Thursday, March 12, 2009

Imagine Real Community-Centered Planning for Schools

I just made it home from a sometimes-rousing, sometimes-placating Community Meeting about the School District of Philadelphia’s new Strategic Plan, Imagine 2014. Of the hundreds of parents, teachers, students, administrators, and other community members in attendance, I’m sure that most, like myself, walked out feeling like our comments were not necessarily going to be factored into the next draft of the Plan, nor were many of our questions answered.

I, of course, ended up in the building – the gorgeous, new High School of the Future, a multi-million dollar Microsoft/SDP project that stands within miles of several dilapidated, soon-to-be-closed schools, but I, as per usual, digress – until the lights were shut down. As I walked my break-out session facilitator, a well-meaning Higher Up in the SDP bureaucracy, to his car, he told me that Philly just needs to get over our usual down-on-our-selves attitudes, put faith in a plan like this, and attempt to dream. To dream? I explained that it is entirely healthy to have skepticism about a plan that is looking to advance “school choice” through shutting down under-performing schools and turning them over to charters and/or other outside, private providers who are seeking to make a profit from once-public schools. Our skepticism doesn’t mean we don’t know how to dream.

A more exciting and substantive dream is the one held by communities throughout Philadelphia who are having Community Planning Processes right now about how to improve their schools. The problem is that the District is not viewing those processes as valuable and therefore not honoring them with the chance to bolster school performance through being accountable to the wishes of the very communities those schools are trying to serve.

See, under this new plan, the District wants to make a “system of great schools where success is supported, replicated, and rewarded and failure is not tolerated.” Their proposal for how to deal with supporting the high-performing schools and not tolerating the low-performing schools is to create three types of new models for those schools.

1. Vanguard Schools.
Certain high-performing schools, who probably are high-performing due to a history of having resources (human, economic, and ideological), would be able to enter into “autonomy agreements” in order to define their performance targets and future work.

As someone who currently works in a high-performing school where autonomy is one of the most necessary components of furthering our school success and student achievement, I see this as a piece of the School Improvement Puzzle that WAY MORE schools need and deserve in order to be successful.

2. Empowerment Schools
These are “struggling schools” that can get additional supports from the District to help intervene.

As someone who has gone through SDP Professional Development and has received Teacher Supports from the District, I can say that more actual benefit comes out of having time to plan, organize, and coordinate the interworkings of a school than comes out of District top-down interventions. See the thoughts on autonomy above.

3. Renaissance Schools.
This is where it gets shady. Basically, the District wants to shut down failing schools and “embrace bold new educational approaches with proven track records.” What they mean by this is shutting down public schools and opening charters (either in-district or outside providers) or other contracted-out schools (like Educational Management Organizations). The schools that are targeted for this plan will then be given a few options of providers and the “community” will “choose” who will take over their schools.

The language in the Plan and the rhetoric flying off the mic tonight makes it sound like this will be a very community-centered process. However, for clarity’s sake, here are some main issues:

“Anyone” can enter their plan for how a new school will operate in the RFP process. However, the criteria for “proven track record” and the lack of supports for plan development makes it seem pretty unlikely that a group of committed community members, students and educators could create something with the same scope and polish as that of a Franchise Charter with paid staff and pre-made templates.

The District won’t release the names of the 10 Renaissance Schools until very close to the due date for plan submissions. So, even if a community did want to mobilize and create a blueprint for their school, they wouldn’t even have the appropriate time to do so.

And, wasn’t the whole point of the Charter School movement initially to reclaim education by communities who were feeling their children’s educational needs weren’t being met? This process, with its lack of transparency and intentionality, completely undermines the original philosophy and co-opts the model as yet another means toward privatizing public education.

The thing is, community groups all over the city – from Kensington to West Philly – already have community planning processes and blueprints for over-hauling their public schools in their hands. They are READY for the change that the District is hinting at, and they can spell out what they want their public schools to look like. They don’t need to have their schools shut down and charterized in order to pretend to have their best interests in mind. They already do.

My response to the District, to the Imagine 2014 crew who feels like Philadelphians aren’t dreaming well enough, is to envision public education that was responsive to the actual communities where each school was functioning. You could have a dozen plans on your desks by Monday. And you don’t have to hand over your public duties or privatize anything in order to do so.

You don’t have to dream it; you just have to listen.

Imagine that.