Plan to end "achievement gap" under scrutiny

    This week the School Reform Commission will be asked to approve an ambitious plan for the Philadelphia School District. Advocates say Wednesday’s today’s vote could set the tone for the relationship between a new commission and the district superintendent.

    This week the School Reform Commission will be asked to approve an ambitious plan for the Philadelphia School District. Advocates say Wednesday’s today’s vote could set the tone for the relationship between a new commission and the district superintendent.
    (Photo: Flickr/Vincent J. Brown)

    Listen:
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    Arlene Ackerman says she’s ready to get started. This week the new superintendent will ask the new School reform commission to approve a five year plan designed to end inequity in the Philadelphia School District.

    Ackerman: Every time that I talk to some of our young people, and they understand that there are differences, that some get and some don’t, some have and there are lots of have-nots, it’s what makes me get up every morning.

    Ackerman says this inequity takes its toll on schools in poor neighborhoods. The result is the so-called “achievement gap.” Recent test scores show the district’s white students improving faster than African American and Latino students. Ackerman’s strategy is to redistribute resources in order to boost those struggling students.

    Ackerman: We have to make sure that all students make progress, but we have to accelerate the kids in the gap. So if their counterparts make one year’s progress, they have to make two years progress, or three years progress. That’s the only way we’ll be able to close this gap.

    For weeks, Ackerman has been holding community meetings to refine and promote this plan. The final draft calls for more libraries, more guidance counselors, more qualified teachers and reduced class sizes. Ackerman also wants to close as many as ten poorly-performing schools by next year. What the final draft does not spell is what happens when, or at what cost. Last week Commissioner Heidi Ramirez asked for a budget. Ackerman asked her to wait.

    Ramirez: I had understood that we would have some kind of a budget briefing on the costs for the plan before voting on that, so we’ll get that detail when we vote next week?

    Ackerman: Right.

    Ackerman later said her plan would cost about $60 million a year. She also said the SRC won’t have to approve a final budget until later this spring. But the uncertainties still worry some advocates. Helen Gym is with Parents United for Public Education.

    Gym: The problem is that when you apply the budget and the priorities to the plan, they don’t match up. You have a plan that on the face of it looks like it would cost hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.

    Gym likes much of what she sees in the plan. Her concern is that the revamped SRC hasn’t had time to probe it for weaknesses. Two of the commission’s five members, including the chairman, sat at their first meeting last week. A third new member has yet to be confirmed by state legislators. Gym was troubled by the fact that only one commissioner asked detailed questions about Ackerman’s final draft.

    Gym: when you have SRC commissioners who don’t ask questions, or are deferring to the CEO generally on major questions and concerns that could potentially be a dangerous place for the school district.

    Gym hopes the SRC will delay its vote. But others say it’s time to move forward. Carol Fixman runs the Philadelphia Education Fund. She hopes the SRC approves the plan. But she says that’s just the beginning of the new commission’s duties.

    Fixman: It would’ve been nice if they had been in office a bit earlier, and they had had the time to be the SRC that had the time and the staff to research it. But it didn’t work that way. So, they’ll vote on it, and they’ll implement it.

    Fixman says the SRC will have plenty of chances to shape both the plan and its budget in the months and years to come. But no matter what its successes or failures, Fixman says it will be easy for the public to know who’s ultimately responsible. All five SRC members have been appointed by either Governor Ed Rendell, or Mayor Michael Nutter.

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