Part Five: As its neediest schools struggle, what can Pa. learn from Ontario’s success?

Part Five of our Ontario series

Parents at Kenderton Elementary in North Philadelphia regularly meet there to discuss their frustrations and hopes for the school. (Jessica Kourkounis/for Keystone Crossroads)

What little difference four years can make.

Students at Kenderton Elementary have seen five principals and heard countless broken promises in fewer years.

The school sits in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and after being kicked back and forth between different managers, it’s in the same sorry state that it was in 2012.

Kenderton’s story may seem extreme, but it illuminates much about how Pennsylvania’s education system treats its most vulnerable children.

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Could there be another way?

In nearby Ontario, Canada, the school system is internationally heralded, and our series found a few key differences compared to Pennsylvania.

The province offers much more rigorous teacher preparationuniversal pre-K, and a deeply rooted commitment to prioritizing the neediest students.

In this final chapter, we seek reactions to our Ontario reporting from Pennsylvanians — including those most at the mercy of the state’s highly inequitable school system.

Welcome to North Philly

Shereda Cromwell knows too well what it means for a school to be in chaos.

She’s a mother of three children at Kenderton, two of whom are autistic. And Cromwell wants what most parents want: a good, safe school close to home where she knows her kids will get the education they deserve.

But she’s starting to resign herself to the idea that that’s not going to happen.

“I’m, like, emotionally done,” she said. “I want to find other schools for my kids to go to, but then I feel torn, because this is my neighborhood school, and I shouldn’t have to go outside of my neighborhood for my children’s educational needs to be met.”

In the zip code surrounding Kenderton, census data shows median household income to be about $21,000. Single mothers are the most common heads-of-household, and most families rely on food stamps.

The families at the elementary school have lived something like a nightmare for the past four years, and Cromwell and a handful of other parents meet regularly at the school to hash over the details of what happened, and figure out what they’re supposed to do next.

First, in 2013, the school district told them their school was failing and had to be converted to a charter — which is itself often an emotional process for parents and kids.

A charter management organization, Scholar Academies, came in to run the school. And after an adjustment, things seemed to be going pretty well.

But then problems arose.

Kenderton is a hub for special-education students, and when it became clear that the needs of the children were too costly to meet, Scholar Academies decided to abandon the school with little warning — leaving the community shocked and furious.

“They didn’t care. They didn’t look at our children as people. They looked at our children as dollars and cents,” said Cromwell. “And it didn’t make any sense to invest any more money in our kids.”

Shereda Cromwell is the mother of three children who attend Kenderton Elementary in North Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)

That was last spring.

Decision makers at the district were left with very little time to assemble a coherent plan for the school. Many parents wanted Mastery Charter Schools, which has a much better reputation than Scholar Academies as a neighborhood school operator, to take over Kenderton.

Mastery agreed, but only if it could alter the school’s grade configuration.

The district declined, not wanting to displace students, and opted instead to run the school again itself.

But hiring a staff at the last minute proved especially difficult.

Ultimately, a rookie principal was assigned, and parents say the beginning of the school year was complete mayhem — violence in the halls, no curricular plan, and special-education needs left unfulfilled.

That principal was recently replaced, and the school is once again in transition.

Cromwell gave heart-wrenching testimony about their ordeal at a Philadelphia School Reform Commission meeting in October.

“I feel like I’m standing in a room, screaming at the top of my lungs to help my kids, to help these kids. Nobody’s answering me, nobody’s hearing me…” she said, choking back tears. “I need answers. We need resolve. Our school needs help. These kids need help. Parents are losing sleep, everyday.”

Parlez-vous Français?

It was hard not to think about Cromwell while writing our series comparing the public education systems in Pennsylvania and Ontario.

She and the other Kenderton parents have lived both sides of Pennsylvania’s education reform debate. And they’ve seen, perhaps, the worst of what Pa.’s system has to offer.

The charter that was supposed to be the solution at Kenderton failed, and Cromwell has little faith the district can create the robust learning environment she envisions for her kids.

The job at Kenderton has been made all the more difficult based on a few of Pennsylvania’s hallmarks.

The state’s reliance on property taxes as the main source of school funding means the neediest districts start from a clear disadvantage, based on the wealth of the local community.

