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Philly schools improve with private-sector help

Two years after Philadelphia schools began contracting out management to the private-sector, test scores are up and class sizes are down.
/ Source: Reuters

A year ago, Melissa Cosby could have been a poster child for Philadelphia's failing inner-city schools.

The Duckrey Elementary School student's reading level was four years behind state levels, not much different than most of her schoolmates. Today, the 13-year-old eighth grader reads on grade level and is still improving.

Reading and math scores overall at Duckrey, which runs from kindergarten through eighth grade, have also jumped.

Two academic years after Pennsylvania took over the failing Philadelphia school system and made the controversial move to contract out management of about one-sixth of its schools, test scores are up and class sizes are down. The district plans to expand private-sector involvement and is closely watched by U.S. educators as the leader in inner-city school reform.

"It's not that other cities don't contract out some of their schools, but Philadelphia does to a much greater extent than the others," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 65 school districts from the largest U.S. cities.

Private companies and universities today manage 45 of Philadelphia's 270 public schools. As private managers, they set curriculum and hire teachers and principals. But they are subject to the same state-wide performance criteria as schools that are under the district's management

Last year the district nearly tripled the number of schools attaining the state's performance benchmark, with the number of privately run schools achieving that level rising to 23 from seven the prior year.

Not derailed by violence
Officials say the reform program won't be derailed by a recent spate of school violence, which included one 16-year-old student shot dead at a district-run school and another at a privately run school allegedly raped.

"The latest issues only strengthen the resolve to continue forward with the reform program," said Cameron Kline, a spokesman for the district.

The state seized control of the district in December 2001 in response to overwhelming evidence of the system's failure. At least three-quarters of its students were reading below grade level; only about a quarter went on to college; many schools were plagued by serious behavior problems, and buildings across the district were falling apart.

"It was a very, very depressed system," said school district Chief Executive Paul Vallas.

Under its School Reform Commission, the state contracted out management of the worst-performing schools to six educational management organizations: Edison Schools, Foundations Inc., Victory Schools, Universal Companies, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Vallas predicted half of Philadelphia's schools will be run by private companies or universities within four years.

At the Duckrey School, in a poor district where almost 90 percent of the 444 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, there are clear signs of progress. Since Temple University took over the school, the number of students reading at grade level has risen to 23 percent from 3 percent in 2002; in math, that number has jumped to 17 percent from 2 percent.

Size matters
The outside organizations succeeded where the city failed because they were smaller than the school district. That allowed them to be more responsive to the needs of individual schools, said John DiPaolo, executive director for partnership schools at Temple University, which manages six schools.

"Because of the smaller size, we are able to pay close attention to what is going on in the schools in a way that we couldn't on a larger scale," he said.

But this kind of individual attention does not come cheap. Duckrey and the other schools in the Temple program are paid $450 per student per year in addition to the standard allocation from the school district. The extra money is paid by the school district to aid schools with acute problems.

Duckrey Principal Ruth Anderson boasts that the school is no longer on the state's "needs improvement" list. She has more books, a literacy coach, and resources to get her staff up to speed with the new programs.

It all offers a brighter future for students like Cosby who wants to be a singer but will settle for being a pediatrician if that doesn't work out.

"I know I'm smart," she said. "But my mom told me that you can't get far if you don't have an education."