Philadelphia School District leads nation with improved graduation rate, new study shows



by Christopher Paslay


Out of America’s 50 largest city school districts, guess which one improved their average graduation rate the most over the last 10 years? 




It’s true.  According to Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap, a report prepared for America’s Promise Alliance by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, the Philadelphia School District raised their graduation rate 23 percentage points from 39 percent in 1995 to 62 percent in 2005, making their gains the highest of all major urban school districts in America. 


Unfortunately, the district’s achievement has been largely ignored.  When Philadelphia’s graduation rate is mentioned it’s only in a negative context, with numbers being rounded down—to a convenient and quite inaccurate 50%. 


Half of the students in Philadelphia don’t even graduate, is the familiar line spoken by newspapers looking to churn out editorials, and by politicians hoping to use Philadelphia public schools as a means to win votes.       


But in 2005, the district’s graduation rate was well over half.  At 62 percent it was tied for 12th out of America’s 50 largest urban districts; only 6 percentage points separated Philadelphia from #5 ranked Colorado Springs School District, which graduated 68 percent of their students within four years. 


So why has the press not covered this achievement?  Why hasn’t the mayor and district officials thanked our city’s teachers and shown their appreciation for raising the graduation rate 23 points in the last 10 years? 


Where is Kristen Graham, the Inquirer’s education beat writer?  Did she miss this one?  Maybe we should call her (215-854-5146) or email her at and request that she make public this good news. 


Kristen Graham has written about the district’s dropout rate before.  In a recent article, she detailed how dropouts cost the economy millions, and used statistics from a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study which put the city’s graduation rate at 54 percent; nowhere in her article did she acknowledge the fact that the district has raised its graduation rate 23 percentage points since 1995, however.        


The one newspaper that is covering this topic is the New York Times.  Of course, the Times mentioned Philadelphia’s improved graduation rate as part of a larger article that compared the graduation rates of large urban school districts (53 percent) with those of the suburbs (71 percent). 


The article surmised that school districts in the suburbs are graduating far more students than those in the city.    


Marguerite Kondracke, executive director of the America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to reduce the nation’s dropout rate, said the urban-suburban gap exists because of bad teachers.


“So improving teacher quality is crucial to raising graduation rates in these inner-city schools,” Kondracke told the Times. 


What a shocker Kondracke’s conclusion is—that kids are dropping out of school in America’s big cities because of teachers.  Not because of an urban street culture that preaches that schools are for fools; not because of the breakdown of the family and the lack of father figures in the inner-city; not because of violence and drug addiction; not because of poverty; not because of crumbling urban communities, not because of an instant gratification society that places education at the bottom of the totem pole; no. 


Teens are quitting school because of bad teachers.


People say the community is the result of the educational system, but I believe it’s the other way around: The educational system is the result of the community.  


Take a look at these statistics from a 2006 US Census Bureau survey: 


Families headed by two parents: 82.5%
Residents with High School Diploma: 90.7%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 35.2%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 9.8%
Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 3.5%


Families headed by two parents: 83.5%
Residents with High School Diploma: 91.6%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 45%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 9.5%
Unemployment Rate: 4.1%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 4.3%


Families headed by two parents: 80%
Residents with High School Diploma: 92.2%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 43.4%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 10.5%
Unemployment Rate: 3.9%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 3.7%


Families headed by two parents: 51.8%
Residents with High School Diploma: 77.5%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 20.7%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 19.8%
Unemployment Rate: 12.4%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 6.3%


1 in 2 families in Philadelphia are headed by a single parent; 1 in 4 Philadelphians don’t have a high school diploma; 1 in 5 speak a language other than English in their home; 1 in 9 are unemployed; and 1 in 17 aren’t even a US citizen. 


When it comes to parenting, education, employment, citizenship and the English language, Philadelphia is way behind the suburbs. 


That’s a major reason why kids are dropping out in large urban school districts.


But hey, at least Philadelphia is correcting the problem. 


The next time you hear that half the kids in Philadelphia drop out of school, know this: If it weren’t for the city’s hard working school teachers, the dropout rate would probably be double what it is today.


You call that a uniform?



by Christopher Paslay


I went to 12 years of Catholic school, so when I read Monica Yant Kinney’s recent article, Here, uniformity just might not fit, I had to chuckle. 


The golf shirts and khaki bottoms required at Friendship Elementary School in Chester County is a sad idea of a uniform, if you want to know the truth.  The trio of suburban moms who feel the policy violates freedom of choice and only serves to pacify adults who “crave conformity” need to pay a visit to a parochial school to get some perspective on the situation. 


