current elementary or middle Renaissance schools achieved a math score over 20 percent; only eight topped 30 percent in reading. Three have come up for nonrenewal proceedings in the past year alone. The School Performance Rating of Audenried High School, placed in the Renaissance program in 2011, was among the lowest in the state.

If Hite’s plan represented real reforms, maybe it would be worth the $20 million price tag. But the facts show they are not. Overnight expansion has been a disaster for Roosevelt and other schools. Transformation schools, so far, show little more than cosmetic changes. Data on Renaissance schools clearly show that the whole program should be scrapped. Hite is a lifelong educator, and he knows what real reform entails: smaller class size; one-on-one reading interventions; a library in every school; full support staff including classroom aides for students with special needs, English language learners and kindergarten. They have always been worth investing in.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Email: philaapps@gmail.com