This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook invited representatives of organizations that work closely with the Philadelphia schools and schoolchildren to comment briefly on the following:
Please tell us one thing that stands out to you as positive about the actions and statements of Paul Vallas during his first four months as CEO in Philadelphia and then describe one thing that stands out to you as a concern.
The Notebook received the following 16 responses in time for publication.
Vallas is energetic and able to get people to believe in his vision. That is a very unique quality. He’s made it loud and clear that he wants parents to have a significant voice.
But we need him to take a step back from "zero tolerance" policies and work more on prevention and intervention. In every school there are key people that students know they can trust and talk to. These people need to be utilized in more effective ways. They should be available once or twice a week, and the student body should be notified that they can go to them. We need to resolve fights or deal with rumors before students get in serious trouble.
– Wendell Harris
Parent and chair,
Safety and Discipline Committee,
Philadelphia Home and School Council ______________________________________________________ Something positive: the way Vallas has freed up tutorial money to support an Extended Day program for our students in grades 3 and up. A concern: school reform barrels forward in a top-down fashion. Decisions are foisted on schools without regard for their individual situations. An example: a scripted reading program called "Voyager" was mandated for our kindergarten and first grades (and is projected to move to grades two and three). This rigid, expensive purchase is a poor match for a school rich in trade books and 100 Book Challenge sets, with a staff committed to a Balanced Literacy model. – Betsy Wice
F. Douglass Elementary School ________________________________________________________ The teacher is the most important factor in a child’s learning. In schools in ACORN neighborhoods, over two-thirds of students are below basic in Math and Reading, much worse than the District average. Looking at teacher quality, it becomes clear why: 18 percent of our teachers are uncertified; teacher tenure is four years below the District average; and we have far more teacher vacancies. ACORN has demanded that teacher quality be a top priority. So far, Vallas is moving on this issue. His attendance on our Teacher Inequity bus tour signaled his support. The "Campaign for Human Capital," which will make recommendations regarding teacher recruitment and retention, is a positive step. The issue of equity across the District must be addressed. If anything, the lowest income schools need the best teachers. – Craig Robbins
Head organizer, ACORN __________________________________________________________ A positive is Vallas’s sharp focus on improving instruction in high schools, which have been virtually ignored for years. High schools not only need to be smaller, they need to be more effective instructionally. I feel confident he will invest the resources they need to improve and will hold teachers and principals accountable. My biggest concern is a "one size fits all," highly centralized approach, which has the potential to de-motivate our most effective teachers and principals. Schools that are moving forward at a good pace should be allowed to continue and not forced into scripted curricula or deprived of the autonomy to make decisions. The more people feel ownership of instructional improvement, the more it will happen. – Debra Weiner
Director of School and Community
Partnerships, Philadelphia Futures ___________________________________________________________ I am very encouraged that Paul Vallas seems determined to improve the state of the high schools-both their physical facilities and their academic programs. I am impressed with the energy and commitment his administrative team has brought to this issue. I am disappointed that he has not yet pushed aggressively for site-based selection of teachers. School improvement is extremely difficult unless school leaders and staffs can select the new teachers for that school. Schools adopt this process by a 2/3 vote of teachers. The deadline for the vote in each school is December 31 for next year’s hiring, so time is of the essence. – Betsey Useem
Director of Research and Evaluation,
Philadelphia Education Fund ___________________________________________________________ Vallas has shown persistence and vision in trying to turn the District around. It has paid off in the introduction of a parent-to-parent approach to help radically reduce the truancy problem. As active volunteers in our schools, Home and School presidents hear first-hand from constituents what concerns need to be addressed. First is to strengthen partnerships and place parents on the court, not warming the bench. Real partnership creates reciprocal ties between schools and communities and provides a strong system of accountability. Until our School Councils are based on mutual partnership, all the persistence and vision in the world won’t bring change to a large, dysfunctional bureaucracy. -Deborah Toney
Parent, Coalition of Home and School
Presidents for Education Awareness ___________________________________________________________ Vallas has been unbeatable in his new initiatives with the School District. His visions on physical plant improvements are long overdue. He exudes hope to parents who know that change is needed now. We are, however, having difficulty keeping up with the administration’s structural changes as far as who is responsible for what area. This is important to our organization, which relies heavily on the District to help us keep our parent/caregivers informed and in our efforts to advocate for our parents/caregivers. We seem to get more information via rumor than first-hand. – Patricia Raymond
