The IRRATIONAL Choice to Attend Neighborhood Public Schools: Don’t Do It!!

I often wonder: How do parents send their children to neighborhood public schools in cities like Detroit, Camden, Chicago and Philadelphia? Seriously… How do they do it?… Why do parents continue to entrust these schools with the task of educating their precious kids? It just doesn’t make sense… Parents have choices. There are public magnet schools, some good charter schools and very affordable Independence Mission Schools. With very few exceptions, parents should NOT send their children to neighborhood public schools. It’s time to jump off the sinking ship…

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Independence Mission School students

Let’s start from a point where we make an important assumption about parental actions in urban areas like Philadelphia, PA, Camden, NJ, Newark, NJ, Baltimore, MD, Chicago, IL and Detroit, MI. The assumption is so widely held among Black Americans that it is seldom discussed explicitly.

The assumption is that Black parents want their children to learn. I assume that Black parents want their children to receive a first rate education. This, I believe to be fundamentally true. It’s deeply ingrained as direct result of the Black American experience. Black Americans innately understand that access to a quality education is of paramount importance. Throughout the overwhelming majority of American history, whites in power have worked diligently to deny Blacks access to high quality educational opportunities. Indeed, a stated aim of the government was to violently impose ignorance on Black Americans.

The following is the verbatim “Act Passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830—1831” (Raleigh: 1831).

Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State:

Therefore, Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction, shall, at the discretion of the court, if a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.

II. Be it further enacted, That if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.

III. Be it further enacted, That the judges of the Superior Courts and the justices of the County Courts shall give this act in charge to the grand juries of their respective counties.

Similar laws were in place across the United States. From the early 1700‘s through the Civil War, white Americans feared that black literacy would prove a threat to the prevailing social order which featured a barbaric chattel slave system. The peculiar institution relied on ensuring that enslaved Blacks remained dependent upon white masters. Whites in colonies and subsequent slave states instituted laws forbidding slaves to learn to read or write and making it a crime for others to teach them. In most states, whites were substantially fined and Blacks were subjected to 30-40 lashes on his or her bare back for teaching Black Americans how to read or write.

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Enslaved Black revealing scars from whipping administered by white slave owner

Following the Civil War, whites established an Apartheid-like system of Jim Crow schools designed to ensure that Blacks were not adequately educated. This system remained entrenched through the 1960’s and 1970’s in many parts of the country. Schools for white children received more public money. Fewer Blacks were enrolled in school. There were not as many public schools available for Blacks. Many school buildings for African Americans had leaking roofs, sagging floors, and windows without glass.  They ranged from untidy to positively filthy, according to a study issued in 1917. If black children had any books at all, they were hand-me-downs from white schools.

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White Classroom in the United States in the 1930s

Even if they are unaware of the specific details of the struggle to access to education in America, Black parents know that it is extremely important. Black parents know that for centuries, real educational opportunities were routinely denied to Black children.

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Black Classroom in the United States in the 1930s

Black parents, like all parents, want better for their children. When you talk to them they express preference orderings. They want access to good schools. They want to avoid bad schools.

So… How do parents in urban areas send their kids to neighborhood public schools? It just doesn’t make sense… As noted earlier, Black parents in today’s urban settings have very real choices… They must be unaware of the options available to them. Their decisions to enroll their children in neighborhood public schools MUST be based on limited and uncertain information regarding alternative educational placements. The Black Cager is dedicated to providing information in an accessible and easily understood manner to Black parents, grandparents and other caregivers.

So, how bad is it? The writing has been on the wall for a while… Black parents cannot say the were not warned…

First, they cut the funding. Then they watched the district suffocate as a result.

In June of 2013 Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. laid off 3,783 employees, because of the district’s financial crisis. The list included 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, and 1,202 noontime aides. “These … employees are more than numbers: these are people — professionals — who play important roles in the lives of thousands of students throughout our city,” Hite said at a news briefing.

Hite called the layoffs “nothing less than catastrophic for our schools and students… Every aspect of the district will feel the impact — schools, regional offices, and central office — along with employees ranging from senior administrators to support staff.”

