Superintendent Arlene Ackerman yesterday presented a sweeping, controversial vision for the Philadelphia School District's future that includes shutting down failing schools and potentially reopening them as charter schools, reducing class sizes, and overhauling teacher hiring.
Dubbed "Imagine 2014," the draft plan would cost $50 million over five years, officials estimate. After getting community input, the School Reform Commission must vote on a final version in April.
The plan represents the first major policy push for Ackerman, who has led the 167,000-student district for eight months and who later yesterday got into her first public dustup with the commission on an unrelated resolution. Despite the hefty price, her plan would give city students, half of whom do not finish high school, the bare minimum, she said.
"This is just the basics," Ackerman said. "It already happens in Bucks County, it happens in Montgomery County, it happens in school systems around the country. Where it doesn't happen often enough is in urban school districts like Philadelphia."
The plan drew immediate fire for its call to shut down up to 35 of the city's worst-performing schools and reopen them as district-run charter schools or under outside management.
Ackerman said she wanted to create "a system of great schools," including the "Renaissance Schools." She also called for building "Vanguard Schools," currently successful public schools that would operate with more autonomy. Her "Empowerment Schools" - 85 struggling schools that now get extra support from the district - are also part of the proposal.
District officials said only organizations with proven track records could run the new schools. Ackerman said she would welcome proposals from groups such as the Knowledge is Power Program, which runs successful charter schools around the country.
She said she would even like successful district principals and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to try their hand at running schools, if they chose to.
The schools that would close - and the criteria for picking them - have not yet been identified, Ackerman said. Initially, 10 new schools would be opened in September 2010, she said.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called Ackerman's plan irresponsible.
"The district's new strategic plan is one more attempt by the administration to shift the blame for consistently under-resourcing schools to the teachers and staff," Jordan said in a statement.
Overbrook High junior Markeeta Hudgens, 17, said she thought the district was shirking its responsibilities.
"They want to give up, and push us away like everybody else," she said.
Ackerman said she knew the plan would meet with criticism, but that action was crucial. Commission Chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn agreed.
"There should be urgency about this, because children are losing out every day," Dungee Glenn said.
Also in Ackerman's plan are proposals to:
Lower class size to 20 in kindergarten and 22 in first through third grade.
Beef up guidance services districtwide.
Open three career and technical high schools and one high school to train future Philadelphia teachers.
Vastly expand enrichment activities for all students.
Ackerman also wants to establish regional early-childhood centers and welcome centers for English-language students, reinstitute in-house school suspension for older students suspended five days or less, and provide educational opportunities for parents.
The plan also calls for a new office of institutional advancement, a weighted student funding formula that would give schools that educate needier students more money, and a revamped hiring process that would move up the hiring timetable for new teachers.
Accountability has been a theme of Ackerman's superintendency.
Too often, student progress is measured and adults are not held to performance goals, she said.
"If it doesn't work, don't keep it up," Ackerman said. "We shouldn't be spending money to make people feel good."
She acknowledged she had laid out a lofty vision.
"We won't be able to do all of this, but we will do it one step at a time," she said.
Sparks flew after Ackerman made her hourlong presentation.
Angry over Commissioner Heidi Ramirez's reluctance to support later resolutions, Ackerman told the commission it needed to "reform itself."
Ramirez, an expert in teacher quality who directs the Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University, had asked to table two measures approving new contracts for Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, which put new teachers in Philadelphia classrooms. Ramirez said she had too little information to support the resolutions.
But Ackerman said that her staff had given Ramirez the information she asked for and that the commission had "tied our hands and shackled our feet" by hesitating to do as she asked. "It's time for reform. This doesn't have to do with children. It's an adult matter."
If the district does not immediately renew the contracts, the 100 current teacher vacancies could balloon to 400 by September, Ackerman said. She also said that deals had been made in private to hold up the resolutions, a suggestion that Commissioner Martin Bednarek angrily rejected.
Ramirez said she did not oppose either organization and could support the resolutions if her questions were answered.
The resolutions failed - Ramirez and Bednarek voted no, Dungee Glenn and Denise McGregor Armbrister voted yes, and a fifth commission seat is vacant - but they will be brought up again as soon as next month, Dungee Glenn said.
Dungee Glenn also said at the meeting that the commission would consider closing two district schools in North Philadelphia by the end of next year. Earlier, it heard a report saying that citywide there were many more seats than students.
If the measure passes, Gillespie Middle School will close at the end of this school year and William Penn High School in 2010.
Community meetings will be held in March to discuss the potential closings.