And, based on those disparities, educators are then fiscally disincentivized to teach in poorer districts. The median average salary for classroom teachers in the richest fifth of districts is $16,000 higher than that in the poorest fifth.

Philadelphia, for instance, a poorer district surrounded by some of the wealthiest in the state, has struggled with turnover and vacancies.

Meanwhile, in the capitol, state leaders recently celebrated the adoption of a new student-weighted funding formula — which, until recently, Pa. was one of only three states to lack.

But lawmakers plan to use that formula to allocate just a small sliver of state funds.

That portion will grow over time, but well into the distant future, it means the state will largely stay the course with a school funding scheme that does not prioritize schools in high-needs districts such as Philadelphia, Reading, or — where this series began — Erie.

And after twenty years without revisions, the state’s charter school law remains woefully out of date. But there’s no consensus in the legislature on a better plan to raise standards for the sector.

Thinking of Kenderton, School District of Philadelphia superintendent William Hite says the state is out of synch with the needs of its most distressed districts.

“They’re not building a system that’s making it actively easier to do this work,” he said.

In Ontario, leaders have fostered an approach that provides the most support and attention to high-needs schools such as Kenderton.

Ontario is distinguished from Pa. in how it attracts and retains the best teachers to the neediest schools, embraces diversity as an asset, and provides need-based funding and universal pre-K.

When Keystone Crossroads explained Ontario’s system to Cromwell, it sounded so foreign she could hardly grasp it.

“In all honesty, you could be speaking French to me just now,” she said.

Sink or swim?

Pennsylvania’s system, though, does work well for families of greater means who can afford to live in clusters of wealth. And the difference highlights a clear philosophical divide between the two systems.

Where Ontario values equality for the whole, Pennsylvania values a family’s ability to maximize their own opportunities.

Keystone Crossroads spoke about this dynamic with several stakeholders across the state.

“It’s sink or swim for school districts, right? Lower Merion swims and Reading sinks, and we keep scratching at the windows trying to get public policy to change that,” said Donna Cooper,  the executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “But there’s very much an individualist sense in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and in America compared to our Canadian counterparts.”

Cooper, who was a cabinet member with former Governor Ed Rendell, says that Pennsylvania’s education system needs to move closer to Ontario’s vision, or its economy will suffer with the continued rise of automation and globalization.

“We are not going to have a sufficient number of well-educated workers that can occupy the workspaces in the global marketplace under the current education system,” she said. “So whether we like our value system — like, we’re ‘pull yourselves up by your bootstraps’ and they’re, ‘egalitarian’ — is kind of irrelevant.”

Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth in her office in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)

The current governor’s administration agrees.

“I can hope that I’ll be an older guy, sitting down reading the newspaper one day, and folks will be celebrating our accomplishments as we’re able to celebrate Ontario today,” said Pedro Rivera, Pa.’s Secretary of Education.

In Ontario, all school funding comes from the province, and is formulaically allocated according to student need. And after major consolidations, Ontario boasts school boards that are much more diverse in the socioeconomic status of students.

Rivera believes these are all ideals for Pennsylvania.

“Our reliance on property taxes is not healthy,” he said. “If the state would have the resources to properly allocate funding, and to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of students regardless of zip code, that would absolutely be the optimal choice.”

Pennsylvania’s large number of school districts also complicates the all-important search for leadership, as it must regularly staff 500 superintendents.

By comparison, Ontario has more students than Pa., but just 72 school boards.

In Maryland, there are just 25 school districts.

(Graphics by Azavea/For Keystone Crossroads)

Anathema to taxpayers? Proof of school choice?

A Keystone Crossroads analysis found that, overall, Ontario spends less per student than Pennsylvania on public education.

But it’s clear that Ontario schools benefit greatly from the provinces’ investment in a significantly larger social safety net.

“Because poverty is less of an issue in Canada, you can get better results out of your educational input than you can get in Pennsylvania,” said Cooper. “And either we have to go about solving poverty, or we have to have more educational inputs, and more educational input costs more money. I mean they’re just the facts of the game.”

Many, though, say either way would add up to extreme overreach, an anathema to taxpayers.

The Canadian fiscal watchdog group The Fraser Institute estimates that, on average, families there spend more of their income on all forms of taxes than basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

And the merits of those levies are vigorously debated among Canadians, as seen here and here.

In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation, which advocates for smaller government, says Canada’s tax structure raises alarms.

