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‘A new direction’: Philadelphia school board shifts focus toward academics and equity work

“We’re going to see how progressive progressive parents are,” said board member Mallory Fix Lopez, adding that “tough decisions will have to be made in the spirit of equity.”

The Philadelphia school board is adopting a new, five-year plan that will transform the way it does business. Board president Joyce Wilkerson is shown here in this 2019 file photo.
The Philadelphia school board is adopting a new, five-year plan that will transform the way it does business. Board president Joyce Wilkerson is shown here in this 2019 file photo.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s school board is changing the way it operates.

The board on Thursday night adopted what it’s calling “Goals and Guardrails,” guiding principles that will shift its focus and, come January, its meetings, putting a sharper focus on academic achievement. By extension, the effort will put Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and his administration on the hot seat. The plan will also strongly emphasize work around antiracism and equity among district schools.

In its first two years of existence, the board — and its predecessor, the state-run School Reform Commission — was too focused on inputs and not on outputs, and how well Philadelphia’s 120,000 students read and do math and are prepared for college and career, Board president Joyce Wilkerson said.

An analysis of SRC business showed that the commission spent just 10% of its time focusing on student achievement, in part because the district has been in “survival mode” for the last 20 years. The board must keep its eye on student achievement, Wilkerson said, even as another financial crisis looms.

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“A focus on student learning and student success has to guide everything that we do at the board,” Wilkerson said at a news conference, adding that the new, five-year plan will drive change “and deliver on the promise of local control.”

Practically, the shift means the board will have substantial check-ins on its three goals — students performing at or above grade level in reading, and in math, and getting them ready for college and careers — at every meeting. The question: “How does this impact student learning?” will frame every action item. The board, as the district’s governing body, will still be responsible for voting on contracts and conducting the business of the school system, but it will spend less time on operational matters and more on academics, it said.

Though the district has made progress under Hite, the gains have been incremental, and Philadelphia students are struggling, even compared with those in other big-city school systems. On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the nation’s report card, just 17% of district fourth graders read at or above grade level, and 18% scored at or above grade level in math. Philadelphia’s performance paled when compared with 27 large urban school districts, with 16 school systems besting it in reading and 19 in math.

“As a whole, we’re not doing what we need to do for our students,” Wilkerson said.

The principles will focus the board generally on reading, math, and college and career readiness, holding up specific goals along the way. For instance, the board wants the district to improve the percentage of students who meet state benchmarks in English from 36%, its current level, to 65% by 2026. It will look at the numbers broken down by race, economic and special education status, and whether students are English language learners, and examine data frequently and in public to monitor progress.

It also arrived at four guardrails — nonnegotiable conditions that must exist in schools in order for the board’s goals to be met. Those are: welcoming and supportive schools; a call for schools to be environmentally safe and clean, with adequate mental health supports in place; enriching and well-rounded school experiences, with arts and athletics available to all; partnering with parents and families; and dismantling racist practices.

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“Systemic racism is real and alive in our district,” said board member Mallory Fix Lopez.

The board reframing will mean changes on the school level, too, said Wilkerson and Fix Lopez, who has often publicly raised issues of equity in schools.

Fix Lopez, for instance, recently voted against acceptance of a grant for work on a playground at Chester Arthur Elementary, a school with a well-organized neighborhood group raising funds on its behalf. Why did Chester Arthur get schoolyard improvements if schools in lower-wealth neighborhoods, who lack well-connected groups to raise money for them, lack such amenities? Fix Lopez said that she’s raised money for neighborhood schools herself and that such support is necessary, but feels the district must ensure equity across the city, both in donations and in spending priorities.

“We’re going to see how progressive progressive parents are,” said Fix Lopez, adding that “tough decisions will have to be made in the spirit of equity.”

(The playground question came up at another school Thursday night; the board ultimately voted to table an item that would have committed it to spending $250,000, a quarter of its playground budget, to get a matching grant for a $250,000 playground at Lowell Elementary. Citywide, 65 schools have no playgrounds at all.)

The new structures could also mean lower class sizes in schools where students struggle but not in higher-performing schools, or efforts to staff lower-income schools with more experienced teachers, Wilkerson and Fix Lopez said. (Such measures would require sign-off from the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which will soon begin negotiating a new, long-term contract with the district.)

Wilkerson said the board will hold twice-yearly evaluations of its progress, and also use the new structure to evaluate Hite, who said he welcomed the new board push.

“It does provide us with a focused effort around student outcomes,” said Hite. “As an educational institution, we should all we talking more frequently about where students are, and by the board adopting these goals and guardrails, I think it will create a foundation so that we can step toward those types of practices on a regular basis.”

The new direction was met with skepticism from members of the public mistrustful both of the district and of the board, which is dissolving its current committee structure, which allowed for public testimony on board action items before the votes are taken. The public will continue to have input, through in different venues, board members said.

The board “is quashing public engagement by fragmenting public discourse,” said Karel Kilimnik, a retired district teacher.

Stephanie King, a district parent, said the goals and guardrails were excellent, aspirational.

But, King said, “you cannot achieve any of those things unless you repair relationships with the people in schools.”

Gail Clouden, the activist known as “Mama Gail,” said people have heard plenty of promises of new initiatives that will change everything.

“Here we go again,” Mama Gail said, “with five more doggone years.”