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In a district not far away…

Sunday, July 11th, 2010



Those Philadelphia public schools, everybody knows they’re hopeless, right? Not so fast, says Chris Satullo in his weekly Center Square audio essay.

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I heard recently about an urban school system where reforms seem to be reaping slow but meaningful success.

Since 2002, the percentage of this district’s students who score at either the proficient or advanced level in math has nearly tripled.  In reading, the percentage has more than doubled.

Not coincidentally, thanks to an education-minded governor, the system’s per pupil spending has risen from a scandalously feeble level to, well, pretty adequate.

A profusion of parental choice has flowered, with all manner of charter schools and specialized academies.

Where can you go to find this refreshing example of adults doing better by kids whom life has dealt a tough hand?

It’s just a short drive away.

It’s Philadelphia.

Framing is everything.   For people whose self-interest is best served by painting the Philadelphia schools as a sinkhole beyond redemption, plenty of glum statistics are readily at hand   Even the milestone that the district has been trumpeting – half of its kids scoring at proficient or above on state tests – can be flipped by the cynical. Half still don’t meet that standard.

Taken as a snapshot in time, the key school numbers in a high-poverty city such as  Philadelphia are always going to look grim.

Kids who’ve never known their fathers, who sleep in bathtubs to avoid whizzing nighttime bullets – well, they’re not as likely to take the blue ribbon at the science fair as the kids of doctors from Radnor.

In a system with 200,000 students, you can always find different stories. Some will thrill your soul; some will scorch it.  Still, if most of the important trend lines are headed in the right direction, that’s something to cheer.

Mayor Nutter and schools chief Arlene Ackerman think too many folks dwell on the negative. They recently groused that the local media didn’t cover the upbeat test scores with sufficient enthusiasm.

Let me grant this: The newshawk spirit is more swiftly drawn to the juicy – read, negative – topics … fiscal shenanigans, violence at South Philly high.  Those are legitimate stories, too.

But the full, objective picture – which is, after all, the grail of journalism – isn’t served by a singular focus on what’s going wrong.  Plenty manages to go right inside Philly schools, too, against the odds, against the stereotypes – no matter what the self-serving cynics want you to think.


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