Golf shirts and khaki pants?  Please.  For one week, these malcontented mothers should have their daughters wear a white blouse, plaid skirt, black dress shoes with knee-high socks.  While they’re at it, their sons could slip on a school blazer and tie (both with emblem), a pair of ironed dress slacks, belt, dress shirt, black socks and shoes. 


Then maybe they’d get the idea of what a uniform actually is


The Philadelphia School District has a uniform policy, but this too is a bit of a travesty, at least at the high school level.  If kids actually wore the required dress, it might be respectable.  But when the weather gets hot, like it’s getting now, there’s nothing uniform about students’ uniforms.    


Here are 10 ways enterprising Philadelphia teens manipulate the dress code and wear—or should I say don’t wear—their navy blue golf shirts.


1.  “Hulk Hogan” style.  This is when the student rips the collar completely off the shirt, tears open the sleeves at the seams, and lets the uniform hang off his body like a poncho. 


2.  “Hanging-Around-the-Neck” style.  This is self explanatory, and is achieved when the student puts his head through the neck hole of the shirt, but for some unknown reason fails to put his arms through the sleeves, thus turning the shirt into a giant navy blue necklace.


3.  “Under-the-Jacket” style.  This is when the student buys a bag of Doritos in the lunch room instead of going to his locker in the morning, forcing the student to wear his jacket over his uniform for the remainder of the day.  The number of students who practice the “Under-the-Jacket” style is directly proportional to the number of students who complain that classrooms are “too hot”. 


4.  “Book Bag” style.  This is when the student doesn’t wear the uniform at all, but keeps it in his book bag.  When he gets to class and the teacher asks, “Where’s your uniform?” the student opens his book bag and flashes the shirt like an ID badge, insisting that doing so keeps him in compliance with the school dress code.


5.  “Beach Towel” style.  This is when the student slings his uniform over his shoulder like a beach towel.  Sun tan lotion is optional.


6.  “Turban” style.  Yes, you got it.  Instead of putting the shirt on, the student wraps it around his head.


7.  “Ninja” style.  This is just like wearing the uniform “Turban” style, except the student wraps the shirt around his face, not his head.  This is the preferred style when copping Z’s in class.


8.  “Superman” style.  No red “S” here, but there is a blue cape.  This style involves draping the uniform down the middle of the student’s back.       


9.  “Grease Rag” style.  Two words:  back pocket.  This style goes well with students enrolled in CTE automotive programs.


10.  “Slap-and-Tickle” style.  Instead of wearing the golf shirt the student twists it into a cloth whip, wets the end of the whip in the nearest water fountain, and chases other students down the hall, whacking them on the backside. 


When the warm weather hits, it seems like many Philadelphia teens adopt the attitude expressed by Tommy Chong in Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke: “If we’re gonna wear uniforms, man, we should all wear something different.” 


I just wish my second grade teacher, Sister Paul, were alive to set things straight.  She could pull out her ruler and whack the knuckles of these unruly students—and unruly parents, for that matter.      


Apple and Twitter: Hampering education and ruining work ethic



by Christopher Paslay


In the Philadelphia School District, teachers are often evaluated on their use of technology in the classroom.  Administrators want to know if we’re using laptops and Smartboards—if we’ve completed the latest training to bring us up to speed on Governor Rendell’s Classrooms For The Future—and if we’re taking full advantage of educational resources on the internet.


The theme seems to be the same in the world of business: Success is equated with the latest technology.  If you don’t have the newest version of the Blackberry or iPhone—the one that sends real-time stock quotes along with up-to-the-minute baseball scores—then you are living in the stone ages.     


But not all technology is positive, and as educators, we must resist the urge to buy into the hype and accept it blindly.  I could go into a long-winded lecture about how electronic gadgets are killing our willpower and destroying our attention spans (not to mention how they are preventing us from living in the present moment), but I don’t want to go into that here; I’ll save that rant for another time.


What I do want to talk about are Baby Shaker and SpreadTweet, two examples of how technology is having a harmful effect on education and ruining work ethic in America.


Let’s start with Baby Shaker, the Apple multimedia application that allows users to shake their iPhone and in the process, silence the crying baby on the screen.  Although Apple apologized and removed the program from their website because of complaints from child welfare groups, it’s inconceivable as to why Apple would have placed a game like this on the market in the first place.


