‘Jones Jail’ gives peace a chance

Known for violence and disorder, Philadelphia’s John Paul Jones Middle School was dubbed “Jones Jail,” writes Jeff Deeney in The Atlantic. Last year, when a charter took over the failing school, American Paradigm Schools didn’t beef up security. They removed the metal detectors, stripped metal grating from the windows and replaced security guards with coaches trained in conflict resolution by the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

The number of serious incidents fell by 90 percent at what’s now called Memphis Street Academy.

AVP, which started in violent prisons and spread to violent schools, “emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building and anger management over institutional control and surveillance,” writes Deeney. “Engagement coaches  . . . provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety.”

Carolyn Schodt, a registered nurse at Alternatives to Violence who also runs AVP inside Graterford State Prison, says, “We did this with the same students, same parents, same poverty. In one school year serious incidents – drug sales, weapons, assaults, rapes – went from 138 to 15.

The school’s students walk past prostitutes and drug dealers on their way to and from school. As Jones Jail, “street violence from the surrounding neighborhood occasionally spilled onto school property.” Yet neighbors feared the Jones students.

“Every day ,” says CEO of American Paradigm Schools Stacey Cruise, “they would set up a perimeter of police officers on the blocks around the school, and those police were there to protect neighbors from the children, not to protect the children from the neighborhood.” Before school let out the block would clear, neighbors coming in off their porches and fearfully shutting their doors. Nearby bodegas would temporarily close shop. When the bell rung, 800 rambunctious children would stream out the building’s front doors, climbing over vehicles parked in front of the school in the rush to get away.

School police officers patrolled the building at John Paul Jones, and children were routinely submitted to scans with metal detecting wands. All the windows were covered in metal grating and one room that held computers even had thick iron prison bars on its exterior.

Engagement coaches were recruited from Troops to Teachers. I assume that means they’re male role models in a community where few kids are growing up with responsible fathers.

Dr. Christine Borelli, Memphis Street Academy’s CEO, grew up in the neighborhood, which makes it easier to build relationships with neighbors and parents. ”I don’t just fit in here, I’m from here. I’m proud to be from here. When I go out to look for a student who’s not coming to school I run into people I know. Parents appreciate that you’re not fearful of the community.”

In anonymous questionnaires, 73 percent of students said they now felt safe at school, 100 percent said they feel there’s an adult at school who cares about them and 95 percent said they hope to graduate from college one day, writes Deeney.  ”Nearby bodegas have stopped locking their doors when school lets out.”

No credential, no job for Vallas

Once superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, reformer Paul Vallas is unqualified to lead the Bridgeport, Connecticut school district, because he lacks an administrative credential, a Superior Court judge ruled. She said Vallas can’t stay in the job while appealing.

The state board of education created an independent study program for Vallas to meet the credential requirements, which normally require 13 months of study at a Connecticut college or university. The judge rejected the board’s alternative.

Like a number of urban superintendents, Vallas isn’t a professional educator. “A longtime state legislative aide and budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, he took over the job of running the Chicago schools in 1997 after the state put them under Daley’s control,” notes Governing. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois in 2002,” he was hired to run Philadelphia schools after Pennsylvania took them over. Then he went to New Orleans to run the Recovery School District.

“I think it’s bizarre that we’d allow paper credentials from programs with lackluster reputations disqualify a candidate with an extensive track record,” writes Rick Hess. “Seems to me like it makes a lot more sense to just judge Vallas on what he’s done, his skills, and his temperament. I think Vallas is an impressive guy and that it’d be a bad thing if he were actually pushed out of office.”

Normally hostile to reformers, Diane Ravitch published a defense of Vallas by a commenter who worked for him in Chicago.

The pension squeeze

Pension reform is essential — and possible– argues a new Fordham report, The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets.

Philadelphia schools could spend as much as $2,361 per pupil by 2020 on retiree costs alone, more than 10 times the current level — and 13 percent of the school district budget —  if the governor’s pension reform plan doesn’t become law, the report warns.

