Philadelphia Public Schools Reorganizing, Closing 64 Schools As District Braces For Dissolution

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District staff and consultants are recommending a sweeping overhaul of how public schools in Philadelphia operate, planning to close 64 schools over the next five years and divvy up those that remain among "achievement networks" led by teams of educators or nonprofit institutions.

The achievement networks would have 20 to 30 schools each and be connected by either geography or a common, creative approach to teaching and learning. The leaders of the network, who could include successful principals, would have contracts based on performance and be required to serve students of all abilities and situations equitably.

Listen to reporter Benjamin Herold's report for NewsWorks Tonight on WHYY.

These networks would be in addition to groups of schools run by charter management organizations, or CMOs.

The planners expect 40 percent of students to be enrolled in charter schools by 2017.

At the same time, the central office staff, already cut in half this year to about 650 people, would shrink even further to around 200 people and handle "non-core mission" functions such as compliance, finance, communications, government relations, accountability, and strategic planning.

Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said that more direct academic services "are now going to be pushed directly into the field," although a document sent by Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon to principals over the weekend still called for some academic services to run out of the central office.

It's time to move away from "command and control" to a "service delivery" model for a diverse school portfolio, Knudsen said.

The plan, while saying that it is premised on giving parents more choices, doesn't include any direct promises that schools will get what most parents say they want –- smaller classes, art and music teachers, libraries, nurses, adequate security –- all of which has been cut this year. And it relies on being able to attract and keep talented principals and teachers in an atmosphere of fiscal austerity, find the money to properly train and support them, and have the resources to give them the materials they need.

Knudsen made it clear that the fiscal picture is still uncertain, disclosing that next year's anticipated $186 million shortfall has grown to $218 million, due to an adverse state decision about tax assessments.

This plan, developed by District teams and the Boston Consulting Group, "is about the need for fundamental change in education policy and practices, and it's about righting the financial ship and living within our means," Knudsen said. Without action, the cumulative deficit would grow to $1.1 billion by 2017.

In order to balance the budget by 2014, the proposal includes $156 million in savings by restructuring wages and benefits and $149 million in lower charter school payments, caused by the District's 7 percent reduction in per-pupil spending. It would also save $122 million through streamlined operations, including $33 million from closing 40 schools in 2013-14.

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