CEO Vallas commits to a fresh start

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

While the big story in Philadelphia as schools opened in September was the changeover to private management at 45 schools, the District’s new CEO Paul Vallas " recently arrived from Chicago " has been hammering away at a much broader set of plans for school improvement.

After six months where the School Reform Commission (SRC) focused on plans to turn over various District functions to outside companies and organizations, Vallas’s first weeks were a whirlwind of announcements of new initiatives coming out of the central office. His plans addressed issues from facilities to after-school programs to discipline and truancy.

The new CEO also quickly assembled a new leadership team, brought closure to contentious negotiations over the contracts governing the new private managers of schools, and stepped up efforts to address the problem of lead in school drinking water.

Stepping in to his job as public controversy grew over the SRC’s approval of a succession of large contracts to outside
consultants, Vallas renegotiated some contracts and put others on hold. He reversed an SRC decision to hire private school manager Edison Schools Inc. to play a major consulting role to the central office.

Vallas’s insistence on having "redundant systems" to ensure smooth operations in the privatized schools left no doubt that he envisions not only a strong central office but a continued role for the School District in the privately managed schools.

"I’m keeping everybody on a short leash until I have a confidence level that schools are running smoothly and schools are on track," Vallas said.

Here are some of Vallas’s major announcements:

  • He promises to increase the District’s budget for capital projects, spending $1 billion over four years to improve its aging facilities, build nine new and smaller high schools, and convert middle schools to high schools or K-8 schools.
  • After-school programs will open in October for second through eighth graders at 100 elementary schools, to give extra help four days a week. A program for high school students is in the works, and Vallas has also promised to dramatically expand the District’s summer school program.
  • He plans to hire parents as outreach workers to tackle the District’s truancy problem. Absenteeism in the District averaged 12.9 percent last year, with about half of that rate accounted for by truancy.
  • He announced the formation of "quality review teams" under the District’s new accountability office; this year, four teams will perform school evaluations and make recommendations at the 86 "partnership schools" affected by the SRC’s reform plan, and at the 14 charter schools whose charters are up for renewal
  • He announced a new "zero tolerance" policy (see Discipline plan: zero tolerance, expand CEP), an end to the School District practice of transferring students from one school to another for disciplinary reasons, and an expansion of "alternative school" placements through a contract with the Texas-based company CEP (Community Education Partners Inc.).

Vallas was fortunate to take over the District at a point when for the first time in years there was no immediate cash crunch. As promised in the school takeover agreement between the mayor and governor, the state provided a $75 million funding increase and the city came up with $45 million plus a $300 million bond issue to buy the District time to address its structural deficit.

Lots of loose ends

The new CEO had his hands full prior to the opening of school with many loose ends from the restructuring plan that targeted 70 schools for overhaul – 45 under private management, 21 under a District restructuring initiative, and four as charter schools.

Barely a month before the opening of school he concluded difficult negotiations with the three companies, two universities, and two nonprofits that are involved in taking over management of 45 partnership schools. These educational management organizations (EMOs) secured extra funding for their schools, but less than the governor had wanted them to receive.

Each of the EMOs brings a different approach and level of intervention to the project of improving their schools. At one end of the spectrum, both Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania are providing academic support and developing improvement plans but are not managing operations. Edison was the most aggressive in implementing changes, bringing in a whole new curriculum and making staffing changes.

The status of some schools was unclear until late in the summer. The SRC reversed its original plan to convert five schools to "independent school" status. Two of those schools – Bethune and Pepper – were ultimately assigned to be run by Victory Schools, and Pickett was assigned to Foundations Inc.

Three of the four schools targeted to be charters – Central East, Morris, and Vare – were given more time to make the transition. Belmont School in West Philadelphia is now functioning as a charter school but still required to serve all students in its boundaries.

Teacher turnover, particularly at schools taken over by Edison, meant that there were hundreds of vacancies still to be filled over the summer. By September, almost 500 new teachers were in place, and the shortages were concentrated in special education positions and a few hard-to-staff specialty subjects that have posed chronic hiring problems for the District.

Some of the SRC’s reform goals were not achieved. Except for four schools targeted to be charters, the other so-called "partnership schools" targeted for reform do not have designated community partners. Nor have the members of proposed Education Reform Advisory Councils (ERACs), designed to provided community input on a neighborhood basis and citywide, been designated. Vallas said ERAC members would be named in October.

But with all the changes taking place, District officials said they were delighted with the smooth start.

"It was indeed a great opening," commented SCR Chair James Nevels.

Not everything was smooth for Edison at its 20 schools, however. Just days before the start of the school year, trucks rolled up to Edison’s schools and took away many of the supplies that had previously been delivered. The company contended that they were nonessential supplies and said their contract was not adequate to cover the costs of what had been delivered.

Vallas expressed distress both at the Edison supply cuts and at a decision by the company to eliminate nonteaching assistants (NTAs) and supportive services assistants (SSAs) at their schools. Edison also made cuts to the secretarial staff.

Prior to school opening, Vallas ordered Edison to restore one NTA and two SSAs to each of their schools to provide more adult supervision.

One week into the school year, a series of fights and other incidents at Shaw Middle School, managed by Edison, highlighted a concern that Edison had made too deep a cutback in non-teaching personnel.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the cuts at all the Edison schools have made teachers anxious about safety.

"When youngsters are walking in the halls at these schools, there is nobody to monitor them," he said. He said he was particularly concerned about the climate at Edison’s middle schools, which are still operating with substantially fewer NTAs than in the past. Edison officials say that NTAs are not a necessary component of their approach to discipline.

Districtwide, chronic staffing problems meant that some students opened the year without a regular teacher in the classroom. As of September 20, there were still over 100 teacher vacancies and an additional 1,200 teachers working with emergency certifications.

Vallas has created a new office, headed by former principal Tomas Hanna, to coordinate an initiative on teacher recruitment and retention.