PART 3: A Philadelphia Story

Successes at a Big-City System

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- Darren Romero could see this was no ordinary parent-teacher meeting.

Romero had left his construction job early, having been summoned to M. Hall Stanton Elementary School with a call that his first-grade son, Darren Jr., had fallen behind in reading and math. Now, a large screen flashed video footage of Darren coloring with markers when he should have been working on a money-counting exercise. The teacher pointed to a chart showing Darren's reading level, far below where he should be at this point in the school year.

Then the teacher, principal, literacy coach and other parents shared ideas for helping Darren -- one-on-one tutoring, books on tape that the school could lend, and a clever trick that involved speaking into a curved plastic PVC pipe so he could hear himself read.

This kind of meeting is part of a broad range of reforms introduced in the Philadelphia public schools targeting the lowest-performing students. After five years of intense focus, the strategy in the nation's eighth-largest school district is bearing fruit: Citywide, the number of students reaching "proficient" and "advanced" levels on the Pennsylvania state tests has risen steadily -- in some grades outpacing the average improvements statewide.

As D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) implements his plan to seize control of the struggling public schools, Philadelphia and a handful of other cities are showing signs that it is possible to repair broken school districts, but only through extraordinary effort.

The school systems making the largest gains are united by some common threads: Government and school leaders have set aside differences and harnessed their power behind reforms, superintendents have brought an intense, persuasive leadership style to the process, and efforts have concentrated on raising the test scores of the lowest-performing students.

But Philadelphia also illustrates how hard it can be to sustain improvements. The superintendent credited with much of the gain, Paul Vallas, is leaving the city this month as budget projections show a large deficit threatening his reform program.

Much like Washington's, Philadelphia's public schools have grappled with a daunting assortment of challenges. Five years ago, the 177,000-student district was in such disarray -- with deteriorating buildings, dysfunctional operating systems and dismal test scores -- that the state seized control of the system, which was already in the hands of the mayor.

For years, the Democratic mayor who controlled the schools had pressed the state for more money. The Republican governor said he wouldn't put any more money into such a poorly run district.

They reached a compromise in late 2001: The mayor got the money he needed, and the governor got the accountability he wanted, with the power to appoint a majority of the members on a commission established to run the district.

Over the past five years, the state and the city have kicked in an additional $500 million for reforms.

In 2002, the district appointed Vallas as its chief executive, and he quickly introduced new curricula aligned with Pennsylvania's academic standards and assessments. Teachers receive a guide detailing what lessons they are to teach every week. Vallas doubled the periods for math and reading to 90 minutes. He required schools to test students every two weeks to determine whether they -- or their teachers -- need help. And he expanded some existing programs that were showing results, such as intervention meetings like the one with the Romero family.

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