For those who think Baby Shaker was just a harmless gag, they should understand what researchers in early childhood education have been saying for decades: the formation of a child’s IQ has a direct correlation to their interaction with their parents in infancy.  A child who grows up in a home where his parents smack or shake him (as opposed to a home where his mother and father communicate non-violently), will not develop the vocabulary and reading comprehension skills to keep him on grade level. 


So what does Apple’s Baby Shaker say about our society?  What does it say about parents and their ability to make their children school ready?  Call me behind the times, but Baby Shaker isn’t the best tool for improving education in America.


Then you have SpreadTweet—the latest creation for the trendy Twitter, the web-based communication service that allows people to stay connected to friends and celebrities through the exchange of quick, frequent, one-line text-messages. 


When you subscribe to someone on Twitter, every time they send out a “Tweet” (a quick one-line text), you receive the message. 


If Brittany Spears “Tweets” that she just got a sunburn, or if Snoop Dog lets it be known he just smoked a big fat blunt, you’ll get the message.  Now multiply that by 50 celebrities and 75 of your friends, and you’ll be getting Tweets non-stop all day long.


But what happens to your Twitter addiction at work, when it’s time to head to the office?  Well, tech geeks have got that all figured out.  A maveric web designer recently created SpreadTweet, a page on your computer that looks like a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.  According to a recent posting on AppScout, a technology website that reviews computer applications and other software, “If you’re a Twitter addict but work in an office that doesn’t condone your tweeting habits, you have a few options: You could actually do work; you could make yourself paranoid by looking over your shoulder as you post, or you could download SpreadTweet, an Adobe AIR-based Twitter client that looks exactly like a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. It’ll let you post to Twitter freely, and when the boss walks by behind you, he’ll think you’re working—as long as he  doesn’t lean in to see which spreadsheet you’re working on.”


It’s only a matter of time before a wise-cracking web geek creates a similar page for students who want to Tweet their friends while working in the school library.  Instead of a spreadsheet, all these unconscionable techies need to do is build a page that looks like a phony research paper or chemistry project, and even more teachers will be on their students’ pay-no-mind-list. 


Not all technology is positive.  As educators, we must guard against the insidious effects of the latest software and electronic gadgets, and demand that big corporations have some moral fiber and stop pandering to society’s lowest common denominator.   


Public must scrutinize district spending



by Susan Cohen Smith


It has been said that, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As news of the School District of Philadelphia’s new leadership team and windfall budget sinks in, it would be prudent to recall lessons learned from the past.


When the School Reform Commission was formed in 2001, the system was in financial as well as academic distress. With the appointment of Paul Vallas as CEO came an influx of new money for educational reforms. The workforce tentatively acknowledged Vallas’ ideas and new leadership.


Some of us were slow to jump on board, and reluctant to accept the alien presence of Vallas’ Chicago imports whom we sometimes referred to as the “Square-Toes” for their preference in footwear.  When in the presence of downtown administrative types, many of us instinctively gazed down at their shoes to determine if they were the new guys from Chicago.


One such administrator was charged with heading up the new Secondary Education Movement.  Student Governments fell within his bailiwick. The SRC’s first act with regard to Student Government had been to do away with the longstanding, largely ceremonial tradition of including student representatives on the School Board. These positions had come with the honor of having the students’ names lettered on office doors at the 21st Street headquarters, which the SRC also did away with, but that’s another blog.


To make up for this slight, the new head of Secondary Education promised an enthusiastic gathering of Student Government sponsors a whopping $1000 annual budget plus a host of other unprecedented activities and opportunities for students. The goal was to prepare the student leaders of each secondary school for the world after high school and to encourage kids to get involved with the often-thankless tasks surrounding student government.


While some of these promises and programs were eventually enacted, their implementation was inconsistent and short-lived.


One interesting innovation introduced by this Chicago transplant was a program called Senior Residency, whereby outstanding 12th grade students were identified and recruited for service to their schools. For satisfactory performance of their assigned duties, the Senior Residents were paid a stipend of $100 a month and received academic credit as well. We were warned never to say double-dipping.


The following directive went out to the high schools:


“Seniors will be required to wear a specially designed uniform while serving as a Senior Residency participant. The uniform will consist of a Secondary Education Movement logo polo shirt and the approved bottoms of their respective school.”


At sponsors’ meetings, we questioned the value of this expenditure, as the shirts would be worn only for a few months by kids who were graduating and would never again wear them. We were told that the administrator ordered them and that was that.