Milwaukee will spend $1,924 per pupil on pensions and health care for retirees, but that’s $1,588 less per pupil because Wisconsin passed Act 10, a reform measure.

Ohio’s pension reform means Cleveland schools will spend less on retirement costs in 2020 than it did in 2011; the new laws are projected to save it about $1,200 per pupil that year.

But pension reform is always costly for someone. Both Wisconsin and Ohio in effect raised employee pension contributions and reduced retiree health benefits. While the changes in Milwaukee will be shared by all teachers, the impact in Cleveland will be felt disproportionately by new teachers, who will be essentially “taxed” to pay for the benefits of current and past employees.

That could discourage young people from entering teaching, the report warns. Young teachers will earn less — and less in the future — to maintain “relatively generous benefits for veteran teachers and current retirees —some of whom will spend more years in retirement than they did in the classroom.”

Pensions for public-sector employees will change dramatically in the future, Fordham predicts. Public employees may be offered 401(k)-style plans or “cash-balance plans. The current system isn’t sustainable.

Lawmakers have promised teachers retirement benefits that the system cannot afford, because the promises were based on short-term political considerations and willfully bad (or thoroughly incompetent) math. (For instance: assumptions about market returns that were wildly optimistic, and assumptions about longevity that were overly pessimistic.) The bill is coming due and someone’s going to get soaked.

Retirement benefits take 10 percent of the school budget in St. Louis, writes Stephen Sawchuk. Student enrollment is declining as pension costs are rising. ” The situation has hastened some of the district’s cost-cutting measures, and fights over whether and how to restructure pensions are looming.”

Cheating is not a big deal

The Atlanta cheating indictments — from the former superintendent down to principals and teachers — have brought calls to eliminate test-based accountability measures. If there’s no incentive to cheat, there’ll be no cheating, the argument goes.  Minimizing cheating shouldn’t be the top priority, argues Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat.

. . . If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can’t keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use.

Students have been cheating on tests forever — massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.

Standardized test scores “account for no more than half of the criteria” for evaluating teachers in any state, Chait writes. Classroom evaluations and other factors count for the rest.

 States use complex models to measure how much a class increased its performance from the beginning to the end of the school year, accounting for socioeconomic conditions and other factors.

“There’s a useful debate to be had over how to design the criteria for measuring effective teachers,” he writes, but minimizing cheating is not the top priority. “The top priority should be teaching students better.”

The Atlanta scandal wasn’t about teachers cheating to look better. It was about administrators pressuring teachers to make low-performing schools look better. That’s true in Philadelphia’s cheating scandal too.

Philly sanctions two principals for cheating

After a nearly two-year-old investigation into cheating on state  tests at 53 Philadelphia public schools, two principals have surrendered their administrative credentials.

Barbara McCreery, who oversaw astronomical test score gains in 2010 at Communications Technology High in Southwest Philadelphia, was alleged to have “violated the integrity and security of the PSSA by erasing and changing student answers, creating an answer key and manipulating student data.”

Lola Marie O’Rourke, former principal of Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia, faced similar allegations, including that she directly provided answers to students.

McCreery was fired as principal of Bok Tech. O’Rourke left the district to work as an administrator in Trenton, New Jersey. Both will retain their teaching certificates but won’t be able to teach in the Philadelphia School District. Neither will be eligible to work as a principal in Pennsylvania.

The cheating investigation is continuing. Will there be indictments, as in Atlanta? Retiring a few years early or taking an out-of-state job isn’t much of a punishment.

Students overboard

Photo: Here in Philly the district is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some kids to other dangerous schools to save $$$.  Meanwhile a few miles away it's laptops for every kid.  This could work for other cities' schools, too.

Philadelphia is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some students to dangerous schools to save money, writes cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. “Meanwhile a few miles away it’s laptops for every kid.”

Only one good school?

West Philadelphia parents are demanding spots in their neighborhood’s K-8 school, which now uses a lottery instead of first come, first enrolled. Penn Alexander, which is supported by Penn, is an excellent school, writes the Philadelphia Daily News. “Why hasn’t the district done more to replicate . . . success?

“In a large system, your shining examples cannot just be islands unto themselves,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership. ”They need to be part of the effort to create more schools like their own.”

Since it opened in September 2001, PAS has attracted middle-class families to West Philadelphia, helped to increase home prices in its catchment area by tens of thousands of dollars and established a strong community in an area once plagued by crime.

Other popular schools in the city typically have strong parental involvement and partnerships with outside cultural organizations and businesses.

Penn Alexander caps class size at 18 children in kindergarten and 24 in other grade levels. It receives $1,330 extra per student, up to $700,000, from the university. The Graduate School of Education supplies student teachers and offers training to experienced teachers. ”But the money alone does not make it a great school,” Gleason said. “It helps. By itself, it doesn’t change anything.”

Education-minded families have been moving to the Spruce Hill neighborhood to send their kids to Penn Alexander, sending property values soaring, reports the Daily News. Plan Philly estimates a house inside the school’s boundaries fetches $50,000 to $100,000 more than one a block away.

Ex-principal: Adult cheating hurts students

Test scores were up sharply at Communications Technology High in Philadelphia. The new principal, Saliyah Cruz, wondered how so many students could score proficient on the state exam while also testing into remedial reading and math. Two years later, an investigation found evidence of cheating by adults, reports NewsWorks and Philadelphia Notebook. Students paid a high price, says Cruz, who quit in frustration.

In 2010, 75 percent of 11th graders at Comm Tech scored proficient or above in reading. That was a 22 percentage-point jump over the previous year. In math, 70 percent of Comm Tech 11th graders scored proficient or above, 40 points higher than the year before.

. . . In both 2009 and 2010, a high number of student response sheets at Comm Tech had suspicious patterns of “wrong-to-right” erasures – a telltale sign of adult cheating.

When Cruz asked the school’s staff why scores had soared, they credited “Study Island,” a computer-based test prep program used at many Philadelphia public schools. Cruz expanded use of Study Island.

Reports generated by Study Island suggested that students didn’t understand the material. Interim tests used to predict PSSA performance pointed to huge score drops. Cruz’s own eyes told her that students weren’t learning.

Her staff resisted her efforts to get teachers to “change their instruction or re-teach content.” After all, the test scores were great.

As a result, says Cruz, students at Comm Tech got a Band-Aid when what they really needed was surgery.

With Cruz as principal, there were no more suspicious erasures. The school’s scores dropped 38 points in reading and 45 points in math.

At the district level, principals were pushed to show rapid gains, Cruz says. Slow, steady improvement was not good enough. Principals under suspicion of cheating have been promoted, including Cruz’s predecessor at Comm Tech, reports NewsWorks and Notebook.

Cheating report surfaces in Pennsylvania

Some 60 schools in Pennsylvania — nearly half in Philadelphia — showed signs of cheating on state exams in 2009, but the state education department report was buried until The Notebook obtained and published the report.

New state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis is “concerned” that a 2009 report flagged dozens of Pennsylvania schools for possible cheating – then languished for two years.
  
. . . The “data forensics technical report” in question used statistical analysis to look for highly improbable test score gains and suspicious erasure patterns on statewide 2009 test score results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam. 

Philadelphia school officials say they were never given a copy of the July 2009 analysis.

Unsafe at Philly schools

Violence plagues Philadelphia schools, reports the Inquirer in its Assault on Learning series.

Teacher Christopher Paslay suggests ways to make schools safer, including requiring conflict resolution classes, rethinking arbitrary discipline policies, opening alternative schools designed for  disruptive students and offering vocational options to students who aren’t motivated by college-prep classes. Schools should “respect everyone’s right to learn,” he argues.

The needs and challenges of the troubled few shouldn’t take precedence over the education of the many. Resources are limited, and the rights of all children – especially those who are diligently pursuing their schooling – must not be compromised.

In addition, he writes, schools should “teach students to be responsible for their own behavior, rather than conditioning them to blame their misdeeds on outside forces.”

Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, the mother of a Philadelphia teacher, wants parents to step up.