While WE would like to see this as a sign that the SDP actually recognizes educators as capable of leadership and positive transformation, several of the initiative’s features raise red flags. The initiative may be an improvement over charter takeover and Promise Academies, both of which strip teachers of their professionalism and autonomy. However, the SRI is a long way from a comprehensive, sustainable redesign, and it undervalues both the communities it serves and the educators it employs.
- If this initiative valued educators, it would turn to schools first and work with that building's staff directly. Instead, it lets any group apply for control of any school, pitting current staff against any number of outside interests. (Groups must prove they have a “connection” to the school, but what exactly that entails is unclear.) Moreover, a winning group can force out all of the current staff.
- If this initiative valued local communities, it would allow those communities to select a redesign model for themselves. (Like the families of Steel and Munoz-Marin, who overwhelmingly voted for the plan proposed by their current educators!) Instead, it hands the decision off to a "panel" with no explanation as to how the members will be selected or how the group will reach consensus.
- If the district valued collaboration between educators and community members, it would have set the first deadline a month or two into the school year. This would give stakeholders time to listen to each other, share ideas, and make plans that best serve their students before forming a team. Instead, the letter of intent is due August 19th, less than a month from the announcement of the initiative, and in the middle of summer break.
- If this initiative believed in teacher professionalism and autonomy, it would allow all schools to create "redesign" programs. Instead, the initiative will only accept between two and ten proposals. These groups will receive a relatively small grant (around $30,000) and, more importantly, a three year "grace period" where they are exempt from district assessment and closure. Of course, the grace period doesn't cost a penny -- why not award this autonomy and safety to all schools, and trust teachers to be the professionals that they are?
Most importantly, this initiative distracts from the big picture in Philadelphia schools: without adequate funding, our schools will continue to be a shadow of their former selves. Any attempt at transformation before funding is restored is overconfident at best, and purposefully misleading at worst. Educators have been asked to "do more with less" for years while their colleagues are being laid off by the thousands -- and those same educators have been putting together redesign plans for years, in response to threats of closure and charter takeover. The initiative is our city's version of "Race To The Top," where a lucky few will win a small prize while all schools continue to struggle.
The rapid timeline, lack of transparency in its development, and unveiling in the midst of a funding crisis all lead us to consider the SRI with skepticism. As always, working educators in our schools are yet again being given the message that we are targets for takeover, turnover, and removal. If your school is eligible (see pages 32-35 of the PDF), please talk with your colleagues and mobilize your school community to defend itself from outside “reform.” Proposal letters for the SRI are due August 19th.