Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A School District In Urgent Need Of Repair: How Does It Get Fixed?

In Pennsylvania's Chester Upland School District, they've tried just about everything and nothing seems to have worked.
Chester was once a thriving shipbuilding town and the economic engine of Delaware County. Now it is home to rows of abandoned shops and grinding poverty.

In 1994, the Chester Upland School District faced a multi-million dollar deficit and was taken over by the State of Pennsylvania. State officials replaced the much-criticized school board with a three-member control board and by the year 2000, a private company, Edison Schools, won a contract putting it in charge of eight of the district's nine schools.

At that time, Chester Upland School District ranked last out of 500 schools in the state.

But despite the changes, little improved in Chester's schools. Last year, only 17 percent of seniors were proficient in reading and 6 percent were proficient in math, according to a state standardized test.

The low scores have been accompanied by a never-ending stream of crises and problems. Chester High has seen four different principals in the last year, and a state bailout was needed to pay teachers through the school year. Last September, a cafeteria fight ended with 28 students under arrest.

"We don't have books and the teachers are inconsistent with their teaching abilities," says graduating senior Aigner Cleveland, "There are a lot of people saying they're going to do this and that, and it's not getting done."

When Edison Schools took over they were part of a bold initiative to turn things around, but complaints of disorganization and lack of resources continued.

"Since Edison's been here, students have not been allowed to take books home," says Control Board member Granville Lash, "How can you do your homework without taking your books home?"

Officials from Edison Schools, which manages schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, acknowledged ongoing problems at Chester High: fighting in the hallways, ineffective disciplinary policies, and dirty school corridors littered with trash.

"It was a little frightful to see so many students in the hallway just walking aimlessly, hanging out, talking back to the adults," says Edison Schools' Eva Wilson.

Board of Control member Michael Gillen said it was clear the experiment with Edison was failing. "There was so much animosity towards Edison, I don't think it was helpful to the students or to the school district."

Still, company officials claimed to make progress - particularly at Chester High, where a dynamic young principal named Eboni Wilson stepped in to take charge.

"He wasn't always in his office. He was there. You saw him. You could talk to him if you needed him," says senior Aigner Cleveland.

But that apparent step forward came to a halt when Wilson, 27, was accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with a 16-year-old student. Though the girl took back the charges immediately - saying she was pressured to make the charges by investigators - Wilson was removed.

"Some people don't like change," Wilson says. "I'm not saying everybody was against me..., But some people don't like change, and they love to see things fail. They love it."
Unhappy with the performance of Edison, the district terminated their contract and has decided to take back control of the schools. They have appointed Chester teacher Robert Crawford as the next principal of Chester High. Appointments of principals for other campuses are in the works.

It will be interesting to see how long Mr. Crawford will last in his new position as principal.

Based on a single media article, it would be very hard (if not impossible) to prescribe a course of action in order to remedy what ails this particular district. Having said that, one of the main ideas of the piece that grabbed my attention was that the high school students are out of control.

From the cafeteria food-fight that resulted in 28 arrests to the "fighting in the hallways" to "students in the hallway just walking aimlessly, hanging out, talking back to the adults," the conduct of many of Chester High's inmates pupils is simply unacceptable.

Many of today's public high school kids actually look up to those pupils who are disruptive and defiant as role models. When students are permitted to disrupt the educational process, and remain on campus, it provides a negative behavioral lesson for other pupils. Defiance and disrespect of any adult's legitimate authority can't be permitted under any circumstances.

It is likely that there are a large number of better-behaved students who are simply terrified of their more aggressive peers, as oftentimes the students who are "fighting in the hallways" are also the school bullies.

Simply put, Chester High should remove these students immediately, and station an employee at the door, if necessary, in order to prevent their return.

Learning cannot begin until the school has established a safe and secure learning environment. The establishment of a safe and orderly learning environment may not be the solution to all of Chester's problems, but it would be a very good start.

I firmly believe that a school's campus should be a "safe zone" for kids, where bullying, fighting, and all forms of physical intimidation are not tolerated. Our children deserve nothing less.
Entries for the 21st edition of The Carnival Of Education are due tonight by 10:00PM (Eastern) 7:00 PM (Pacific). Please send entries to: owlshome [at] earthlink [dot] net. The Carnival's midway should open here at the 'Wonks Wednesday morning.

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