An “Evidence-based Academic Improvement Plan” for our ‘Underachieving’ Schools
Several weeks ago, Superintendent William Hite announced yet another plan to “improve schools most in need”. According to the district, this year’s planning process to improve the eleven named schools will include community meetings in which a menu of five options will be presented. One of the improvement plans named is an “evidenced-based academic improvement plan”. Luckily for the school communities on tap for “improvement” this is the smartest option, and the one that the excellent teachers and school staffs of the district know how to implement.
We are fortunate to have a blueprint for an evidenced-based plan right here in our own district: The Penn Alexander School was just named a Blue Ribbon School because they have “narrowed the achievement gap" (properly called the opportunity gap). This provides us a ready-made template to follow at the “schools most in need.” What does Penn Alexander have that our most struggling schools do not? The Daily News pointed to Penn Alexander’s staff selection process as the secret ingredient to PA’s success, but this is simply wrong. The fact is that all Philadelphia School District Schools are currently 100% site-selected; that is, principals and their committees interview and choose the teachers for their schools.
So, what is truly different about Penn Alexander? A look at the district’s own school profiles provides some answers: Penn Alexander serves a student body in which 39.14% of the students are economically disadvantaged—which may sound challenging until you realize that 85% of all SDP students are economically disadvantaged. By contrast, PA serves a relatively wealthy community. The unfortunate fact is that the schools named for improvement plans each serve a student body in which 100%--yes, 100%--of the students are economically disadvantaged.
What supports have been provided to these economically disadvantaged schools?
The low-poverty Penn Alexander receives $1300 more per pupil to help their relatively privileged students succeed. But the high-poverty schools get no such bonus. They also took the brunt of the Hite administration’s staffing and substitute debacle last year. Penn Alexander maintains its kindergarten class size at a very manageable 17 students, while high -poverty schools must cram 30 kindergartners into each class—with no classroom aide. Some of the high-poverty middle and high schools have 40 or more students per class. Many do not have enough desks and chairs (let alone books) for their oversized classes.
To review: Penn Alexander has a low-poverty student body, receives extra money, and boasts ideal class size. They have access to many resources from the University of Pennsylvania, including graduate students as additional personnel. These advantages have enabled them to reduce the achievement gap and be named a Blue Ribbon School. Therefore, I propose what I call the “Penn Alexander Plan” as an evidenced-based academic improvement plan for our struggling schools: First, advocate for an end to generational poverty; second, endow the highest poverty schools with $1300.00 more per student; third, provide the necessary funds to implement small class sizes for the students who most need it. Throwing in a full-time school librarian, which Penn Alexander has (and only nine other district schools enjoy), wouldn’t hurt either.
We have the evidenced-based plan. We know it works. The only question that remains: Will Dr. Hite and the SRC have the fortitude and vision to advocate for our most economically disadvantaged students, schools, and communities? To do that Dr. Hite and his team must give up the false and destructive narrative that teachers and school workers are the problem, cease applying simplistic band aid solutions (such as endless churn) to this complex issue, and work hard to find equitable solutions for all neighborhoods and schools.