Save the Children (of Philadelphia)

With honor and humility, I began my 6 month PULSE assignment at the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) last month.  PEF partners closely with the school district as well as other nonprofits, universities, and corporations like GlaxoSmithKline to provide programs & initiatives that help enable Philly youth to be prepared for college and careers.

This first blog sets current context for the Philadelphia School System and also outlines my intent and underlying beliefs as I approach this assignment. This way, you’ll have an idea of both the big-picture challenges and opportunities PEF (and I) will be working within as well as the lens by which I’ll be approaching them.

Context

For starters, the Philadephia School District, including charter and parochial schools, is the 8th largest in the nation. It also has a 61% high school graduation rate, which is up from 44% in the mid 2000’s. Last summer, a new superintendent, Dr. William Hite, was hired to overhaul the struggling district.  So far, Dr. Hite seems to be generally respected by locals as a credible leader  when it comes to school reform. Speaking in ‘GSK language’, it is safe to assume, when Dr. Hite took on Philly Schools, he was accepting the most challenging 70/20/10 development plan of his career thus far.

From a financial perspective, the school district has not kept pace with rising costs and fluctuating state aid (this, despite already closing more than 30 schools and cutting hundreds of central office workers). For this upcoming school year, the district was $304 million short of its required budget. Therefore, in May, it sent layoff notices to more than 3,700 teachers and staff, 20% of its workforce.

These cuts impact Philly youth (of whom more than 80% are considered ‘low-income’) in that many will now have different schools to transport and acclimate to, large classroom sizes, and virtually no music, art, or sports teams to participate in. As well, if a student wants to assemble a college prep plan, or has a mental, emotional or behavioral problem, there won’t be any school counselors or teacher aides available to guide them.

Take a moment to consider these facts and the long-term implications they have, not only on our fellow humankind but also our potential workforce:

No music.

No art.

No sports.

No school counselors.

No teacher aides.

Pennsylvania’s state constitution charges the General Assembly with providing the state’s residents a “thorough and efficient system” of public education “to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Despite this proclamation, last Sunday – before the fiscal year began – Governor Corbett offered a slight but nowhere near suitable offer to help close the district’s fiscal gap. At this point, many of the pending layoffs will likely still go through.

Finally, with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union contract ending in August, there is now added pressure for them to contribute to narrowing district costs for the upcoming year. Any ‘lowering of union costs’ essentially equates to cutting teacher pay and benefits across the board. No matter what peoples’ views are on unions, chances are, many of us agree that great teachers are the key to an effective education -and, in Philly, they are already carrying the emotional and mental brunt of these recent decisions. If we want to attract and retain top teachers, one thing’s for sure: we need to identify how to compensate them in a way that rewards their high performance, not disregards or inhibits it.

 

Reflections

As I begin working with PEF, this multi-faceted, complex context has me asking numerous questions…. Not only about the district and PEF, but also about myself, my assignment at PEF, the Philadelphia community, God or spirituality, and the world we live in. And, as I ask these questions, it’s important to recognize my intent within the assignment and also my underlying beliefs – as these will drive how I approach the work and perhaps also the impact I will have.

With that in mind, my intent for this PULSE assignment is to leverage my leadership and human resource and organization development competency to enable PEF to contribute and impact even more as a sustainable key partner (to the district, teachers, nonprofits, universities, corporations, parents, caring citizens, etc.), enabling the district and its youth to be both top performing and respected. FYI – My next blog will have more specifics about what I actually will be accountable for, while here.

My personal ‘underlying beliefs’ as I approach the assignment with PEF include:

  • We are all on earth with a deep purpose – and we all deserve to become all that we can be. Education can often facilitate this.
  • Considering Nelson Mandela’s attached quote, the experience of attaining an outstanding education right now is probably the one shot our Philadelphia children have at getting out of poverty in their lifetime.
  • Despite the various stakeholder viewpoints on education, we all have a common ground. We need to find and focus on that.
  • We are all connected. If Philly kids fail, we all fail. If they succeed, we all succeed.
  • With complex topics like this, we humans tend to judge or discriminate against who or what we don’t understand or know. I must model and enable others to seek first to understand; then form an opinion.
  • This will not be easy and neither Dr Hite nor PEF can do it alone. To reference the old African proverb, it will ‘take a village’ to raise Philly’s youth to become educated, thriving citizens.
  • Approaching this as ‘a problem to solve’ will limit our capability. This scenario is too big and complex for that. We must consider what the future can look like. And all things are possible.
  • I am not an expert in school reform. But, as an organization development practitioner, I can help enable the dialogue and the initial steps for reform to take place.
  • Philly kids are awesome! (I know via my work with Urban Blazers the past 7 years.) They have as much potential as any child anywhere. They deserve to have an outstanding education.
  • I am humbled to have this opportunity to contribute to one of the most potent issues of our time.

Thanks for reading my blog!  If you have any comments, words of wisdom, questions, or even education or reform contacts that I should get to know pronto, I encourage you to share them below.  I will stay in touch!