The high-quality polo shirts, along with heavy cotton button-down long-sleeved shirts, each with embroidered logo, all in size XL, arrived the first week in June! The seniors who were still around refused to wear either shirt in the sweltering buildings. One of the Residents refashioned her oversized polo shirt into a mini dress.


This same Chicago Square-Toe also spent enormous amounts of newfound money on elaborate High School Fairs, referred to by many as his “dog and pony shows”.


To no one’s surprise, he left the School District of Philadelphia after three years on the job, just before the $180 million surprise deficit surfaced in 2006 to become Superintendent of another urban school district in the Midwest. It became clear that his lavish spending practices were nothing more than portfolio enhancements to enrich his job search.


Right now, with a fresh look to the School Reform Commission and new money in the coffers, there must be unrelenting public vigilance and outcry the moment these new faces appear to head in the same direction as their predecessors. Indefensible spending based on dubious and untested practices must be vigorously held to critical examination and intense scrutiny lest we find ourselves in the same mess as in 2006.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at


Eye on the Notebook: Should failing schools overhaul their teachers?


 by Christopher Paslay


In his recent blog, Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff?, Philadelphia Public School Notebook blogger Eric Braxton explores the idea of overhauling teachers in failing city schools by replacing them, or by making them reapply for their jobs in order to prove their commitment to education. 


As I have said in nearly all of my posts, Braxton writes, I am of the opinion that our neighborhood high schools need a major transformation, not just some small reforms.


The culture and climate in these schools is just not conducive to learning.  Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission.   


Braxton acknowledges that this idea is controversial and could be unsettling to teachers, but he admits that he is “not sure there is any other way”. 


To accomplish this sweeping overhaul, Braxton suggests that the district allow all city principals to hand-pick their own staff.  Currently in Philadelphia, “site-based selection” schools can interview and hire teachers as they see fit (there are 82 of them), while non site-based schools are staffed by teachers according to seniority. 


For most business owners (and school principals outside of Philadelphia) the idea of not being able to hire your own staff would be considered ridiculous, Braxton states, but this is Philadelphia.


Although teachers are only one of many factors contributing to a school’s climate and culture, there are situations where teachers are apathetic and burnt-out, and principals should not be held hostage by such staff members; neither should our city’s children, for that matter.


But a massive overhaul of all teachers in a failing school is too radical—not to mention belittling to the majority of educators who work extremely hard on a day-to-day basis, and are already on board with their school’s mission.


The ideas Braxton explores—doing away with seniority and making teachers reapply for their jobs—are not new.  Paul Vallas tried to axe teacher seniority during his tenure, only to see it backfire in his face.  Arlene Ackerman fought for a teacher reapplication requirement while superintendent in San Francisco.  As a result, she damaged relations between herself and the teachers’ union and school board, a conflict that fueled an animosity that eventually led to Ackerman’s early resignation as schools’ chief. 


According to a 2005 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ackerman has consistently fought with board members Eric Mar, Sarah Lipson and Mark Sanchez . . . and has battled over a variety of issues, including Ackerman’s Dream Schools initiative, which aims to overhaul low-performing schools by giving them a more rigorous curriculum, longer hours and Saturday school, but also by requiring all teachers at the schools to reapply for their jobs to signal their commitment to the revamped program.


Lipson, Mar and Sanchez — along with leadership of the teachers’ union — have fought the reapplication requirement, saying it is a slap in the face to educators who have dedicated their careers to working in difficult schools.     


Requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs is indeed a slap in the face.  Braxton, in a sweeping generalization characteristic of most education advocates who have no experience teaching in a classroom, talks of schools needing a “fresh start” when it comes to their teaching staffs. 


In effect, he is suggesting that we throw away the baby with the bath water: Overhaul all teachers in struggling schools, or make them all reapply for their jobs. 


My question is, why all teachers?  Why are we being stereotyped and lumped together as one failing entity? 


I would like to know what Eric Braxton’s image of a Philadelphia public school teacher is, exactly.  From what he’s written in the past, it appears he believes that teachers are chronically late and consistently absent; that they don’t respect their students or give them an adequate voice; that they systematically ruin their students’ love of learning. 


I will acknowledge that on occasion, teachers overwhelmed by the challenges of a large under-resourced urban school system get tired and apathetic; they’re only human. 


But as a whole, the bulk of Philadelphia’s educators work hard and are making a difference given what they have in front of them.  Test scores are going up and progress is being made. 