“Canada has a different model than the United States, and what works in Canada — I don’t know if that would fly in Pennsylvania or America.” said James Paul, CF’s senior policy analyst.

Our series focused on the different visions for ‘equity’ held by Pennsylvania and Ontario, and highlighted the fact that both systems still have far to go to close achievement gaps, especially for children of color like those at Kenderton.

Paul says this is the wrong emphasis.

“Of course it is admirable and worthwhile that we’d want to improve performance of the lowest performing students, but there are tradeoffs that have to be considered.”

For instance, he says, honing in on low performers in the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind law has put middle-and-high-performing children at a disadvantage.

“The goal of any school system should be to reach the maximum potential of every child that walks into its doors,” he said. “And my fear is that this conflicts in many ways with a laser-like obsession with closing achievement gaps and with equity.”

Paul also praised the fact that Canada doesn’t have a federal education system, and leaves the responsibility to the provinces.

Republican leaders in the legislature declined to speak for this series. The spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said they weren’t “comfortable diving into this topic at this time.”

Others who share some of their values, especially regarding school choice, were more open.

They point out that, although Ontario doesn’t have charter schools, it does offer choice by providing publicly-funded Roman Catholic schools.

This system dates back to an 1860s effort to protect Catholics, who were a religious minority at the time. But public funds favoring one faith have proven a contentious issue in modern-day Ontario, where there’s religious diversity. In 1999, the United Nations ordered the province to provide a remedy that would end the discrimination, but leaders haven’t reached consensus.

Putting aside that debate, proponents of school choice in Pennsylvania say the publicly-funded Catholic schools — which serve 30 percent of students province-wide — must be acknowledged when talking about Ontario’s successes.

“It’s reasonable to conclude that a part of their accelerated outcomes have to do with the increased role of choice,” said Mike Wang, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, which lobbies for the expansion of charters and private school vouchers.

Mike Wang, Executive Director of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners at his office near Independence Mall in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)

Unlike the Commonwealth Foundation, Wang’s group does put a premium on ‘equity,’ and he greatly admires that the Toronto city district has a program for systematically boosting fiscal support to the neediest schools under its dominion.

Toronto prioritizes schools where students have low household income, are raised by single parents, whose parents have low education levels, and whose families recently arrived to Canada.

Wang says districts in Pennsylvania should take note. He says advocates who highlight resource disparities between districts too often ignore those that occur within boundary lines.

“The debate around equity too often ends at the edge of the district when it ought to carry through into the district,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that, you know, middle class students who attend magnet schools, that more are spent on those students than low-income students who attend neighborhood high schools.”

Pushing for more

It’d be 100 percent wrong to give the impression that everyone in Ontario is satisfied with their school system. In fact, many of the people Keystone Crossroads spoke with envision an even more equitable system that goes further for disadvantaged students — especially those from Canada’s indigenous First Nations communities.

In Toronto, principals at lower-income schools also report being dwarfed by wealthier counterparts when it comes to private fundraising.

And many educators say they pay little attention to the international accolades that draw the attention of outsiders.

“The view from the inside is that, like, we have no idea and no conception that we might be doing things well compared to other jurisdictions, and we’re always just talking about all the issues and the problems,” said Sachin Maharaj, a high school teacher in Toronto and regular contributor to the Toronto Star. “Someone else might come along and say, ‘Hey, but like, you know, compared to Philadelphia, or wherever, like this is nothing.’ But you need people to constantly push that envelope.”

Back in North Philly, Kenderton’s Shereda Cromwell feels like she’s pushing for change from a much weaker vantage point.

She’s a mom from a poor neighborhood.  Her children have the deck stacked against them, and they go to a school that’s seen, so far, only a string of broken promises.

She’s not versed in the nuances of policy, and she lacks connection to power.

And even though she’s not naive enough to expect wholesale change, she cares too much about her children to accept the status quo.

So she continues to speak out.

“Anybody who has an issue with me advocating for my child in reference to the things that are going on in this school, if you think the school is so great, enroll your children here,” she said. “If you believe things are going so well, put your money where your mouth is.”

This is the final segment in a five-part series examining the differences between the public school systems in Ontario and Pennsylvania.

Keystone Crossroads explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania’s cities. Four public media newsrooms are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state’s urban crisis – and on possible solutions.

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