President, Phila. Home and School Council ___________________________________________________________ The first few months of Vallas’s administration have been exciting and interesting to watch. Parents are excited by Vallas’s attitude and take-no-prisoners demeanor. Parents are energized by plans to renovate and build new schools, especially in areas where new buildings have been scarce or taken years to erect. However, new buildings and renovations cost money and parents are constantly asking where the money will come from. Vallas has laid out an impressive plan for raising additional funds, but, if the money does not materialize, what will happen to plans to improve schools’ physical plant? – Melania Page-Gaither,
Alliance Organizing Project ___________________________________________________________ It’s been wonderful to hear Vallas challenge some tired assumptions about Philadelphia schools. Why can’t our kids and teachers have decent buildings, and for that matter, why can’t we build some new ones? Shouldn’t school libraries have books? Who says that "privately-run" guarantees quality? But that Midwestern, "let’s get it done" approach also poses risks. Changes can’t be done to people; they have to be done by people. Parents, kids, teachers, principals can’t just be hit with orders. They need to feel a sense of trust, to be heard, to participate in decisions. Achieving that balance – leading, while also allowing others to lead – is a key issue. – Len Rieser
Co-director, Education Law Center _____________________________________________________ Something good: Vallas’s belief that the bureaucracy can change and can do more than it is used to doing. A concern: whether he will focus on changing what happens in the classroom by improving teacher skills sufficiently, rather than focus on changing buildings or rules. Whether he will require schools to enrich the curriculum to pass tests, or allow them to strip the curriculum by obsessive focusing on the tests themselves.
– Michael Churchill
Director, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Student Union applauds Paul Vallas for his commitment to improving high schools. Our schools are old, crumbling, and resemble prisons. He recognizes this and is not afraid to take bold action to make a change. Making high schools smaller will make other reforms more possible.
We are concerned about the emphasis the administration is putting on structured curricula and worried that this will result in teachers simply reading from a script. The District should focus its professional development on helping teachers teach in interactive, engaging ways. The focus on structured curricula will not help and is likely to make things worse.
– Eric Braxton
Director, Philadelphia Student Union
I commend him for coming in and taking on the challenge.
My concern is that this is a system that is so dysfunctional that doing too much too quickly may be as bad as doing too little. I would rather see him take on a smaller number of particular initiatives to work on the first year, such as improving schools’ attitude in how they deal with parents and increasing the focus on what teachers are teaching and kids are learning in classrooms – monitoring the scope and sequence, or what they are teaching and when.
– Dolores Shaw
Parent leader, Eastern PA Organizing Project (EPOP)
I’m glad he is visiting the actual schools and has taken time to meet with community groups to hear their ideas and suggestions.
What I’m concerned about is the Balanced Literacy program. What’s going to happen to it? Is it going to be dropped? I like the program and have seen much progress in the children. It’s not just a program; it’s more of philosophy – having kids really read and write. It’s not a scripted program. A scripted program is not teaching – anyone can do scripted instruction.
– Sharon Kelly
Church warden, Grace Church and
Incarnation (a member of EPOP)
Teacher, Willard School
The vision, energy and "can-do" attitude that Paul Vallas has brought to the District is a much needed jumpstart that is necessary for creating an environment of high expectations, achievement and accountability. After a year marked by protest and uncertainty about the future of public education, Vallas has restored a sense of stability and possibility among many in the education community.
Given the statewide movement afoot to create a more adequate and equitable funding formula for public education and an incoming governor who has made this issue a top priority, we would hope that Vallas becomes a more vocal advocate for statewide education funding reform.
– Aldustus (AJ) Jordan
Education Coordinator, Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth
As a high school teacher, I am encouraged by the focus on creating smaller schools, especially if there is simultaneous lowering of class size and amplifying humanities offerings. Realizing these goals will help students understand that they are valued for more that the test scores they produce.
I am distressed at the proposed expansion of Junior ROTC during a period of impending war while gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students, denied the opportunity to serve their country, continue to be at risk of hate crimes in our schools.
– Barbara Dowdall, Co-Chair,
Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, Philadelphia Chapter
English Department Head, Dobbins/Randolph AVTS
Because of his experience running the Chicago schools, Paul Vallas has been able to get right to the heart of the problems in Philadelphia. He has pinpointed areas of critical need, particularly the need to recruit and keep qualified, certified teachers and enforce standards for student behavior – both crucial to providing students with high-quality educational opportunities.
In the future, we hope he will develop a workable class size reduction program to limit the number of children in each kindergarten through third-grade class to about 15 children.
– Ted Kirsch
President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers