A turnaround plan for Philly schools

Interview with Paul Vallas, chief of the Philadelphia school system

After you've spent six years riding the bumpy path to reform at the head of one of the nation's most troubled urban school systems, what do you do for an encore?

If you're Paul Vallas, the answer is simple: Take on another failing district.

From 1995 to 2001, Mr. Vallas was the whirlwind attempting to breathe new life into Chicago's public schools - a district often judged to be the worst in the nation.

Some viewed Vallas as an unusual choice for schools chief. He came from a background as the city's revenue and budget director.

But his fiscal acumen proved useful as he wrestled the Chicago's school budget from a $1.3 billion deficit to a $350 million surplus during his tenure. At the same time, 76 new schools were built, math and reading scores improved citywide, and truancy rates dropped, earning Vallas the reputation of a hero in some circles.

Today he faces the challenge of attempting to work the same types of miracles in Philadelphia. Although only half the size of the Chicago system - 205,000 students compared with 436,000 - the Philadelphia school district also ranks among the nation's worst and shares many of Chicago's woes.

Both systems serve low-income populations with 80 to 85 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Both are burdened by contentious labor situations and aging school buildings.

And, as in Chicago before 1995, about 75 percent of students in Philadelphia test below grade level, with high school graduation rates hovering at only about 50 percent.

Vallas has been on the job as CEO of Philadelphia's schools for almost six months now. Last week, he sat at a large, paper-strewn table in his office and - with shoes off and feet propped up on a chair - took some time with the Monitor to reflect on how he plans to address some of the most pressing issues his district faces.

Priorities in Philadelphia

Often criticized in Chicago for trying to do too many things at once, Vallas is quick to defend himself against the same charges in Philadelphia.

Academics can't be tackled in a vacuum, he insists.

"I can improve the quality of instruction, but if the schools are unsafe it won't work," he says. "You can have two hours of math and two hours of reading every day, but if the schools are crumbling and the kids are scared, it's no good."

Vallas has launched an ambitious program to build nine new high schools, phase out middle schools, open more magnet schools, standardize curriculum and retrain teachers, create summer and after-school academic programs, lower truancy rates, and reduce school violence.

If the plan looks far-reaching, says Vallas, please bear in mind that this is familiar territory for him. "After what I learned in Chicago, I felt I could do the same thing both faster and better" in Philadelphia, he says.

A schools chief needs to be capable of tackling many things at once, he insists. "To do this job you've got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time."

Contrasts with Chicago

"My biggest surprise here has been how bad the buildings are," Vallas says. From 1978 to 1984, the Philadelphia schools had no capital investment. Combine that with a more lenient building code, and the schools in his new district are in a worse state than Chicago's.

On the positive side, Vallas says he's been thrilled to discover a much more powerful bond between charitable foundations and corporations and the public schools in Philadelphia.

"Building partnerships will be easier here with a whole coalition of groups to play into," he says.

Student violence is also more widespread here, which Vallas blames in part on too many large middle schools. Phasing them out is one of his most urgent missions.

His case against large middle schools

"Middle schools really undermine the quality of US education, especially in large urban districts," he says.

Most of the middle schools are just too large, exacerbating the lack of stability and security that many urban children already experience.

"A lot of these middle schools have as many as four feeder schools pouring into them," Vallas says. "You can end up with 2,000 kids in one school. They feel scared, intimidated, and their survival instincts kick in, not to mention puberty. They may not know 90 percent of the other kids in the building."

What works better, he says, is keeping children in smaller neighborhood elementary schools up through the 8th grade.

"They work their way up through the ranks, which gives them a point of reference," he says. "The eighth-grade class has maybe 75 kids. It's a stable, nurturing environment."

Vallas hopes to eliminate at least half the city's middle schools in the next five years. Of those that remain, he says at least five or six should be converted to the model of KIPP Academy, a successful charter middle school that began in Houston but has since been replicated in various cities across the country.

The other remaining middle schools will get the strongest possible principals and draw from a more limited number of feeder schools.

Schools must keep up with society

"It's not that the schools got bad," argues Vallas. "It's that things changed around them. We're preparing children for the economy of the future in the schools of yesterday."

Politicians and education policy planners simply haven't kept up, he says.

"You've got pregnant teens, more kids in foster care, more latchkey kids, less support at home, kids being exposed to far more violent images than 25 to 30 years ago, and more ready access to firearms."

Add to that a changing economy that in recent decades has lured many women and minorities out of the classroom and into better-paying jobs.

The result, Vallas says, is a need to invest time, effort, and creativity into rethinking the way schools operate and how they hire teachers.

He also believes firmly in character education as a means of compensating for less parental support at home.

While in Chicago, Vallas oversaw the integration of character education into the whole curriculum. In Philadelphia, he plans to tie it to social studies classes.

Philadelphia is the last stop

"This is my last school district," he insists. "I'm not an education system mercenary. I don't have the energy to do this again."

He claims he's not yet thinking about what he might do further down the road.

A lifelong Illinois resident, Vallas was the quintessential insider in Chicago, with ties to both the mayor and the state legislature.

It's a status he does not have in Philadelphia, where he says his degree of influence will depend strictly on his performance. "If I don't deliver," he says with a bit of a rueful smile, "I'll be made to feel like an outsider very quickly."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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