Working on a new blueprint for schools she grew up in

With command-style leadership out of favor, Penny Nixon heads a collaborative effort to rethink the District's academic program.

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

Penny Nixon fondly remembers Ms. Newman, her 12th grade teacher at Martin Luther King High School nearly 30 years ago.

"We wrote about almost everything in Ms. Newman’s class," said Nixon. "We wrote about issues that impacted our lives, just being a teenager – around peer pressure, around drugs and alcohol."

Drawing in part on her own experience as a student and educator in Philadelphia, Nixon brings to her position as the District’s chief academic officer some views about curriculum that depart from those of her former boss, then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

And now Nixon is at the center of an effort to come up with a new academic plan for the School District. It’s intended to reverse years of top-down management and a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction, especially in the lowest-performing schools.

The ambitious endeavor aims to raise standards, revamp the curriculum, engage students more deeply, rethink the role of central office, and provide more autonomy to teachers and principals.

All this is happening while the District confronts unprecedented levels of budget austerity. Even though the central office staff has been decimated, no fewer than seven subcommittees, made up primarily of administrators and principals, but also open to parents and other advocates, are working into the spring to outline a framework for making the transition to a new operational paradigm.

"We see this effort as … making the core curriculum more rigorous," said Nixon. She takes pains to point out that this is a districtwide, collaborative project. "The greatest way to raise student achievement has to be a collective effort among all stakeholders."

Still, she has set a direction that curriculum has to be more flexible. In February, shortly after being given more authority by the School Reform Commission, Nixon announced that a heavily scripted remedial curriculum would no longer be required in the District’s lowest-performing schools.

In general, she said, "My recommendation at this point is we don’t use one-size-fits-all for any school."

All the people involved in the academic redesign project, like Nixon, will bring their own sensibilities about schools to the table. For Nixon, that experience – as student, teacher, principal, and administrator – has been entirely in the School District of Philadelphia.

She grew up in Germantown and attended Pastorius Elementary and the now-closed Ada Lewis Middle School before spending high school at King. There she ran the quarter-mile, half-mile and intermediate hurdles in track, earning a scholarship to Temple.

In the classroom, though, she said she was propelled along by teachers who always had high expectations.

"Through my school career, I experienced great teachers," Nixon said. "They expected me to do well."

And, she said, those expectations translated into engaging, sometimes life-changing, classroom activity, culminating with Ms. Newman’s 12th grade English class.

Because of all the reading and writing, that class "was the first time I started to think about social justice and social justice issues," she said. "I went to a school where everyone was African American, and we wrote about issues as they related to the impact on African American children and society."

Ms. Newman asked the students what they were interested in reading and took their suggestions. But while the class focused on who the students were and what they cared about, it wasn’t limiting, she said.

"I sort of felt like through writing in her class, I experienced the world," Nixon said. "She exposed us to places I’ve never been. If we read about Rome, we wrote about Rome."

Ms. Newman "was passionate about literature, reading, writing, poetry, and her passion for literature had an impact on her students," Nixon said. "She conveyed her passion through the activities she had us engage in," which included journaling.

"Every afternoon we journaled for five minutes," Nixon said. Those journals became fodder for other writing: "If she wanted a persuasive essay about an issue that concerned us, we would look through our journal to find some of those issues."

The class "wasn’t about worksheets, it was about authentic writing," Nixon said.

Making "real-world connections" in the classroom was what got her excited about learning, and then later, about teaching.

If this type of inspiring teaching and learning appears to be an ideal for the entire School District to move towards, Nixon would agree. And it is also very close to what is being demanded by the new Common Core standards, which could start having real effects in city classrooms by 2013.

These standards seek to get students to read more, engage them more deeply, and develop higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills.

But Nixon acknowledges that it will be a long, long process to revise the District’s academic blueprint and see it through to implementation.

There are still critical unanswered questions – about what autonomy will look like in practice for schools and principals, about whether schools will have the resources to adopt a curricular program they like, about whether teachers will be adequately trained to change how they operate in the classroom.

On the hot issue of school autonomy: "We don’t know yet" what it will look like, she said.

"We sent a survey to principals asking them that question – if they had autonomy, what areas they would be asking for."

Nixon spent 10 years teaching elementary grades and then language arts in middle school and was a teacher coach before becoming principal of Wagner Middle School, where she stayed for six years.

She doesn’t believe that autonomy should be limited to schools that are already high-performing, a tenet that drove the policies and practice of Arlene Ackerman.

"I do believe that there are certain areas where principals need flexibility, and I’m not certain that the status of my school’s performance matters in that sense," she said.

Ackerman believed firmly that low-performing schools needed to follow mandates. She imposed Corrective Reading and Corrective Math, a scripted, heavily remedial curriculum, on about 100 Empowerment Schools and Promise Academies as a key component of their "turnaround" blueprint.

Nixon’s announcement that these curricula will no longer be required was largely welcomed by teachers, many of whom felt it limited their options to be creative while boring students to death.

Corrective Reading and Corrective Math "will be available but not mandated," Nixon said. "That would be my proposal. Nothing will be mandated, in that every school has to do the same thing."

They are good interventions, she said, "but not the right intervention for all schools."

Nixon pointed out that in large urban districts like Philadelphia with high levels of student transience, some standardization of what students should be mastering at any given grade is necessary "to live in the real world." While the District will continue to determine what students must learn, "in order for teachers to use creativity and different approaches, there has to be flexibility" on how they get there.

And while many students in the system lag behind in their skills, they should not all be treated as having something wrong with them that needs to be fixed, she said.

At the same time, she said, remediation has its place. "As you update the curriculum, you have to include a menu of interventions for students, including activities and strategies for acceleration," she said. "An intervention is not always something you can buy.

"Students bring a lot of prior knowledge to school that we don’t build on," she added. "We have to recognize and honor the knowledge and experience students bring and see it as an integral part of the classroom."

Nixon doesn’t hesitate to distance herself from the old approach, observing, "The Empowerment School model was in place when I came to central office."

"My belief is that you need a variety of approaches," she said. "Schools are different, communities are different, student needs are different."