So why must we wipe the slate clean?  Struggling schools don’t have a single worth while teacher?  Why must we all reapply for our jobs? 


This reasoning is not only insulting, but impractical. 


According to their 2008-09 Vacancy Listing, the Philadelphia School District is still short 185 permanent teachers.  If failing schools “wipe the slate clean,” where are these new and improved teachers going to come from?  If the principals of these failing schools could indeed select their own staff, where are they going to get their applicants?


The reality of the situation is that not many people want to teach in these failing schools to begin with.  Poverty, crime, and the lack of community and parental support cause many educators to look elsewhere; so do the behavior and attitudes of many of the students themselves. 


Teachers in these failing schools should be thanked for their dedication and perseverance, not stereotyped and disrespectfully made to reapply for their positions.  Besides humiliating educators, what would a reapplication requirement honestly accomplish?  If any of us were interested in leaving our school, we would have done it by now. 


Improving teacher quality must be done individually, on a teacher-by-teacher basis.  Sure, most business owners and principals outside of Philadelphia can hire their own staff, but most do it incrementally; it’s very rare that a leader goes in and blindly fires one-hundred percent of his personnel. 


If education reform advocates truly want more quality teachers in Philadelphia, they must stop stereotyping and demoralizing us.  Instead, they should respect teachers and work to win us more resources, which might attract better educators to the system and help replace those who are struggling to succeed. 


Teacher performance pay oversimplifies a complex problem




by Christopher Paslay


“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”


These were the words of Barack Obama in his first education policy speech last month.  He believes that performance pay is the spark needed to motivate our nation’s educators.   


I agree that rewarding good teachers with extra money is a nice gesture, but how is this raising the bar when it comes to education?  Talented teachers committed to reaching their students will produce regardless of pay; they are dedicated to the profession for reasons other than salary.


Struggling teachers might be motivated by pay, but this assumes that they have the capability to achieve in the first place.  Often times less effective teachers lack the resources and experience needed to succeed.  They receive little help from parents and community, and in too many cases their university training does not properly prepare them for life in a real classroom. 


Performance pay is unrealistic.  The Philadelphia School District doesn’t have the stability to set reliable student performance targets, nor do they have the resources necessary to properly assess these targets.  In addition, politics would get in the way of assessments—a teacher’s personality could end up being more important than their performance.


Performance pay also suggests that the problem with education is teachers, and that the problem with teachers is that they are not working hard enough.  As a dedicated educator, this idea is insulting.  Granted, there are cases where teachers are not meeting their full potential, but to generalize educators as Obama does is quite insensitive.        


Most teachers are in the classroom eight hours a day, and bring work home at night and on the weekends.  We write the lesson, produce the lesson (generating and copying all the materials), present the lesson, and grade the lesson. 


How many business executives write, produce, present, and assess five hour-long presentations a day, every day?  And how many do this with an audience of 30 children distracted by cell phones and iPods, kids with ADD or autism, kids who don’t understand how to resolve conflict non-violently because they don’t have a father and their mother is suffering from addiction problems? 


Of course, an educator’s time in the classroom is only one segment of the job.  Teachers must also deal with IEPs, CSAPs, and all manner of paperwork; we must attend meetings with parents, counselors, and administrators; we must go to workshops and professional development; we must tutor, mentor, and coach.  And some of us must do this for six subjects at a time, with 180 students at a clip


According to a recent article in the Inquirer (“Second look at merit pay for teachers”), “Changing the way teachers are paid is an idea whose time has come, one key to fixing a broken education system . . .”


Notice the words, broken education system.  This phrase is so overused by newspapers and politicians that it’s become boilerplate.  It’s almost as generic as the phrase quality teacher.     


What about our broken society?  Our instant gratification culture?  Do you think iPhones are helping lengthen attention spans?  Do you think the violence and soft core pornography found on television and in video games is helping our students get interested in reading The Grapes of Wrath


What about the lack of family?  The lack of guidance from community?  Kids with no father?  Kids with no parents at all?  


What about OxyContin?  Obesity?  Gangsta rap?  Are these things part of our “broken education system”?    


What about the lack of responsibility from the students themselves?


It’s amazing how these issues are consistently overlooked, and the blame is placed solely on the teachers and the schools. 


Merit pay is impractical and short-sighted.  It stereotypes our nation’s educators, and oversimplifies an incredibly complex problem.    


