Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Promises, progress, and priorities in Philadelphia public schools

I had the privilege of attending a briefing for local education stakeholders held by Mayor Nutter and Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman. The purpose of the meeting was to learn about the significant gains in student achievement and other signs of progress being made in the Philadelphia Public School System.

Mayor Nutter was very clear in his opening remarks, saying that he has been dissatisfied with the failure of the media to accurately and thoroughly present the facts about the school district's performance.

Since he established the hefty goals of halving the city's student dropout rate and doubling its college degree attainment rate as part of his platform, he indicated that he is very engaged in the school district's direction and performance. The mayor showed great leadership in calling this session to set the record straight with hard facts about the district's progress, and showed strong support for Dr. Ackerman.

He was extremely clear about the facts. The six-year graduation rate is now 60 percent. This year, more than 50 percent of the students in the system scored at the proficient level or above in their PSSA testing for the first time. The mayor said emphatically that the school district's performance is improving significantly but there is still work to do.

Dr. Ackerman has just completed the first year of the district's five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014. She reviewed the major highlights and achievements of the first year. She then, very powerfully, introduced a high school principal, a parent, a grandparent, and a student; each of whom spoke to the audience about the benefits they are receiving from various aspects of the plan.

We heard about the elevation of Martin Luther King High School, which was once on the "troubled" list and now is a model institution in the district. We heard about Parent University, and the 12,000 parents it served during the year with coursework designed to engage them in their own learning and that of their children and grandchildren. And we heard about a student who faced tragedy in her life that she was able to overcome with the district's support, so she could get back on track with her education.

Dr. Ackerman emphasized that there are many non-traditional students in the district who must overcome personal hardships in addition to their academic responsibilities to earn their diplomas.

My key reflections from the session are:
  • We are very fortunate to have a mayor in Philadelphia with a strong education-based agenda, and a willingness to hold himself and others accountable for its achievement. Dr. Ackerman and her team have laid out a solid plan to advance the district and are already demonstrating positive results. A comment that Dr. Ackerman made about Imagine 2014 made me reflect directly on Peirce's strategic agenda. She said the plan was no magic potion. It simply detailed the things that needed to be done to improve the district's performance.
  • Thankfully, the mayor, superintendent, and School Reform Commission (to whom Dr. Ackerman reports) are strategically aligned. As Dr. Ackerman said, if they are fighting, that's time and energy being taken away from executing the plan, and from the 167,000 students and families the district serves. That, too, reminded me of Peirce's situation. It is clear that these leaders can park the politics, and do what is in the city's best interests.
  • Peirce is "in the game" as it relates to advancing the mayor's education agenda. It was great to attend an event that showed positive progress, and know that Peirce has played a role. The College has joined forces with the district to deliver the Skills Booster Program, designed to enhance the technology skills of non-instructional staff. As part of the district's Parent University, Peirce is delivering an associate degree program to parents of students, who attend free of charge. It was also very nice to have members of the mayor's staff thank me for the scholarships we have provided to city employees, and the technology we have supplied to the PhillyGoes2College office in City Hall. 
The education agenda is crucial to the city's future workforce and economic development. Attending the session gave me continued confidence that the city is headed in the right direction, and is already gaining momentum toward a more educated workforce and citizenry. It also solidified Peirce's value in the equation, with its expertise in serving non-traditional students; as well as its flexibility and willingness to partner in the delivery of educational programs and services that will continue advancing the agenda.