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Water damage and mold on wall at Furness HS, School District of Philadelphia

Two years later, the catastrophe has been realized. Approximately, 83 percent of Philadelphia public school students in grades 3-8 failed the state Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam in math. In reading, 68 percent failed and 63 percent failed the science exam. Apologists will cite the “new” version of the test as the main factor explaining the horrific performance. It can explain some of the increase in the number of failing students. However, a majority of Philadelphia public school student failed the old test as well.

The fact remains, for years an overwhelming majority of Philadelphia’s public school students have been performing abysmally on standardized state assessments. One can only conclude that, for the most part, students attending neighborhood public schools are simply incapable of competing with students in surrounding suburban public schools and Philadelphia area private schools.

More than 8 out of 10 students cannot perform grade level math!

The bill for years of academic incompetence and startling underperformance is about to come due. Philadelphia students will be the ones that have to pay. The School District of Philadelphia also released results on the state’s Keystone Exams, which students must pass to graduate starting with the Class of 2017. The proficiency rate in Algebra I was 38 percent (compared to 39 percent in 2014), 29 percent in biology (26 percent in 2014) and 49 percent in literature (52 percent in 2014).

Plainly stated, if the 2017 rules were in place in 2014, 71% of Philadelphia’s public high school students would not have been unable to graduate from high school because the failed the biology exam, 62% would have been held back by their Algebra I score and 51% by the literature score.

Here’s where it gets really tricky for Districts serving poor Black and Brown students… Failing students are allowed to undertake alternative projects. But districts across the state say the projects will drain resources as schools try to provide students with the additional instruction needed for them to complete the task. Philadelphia has already experienced a succession of budget cuts that reached the bone marrow. Similarly, Chester Public Schools does not have adequate funds to meet the regular payroll for staff and faculty. Where will Harrisburg, Philly and Chester get the money for the additional instruction? They won’t…

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Projected Impact of Keystone Exam of Philadelphia Graduation Rates

Truth be told… Many, perhaps most, poor Black and Brown kids attending public schools in cities across the state of Pennsylvania will NOT graduate high school. They will start their adult lives an non-high school graduates with some sort of 2nd class “Certificate of Attendance.”

If at all possible, do NOT send your kids to poor performing neighborhood public schools. They are educational quicksand!!

If you must rely on public education, do your research. Find out about magnet programs, identify high performing schools, learn about the application and admission processes. Make the best decision for YOUR child.

We can all continue to support the idea of public education. We can vote for political candidates that allocate adequate resources to public schools. We can volunteer in our local schools.

But when it comes to making a decision about your child, you must make a decision that reflects your understanding of what’s best for your child. With that in mind, I just do not understand how parents send their kids to neighborhood public schools in Philadelphia. The ship is sinking fast…

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Philly Pride & Triple Threat is Focused on Education

PPTT(L to R) Kamal Yard, Philly Pride & Triple Threat, Bill Gibson, Chief Enrollment Manager for Secondary Schools, Nick Regina, Deputy Secretary for Enrollment Management and Eric Worley, Philly Pride & Triple Threat

Philly Pride & Triple Threat (PPTT) is committed to serving youth in and around the Philadelphia area in three distinct arenas; Education, Athletics, and Life.

Educationally, members of the foundation receive the necessary academic incentives and support to assure success in the classroom. Athletically, members of the foundation compete on a well organized basketball team and are involved in other basketball related activities. The two main goals athletically are; development of fundamental skills and exposure to college coaches. From a Life standpoint, participants are coached and mentored by high character and quality individuals with the primary goal of instilling appropriate life lessons in the individual students.

Eric Worley and Kamal Yard are diligently working together to inspire promising inner city youth to be leaders, champions and student-athletes as well empowering them to be successful in high school, college and life.

Specifically, these gentlemen use basketball as a “hook” to engage young men and women in the program.  The larger, more important objective is to help Philadelphia area youth access high quality educational opportunities, internalize positive value systems and refine life skills that will prepare them for the day the ball stops bouncing.

Their track record is extremely strong.

