Reform brings the norm

After a year of speculation about the fate of the revamped school district, officials at local privatized schools happily reported a smooth first week of classes.

Joe Ritvalsky, principal of Universal Companies’ William S. Pierce Middle School, 24th and Christian streets, called last Thursday’s first day of classes typical. Surprisingly, he said, just a few parents have approached him with questions about the school’s new manager.

"If I were getting paid by the number of parents who were coming in and asking questions, I would be broke," Ritvalsky quipped.

This is not for lack of interest. Universal anticipated some queries in letters the company sent to Pierce parents this summer. Ritvalsky mailed a follow-up letter.

Things are not completely unchanged at Pierce this year. For example, students follow a new class schedule. Those in danger of failing a class must attend a 30-minute "zero period" beginning at 8 a.m. Pupils in good academic standing report to class at 8:30 a.m.

The change allows faculty to concentrate on those kids who need help while rewarding students who study by letting them come to school later, Ritvalsky said.

The principal said he has witnessed a change in morale among parents.

"Universal has brought a spirit of engagement to the school that we haven’t had in a while," he said. "People are calling and asking what they can do to help."

Pierce will host an open house on Wednesday. Rotan Lee, Universal’s senior vice president and general counsel, said the other three schools in his organization will hold similar events later this month.

In addition to Pierce, Universal operates Edwin M. Stanton Elementary, 17th and Christian streets; newly charterized Edwin H. Vare Middle School, 24th Street and Snyder Avenue; and owns Universal Institute Charter School, 801 S. 15th St.

Lee said the schools are in "design/build mode" and are evaluating existing programs while simultaneously implementing new ones.

Universal’s schools all follow the same curriculum — one that promotes traditional academic subjects, plus a new emphasis on careers and African-American studies, Lee said.

The vice president mentioned a few more changes taking place in each of Universal’s institutions. One was the creation of a parent office in every school.

"The object is to get parents involved on an ongoing basis to have a cadre of parents who will work with other parents," Lee said.

Parents in the office will assist teachers, help with behavior management and afterschool programs, and act as a liaison between the school and other parents.

The new office is up and running at Vare, and similar ones will open at the other schools in the coming months, Lee said.

Each also will have a leadership council comprised of administrators, faculty, community members and students. They already have in place a school academic officer who reports to Universal’s schoolwide academic officer.

"The bottom line is we want good grades," Lee said.

Edison Schools gave a similar report.

"So far, so good," said company spokesperson Adam Tucker. "I don’t think there was anything out of the ordinary or that we didn’t feel prepared for. We’re just focused on running the schools right now."

Edison is managing 20 schools citywide, and two in South Philadelphia — James Alcorn Elementary, 32nd and Dickinson streets; and Norris S. Barratt Middle School, 16th and Wharton streets. Principals at the two schools did not return calls for comment.

After students and teachers have a chance to settle in, Edison is planning outreach events for parents and the community, Tucker said. The company wants to involve the community in some school planning, he said, and provide an "opportunity for the principal and the school leadership teams to hear questions, concerns and ideas that parents have for the school."

Making tuition their business

A new state program helps some low-income families afford parochial school through corporate grants.

Etta Hansberry did not want to pull her kids from St. Thomas Aquinas School two years ago, but she had no choice, she said.

At the time, she had just left work on a disability and could no longer afford tuition on her fixed income. This year, however, her three children are re-enrolled at the parish school at 18th and Morris streets.

Hansberry’s children have received partial scholarships through a new state program, called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which gives tax breaks to businesses that make donations to scholarship organizations. The mother said she would not have been able to afford the tuition bills without the assistance.

"I don’t want to keep taking [the kids] in and out," said Hansberry, of the 1300 block of South 22nd Street. "I’m trying my best in every kind of way to keep them in."

On Friday, officials from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia held a press conference at St. Thomas Aquinas to kick off the first year of EITC. The Rev. Arthur Taraborelli, the church’s pastor, called it an "innovative program" that allows parents to have a choice in their children’s education. Sixty-two students received scholarships this year.

"Our families here have greatly benefited from the EITC," the pastor said. "The awards given to St. Thomas Aquinas add up to almost $30,000."

J. William Mills 3d, president of PNC Financial Services Group in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and chairperson of the Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, also was on hand.

BLOCS is one of 113 scholarship organizations statewide participating in EITC. It has collected $1.2 million in the past year and, in July, awarded 2,000 scholarships to children attending Archdiocesan schools. The scholarships were based on a family’s income and ranged from $250 to $1,000.

"EITC holds the potential for dramatically changing the impact of the educational environment and helping families across Southeastern Pennsylvania put their children in schools that they choose," said Mills.