Op-Ed: Philly’s Charter School System is Falling Apart

Philadelphia School District Building

Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from City Council candidate Helen Gym.)

“As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

Those were the infamous words of Citigroup Chief Executive Charles Prince, explaining why, amid the collapse of the world markets, his institution would keep on making risky subprime loans right up to the last minute.

They are words that toll with heavy familiarity as the School District of Philadelphia stubbornly pursues reckless charter school expansion while our public schools crumble.

Last week, Superintendent William Hite announced a sweeping plan for the school district that includes closing two public schools and converting three other city schools into charters.

Never mind that just a few weeks ago Hite declared for a second time that charters in Philadelphia had reached a “saturation point.” Never mind that money that is never available to restore basic services like nurses and counselors — or to end class sizes of 70 students per teacher — can somehow be found to expand charters year after year. And never mind that the charter system itself is rapidly coming apart, with mid-year closures, bankruptcies and bad financing deals rocking an already uneven academic performance landscape.
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How to Find the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child

Photography by Christopher Leaman

Photography by Christopher Leaman

The move to the ’burbs used to be almost automatic for Philadelphians with means — families of all races picked up and left the city when their kids were old enough for school, and they did it without much handwringing.

But something’s changed. Philadelphia parents aren’t so eager to quit on a city that’s bigger, better and more vibrant than it’s been in decades. And they’re not at all convinced that what’s best for the kids is a big backyard and often homogenous classrooms. For them, picking a school is about much more than standardized test scores; it’s about finding a place that fits their family’s expectations, values and lifestyle. Read more »

The Weekly Brief: How 83 Aliens Are Voting in Philly


1. There Are Dozens of Adarians Registered to Vote in Philly

The gist: Ever heard of Adarians? Oh, you haven’t? Weird. They’re a “species of bipedal humanoids from the planet Adari in the Inner Rim of the galaxy,” according to Wookieepedia, a/k/a/ the Star Wars wiki. They made an appearance in the comic-book adaptation of the Stars Wars novel “The Last Command.” They look nothing like the green guy in that photo above (apologies, Star Wars fans). And, according to an article in the Philadelphia Daily News, there are 83 of them registered to vote in Philly, and 206 signed up throughout the rest of Pennsylvania. Read more »

3 Huge Problems With the Charter School Movement

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from PIDC.]

Philly.com has a story this week that distills many of the troubling qualities of the charter school movement down to a disturbing essence.

Yes, it’s that bad.

This deeply reported piece by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs zooms in on one school and one deal: the academically well-regarded String Theory Charter School, which is housed in a high-end eight-story office building at 16th and Vine. This is the same building that not long ago was the North American headquarters for GlaxoSmithKline. It would be eyebrow-raising enough if the taxpayer-funded String Theory were merely leasing such high-end digs. But the school — or, technically, a separate nonprofit run by two of the school’s board members — actually owns the tower, and acquired it through a $55 million tax-exempt bond deal. Read more »

School Closings Are Hugely Controversial, But a New Study Suggests They Boost Student Performance



The two most polarizing words in Philadelphia education might be “portfolio model.” The phrase has induced hunger strikes, enraged Diane Ravitch and paved the way for two dozen Philadelphia public school closures in 2013. If you’re not familiar, “portfolio model” is shorthand for a theory that endorses reallocating funds to higher-achieving schools and closing the lowest-performing schools. It’s a model that has become increasingly common in urban school districts across the country, and the source of consternation from parents and school-choice skeptics everywhere.

The head of the Philadelphia School Partnership, Mark Gleason, bluntly explained the portfolio model this way last year: “You keep dumping the losers and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.” Schools activist (and now City Council candidate) Helen Gym responded by calling Gleason “a relentless promoter of questionable reform models that have really wreaked havoc in other places.”

But what does the data say? A new study from conservative think tank Fordham Institute attempts to parse out statistically whether school closures are a positive or negative force on student achievement. The authors claim their findings show that vehement parents in Chicago, Detroit and Philly are wrong, and that there are noticeable improvement in academic scores when students of failing schools are relocated. Read more »

The Brief: How Some Charter Schools Keep Out the Riff-Raff

School District of Philadelphia1. How Some Charter Schools Keep Out the Riff-Raff

The Gist: This is an important, well-reported story from WHYY’s Kevin McCorry, that’s not easily condensed into a sentence or two. Be sure to check out it out. In summary, McCorry explores how some charter schools inflate their numbers—graduation rates, college placement, test scores and so on—by not replacing the large volume of kids who drop out. Read more »

Former Teachers Sue SRC Over Free Speech at Charter Meeting

Protesters carried signs outside the Feb. 18 SRC meeting. Inside, those signs were confiscated. Photo | Holly Otterbein

Protesters carried signs outside the Feb. 18 SRC meeting. Inside, those signs were confiscated. Photo | Holly Otterbein

Three women identified as former Philadelphia school teachers are suing the School Reform Commission, saying they were deprived of First Amendment rights when they had signs and posters confiscated during the SRC’s controversial meeting February 18th to discuss approval of charter schools. Read more »

Live: SRC to Decide All 39 Philly Charter Applications

[UPDATE] The SRC has approved 5 of 39 new charter school applications — with conditions.

[ORIGINAL] As promised, the School Reform Commission will be deciding on all 39 new Philadelphia charter school applications this afternoon. Philly Mag’s Holly Otterbein is on the scene, providing a blow-by-blow account of what’s sure to be a contentious meeting for public school advocates and school reformers. Follow her live coverage, and the #phled conversation, on Twitter below:

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A Plea to the SRC: Evaluate Each School on Its Individual Merits

School District of Philadelphia

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

At Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School in South Philly, students are offered majors in music and visual arts and every kid participates in ballet weekly. About half of its student body is middle class and white. At the other end of Broad Street, in North Philly, at the Multi-Cultural Academy charter school, there is no ballet. By design, there are very few extracurriculars available at all. The school’s model is “no-nonsense, academics-focused.” The student body is nearly all black and about 80 percent of the students are low-income.

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