Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

This district had it coming

Back in the early 2000s, when I was teaching at Villanova, I spent several months studying the hapless efforts of an out-of-state, out-of-touch, for-profit company, Edison Schools, to manage the Chester Upland School District. One day, standing outside a Chester charter school, I tried to greet children coming off a bus. They refused to talk or even wave, looking straight ahead like warriors with thousand-yard stares.

Back in the early 2000s, when I was teaching at Villanova, I spent several months studying the hapless efforts of an out-of-state, out-of-touch, for-profit company, Edison Schools, to manage the Chester Upland School District. One day, standing outside a Chester charter school, I tried to greet children coming off a bus. They refused to talk or even wave, looking straight ahead like warriors with thousand-yard stares.

Once safely inside the school, though, the same kids were cheerful and happy to talk to a strange white dude. The school was a refuge, a demilitarized zone where nothing could hurt them.

An administrator at the school told me that even though it was mediocre academically, it had a long waiting list because it was safe, unlike district schools. If charter schools were allowed to grow, he said, they would shut down the district.

The local teachers' union thought so, too. It formed an alliance with Edison against charters and other alternatives. The company and the union saw monopoly as a good thing, as long as it was theirs. But as PBS's John Merrow reported, once that mission was accomplished, the union did little to cooperate with Edison, and it played a role in the firm's failure.

So now Chester Upland has run out of money. The New York Times and National Public Radio have spun the story as one of heartless budget cuts and privatization, with charter schools - chiefly Chester Community Charter, run by businessman Vahan Gureghian - threatening to shut down a public school district.

If that happens, some good public servants will lose their jobs, and I feel for them. Chester is a tough town; I've met educators who succeeded elsewhere but, even by their own admission, failed in Chester.

The pain of public servants is a legitimate story, but it is only one side of the story. The other side is that of parents and kids. Chester's schools have been among the worst in the state for decades, and district officials showed little inclination to do much about it as long as the paychecks kept coming.

Years back, a Pennsylvania Department of Education official overseeing Chester Upland told me it's "kind of a lost school district. . . . One of the things I found most frustrating was that some of the administrators - not the teachers - like being the worst in the state because they can ... use it as an excuse, and as administrators, they're concerned about their jobs." The district exemplifies what Charles Payne noted in So Much Reform, So Little Change: Once educators believe their children cannot be taught, there is little outsiders can do to convince them otherwise. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Chester Upland is in trouble because some charter operators believed most of the district's kids can learn, while most district leaders did not. Charters offered a safe environment - and in some cases a safe learning environment - while traditional public schools did not.

The district made excuses and promises, but no real, sustained efforts to copy the competition. If schools exist for kids, instead of the other way around, then such efforts should be a big part of the Chester Upland story.