by Christopher Paslay
Yesterday, while the Philadelphia Student Union staged a predictable protest outside District headquarters to voice their concerns about “Imagine 2014,” Dr. Ackerman’s new strategic plan, I took time to discuss the school reform blueprint with students inside my 11th grade English classes.
I introduced “Imagine 2014” by having students read an overview of it outlined in a recent Inquirer article, Ackerman’s plan for Phila. schools.
After we read the article, I instructed students to first write about the most controversial idea proposed by Dr. Ackerman: whether or not the District should shut-down 35 of its lowest performing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by outside managers.
Of the 62 students who completed the exercise, 36 (58%) said failing schools should remain open, and be given extra resources to deal with low achievement on their own.
“The District should keep schools open and try to solve the problems,” one student wrote. “It doesn’t matter if the schools are under new management, it’s the way students act. They need a couple more schools like CEP, so students that want to learn can learn.”
“I believe that schools should stay open,” another said. “If we closed down 35 schools, they would be sending the worst students to better schools. This would bring down better schools.”
Still another stated, “They should keep schools open and try to solve the problems. It’s better to deal with the problems then postponing them, because that’s what opening charter schools is really doing.”
26 students (42%) agreed that the failing schools should be shut-down.
One student argued, “I think the District should shut-down failing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by private managers. If schools are not doing their jobs right, and students are not learning, then the superintendent needs to take action.”
“I agree the District should shut the failing schools down,” another said. “I think private managers or charter will run things more efficiently.”
There was one student who had an interesting perspective on closing the 35 lowest performing schools. She felt that if the District voted to shut them down, all stakeholders should have an equal voice in the proceedings.
“I feel the District should allow all the staff, students and families of the 35 schools to decide if they want to reopen as a charter,” she wrote.
At this point I asked the students to pull out three other ideas proposed in “Imagine 2014” and write about their strengths and weaknesses.
Most students liked the idea of lowering class sizes. Many also thought it would be good to open three more career and technical schools, and offer music and art in every school.
“I believe it is a good idea to let students move through school at their own pace,” one student wrote, referencing Dr. Ackerman’s proposed credit-acceleration program.
One thing several students disliked was paying teachers more to teach in “tough” schools. They reasoned that genuine educators should want to help kids no matter what, and that money shouldn’t be an issue.
Imagine 2014 is an extremely broad plan. Further dialogue is needed before it can be whittled down to a reform model that is both fair and practical.