Rysheed JordanRysheed Jordan, St. John’s University, Philly Pride & Triple Threat Alum

Well over 30 collegiate athletes have come through the program. St. John’s Rysheed Jordan and DePaul’s Brittany Hrynko are both projected to go in the 1st round of the NBA and WNBA draft respectively.  The PPTT program has developed some of Philadelphia’s most talented players in recent years.  Many have prospered in some of the most academically challenging independent and Catholic high schools in the area.  Recent Temple University commit Levan Alston (Haverford School), St. Joseph’s University commit Chris Clover (St. Joseph’s Prep), Tony Carr (Roman Catholic), Sean Lloyd (Mt. Zion Prep, MD), Josh Sharkey (Archbishop Carroll), and Lamar Stephens (Haverford School) have come through their ranks.  In each case, the young men were well-prepared for the rigorous academic programs they encountered.

Philly Pride & Triple Threat is, clearly, one the leading youth sports development programs in the Greater Philadelphia region.  They take the responsibility of preparing students very seriously.  Over the past couple of years, Philadelphia’s public schools have faced unprecedented budget problems and experienced massive teacher and counselor layoffs. An already under-served group of urban students have found themselves virtually abandoned.  As a result, the roles of Worley and Yard have evolved and expanded.

They have become de facto school counselors for a significant portion of the 500 or so students in their program. More and more, they have been asked to help guide more students from poor and middle-class families to the area’s top middle and high schools. By default, Philly Pride & Triple Threat has been providing students with the kind of personalized counseling that students from more affluent families tend to get from private counselors or their school-based guidance counselors in the suburbs. They have worked tirelessly to establish relationships with Independent and Catholic Schools in Philadelphia out of necessity.

Brittany HyrkroBrittany Hrynko, Depaul University, Philly Pride & Triple Threat Alum

As noted earlier, Philadelphia is the midst of an unprecedented series of budget cuts. The cuts were to the bone!! In 2013, the Philadelphia school system laid off 3,783 employees, including 676 teachers and 283 counselors. Along with teachers and counselors, those losing their jobs included 127 assistant principals and 1,202 aides who monitor the cafeteria and playgrounds. Most recently, The SDP raided the The existing Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, which has about $40 million built up in it. The future for Philadelphia’s public schools is very bleak.

Nonetheless, every day Yard and Worley work with students and parents hungry for good school placements.  They recognized that they needed to become much more knowledgeable about the application and financial aid process at tuition-based schools. Toward that end, they recently met with Nick Regina, Deputy Secretary for Enrollment Management and Bill Gibson, Chief Enrollment Manager for Secondary Schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Yard says, “Mr. Regina and Mr. Gibson made us feel that our students would be welcomed in Catholic schools. I learned some important things that I can’t wait to share with our families.”  He gained a better understanding of the processes in place within Catholic High Schools.  According to Yard, “The Catholic high schools are very real options for our kids, we’ll make every effort to link our parents with admissions staff in several Archdiocese schools.”

Worley, a former teacher and principal in Philadelphia’s public and charter schools was also excited. According to Worley, “Catholic high schools are accessible and affordable for many our kids. I know first hand, how frustrating it can be for parents seeking a better school placement for their child. I look forward to helping our students access and navigate the application process.”

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Yard and Worley also have a PPTT High School Assist Project, which will help sixth through eighth grade student-athletes succeed in middle school and leverage that success to gain admission to excellent college preparatory high schools. The HS Assist Project will offer academic instruction/tutoring, homework help, life skills development and test preparation for sixth through eighth graders.

The PPTT College Assist Project, will continue to provide high school student-athletes with the individual support necessary to be successful in high school and to prepare for college. College Assist Project support includes SAT and other test preparation, high school counseling, application/financial aid workshops, college visits and NCAA eligibility and recruiting guidance.

If you want see the fruits of Yard’s and Worley’s labor just peruse the rosters of Inter-Ac and Catholic High School teams or check your TV listings and find some Big East games, women or men.

About Independence Mission Schools: An Open Letter to “Good” Parents

Ms. Christine Lemongelli teaches her class about grammer.

