Pushing college in tight times

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

With students mostly gone for the day, Benjamin Franklin High’s lone secretary has headed home, replaced at her desk by Principal Christopher Johnson.

Right away, the phone starts ringing.

First, it’s a parent requesting a transcript. Then, it’s a District complaint about paperwork. A 9th grader straggles in, asking for bus fare. A juvenile probation officer follows, trying to get records on a case.

Johnson deals with it alone.

After losing 26 percent of his school budget last fall – a $2.1 million reduction – he had to cut back his office staff.

Welcome to the brave new world of principal autonomy, said Johnson.

"Full autonomy doesn’t mean more money. We still have to run the school."

Under a new academic plan, officials are intent on pushing decision-making power to the school level. The goal is to make schools more responsive to students’ needs – a sea change, according to Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer.

"The locus of power has to shift," she said.

Principals will be on their own to develop outside partnerships, use data to identify students who veer off track, and customize student supports.

"It’s what 440 has never been able to do well," said Shorr.

This won’t be the first time at Franklin that Johnson has had to manage a "paradigm shift."

His early years were spent trying to change Franklin’s culture, weeding out staff with low expectations for students, bolstering academics, and constantly emphasizing college.

He also beefed up Franklin’s Student Success Center and GEAR-UP programs, providing more students with college visits, mentoring, and help with college applications.

The impact of those past efforts lies in the eye of the beholder.

Regardless, big chunks of his carefully built system ended up casualties of this year’s budget cuts.

"We lost 19 teachers. We lost an assistant principal. Our culinary arts program was totally wiped out," said Johnson.

Franklin’s GEAR-UP program was spared, but the Success Center lost its external funding. To preserve a downsized version, Johnson cut a social studies teacher.

There will be no relief next year. District officials have said the best they can do is prevent further cuts.

A skeptical Johnson said the combination of fewer resources and more autonomy will force him to be "more business-minded" and spend more time soliciting support from outside partners.

"Do you want a principal of a major high school to be a fundraiser, or do you want him to be an academic leader?" he asked.

The reality is that Johnson will have to be both – and the part-time secretary.

"Every day next year," he said, "is going to be 14 hours."