Last June, a new superintendent took charge of Philadelphia schools, and a new set of goals, benchmarks and strategic plans will soon emerge. Especially in light of the recent court decision declaring the funding formula for Philadelphia schools unconstitutional, we want to feel optimistic, to believe that we will soon become, as the superintendent as proposed, “the fastest improving large urban district in the country,” but it actually feels more like déjà vu all over again.
For his opening move, Tony Watlington conducted a listening tour to hear their view of the strengths and weaknesses of the School District from teachers, students, parents and public officials. A transition team consisting of 100 Philadelphians, as well as some people from out of town, made the time to attend meetings and make their voices heard.
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of complaints and a lot of areas for improvement cited. The team produced 91 short and long-term recommendations for the superintendent to review. These recommendations will inform the strategic plan currently being written. Sound familiar?
While we wait for still another strategic plan to be produced and another set of goals and strategies from another superintendent to emerge, Philadelphians have to overcome our pessimism. We want to believe that there’s a better future ahead, but we have no confidence in the District and the School Board’s capacity to take us there. After years of disappointments, it’s difficult to have faith in the people in charge, even when some of them are new and might bring a fresh perspective. Whatever inclination we had to trust the process of renewal generated by new leadership has long since dissipated.
Board of Education meetings that permit dozens of interested parties to speak publicly for two minutes each before their microphones are shut off, are no substitute for constructive dialogue between the central administration and teachers, parents, students and citizens motivated by concern for the city and the best interests of children to speak out …
The transition team must have been feeling the same sense of gloom when it put better communications, and rebuilding trust, at the top of its list of recommendations, right next to improving academics and raising student achievement. The report recognized that communication between the School District and the community of schools was a major source of frustration for nearly everyone who interacts with the District. Wisely, they pointed out that “Two-way communication and engagement with staff, students, parents/families, and the community is imperative to rebuild trust,” and, as we know, trust is a commodity in short supply.
The District has a long history of poor communication. Over the years, I have interacted with the District in various roles, as a counselor, school head, teacher and leader educator and grandparent, but communications “with” the District were almost always “from” the District. There was little dialogue.
There was no easy way to talk something over with the officials in the central administration, and no common understanding that we were all on the same side, seeking the same outcomes and should probably put our heads together. They were not there to discuss strategy with educators in the field or to help us access resources or solve problems. Their job, as it was communicated to us, was to ensure that we did everything we were supposed to do to comply with state law and local policy. It was clear that they were not accountable to us. We reported to them, not the other way around.
In my years as a professor of education at Temple University, the largest producer of teachers for Philadelphia schools, whenever we approached the District, whether seeking clarification of a policy or proposing a change in the procedure for teacher placement, we girded for battle. When we did manage to get an administrator’s attention and start a conversation, that administrator was gone before a new policy could be implemented, and there were no records of the conversations that had taken place.
Many teacher educators gave up trying to collaborate with the District and did what they could to get around onerous policies. Suspicious of the District’s priorities, we had to advocate for our students and work to find good placements with good mentor teachers, probably the most critical. The idea of a partnership or collaborative process was, for the most part, not an option.
We entered the administration building to receive training on a new curriculum we had no role in creating. We attended meetings to receive information about how to submit requests for student teaching assignments or what to tell our graduates about applying for jobs in Philadelphia, but, even in light of reports that showed the District’s hiring process alienated applicants, no one ever reached out to discuss better ways of recruiting our graduates.
As new teachers transferred from school to school and left the District in droves, no one thought to sit down with us and ask how Philadelphia might do a better job of retaining teachers and better prepare and support them to survive in hard-to-staff schools where, in spite of our protests, they were routinely placed.
Recently, as a grandparent of five children who attend Philadelphia public schools, I have heard the same complaints I have heard for generations from families who choose to send their children to public schools. Policies are opaque, questions go unanswered, and parents, as well as teachers and school staff, are poorly treated.
Viewing parents and teachers like customers, treating them respectfully, like they matter, listening to their concerns, working hard to ensure their needs are met, recognizing the challenges they face in their lives and trying to be considerate and helpful in any way they can, would lead to welcome change.
The School District is a powerful bureaucracy; its size and scope make individual students, teachers and parents feel very small and powerless. Rarely is input from those impacted by important changes requested or acknowledged. Endless Board of Education meetings that permit dozens of interested parties to speak publicly for two minutes each before their microphones are shut off, are no substitute for constructive dialogue between the central administration and teachers, parents, students and citizens motivated by concern for the city and the best interests of children to speak out, usually to protest decisions already made. Do I and many other parents, guardians and grandparents trust the District to make good decisions that will lead to excellent education for our children? We do not.
What might change our attitude is a change in the School District’s attitude. The Transition Team made many recommendations that merit immediate action. Under communications, they provide four short-term recommendations, including adopting a customer-service model, and three long-term recommendations, including ensuring that all stakeholders are at the table when major new initiatives are being discussed. If actualized, those recommendations would go a long way toward addressing the issues I have raised, breaking a long-term habit of operating with a sense of superiority and without accountability to those who have the most to lose from ill-considered policies. They would also take us a step closer toward restoring public trust in an institution that desperately needs public support.
The customer service orientation endorsed by the transition team would be a radical and welcome change in attitude for the School District. Just having someone pick up the phone and politely answer a question would be a new experience. Viewing parents and teachers like customers, treating them respectfully, like they matter, listening to their concerns, working hard to ensure their needs are met, recognizing the challenges they face in their lives and trying to be considerate and helpful in any way they can, would lead to welcome change.
Such measures, at relatively small cost to the School District, would almost certainly raise our spirits and restore hope. Before we tackle academic achievement, music and art, sports facilities, school building renovations, asbestos removal and our many other pending challenges, let’s start with trust.
Peshe C Kuriloff, Ph.D. was a professor of practice at Temple University, and is now retired. She has five grandchildren currently attending Philadelphia public schools.
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