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Elevate 215 Op-ed: A Blueprint for Quality Schools

A local education leader urges school officials and other civic stakeholders to come together around a singular vision for Philly’s students — one that creates opportunity

By Dr. Stacy Holland, Executive Director of Elevate 215
Philadelphia Citizen
January 30, 2024

As education communities across Pennsylvania eagerly await Governor Shapiro’s upcoming budget address to learn how the State plans to allocate more funding for schools, Philadelphia should feel optimistic.

After decades of being underfunded, momentum is building toward the possibility that our schools will finally move closer to receiving the adequate funding they deserve. Consider the steps that have been taken to get us to this point:

    • In 2023, a PA judge ruled that school funding in the state is inadequate and unconstitutional.
    • The 2023-24 state budget was signed with a $567 million increase in basic education funding — the largest increase in state history.
    • Last month, the Basic Education Funding Commission released a report creating a roadmap to an increased and more equitable funding formula for schools.

With these promising developments at the state level, we must begin to address the underlying K-12 education questions we face as a city:

    • How do we align on key education priorities to accelerate academic outcomes for students, rejuvenate our facilities, and increase teacher effectiveness and diversity?
    • How can Philadelphia public schools best utilize additional funds to improve education experiences for students and prepare them to thrive in life?

The good news is that locally there is positive movement. In a short time, Mayor Cherelle Parker has not only brought much needed energy and inspiring leadership, she has also set the tone for a new narrative and united education vision for Philadelphia schools. But Mayor Parker and her team have also humbly acknowledged that they can’t do it alone. Education leaders need to come together and step into key roles to build this important framework that can lead to a brighter future for the city.

Elevate 215 is answering the Mayor’s call to action by laying out the steps we believe — based on research, data and feedback from all levels of the education community — the city needs to take to move our schools forward.

Create a vision and plan to increase the number of quality schools for to Philadelphia families

Schools and teachers are making a difference in the lives of students every day. There are exemplary teaching and learning practices that advance student outcomes happening all across our city. For example, the School District’s Juniata Park Academy and Alliance for Progress Charter School, which have incorporated weekly Professional Learning Communities that provide a collaborative space for teachers and leaders to plan, review data, refine instructional approaches and have student-centered discussions on a regular basis during the school year. This allows teachers to adjust their instructional practices in real time to address learning gaps as soon as they’re identified.

The problem is that there simply are not enough quality public District and charter schools to serve our students. We need to create a vision and plan that expands the opportunities for families to access quality schools:

    • Identify schools’ most successful current assets and examine how and why they are working to beat the odds for their students.
    • Convene a group of education and civic leaders to define, with input from families and teachers, what quality and best practices mean for Philadelphia schools, and create sensible metrics to measure progress toward ensuring they exist in all of our neighborhoods and catchment areas.
    • This should include leaders of school systems, as well as members of Mayor Parker’s team and City Councilmembers, who all have visions for what quality schools entail.
    • Formulate a comprehensive, long-term plan that strengthens existing quality schools and creates the conditions for more schools to reach this bar.
    • Ensure the people who serve on both the school board nominating panel and the school board are focused on and committed to pursuing this unified vision.
Modernize school facilities to support this vision, and not simply meet minimum standards

All school buildings should be the incubators of vivid and inspiring learning environments that allow students to have the educational experiences we dream for them. History has shown that an effective facilities plan requires public-private partnership rooted in a collaborative strategy of proactive solutions. Here are the components we need to get there:

    • Approach school building modernization parallel to revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods, including parks, recreation centers, and libraries.
    • Create a governance structure that brings together public and private sector leaders to analyze the state of school facilities and recommend what it will take to meet the aspirational needs of the vision.
    • Develop a long-term financial funding model that connects resources and assets from the city and state.
Increase the effectiveness and diversity of the teacher workforce

Research shows that having an effective, racially and ethnically diverse teaching corps is critical to improving the educational outcomes for students, particularly students of color. Despite this, we see an acute underrepresentation of teachers of color in Philadelphia with 86 percent of students identifying as BIPOC, while only 35 percent of teachers identify as such. To address this, there must be program- and system-level solutions to recruit, retain, and develop effective educators, particularly educators of color:

    • Partner with the Citywide Philadelphia Talent Coalition to foster alignment on what is needed for teachers to be effective, and develop performance measurements.
    • Simplify the multiple pathways to teaching and create a centralized resource and campaign that promotes the benefits of being a Philadelphia teacher.
    • Decrease financial and professional burdens to enter and stay teaching, and expand early pipeline initiatives aimed at attracting the next generation of teachers.
We have a unique and historic opportunity to improve how we educate our children in Philadelphia. But we need to be clear: The momentum that comes from significant increases in school funding from the state will be for naught unless we all commit to taking concrete steps toward local solutions. Too often, we work around the margins without tackling the systemic issues at the core of our education system. Now is the time to come together to create a foundation of quality schools, on which we can build a safer, cleaner, greener city with economic opportunity for all.