Recently, with all of this change coming to Philadelphia schools, in conversation with fellow educators at the Educon conference and some engaging conversation on Twitter and Google Buzz I’ve been thinking about what a good model of school reform would look like.

Many of my colleagues and I agree that expanding the Charter School model would not help, but rather hurt our local school system here in Philadelphia. Charter Schools are like a ‘brain drain’ from the neighborhood schools. They also have the ability to sift out families and students who don’t ‘buy in’ to their philosophy or structure. Which leaves the hardest to teach, most struggling students and families left in the neighborhood schools, which often don’t have the resources to serve such a population.

The new Renaissance School movement in Philadelphia and elsewhere (sometimes by a different name) through which chronically failing schools are closed and reopened under new (sometimes private) management will not fix the problem of failing schools. It is, as they say, a “Band-Aid” solution. The model chosen to take over the school may completely turn the school around, but if it is a Charter model, what happens in the likely occasion that many families are disengaged with their child’s education? Will they be forced out? Where will they go? Back to the neighborhood school.

What I don’t think has been part of the discussion is the structure of the neighborhood school that sets it up to fail.  In Philadelphia, you are required to attend the school that is assigned to your geographic location.  In general, poor neighborhoods are plagued with the typical issues that poverty brings about: broken family units, joblessness, poor health, low levels of literacy and education, violence, drugs as well as parents who work more than one job to support their family.  When a school serves such a community, it has much greater hurdles to surpass than the neighborhood school in a ‘working class’ or affluent neighborhood. I understand I am talking completely in stereotypes and it may be offensive to some of you reading this, but I am speaking from experience.  When I am in a room with Philadelphia teachers from all over the city, I can predict what someone’s daily experience is like just from the part of the city they teach in.  It is a well known fact that the neighborhood you teach in has a direct affect on how involved your parents will be in their child’s education, how many of your students will be suffering from abuse, PTSD, come from foster homes or require special attention due to anger issues or severe learning gaps.

Charter schools break this model by pulling from different parts of the city.  A Charter school taking over a failing school cannot do this due to a stipulation in their takeover contract that they must take over the school and all of its current students according to school boundaries.  I am very curious to see how this stipulation will affect the effectiveness of the model.  I believe that it’s this diversity of student body that helps these kinds of schools succeed (along with their autonomy in school management). When a school pulls from all over the city, its students are exposed to children who don’t look like them, who have different views of the world or even children who come from across the city but share a similar life experience.  In addition, there is less stress on the school’s resources when the student body is more diverse.

I’ve been pondering all this and remembered reading about districts who still bus their students in accordance with Brown vs. Board of Education to desegregate their schools.  The model I read about gave every student entering Kindergarten a chance to choose the school they attended through a lottery system.  Each student provided their top 5 choices of schools to attend, which could include the school closest to their house.  The assignments were given based on available openings and lottery.  The district provided busing for all students, much like how Charters provide busing to their students who come from other parts of the city.

This model would have to be different from the forced busing of the past with the purpose of keeping schools racially balanced.  In the model I am envisioning, students can put the school right down the street as their #1 choice, and students would be allowed entry into the school of their choice based on available openings with no preference for race, academic achievement or socioeconomic status.

Why do I like this model?

  • Giving students and families a choice helps keep them engaged in a child’s education.
  • Choice fosters competition among schools to attract the best students, no matter what neighborhood they are in.
  • Services are more evenly distributed throughout the district since no one school is overwhelmed with high-needs students and families.

Could this ever work in Philadelphia? It would require a huge shift in policy–the end of the boundary system, parent outreach to explain the new system (which wouldn’t be much different from the current system in place that helps parents choose a Charter school for their child), and a plan for how to allocate services to schools, which could be based on the current model that determines the number of Special Education teachers, counselors and support staff.  Even the student ID numbers wouldn’t have to change, or school location numbers.

Ok, ok, I’ll step off my cloud now and come back to Earth.

If you have experienced busing or have an opinion about it, I would love to hear it. Please leave a comment!

For more on the busing debate:
American Law and Legal Library Law Encyclopedia Busing
Inauguration, Racism and Segregation <—one of my previous posts on the topic


  1. Patti Sullivan


    Mary Beth – I found your post very interesting because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for years and especially more recently after Educon 2.2. I’m trying to be very introspective and am trying to decide whether I’ve just become disillusioned as I grow older or if I just see things more clearly. I don’t know what the answer is but I do think that allowing choice can be a powerful motivator. A local school district in Greece, NY (near Rochester) allows for choice. I had the great opportunity to shadow administrators in a school of choice at the Odyssey school. This was an awesome opportunity and reminded me of SLA in the sense that the school was created with a philosophy in mind and teachers are valued and helped shape and create this 7-12 school. The school had a rough start but with quality leadership and teacher, student and parent input, it has become a great school. With a sad note, this district is considering eliminating schools of choice due to budget cuts.

    Another example: the Rochester NY school district is a school of choice district with questionable results. They were nationally watched when they instituted a contract where the teachers received equal or higher pay than surrounding districts. In spite of attracting high quality teachers, the incentive has not had the desired results since the district has a horrendous graduation rate, one of the worst in New York.