Hey Mom… How you doing Dad?… Grandmom and Grandpop I need to bend your ear… I just want a few minutes of your time. I know time is a precious commodity and you don’t have a lot to spare.  But I want to share some important information about urban educational opportunities for your children and grandchildren.  So while I know you’re busy, please take a few moments and consider what I’m about to say…

Every day you worry. You’re afraid. You’re always anxious. Will today be the day? Will the school call and inform you that something bad has happened to your child? You watch the news… You see the sexual assaults… You read about staff members being knocked unconscious… You see kids protesting just to keep basic amenities in place…

You have been diligent about instilling the proper values in your child. I know you don’t play games when it comes to raising your child.  Honesty, compliance with rules, sensitivity to the feelings of others, control over impulses and acceptance of responsibility for his/her behavior have been reinforced from the moment they entered this world. You are a good parent. You take it very seriously. It shows. Your child follows rules and meets behavioral expectations in the home, school and community on a consistent basis. He/she has never exhibited any illegal or antisocial behaviors. Your child is a good kid.  Yet, you worry.. all day, every day.

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More than anything else, you seek an educational setting where your child can focus on attaining and maintaining a level of academic performance that is commensurate with his/her intellectual ability. You understand the need for a positive and safe educational environment.  With that in place, your child will flourish.  However, finding (and affording) such a placement has been difficult.

In many ways, you feel trapped… You love the city. You live in West Philly… You live in North Philly… You live in South Philly… You live in Germantown… You live in Mount Airy… You work hard to make sure your kids are well-fed, well-clothed and the bills are paid.  However, sometimes it feels like your walking up a down escalator. Every time you get paid, you see where the City of Philadelphia has taken nearly 4% of your money. Every time you spend some money you see the City of Philadelphia has taken another 2% of your money, on top of the 6% that goes to the State of Pennsylvania.

It’s enough to make you want a drink or smoke… But they will get you at the register, yet again, if those are your vices… When you buy that glass of wine, cocktail or beer, the City of Philadelphia takes another 10% of your money. If you buy a pack of cigarettes, the City of Philadelphia takes another $2 of your hard earn funds. It feels like you can’t win…

It’s tough to make it in Philly. In fact, like most of your friends and neighbors you are working 1.5 or 2 two jobs just to make ends meet. I get it.

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More than anything else, you would like to find a safe high quality school setting for your child. You want to feel good about dropping your child off every day. For those 7 or 8 eight hours, you want to feel they are safe and sound.  You need a school that maintains a healthy balance between accomplishing academic goals and meeting your child’s social and emotional needs. Despite the high cost of living in Philadelphia such schools are very few and far between.

I may have found an answer to some your prayers.

Independence Mission Schools (IMS) is a non-profit organization managing a network of 15 Catholic elementary schools across the city of Philadelphia.  These schools, formerly run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, are beacons of hope to their communities; they provide a high-quality, low-cost education to more than 4,700 children of all faiths from many of the City’s most under-served neighborhoods, delivering opportunity to these children and their families.

Some of you may already know about these shining lights of hope in the midst of our rapidly decaying urban educational system.  The Independence Mission Schools have seen an increase of approximately 1,000 students over the past 12 months.  So, clearly the word is slowly getting out amongst our folk.  But for the most part, they have relied on parents talking to other parents and alums sharing their positive experiences.  Word of mouth has been their most effect marketing strategy.

I’m a firm believer in “catching” people doing “good things.”  Positive stories deserve at least as much attention as the negative tales that bombard us on a daily basis.

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Over the past couple of years, local print and television media have focused their sights, almost exclusively, on school violence, cheating scandals, poor test scores crumbling facilities and an unprecedented budget crisis prompting massive teacher and counselor layoffs. Relying solely on “mainstream” media outlets, one gets the sense that there is no hope for urban education.  The prevailing narrative would have you believe that we’ve abandoned all hope for adequately educating low to moderate income inner-city Black and Brown kids.

Meanwhile, in neighborhoods all across the city Independence Mission Schools have been delivering high quality educational services to an overwhelmingly African-American, Latino and Asian cohort of high achieving and well behaved students.

Over the past week, I have visited four Independence Mission Schools. Al Cavalli, the President of IMS, invited me to visit schools in different parts of the city. I toured St. Rose of Lima near the Overbrook section, St. Martin de Porres in North Philly, Our Mother of Sorrows/St. Ignatius (OSSI) in West Philly and St. Thomas Aquinas in South Philly. At each school, the Principal set aside over two hours out of their busy schedules to provide me with a detailed background of the mission and workings of their respective schools.

