Second in an occasional series

Carolyn Davis

is a member of the Inquirer Editorial Board

The next mayor of Philadelphia will have a long to-do list when he takes office. But no issue on that list is more important than helping Warren G. Harding Middle School.

Help Harding, Mr. Mayor - along with the district's 327 other traditional and charter schools - and you'll do more to brighten the city's prospects than through any other step you take.

You'll have to figure out how to show leadership even though the state exerts lead control over the district - a move that has brought progress, even as it irks some Philadelphians.

The complexities of running a large city are many, but one fact rises above all else: Philadelphia will not realize its potential if it does not give its citizens a strong and relevant education.

"A city's ability to reinvent itself is tied directly to the education of its residents," wrote Edward L. Glaeser and Albert Saiz in a Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia report.

The importance of strong schools was expressed succinctly at a Great Expectations forum in April. Darlene Callands-Curry of the Black Alliance for Educational Options recalled a grandmother using a single word to describe the urgency of improving public education: "Now."

Right now, the picture is a mix of progress and problems.

Although institutions of higher learning bloom like flowers in this region, Philadelphia is ranked only 92d among the country's 100 largest cities in its percentage of college-educated residents, according the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board.

That has huge implications for the future of those young people and the city they call home: Research shows that jobs with incomes big enough to support a family require at least an associate's degree.

The gap forms before college. For the Classes of 2000 to 2005, four-year graduation rates ranged between only 45 percent and 52 percent. Such a high dropout rate is typical among big-city districts.

Philadelphia is not your typical public school system in other ways, though - many of them positive. The next leader needs to do better than Mayor Street at getting out that good news.

Although huge challenges remain, Philadelphia schools have made more progress than many grandmothers and other residents of the city and region want to admit.

The 2001 state takeover put Philadelphia on the cutting edge of school reform. The nation is watching.

The district boasts an impressive, Baskin-Robbins variety of academic models and providers. Some schools - public schools - are run by colleges. Others are overseen by private educational companies, local cultural institutions, and nonprofit groups.

There are charters; themed high schools that are much smaller than the old, comprehensive giants; and one sleek, paperless monument to technology - the High School of the Future, in which Microsoft partners with the district.

Some nuts-and-bolts improvements - including a districtwide curriculum, improved support for teachers, more leeway for principals to pick staffs - have led to five years of rising scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

"What sets Philadelphia apart is the many reforms it is doing at once," Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, has said. "The reforms . . . are consistent and in some ways better than other districts you will see across the country."

The takeover began as a tense but workable partnership between the city and Harrisburg. Five years later, the tensions have begun to trump the collaboration.

Big-picture political issues are just some of the huge obstacles to giving 172,000 students - plus 29,000 more in charter schools - a high-quality education.

Harding reflects the challenges facing most schools in the Philadelphia district. It is one of the few sixth-through-eighth-grade middle schools left, a behemoth with 1,100 students in a 1923 building meant for 800.

Former schools chief executive officer Paul Vallas eliminated most middle schools by expanding nearby elementary schools to serve kindergarten through grade eight. But the elementaries close to Harding are too full to accommodate more students.

Harding principal Terry Pearsall-Hargett is sharp and determined. In pushing for a high-tech school, she has gotten Harding desktop computer labs and mobile laptop carts.

Students in Victoria Monacelli's seventh-grade reading class smiled broadly as she distributed laptops one day last week. Earlier, her students had used them to make pamphlets on two animals in a story they had read.

Despite strong leadership and creative teachers, Harding has never achieved the Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math that federal law requires.

That could be because 25 percent of Harding students are classified as special education. It could be because of the high mobility rate of Pearsall-Hargett's students - she lost about 250 last year and gained the same number.

Political debates that Pearsall-Hargett has little time to track will influence whether she gets the tools to meet her goals for Harding. Like it or not, politics is a part of running any public school system. But there are helpful politics and destructive politics.

The takeover was at its most effective early, when Vallas and former School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels, appointed by Republican former Gov. Mark Schweiker, banded together to push reforms that some traditional political powers did not favor. It was a beautiful relationship at first. But it, too, frayed.

The beauty turned especially beastly in the last two years as a budget deficit developed and SRC members lost faith in Vallas. The squabbling got personal.

Now, as a crucial school year that includes teacher contract talks begins, the district has no permanent CEO and a new SRC chairwoman, Sandra Dungee Glenn.

Gov. Rendell, a Democrat, seems to be putting his people in top district offices before the new CEO is hired. That might make it harder to recruit a strong leader.

Mayoral candidates Republican Al Taubenberger and Democrat Michael Nutter have said they'd like to see the city "take back the schools" from the state. Pursuing that crowd-pleasing idea would soak up a lot of energy, and would complicate another key goal - seeking more state aid.

What the city's next chief executive can do is be top cheerleader for the schools and students. He can help the case for more money by telling the public about the district's successes and helping to confront its failings.

He can prod administrators to do a better job of informing parents about the choices they have. Parental and civic engagement are key. He can urge parents to play a bigger role in schools and in their children's learning, and he can cajole businesses to give working parents the time to do that.

On the sore topic of money, it's true that Vallas' fiscal stewardship was flawed, which gave ammunition to the district's enemies. But the deficits grew not from misuse of money but from Vallas' zeal to institute as many academic programs as quickly as he could.

There are misunderstandings on both sides of this city/Harrisburg debate.

Few in Philadelphia realize that per-pupil spending in Philadelphia has risen from $8,327 in 2002 (the first full year under the takeover) to $11,164 as of 2006, which is near the state average, thanks to the takeover and Rendell's education budgets. But few in Harrisburg seem to realize that median spending is still inadequate for a school system that takes on much higher percentages of poor and immigrant children than the typical district.

Nothing much is riding on this city/state dialogue about public education here.

Just the future of Philadelphia.

Without Borders | Education Ideas From Elsewhere

Oakland, Calif.:

The Small Schools Residency

The residency was founded in 2005 and is a partnership between the Oakland Small Schools Foundation and the Nonprofit and Public Management Program at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

The foundation is a nonprofit group founded in 2003 by principals and business leaders from around Oakland.

Its goal is to strengthen Oakland's small public schools, and it works toward that goal through a number of programs, including helping the schools find funding and do strategic planning.

Another program is a six-month residency that allows students earning their master's degrees in business administration or public policy to work directly for a principal on a project.

The aim is for participants to learn about and contribute to school reform, while sharing knowledge that could help the school's business and management operations.

Some participants have gone on to work in the education field after earning their master's degrees.

For more information, see www.smallschoolsfoundation.org.EndText