WITH Philadelphia public-school students back in class this week, we should not let the fact that these are hard times overshadow good news about the district.

There are examples large and small, but the most important are new statistics from the state Education Department that list the state's "persistently dangerous" schools.

No Philadelphia public schools are on the list.


Five years ago, 25 district schools made the dangerous list, but the numbers have been dropping since. Last year, Lincoln High School and Sayre High School were on the list. They are off it this year.

This is not to say that Philly schools are violence-free. There were 2,485 violent incidents reported during the last school year, but this is a 10 percent decline from the previous year. In fact, the number of violent incidents has gone down in each of the past four years.

In the past, it was best to view district statistics on violence with skepticism. During the regime of the late Arlene Ackerman, principals were pressured to keep those numbers down and they did, often by underreporting incidents.

There is no evidence that is happening under Superintendent William Hite. District officials credit an increased emphasis on prevention for the decline, including using peer mediation and quick removal of the most disruptive students to alternative programs.

For years, there was a great divide between school officials and parents over school safety. Many professionals believed that if students were actively engaged in learning - led by skilled teachers - then safety would follow. Parents believed that safety had to come first before learning could happen.

Under Hite, the district now tilts toward parents, so there is added emphasis on making schools safer.

Hite also went ahead this fall with plans to open three new high schools: The LINC, Building 21 and The U School. All of them take new approaches - with smart use of technology and project-based (as opposed to classroom-bound) learning.

Critics complain that this is no time to spend scarce resources on experiments, especially when the schools - particularly neighborhood high schools - are so starved for cash.

But, Hite believes that to survive in the competitive world of education, the district needs to embrace innovation and make more options available for students.

We look upon these new high schools as test-models that could be expanded elsewhere (including neighborhood schools) if they deliver results.

Two other items qualify as good news. Because of cooperation between the district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the district is opening its free lunch program to all students who wish to participate. Before, parents had to apply for the free lunches and the district had to determine eligibility according to income. Some were reluctant to apply because of the stigma associated with poverty.

Now, no paperwork is required. The additional cost of the program will be covered by the federal and state governments.

Finally, the district cuts to free SEPTA tokens for high-school students, a victim of budget constraints, will not come to pass. The district and SEPTA worked out an arrangement to let the program continue as is.

All these examples are proof that the district is working hard to do the right thing for students. It's time for the politicians in Harrisburg to do the same.