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Gone in 60 Seconds

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By Phil Goldsmith

In a system that has seen dozens of touted educational reforms over the decades; a record was set last week for the shortest reform effort in the history of the Philadelphia School District.

In the event, you blinked and missed it, let me give you a quick recap: School district staff conjured up a draft proposal that would change the admission policies of the district's magnet schools.

No longer would admission be based solely on grades and test scores. The proposed policy would also award points according to where someone lived to provide for more "diversity" in the schools.

Specifically, there would be a 1,000-point system with 600 points allocated for grades and test scores; other factors would include behavior and attendance, and 200 points would be awarded for "diversity" based on a student's zip code and income level.

Never mind the fact that magnet schools, like Masterman, Central, Bodine and the others are already quite diverse, if you define diversity as a balance among white, Asian, African-American and Latino students. In fact, they are more far diverse then the vast majority of other schools, which are predominantly minority.

When I saw the proposed policy reported in the March 18th edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I started to count 1, 2, 3, 4 .....Not to control my temper but to see how long it would take for the proverbial shit to hit the fan.

I wasn't disappointed.

Whoever leaked the memo of the proposed magnet "diversity" plan knew exactly what they were doing. This was not a so-called trial balloon. This was a hand grenade tossed into the air, designed to blow the plan up.

Masterman High School.jpgAnd blow up it did. The very next day Superintendent Arlene Ackerman snuffed out the nascent reform idea.

"This is totally off the table," she told the Inquirer. "Of all the things and priorities we have, this is not one of them But I have to say here this action moved without my knowledge...This is probably the first and only time that has happened, that something has gotten this far down the road and I wasn't informed and involved."

The question now being asked is did Ackerman really not know about the plan -- and if not why not?

With all the problems facing the school district--low test scores, high dropout rates, low attendance, high poverty, ethnic violence in South Philadelphia High School --why muck around with the magnet schools, a shining spot in the school system?

Ackerman would not be the first superintendent who has poked at magnet schools.  Former Superintendent David Hornbeck also talked about their "elite" status and recently revealed in his recent book that his boss, Mayor Ed Rendell, told him to stay away from the issue and not foul things up.

Magnet schools, whose admission is based on academic achievement, represent meritocracy in a school district that is often focused on ensuring equity.  Changing the process is fraught with racial undertones and all the dangers that presents.

Aside from being one of Philadelphia's greatest assets in keeping the middle class in the city, magnet schools have well-connected and loyal alumni and parents. They have the means, the experience and will to protect their schools -- and raise a ruckus if they scent a threat.

And my guess is that one of those parents was Mayor Michael Nutter, not because his daughter attends Masterman, but because he understands the value the magnet schools offer the city -- and he knows full-well the power of its stakeholders, who constitute the core of his constituency.

Whether Nutter picked up the phone and took Ackerman to the woodshed or opted to retain deniability by having his education chief Lori Shorr deliver the messenger is something we might never know.  But I have no doubt that Ackerman heard a roar of displeasure from the mayor's office.

Now, all this begs the question: Did Ackerman really know what was in the works regarding the magnet school proposal or was she blindsided by poor staff work?

Having spent 14 months as CEO of the school district I know full well that the person in charge doesn't always know what's going on. The district is a vast bureaucracy with over 265 schools, 12,000 classrooms, a host of competing factions with conflicting agendas, some known, many hidden. So it is quite possible that she didn't know.

But given her commitment to equity, it's also possible she directed her staff to look at various issues involving the magnet school system.  Since she is still new to Philadelphia, she may have had a tin ear to the political implications of what she was asking for.

It may well be that her staff didn't have the courage to tell her she was heading down the wrong road. And that may be because she hasn't created an environment that allows her staff to push back.

Or they may have warned her and she may have stubbornly ignored them.

Regardless of what and how it occurred, she did the right thing to pull the plug.

With her new reform plan introducing an entirely new nomenclature of schools such as Renaissance, Promise and Vanguard Schools there is already enough for the body politic to chew on and digest.

Adding to the meal a proposal that tinkers with the well-known magnet school brand would create major indigestion, something that Ackerman got a taste of last week.

 

Phil Goldsmith served as interim chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District in 2000-2001.

 

 

Photo: Students at Masterman High School

 

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