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I was introduced to every teacher and every class in these schools. The students in these schools are representative of the neighborhoods in which they are located. St. Rose, St. Martin and OSSI are 99%-100% African-American. St. Vincent’s student body reflects the tremendous diversity prevailing in a reinvigorated South Philadelphia. There are Black, Vietnamese, Chinese, and White students learning together.

The children, without fail greeted me with welcoming smiles. In unison, each class said ”Good morning Mr. Wilson, welcome to St. Rose/St. Martin/OSSI or St. Thomas… God Bless you!” They were attentive and fully engaged in the lessons. Their eyes were bright. They were learning! The young boys, without fail, initiated the “pound hug” – a stylized version of the handshake, almost exclusively performed between two Black males, that consists of a combination of a handshake and one-armed hug. Needless to say, I was impressed. I respected these boys and they respected me.

The level of technology in these schools is a well-kept secret. Every class featured a state of the art “smart board.” Computers and IPads were everywhere.  In classroom after classroom I experienced the feeling of seeing the “light-bulb go on” in the minds of these young scholars. IMS is empowering educators and inspiring life-long learners. Vince Mazzio, Principal at St. Thomas kept reiterating his belief that he is preparing kids for “jobs that don’t exist yet.” We all know he is right. Rarely does one encounter urban educators that are actually “walking the walk” and not just “talking the talk.”

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IMS has created transformative urban learning environments, for today and tomorrow. Upon entering these schools, one immediately realizes they are truly different. We all know the extent to which most Philadelphia public schools are characterized by a persistent pattern of acting out, disruptive or negative attention seeking behaviors.

The social setting in Independence Mission Schools is conducive to learning. Of course, these schools are tuition-based. The cost is approximately $4,000 per year. According to Cavalli, the overwhelming majority of IMS families receive financial assistance. Moreover, payments are spread across 10 months. The typical family pays somewhere between $100-$300 per month.

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My question to you is: What is peace of mind worth? I know it’s tight.  It won’t be easy.  But, let’s keep it real… I see young Black boys walking to and from dysfunctional public schools wearing $150-$250 sneakers every day. I see young girls do the same with $200-$400 hair weaves flowing down their backs. What’s more important?  What truly matters? I guess what I’m asking is: Will it be consumption or investment?

You are a good parent. You care. I know how much your child’s future means to you.  I can help you find a good school for your child. Feel free to contact me via email at delgrecowilson@aol.com. I look forward to helping you lay the foundation for a bright educational future.

One Family at a Time: Increasing Minority Catholic/Private Enrollment In Philly

We are witnessing a profound paradigm shift in the manner in which urban K-12 educational services are delivered.  Urban public schools have seemingly abandoned hope.  Right before our eyes, the traditional urban public school systems of our youth die a tortuous, slow and excruciatingly painful death. Constant pressure is being applied with great force to the “throat” of urban public school systems. This asphyxiation of public education in places like Philadelphia, presents a tremendous opportunity for Catholic, Private and other tuition-based schools to dramatically increase their enrollment figures.

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We are in the midst of a period of “public education austerity,” which has been gaining traction for several years. Deep and sustained administrator, teacher and guidance counselor layoffs accompanied by widespread school closings and service cuts are clear symptoms of this particular disease. These massive human resource reductions and school shutterings have been instituted with alarming consistency in low-income urban areas across the nation. They are part and parcel of the trend toward a “Portfolio” management model in urban education.

Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, Camden and Philadelphia are among the large urban districts that are shifting from a centralized bureaucracy that directly manages traditional neighborhood based schools toward the Portfolio model in which District Administrators enter into contracts with a few public schools, privately managed schools, and charter schools. Last year alone, Philadelphia closed 29 schools. Chicago closed 49, New York 26 and Washington, DC 15. Other urban areas transitioning to this Portfolio Management approach are Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Washington.

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A key feature of this strategy appears to be economic strangulation of the remnants of traditional neighborhood schools. Given the fiscal constraints facing administrators of traditional urban schools, continued abysmal academic performance is inevitable. Of course, this will lead to more and more school closings. National education management organizations (EMOs) and large corporate charter operators will continue to gain a larger share of the urban public education market. Or, so they think.

