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Philadelphia Wary of School Takeover

Education: The governor has plans to turn the stumbling, eighth-largest school district over to private management.


PHILADELPHIA — North of the city center, among the row houses and the neighborhood's multiethnic stores, classroom teacher Gina Henry feels unappreciated and betrayed.

She acknowledges that 4 out of 5 students in Philadelphia public schools can't read or do math at grade level. Education reforms are bringing improvements, Henry said, but teachers aren't getting any credit.

Gov. Mark Schweiker has called the reforms insufficient "baby steps" and said the school district leadership lacks the mind-set to bring bold changes.

So the governor earlier this month took matters into his own hands, announcing an untried plan, blessed by state lawmakers, to take over the school district and turn it over to a private company.

And now it seems all of Philadelphia--the mayor, the school board, parents and teachers like Henry--are howling at the notion that a private company can improve Philadelphia's academically and financially imperiled schools.

"Sure there's always room for improvement, but I'm already working from 6 a.m. to 10 at night," said Henry, a 15-year classroom veteran who teaches eighth grade at Central East Middle School, located in a onetime National Guard armory. The three-story school serves 1,100 students from 46 nations, many of them first-generation immigrants.

"The reasons our [test] numbers are bad is because our classes are overcrowded--more money would help take care of that--and because of the diversity of our kids," Henry said. "The state says we're not doing all we can? I'm offended. I'm crushed."

The school district--the nation's eighth largest--ranks at the bottom 1% among all of Pennsylvania's school districts. By one measure, its students are performing roughly the same as those in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Every year, the district outspends its revenue by about 10% and now faces a $216-million deficit because enrollment is increasing while operating funds have remained stagnant.

The governor thought the public would back his rescue plan. "I believe there is an unprecedented willingness in Philadelphia to undertake such change," he said at the time.

Instead, the city felt ambushed by the proposal that the district be managed by a private company. Equally unacceptable: that the firm would be accountable not to a locally elected school board but rather to a new Education Reform Commission, with four members appointed by the governor and the fifth by the mayor.

"We were hoping for reform where there's a true partnership between the district and the state," said Barbara Goodman, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents 20,000 district employees, including its 12,000 teachers. "But instead, we're getting an iron fist."

School board President Pedro A. Ramos called the plan "anti-public schools, anti-democratic and outright hostile."

Even Mayor John Street, who had solicited the state's help, recoiled at the governor's plan.

"The citizen taxpayers . . . are not prepared to relinquish control of their school system to a for-profit, nongovernmental entity with no public accountability," he groused in his weekly radio address.

Schweiker said he wants New York-based Edison Schools Inc. to manage the district and to run 45 of its 265 campuses.

Edison manages 136 schools in 22 states. In California, it operates schools in Long Beach, West Covina, Chula Vista, Fresno, East Palo Alto and San Francisco. After taking charge of schools in San Francisco, test scores plummeted to the lowest in the city.

Edison has never operated an entire school district but agreed that if student scores do not improve here, the company will waive its payment.

Edison has proposed paying principals 30% bonuses if their schools meet performance goals and paying $7,500 bonuses to 1,500 teachers to mentor younger instructors.

The company promises to invest $75 million in the district, to pay for everything from painting classrooms to new textbooks. It pledges laptop computers for each teacher and home computers for students beyond the third grade, saying technology is key to academic achievement.

It also wants to privatize and downsize school maintenance, saving the district about $45 million a year, and add an hour to the school day and lengthen the school year.

Street and Schweiker have until Nov. 30 to negotiate terms of the takeover, but if the city and state can't come to agreement, the state will take charge of the district on its own terms.

At Kearny Elementary School, its hardwood floors holding up well against 79 years of scuffs, Principal Eileen Spagnola said she is trying to stay focused on her daily agenda while the larger turmoil swirls about the district.

In one classroom, first-grade teacher Sandra Whiteside gathered her students to take them to the federal courthouse, where judges, law clerks and others will read to them. In another classroom, second-grade teacher Mike Biddle demonstrated weather cycles, using a steaming teakettle and ice cubes.

"We don't know what the ultimate game plan will be," said Spagnola, "so it's business as usual for now. Our teachers already have so much on their plates. But it's going to be interesting, however all of this turns out."

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