School District officials are hoping to chase away the dark clouds that have loomed above Philadelphia’s public schools for the past year with a rainbow.
A week ago, district Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas unveiled "A Fresh Start: Philadelphia Public Schools." The message of the campaign — whose logo depicts children cheerily following a rainbow-colored path to a schoolhouse — is that Sept. 5 will mark a renaissance in the city schools.
It is also an attempt by the district to calm those parents who may be queasy about the future of their child’s education.
"There’s reason for excitement," Vallas said. "That’s why we’re calling it ‘Fresh Start’ — it’s kind of a whole new day and a whole new world for our school system."
Among the changes about to be announced before the start of school is a new school-safety program and a new disciplinary code. Fresh Start also is promoting student pre-registration and has created a hotline for parents with questions about enrolling their kids in school.
Meanwhile, the district has scheduled events leading up to the opening of schools. On Sept. 3, an ecumenical prayer service will be held at Dilworth Plaza, and on Sept. 4, the "Fresh Start Caravan" will hit the streets with stops throughout the city, including South Philadelphia High School, Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, sometime mid-afternoon.
Then, at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 5 — the first day of class — officials will gather at George W. Childs Elementary, 17th and Tasker streets, for a bell-ringing ceremony marking the start of the school year.
Two weeks ago during a City Hall meeting with reporters, Mayor John Street and his Secretary of Education Debra Kahn said the success of Fresh Start and the other new school programs is parental involvement — something that both noted has been woefully lacking districtwide.
"Parents need to step up to the plate and be more responsible, more committed," Kahn said, adding that this doesn’t excuse the city from its responsibility to educate children.
Said Street: "We should not fool ourselves into thinking we can supplant the role of parents. The only thing we can do is supplement the role of parents."
The mayor called parents the "sleeping giant" vital to improving the quality of education. Street also spoke of a recent conversation he had with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at an NAACP conference.
Jackson told the mayor about a pledge he has asked parents to sign as part of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Street said. The pledge commits parents to assisting with their children’s education by doing simple things like providing breakfast, ensuring their child arrives to school on time and turning off the TV in the evenings.
Street and Vallas have adopted their own version of the oath, which will be distributed to parents. A copy was released last Thursday. (See sidebar.)
"There is a new sheriff in town," Street said, "and there is going to be a different standard of accountability that every parent is going to be held to."
Vallas meets the press
School District CEO Paul Vallas has barely been in office a month and a half, but he has big plans for the beleaguered Philadelphia public schools.
Widespread building repairs, new construction, new discipline and accountability codes, a new school-safety program and an expanded summer-school program were among the initiatives he discussed with about a dozen reporters gathered at the School District Administration Building a week ago.
"We want to send the signal that it’s a new day in the Philadelphia public schools," Vallas said.
The CEO sported a tie with a schoolhouse motif and was personable and positive throughout the meeting. He even cracked a few jokes.
The School Reform Commission hired the new CEO on July 10. He previously held a similar position with the Chicago public schools, where he was lauded for reforming one of the worst education systems in the country.
During his tenure in Chicago, Vallas was credited with trimming and balancing the budget, implementing programs to improve academic achievement, and authorizing construction of 76 schools and renovating 500 existing buildings.
Vallas told local reporters he already envisions building nine new high schools throughout Philadelphia. The hope is to alleviate overcrowding in the existing buildings, he said. Public hearings will be held to discuss those plans.
"We just want those schools to be different," Vallas said.
He also addressed the importance of students having confidence in their schools as safe havens. A common criticism is that the district’s zero-tolerance policy is not enforced, he said.
"A student arrested for assault on Sunday should not be back [allowed] in school on Monday. Children need consistency. They need to know that when they go to school, they’ll be safe."
Students and parents will receive copies of the new disciplinary code that will go into effect the first day of school. Vallas suggested that students who break the code but do not pose a danger to their classmates can be handled internally through programs such as Saturday detention. Kids who pose a danger to other students need to be sent to "high-quality" alternative schools in which they can be monitored, he said.
The district is looking to expand the number of private disciplinary schools, the CEO added.
Additional plans for student safety will be announced at a press conference next week.
As before, the academic progress of students will be evaluated primarily through standardized tests. In Chicago, Vallas said, students who scored below these testing standards were not promoted unless they exhibited excellent classroom performance, such as high grades, perfect attendance and punctuality. The summer program also will be open to students who passed the standardized tests but aren’t at grade level, and to those who want to be involved in school-based instructional activities and sports.
Vallas tried to allay fears about Edison and other private management companies by pointing out that the district is ultimately in charge if anything goes wrong.
"If they leave, they just give me the keys to the school," he said.
He expressed confidence in Edison despite the company’s dropping stock last week, but said if things didn’t work out, the district would step in.
"If their stock goes flat-line, it doesn’t affect the schools at all. Instead of the principals reporting to Edison, they’ll report to the chief academic officer," Vallas said. "We own everything in that [Edison] school, so the word to teachers is ‘relax,’ and the word to parents is ‘relax’ — same plane, same crew, same passengers.
"Whatever happens, schools are going to be ready to open."
Advocate expects busier year
Harvey Rice, Safe Schools Advocate, gave a presentation outlining the purpose and function of his office at a school district seminar two weeks ago. While he was addressing a room full of principals, one raised her hand to ask a question.
"Is that directive still in effect not to cooperate with your office?" she asked Rice.
He was taken aback. Rice had been aware most school district personnel were giving him the cold shoulder, but he never knew it was an official edict. He since has learned that an e-mail was sent to school administrators, but said he has not pinpointed who sent it.
The Office of the Safe Schools Advocate was created when former Gov. Tom Ridge signed Act 26 to authorize a state takeover of schools in August 2000. The Pennsylvania Department of Education hired Rice more than a year-and-a-half ago and set up his office in the School District Administration Building.
Despite being a native Northeast Philadelphian, Rice believes that because the state hired him, he is seen as an outsider.
"There has been a climate for the last 30 years here of resistance to any type of change and anyone coming from outside," Rice said. "I think that is probably a big part of it."
The lack of cooperation between the school district and safe schools advocate became evident when Rice released a report last week on school violence.
According to the report, last school year there were 5,287 serious and violent offenses. Additionally, there were 1,122 weapons offenses — 356 of which were never reported to the police. The report also stated that less than 3 percent of violent offenders were expelled from neighborhood schools, as state law stipulates.
Rice testified to these statistics before members of the Pennsylvania House Urban Affairs Committee yesterday morning during a hearing at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. He also discussed the roadblock thrown by the district preventing him from contacting victims.
On Monday, the attorney met with CEO Vallas, who told him he would issue a new directive requiring the school principals to cooperate with the Safe Schools Office.
The two also spoke about the new disciplinary code Vallas plans to implement at the start of the school year. Rice said he made several suggestions, such as upgrading sexual assault, drug possession, and assault on school personnel to more serious offenses.
Rice was encouraged by Vallas’ support for his office. Last year, the advocate’s office handled almost 400 cases. He said he expects his workload to increase considerably with Vallas’ cooperation and that of school faculty.