As local students return to public school today, the nation watches. Time, Newsweek, network news crews — all were expected to descend upon the city today as Philadelphia officially begins one of the most ambitious and radical public-school reforms ever.
Adam Tucker, spokesperson for Edison Schools, Inc., on Friday said more than 50 news agencies had contacted him about covering the first day of classes. Edison will run 20 schools for the School District of Philadelphia this year. Two are in South Philly — James Alcorn Elementary, 32nd and Dickinson streets, and Norris S. Barratt Middle School, 16th and Wharton.
"It is kind of getting a little ridiculous," Tucker said of the media interest. He noted that the company is not planning any special events for today, like a grand-opening ceremony. "We just want to have school."
Less attention has been paid to the other Education Management Organizations, like Universal Companies, which the School Reform Commission tapped to manage William S. Pierce Middle School, 24th and Christian streets, and Edwin M. Stanton Elementary, 17th and Christian. Universal also will be in charge of Edwin H. Vare Middle School, 24th Street and Snyder Avenue, which has been converted to a charter school.
Edison has not received much positive press or votes of confidence from Mayor John Street or his administration since being selected to take over schools in April, but company officials remain optimistic about its chances of success here.
Edison has had a busy summer with ordering supplies, training teachers and principals, hiring new employees and registering students, said Tucker.
"We feel prepared and excited about school opening on Thursday," he said last week. "This is just the launch of what we think will be a great school year and what we hope will be a happy and healthy partnership with Philadelphia."
But last week, the news was that Edison could not pay for the classroom materials it had ordered and that the publicly traded company was close to getting kicked off the NASDAQ stock market.
Tucker confirmed that some supplies had been returned from all of Edison’s schools. He described the items as "supplemental materials" such as dry-erase boards for math classrooms, some physical-education equipment and science materials, and foreign-language textbooks.
Edison ordered all its books and supplies in June, when the company expected to be paid more money per student, Tucker explained. When the contract with the EMOs was finalized last month, Edison no longer had the budget to afford some of those perk items.
"Nothing that has to do with the core curriculum" has been returned, the spokesperson said. "We wish that we could be providing those things, but the contract [with the school district] just isn’t making it possible."
After a press conference Tuesday to unveil the district’s new school safety plan, district CEO Paul Vallas seemed understanding of the situation, but said he wished the company had told him instead of having him read about it in the newspaper.
Tucker said most of the core curriculum materials have arrived at the schools, save a few that were backordered, which he said would be delivered this week.
NASDAQ officials are on Edison’s back because the company’s stock has been selling for less than $1 a share for more than a month. According to stock-exchange rules, companies with stocks trading below a buck for 30 days are notified that they have 90 days to improve or face being delisted from the market.
On Tuesday, Edison’s stock peaked at 61 cents and sold for as much as 59 cents during after-hours trading.
The company’s stock price is a "serious matter," Tucker said, adding that Edison is working to restore investor confidence. However, he assured that it would not affect the company’s ability to run schools in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Vallas said Edison has turned over copies of most of the financial reports he had requested. The CEO had asked for paperwork that ensured the company’s financial stability.
"Right now, it appears they are off the hook," Vallas said, adding the district is still analyzing the reports. "They have responded by giving us the bulk of what we have requested."
Meanwhile, South Philly-based Universal Companies has quietly prepared to run its three schools this summer. Last weekend, the company held a retreat for parents of students attending Vare Middle School.
About 40 parents attended the event at the Ramada Inn near Philadelphia International Airport, which lasted Friday through Sunday, according to Universal’s executive headquarters.
Vallas made an appearance at the retreat and spoke about the district’s Fresh Start program. Universal officials and Vare administrators also addressed the gathering.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Vallas laid out clear disciplinary rules for all of the district’s schools.
Bring a gun, knife or any other weapon to a Philadelphia public school this year, expect to get kicked out.
Harass a student or teacher either verbally, physically or sexually, expect to get kicked out.
Threaten to plant a bomb or launch biological warfare in a school, definitely expect to get kicked out.
What would appear to be obvious reactions to serious offenses in Philadelphia’s public schools are now spelled out in print, and Vallas said these rules would no longer be ignored.
The CEO, along with School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels, released the district’s new Code of Student Conduct at the School Administration Building, 2120 Winter St.
"Everything that we are laying out here is simple, fundamental common sense," Vallas said.
During the last school year, 5,287 serious and violent offenses were reported. Additionally, there were 1,122 weapons offenses — 356 of which were never reported to police. Fewer than 3 percent of violent offenders were expelled from schools, despite a state law mandating that course of action.
That will not happen this year, Vallas said. All parents and students will receive copies of the new code. In addition, they will receive copies of the "Victims’ Bill of Rights" from the Office of the Safe Schools Advocate.
Teachers and principals have been instructed to report every violation of the code, and the administration is promising appropriate action for each offense. For violent infractions, that means placing students in an alternative school run by Community Education Partners.
"This is a code that is readable, it’s clear, it’s concise," Vallas said. "It lays out what the offenses are and what the consequences of those offenses are, as well as what everyone’s responsibilities are for student discipline."
Principals can no longer exercise discretion and choose to handle offenses in-house rather than report them to the district. Each will have a copy of the emergency response and crisis management plan created by Schools Director of Safety Dexter Green.
Administrators who fail to follow this directive will be suspended or fired, Vallas said. In Chicago, the CEO implemented a similar safety code and fired one principal for ignoring the policy, which "provoked an amazing response from everyone else," he said.
Vallas has met with all of the high-school principals, and reported they are enthusiastic about the changes.
To accommodate the influx of students to schools managed by Community Education Partners, Vallas said he would present a new contract to the Board of Education increasing the number of students that can be sent to CEP schools.
That number is expected to increase by 800 students — half of whom will be returning to the public-school system from state correctional facilities, Vallas said.
The district also will consider hiring more companies to run additional alternate schools as the district moves closer to completely privatizing the ones it currently manages.
Vallas also unveiled the "Bully Hotline" that students and parents can call if they feel harassed or intimidated. The hotline will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said. The phone number is 215-299-SAFE.
Vallas and Nevels also thanked state Reps. Alan Butkovitz (D-174th) and John Taylor (R-177th), who initiated a state assembly investigation into school violence, as well as Reps. Bill Keller (D-184th) and George Kenney (R-170th), who joined the campaign.
Nevels said the new safety policy will impact the quality of education in Philadelphia schools.
"You cannot have learning occur in a fractious, disruptive environment," he said. "Teachers cannot teach, students cannot learn."
He added that the district was creating "safe havens" for students.