Philadelphia teachers are making a difference, despite bad press




by Christopher Paslay


Philadelphia public schools and their teachers have been getting quite the media exposure this week.  On March 31st, the Inquirer ran a story headlined, “Group urges improved teacher quality in Philadelphia”. 


The gist of the story was that as a whole, the Philadelphia School District lacks “quality” educators, and that too many of the 10,000 or so hard working teachers currently staffing our schools aren’t quite cutting it.  This at least was the opinion of The Education First Compact, a collection of local education-reform organizations, and the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign, a coalition of community groups. 


Apparently, the district isn’t doing enough to retain talented staff.  My question to these groups is: What are we who are currently teaching in our city’s public schools?  Rogues?  Lepers?  Vagabonds?        


The following day, on April 1st, the Inquirer ran a story called “Student shot four times near Philadelphia school”.  The article was about a teenager who was “shot twice in the head, once in the left chest, and once in the back by another teen . . . outside a disciplinary school in Feltonville shortly after dismissal time.”


In light of this negative coverage, I’d like to reprint an article I published in the Inquirer on October 26, 2006, headlined, Schools: High praise in need.  It is about the need for the community to recognize the outstanding (yet unsung) work Philadelphia public school teachers do on a regular basis: 


He was 16, highly motivated and the best student in my 10th grade English class. One morning, when he failed to turn in a major writing assignment, I kept him after class to see if anything was wrong.


“I’m having trouble concentrating at home,” he told me, and explained that he’d recently watched a man die from a gunshot wound outside his house in the city’s Logan section.


When I instructed him to see our school counselor, he refused. Although he was clearly shaken, he insisted he could work things out for himself. Before sending him to his next class, I gave him some advice.


“Try meditating,” I said, and showed him how to clear his mind by counting his breaths. I also played a holistic healing CD on my classroom computer to help him relax.


To my surprise, my student took to the meditation very well. He especially enjoyed the soothing effect of the CD and asked me to copy it for him. I did, and by the end of the week he had turned in the missing assignment.


The semester ended the following month, but I kept an eye out for this young man, watching with pride as he made the honor roll his junior and senior years.


A week before graduation, he stopped by my classroom for a visit. “I still listen to that CD, Mr. Paslay,” he told me, and shook my hand. “Thanks for all your help.”


It was then that I knew, metaphorically speaking, that I had “saved” him.


For every student who drops out of school or dies in a random act of violence, there are dozens who are “saved” by dedicated teachers. In my 10 years as an educator, I’ve watched wayward students become successful athletes, chefs, auto mechanics, business persons, electricians, carpenters, computer technicians. I’ve watched confused teens—teetering on the brink of self-destruction—become responsible adults capable of making important contributions to society. 


But these success stories are rarely told. As a result, our city’s school system has an image problem. Public perception is that the Philadelphia schools are beyond repair, and that nothing teachers do makes a difference. Like a missionary trying to end world hunger, they say, “Why bother?”


My response to them is this: Tell that to the Ethiopian child who is filling his empty stomach with a bowl of donated oatmeal. In other words, teachers might not reach every child, but we are making a difference.


To improve the image of Philadelphia schools, local educators should get together and write about the students they’ve rescued from the pitfalls of everyday life. We could call it, “The Ones We Saved,” similar to “Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul.”


My father, a 33-year veteran of the Philadelphia School District, could fill half the book himself. He could start by telling the story of a confused ninth grade skinhead from Southwest Philadelphia.


After reading one of the teen’s violent journal entries during English class, my father confronted him. “Is this what you do on weekends?” he asked the rather large boy. “Go around your neighborhood beating people up?”


The student told my father that’s exactly what he and his friends did. They went around town, clad in fatigues and combat boots, jumping other teenagers. My father, who has a knack for reaching people on a personal level, sat the boy down and gave him a long talk. He asked him to take a look at his life and where it was going.


Whatever my father said to the boy it must have worked. Eventually, he broke away from his neighborhood friends, and decided to put his energy into football. Three years later, he was on the honor roll and accepted a scholarship to play NCAA Division I football for the University of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Pitt with a degree in accounting, and ended up on the practice squad of the Chicago Bears.


It’s time to redirect our attention when it comes to education in Philadelphia. We can start by taking our focus off some of the fistfights, shootings and sexual assaults, and by paying more attention to our children’s joys, successes and victories. Lives are being saved. And teachers are helping to do that.


Philadelphia public school teachers are working hard and making a difference, despite negative headlines in the press and insensitive attitudes from community groups.