The Rise of Frankenschool

Our public-education hodgepodge is fast becoming a monster

There was a sad sort of sameness to the Inquirer’s story over the weekend about investigators pinpointing violations of standardized testing protocol at local schools. Among those cited were Roosevelt Middle School, where scores on the No Child Left Behind-mandated PSSAs leapfrogged 52 points in math and 51 in reading—the largest gains, by far, of any similar school in the district. Roosevelt’s principal, Stefanie Ressler, was lauded by former superintendent Arlene Ackerman for her school’s performance … and rewarded by being moved to a bigger, higher-scoring school. Impetus enough for numerous instances of test-fudging? Time may tell. But here’s some food for thought from the Inquirer’s piece:

“One seventh-grade student erased answers 35 times, changing them from wrong to right every time. The odds of that happening naturally are greater than 1 in 100 trillion. The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are better.”

We seem to be playing the long odds with children a lot lately. The Inquirer also reported over the holiday weekend on a new program being instituted by the Camden School District, which is farming out the education of hundreds of its most vulnerable and at-risk kids to a private for-profit firm, Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania, this school year. There’s a bit of a hitch to the plan, though. Because the district signed its contract with Camelot (and is it just me, or is that fairy-tale name a really dumb idea for a company like this?) so late in the game, every teacher teaching those 400 at-risk kids is a brand-new hire.

Half of those hires are from Teach for America, the program that signs new college grads up as teachers before they even earn teaching certificates. (A hair-raising article in the New York Times last year detailed how few TFA teachers stay at their initial postings—or even in the teaching profession—after their initial two-year commitments.) Here’s how New York University professor Pedro Noguera, who specializes in urban education matters, greeted that news: “It’s a very, very bad idea. Why would you take inexperienced 22-year-olds, mostly of affluent areas, and put them with this population?” Well, Professor Noguera, why wouldn’t we? We seem willing to experiment in every way imaginable with the futures of children these days. Charter schools, vouchers, homeschooling, for-profit ventures—why not? Throw enough crap at kids, and something’s bound to stick, right?

Camelot actually had a pretty good record in the Philly schools it used to run. Its “accelerated programs” graduated 95 percent of students—and were among 13 schools eliminated for this coming year because of budget cuts. They were replaced by school-within-a-school programs inside neighborhood high schools. Want to know what Camelot president Todd Bock said about that move in May? “We don’t think this is a good idea at all. These kids are the most at-risk kids in the district. The proposal would take these students and put them back in the comprehensive school environments where they have not been successful.”

So guess what kinds of schools Camelot will be running in Camden? You got it: school-within-a-schools.

I swear to God, if somebody tried this crap in Central Bucks or Council Rock or Rose Tree Media, parents would scream bloody murder. But hey—who’s really paying attention to kids in Camden and North Philly? And why should we care?