by Susan Cohen Smith
On a sweltering September day in 2002, mad dogs and school teachers sat out in the midday sun, awaiting the arrival of Starship Vallas to descend on our wretched souls and breathe new life into the beleaguered Philadelphia public school system.
Paul Vallas sailed into the School District of Philadelphia promising sweeping reforms and a new day in public education. I clearly recall that even I, a seasoned, but somewhat cynical teacher, was so energized and hopeful by the dynamism of our new leader that I dropped everything I should have been doing to prepare for the new school year and spent precious time attending to his first directive.
I was asked to compile a detailed inventory of my classroom furniture: every desk, chair, cabinet, pencil sharpener, etc. and its age, condition and functionality. The incentive for the swift completion of this task was the promise of new equipment and furnishings because “Mr. Vallas is committed to world class arts programs in the high schools.”
I dutifully documented each student desk, teacher desk, shelf, bulletin board, sink, storage cabinet, etc. whose precise age I knew for certain because they were the exact same fixtures that existed in my classroom when I was a student at that school in the sixties!
When Paul Vallas left the system in 2006, those very same desks and furnishings were still in that classroom, the promise of their replacement left unfulfilled by the “surprise” multi-million dollar budget deficit that emerged toward the end of Mr. Vallas’ tenure as CEO.
Experienced Philadelphia teachers are understandably weary of the hoopla and lofty imaginings of the district’s current Superintendent. They have heard it all before—only to have it forgotten when funds do not materialize, or when the crisis du jour takes precedence over the implementation of new initiatives, or when the five years of the Superintendent’s contract are up, which ever comes first.
Our detractors will accuse us of institutionalized pessimism and failure to put the students first. It will take a lot more than a 34 page draft of recycled ideas to fire up the hearts and minds of those in the trenches in Philly schools.
What I would have liked to see in Imagine 2014:
Who exactly is going to evaluate teachers’ performance and effectiveness? Will they be the administrators who have achieved their goal of fleeing the classroom?
A rethinking of the absurd “Easy Pass” grading system of no grade under 50.
An exploration of the possibility of requiring administrative personnel to teach on a regular basis to give them first-hand understanding of how these initiatives should be implemented.
A new requirement of all Charter Schools to accept, educate and retain all students who choose to attend their schools, even those students who do not conform to their standards of behavior, attendance and academic success.
So much of Ackerman’s plan depends on the recruitment and retention of new and presumably better teachers. Veteran teachers wonder how she plans to stem the flow of enthusiastic, motivated, knowledgeable new teachers walking out the door after receiving their floating rosters or when the supports they’ve been promised fail to materialize.
One thing is certain. In 2014, there will be a new strategic plan with a new set of goals accompanied by a new lexicon of terms in the School District of Philadelphia.
Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher. She taught Art and French for 36 years. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org