Portfolio models have emerged in wide range of strategic environments, but they have an important limitation. In each of the aforementioned cities, the “shot callers” – politicians, board members, superintendents, etc. – have made their move.  For example, the School District of Philadelphia has shown its’ hand.  Now other “players” have an opportunity to react and respond accordingly.  In “real life” all of the players in the “urban education market” players don’t choose their strategies simultaneously.  Instead, the game transpires over time, with players making “moves” to which other players react with their own “moves.” Here I explore the likely “moves” of the tuition-based schools, represented by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and urban low to moderate income parents of school age children.

It is important to note that the School District of Philadelphia’s educational “shot-callers” may not have fully considered the extent to which the timing of strategic decisions is important.  Despite years of sad stability, the urban educational service delivery “market” is potentially a dynamic and constantly changing strategic environment.  The shot-caller pay lip service to this fact.  Proponents of the Portfolio model argue that it allows districts a degree of flexibility unavailable under traditional service delivery models. What they fail to appreciate is the extent to which their actions could lead to a mass exodus of students from the public school system altogether.

For years, urban public school board members, superintendents and administrators operated as a de facto monopoly. The actual consumer of public schools — parents and children — exercise very influence as the schools have become more and more centralized and bureaucratic. Over the past 60 years or so, the number of school districts declined from 130,000 to 16,000. The system is top-heavy.  Classroom teachers once represented 96 percent of the total instructional staff. Today they are about 86 percent.  Federal and state resources have superseded local government as the leading source of school funds. The local percentage dropped from 83 percent to 43 percent. While population has almost doubled, the cost per student multiplied more than five-fold, even after allowing for inflation.  By any reasonable measure, the quality of urban education has declined precipitously. Urban public school systems are now run by professional bureaucrats. Monopoly and uniformity have replaced competition and diversity. Over the past five or six years, these bureaucrats began shifting to a ‘Portfolio’ management model in cities across America. In doing so, they are opening the door for high-quality alternatives like Catholic, Christian and Independent tuition-based schools to siphon off students in large numbers.

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Their misguided premise seems to be that urban public students won’t pursue tuition-based alternatives. From the perspective of the shot-callers, urban public students are captives.  They will accept whatever experiment or reform package comes down the pike.  I fundamentally disagree! Here, I explore a more dynamic representation of the urban educational setting in Philadelphia. Unlike, political leaders and school board members operating from a monopolistic perspective, assuming a stagnant and captive urban student body, I acknowledge the presence and importance of other players in the urban educational “game.”

A more extensive and informative analysis necessarily includes a more complete set of players.  Urban school districts aren’t acting in a vacuum. For present purposes, I consider three (3) sets of players: 1) The School District of Philadelphia, 2) The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and, 3) urban parents of Philadelphia’s public school students. Perhaps, most importantly, there is no assumption that urban districts can close schools, cut services, lay off teachers and other staff members with impunity. Rather, I look at their recent moves when and spell out what their choices entail. I explore what the other know when they move. Finally, I examine each set of players‘ payoffs as a function of the choices that are made.

In the Philadelphia Urban Education Entry Model illustrated below, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) is an incumbent monopolist. As of December 2013, the SDP consisted of 214 schools. This figure includes Promise Academies and excludes Early Childhood, Alternative Education Programs, and Charter Schools. The SDP enrolls over 131,000 students in these 214 schools. Another 6,982 are enrolled in Pre-K programs, 3,558 are in Alternative Education programs and 229 are in Virtual Academies.

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The School District of Philadelphia is also responsible for establishing and maintaining high standards for its charter schools, including ongoing monitoring of charter performance against clear standards and implementing consequences for not meeting standards. As such, the SDP currently “oversees” 86 charter schools with a total enrollment exceeding 60,000.  While charter schools have a degree of administrative autonomy, they are ultimately accountable to the School District of Philadelphia.  Indeed, six (6) charter schools are currently in the midst the Nonrenewal/Revocation Process in which the District’s School Reform Commission is attempting to permanently close the schools. For strategic purposes, I consider them part of the District.