    I work in a great district in suburban NY. We are basically a middle class blue-collar community yet are doing very well academically. We have an elementary school of choice, and an International Baccalaureate high school program, recognized by US Today as a quality district, yet we struggle to make major changes like SLA. It’s tough to move a district with teachers who are comfortable at whatever level they are at, to a new paradigm. I see this especially where it relates to incorporating technology.

    I don’t know the answer to your question, nor do I think there is a single answer, but here are my current thoughts. In an ideal situation I would like to see public school education open the doors to a charter school philosophy. To make this succeed, I believe it would be necessary to have high quality leadership in a building and then allow these leaders to build a school based on a common philosophy. They will “fail quickly and fail often” and from those experiences “learn quickly and learn often” and do what is best for our students. Most importantly, top levels of administration need to support these schools of choice, allow them to throw off the daggers of rigid mandates and let them flourish.

    Good luck and I know you will have a great impact on our students. Believe in yourself, listen to ideas, learn, fail, and succeed. Our generation is looking to your generation to do what is best for our students.

  2. Reply

    Thanks, Patti for an informative and thought provoking response! I am curious how the schools of choice you describe attract and admit their students. In my view, the only way the school choice would work is if it were universal and applied to all schools in the system. Otherwise, you end up with pockets of success that exist now. I am struggling right now with the idea you suggest that failure brings learning, which can breed success. When adults fail, they learn a lesson, but the children are hurt by the experience and may not recover easily from the failure of adults.

    On a side note, I am originally from Westchester County, NY and when my parents decided to buy a house, the first thing they considered was the school system. They ended up buying a house in an affluent neighborhood with a wonderful school system (Briarcliff Manor). To me, this is more proof of how neighborhood schools are defined by the neighborhood in which they exist. If we can change this model, would it make a difference? Or is it bad to 'give up' on the neighborhood school?

    Thanks again for making me think!

  3. Reply

    A well thought out, albeit lofty, post Mary Beth. If you have interest in 'busing' you may want to check out the Wake County schools here in North Carolina and the struggles our county is currently having regarding just this issue –… – Then compare our struggles, issues, etc. with that of the Mecklenburg County in North Carolina and what occurred when they had busing then removed it –

    I certainly think your lofty aspirations has merit and believe any idea toward equal and open access to education is a good one. Ultimately, as you point out, it comes down to how engaged the parents are in their child's education.

  4. Reply

    Yes, Jason, sometimes I get ahead of myself up there in my brain! Thanks for the links, I am very interested in reading more about busing, whether it is negative or positive information. I'm curious if it might be more of an issue in Southern states where busing was used, historically, for forcing integration when it was not wanted.


  5. Reply

    Urban school districts like the City of Philadelphia will never experience wholesale changes until there's a fundamental change in the underlying subculture that feeds it, a subculture that doesn't value achievement, personal accountability, and respect for others. I know, poverty and crime is a root cause, but the cycle has to be broken somehow. One positive aspect is that students with the best hope are being identified and placed in magnet schools. As for charters, they've basically failed, as far as I can see. A well-intentioned adjunct of NCLB, but the concept hasn't fulfilled its promise. Working against teachers and administrators is the fact that these kids leave a nurturing school environment and go home to a world that essentially undermines everything positive you've taught them. These kids need to be completely removed from these toxic environments.

    There are plenty of reasons, most of them unpopular to hear, why urban areas have been rife with poverty and crime, but to mention them in certain circles will cause one to be unfairly impugned, especially in Philly.

  6. Reply


    There is a cycle that needs to be broken before any real school reform can work. If students' homes and neighborhoods are not conducive to success, then it makes any reform difficult. I recently read a blog post (I can't remember where) about how liberals call for change, but would never send their kids to school with 'those' children. That in itself is a problem.

    Perhaps the only way the cycle will be broken is by starting with today's young people as they become parents and teach them how to be an effective parent, how to feed their children well, how to use effective discipline methods and provide resources they need. Kind of like what is going on in the Harlem Children's Zone in NYC.

  7. Reply

    Right. The core issue is to restore the family unit. I once read a stat about how many single family households exist among the African American population. It's staggering. Build the families and the community builds from there. Restoring dignity, self-respect, and hope to many who have felt marginalized, so they don't consider the alternative of crime, substance abuse, or child abandonment. A study of history will show that among the African American community, religious observation and practice serves as a unifying bond in a community. This should be built up and encouraged as well, for their community's sake. I'm not saying this to push any dogma or to proselytize, just as an observation of what used to work and still does, except on a smaller scale. it seems.

    The argument often boils down to money. I'm not one who necessarily believes that pouring more money into the situation will remedy it. It's often those who are politically connected that scream for more money.

    Keep up the good work and keep fighting for those kids! Maybe it's going to take a few more generations for the despair to work its way out. I know, that might not be enough consolation for your efforts now, but at least you know you are impacting your own little part of the bigger picture.

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