District spent its way into massive shortfall

“The French novelist Honoré de Balzac once wrote: “Finance, like time, devours its own children.” The Philadelphia School District‘s administrators should take a moment to ponder that. Their financial ineptitude and gross mismanagement of public money has put the children of Philadelphia in an unfortunate position.

The district’s budget deficit for the 2011-12 school year, which stands at $629 million, has prompted talk of doing away with full-day kindergarten; cutting athletic, art, and music programs; and laying off thousands of employees, many of them teachers. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “District spent its way into massive shortfall.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Witch-hunt mentality is hurting morale of principals and teachers



by Christopher Paslay


In a recent Inquirer article, Dr. Ackerman spoke about a wounded spirit in the city, a sadness that she described as “ever-present”.  


Although she was referring to the community’s frustration over its troubled public school system, her words could have just as easily applied to the district’s principals and teachers. 


While attending several city-wide professional developments this school year, I’ve come in contact with dozens of principals and teachers from all over the district, and there seems to be a common feeling among many of them: They feel tired, beat-up, and unappreciated. 


A frequent complaint is that they are overwhelmed.  In particular, principals and teachers are buckling under the new administration’s constant threats, the increased paperwork and bureaucracy, and the negative atmosphere in general.


And it appears that the district’s policy of negative reinforcement is only getting worse.    


Like a state trooper trying to meet a quota for speeding tickets, Dr. Ackerman has recently vowed to make sure more teachers receive an unsatisfactory on their performance rating this year, and that more principals are disciplined for failing to meet academic standards (this will undoubtedly attract more talented young people to the district).         


“We can’t have this kind of performance,” Dr. Ackerman told the Inquirer.  “There will be changes in the principal staff, and there will be many more teachers rated unsatisfactory this year.” 


Ackerman said that regional superintendents have been given instructions and training to toughen their standards for observations.


Apparently, by giving more teachers and principals an unsatisfactory rating, the district will raise the educational “bar”.


“. . . we’re setting a standard and a bar that’s much higher than it’s ever been,” Ackerman said.  “Once you set that standard, then people know they can’t produce below it, because there’s a consequence.”


A consequence for teachers and principals, sure (and I’ll be the first to admit there is room for teachers and principals to improve, given the proper supports).  But what about the consequences for the district’s other “stakeholders,” such as parents? 


Incredibly enough, the district doesn’t even require parents to perform the most basic of tasks, such as filling out an application for free school breakfasts.


District officials, as well as state politicians and advocates of the Universal Feeding Program (a plan that requires no application for free meals), have already publicly declared that filling out meal applications is too “daunting” a task for our city’s mothers and fathers, and that we should refrain from using such forms because urban families tend to “reject” paperwork.


Wayne Grasela, the district’s senior vice president for food services, said that the task of getting families to start filling out meal applications would be “monumental”. 


If getting parents to fill out meal applications is “monumental,” how do you think our city’s families handle homework?  Report cards?  Summer reading?  Registration deadlines?  


Of course, this didn’t stop Dr. Ackerman from inviting parents to walk into their child’s classroom—unannounced, mind you—to check things out. 


“The district has no policy that says parents need to make an appointment,” Dr. Ackerman said, explaining that schools “belong to the parents.”


I found this particular comment quite interesting.  If our public schools “belong to the parents,” why then are they not held accountable for these schools, the same way the teachers and principals are?  Why don’t they face consequences for being chronically absent from parent-teacher conferences, for failing to show-up for IEP and CSAP meetings, for failing to sign and return progress reports, absence notes, and insurance forms? 


And when is the district going to step up to the plate and hold the community accountable?  When are they going to start a campaign to recover the almost $5 million in computer equipment that’s been stolen from city schools since 2005, most of which has been taken from impoverished neighborhoods that “lack” resources?


And what about addressing the unruly behavior of the students themselves?  What about the 15,000 criminal incidents reported last school year?  The 1,728 students who assaulted teachers?  The 479 weapons discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms?  The 357 weapons that were found in high schools? 


Besides a lot of “zero-tolerance for violence” rhetoric from district officials, not much has been done. 


But who’s solely to blame for our troubled school system?  The teachers and principals. 



Now we know why there is a wounded spirit in this city.   


Paul Vallas reincarnated?



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 retiredartteacher@gmail.com


English classes respond to ‘Imagine 2014’




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.