With regard to urban education, especially of low to moderate income minority students, in Philadelphia, the SDP is a virtual monopoly. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has smaller but relatively stable presence in Philadelphia’s urban education market.  With the abysmal academic performance of SDP schools, the Archdiocese has an opportunity to aggressively enter the urban educational market. Plainly stated, they can make a push for Black and Latino students that are currently underserved by dysfunctional public schools. The strategic situation is represented the above diagram.

If the Archdiocese decides to “stay out” of the urban student enrollment market, the district would not lose students and the payoff for the SDP is 2. Under that scenario, the Archdiocese would not gain any additional students and their payoff would be 0. But, we can immediately eliminate this payoff option.

The Archdiocese has decided to “jump in” the the urban enrollment market. Indeed, their commitment to attracting minority students is very real. Toward that end, the nonprofit foundation that manages Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is offering $1,000 grants to encourage students to transfer to the schools.

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Christopher Mominey, chief operating officer of the Faith in the Future Foundation and the archdiocese’s secretary for Catholic education, said the new “transfer advantage” grants were part of the effort to boost enrollment at the 17 high schools.  He said the foundation wanted to attract students who were not enrolled at Catholic high schools but were interested in learning more about them. Within Philadelphia’s city limits, these students are predominantly Black, Latino and Asian. The Archdiocese is currently planning mount an aggressive targeted marketing campaign to engage minority families. This effort will be spearheaded by Nick Regina, Deputy Secretary for Enrollment Management.

With the Archdiocese aggressively competing for urban students, the SDP, theoretically, will have to choose how to compete: either aggressively (fight to keep their students), or by ceding enrollment share (accommodate). The strategic situation faced by the SDP is represented by in the diagram by the choices “fight” or “accommodate.” Again, we can immediately eliminate one of the scenarios. The district, quite frankly, is not in any position to fight.

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Even if they wanted to market themselves, it would be a very, very tough sell.  Of the 214 schools in the School District of Philadelphia, 182 (85%) are listed as “low-achieving” for the 2014-2015 school year. Put another way, nearly 9 out of every 10 Philadelphia public school ranks in the bottom 15% of Pennsylvania schools. Moreover, it’s virtually impossible to find a traditional neighborhood school that is not low-achieving. The performance levels are so poor that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has determined that students residing within the boundaries of a low-achieving school are eligible to apply for scholarships to attend another public or nonpublic school. In effect, the state of Pennsylvania is telling parents to seek better educational settings.

Hence, if they expended any of their scarce resources on a marketing/recruitment effort, they would necessarily take away from their ability to deliver educational programming. As such, the student experience within the district could only become worse. Thus, the decision to “fight” result is payoff of -1 for the SDP. At the same time, the Archdiocese will gain an increased enrollment share. The ADP payoff is 1.

Thus, the far more likely scenario is one of accommodation. One could almost see this coming. Three years ago, the SRC joined the city, state, District, and two of Pennsylvania’s largest charter umbrella organizations in joining the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact.  The group was given a $100,000 planning grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The stated aim of the compact is replacing or transforming 50,000 seats in low-performing schools with better options, without regard to whether the schools involved are operated by the District or a charter organization. The Great Schools Compact is the engine driving the push toward a “Portfolio Management” model in Philadelphia. Why would they oppose an increased number of students enrolling in tuition-based schools?

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Clearly, Catholic schools are a “better option.” By any reasonable measure Catholic schools outperform public and charter schools in Philadelphia. Over 98% of the elementary schools in the Archdiocese have been accredited by the Middle States Association, and the remaining 2% have completed the process and are awaiting their status. More than 4,000 students participate in Elementary Honors Math Programs in 78 Archdiocesan schools. These students are prepared to participate in advanced-placement mathematics courses at the secondary level. World Language instruction is offered in 102 elementary schools. Fine Arts programs are in existence in every Archdiocesan school. Students from Archdiocesan schools have taken top honors in the Future Cities competition as well as in county and regional science competitions.

The question becomes: How does the Archdiocese identify and connect with urban parents desiring access to high-quality, safe educational settings on a regular and consistent basis?  How do they overcome the seemingly “irrational” tendency of parents to enroll their children in low-achieving and highly dysfunctional public schools? The fact is far too urban many parents exhibit educational decision-making that can, perhaps, be best described as irrational or behavior without clear educational goals in mind.

First and foremost, Catholic School enrollment management and admissions professionals must understand that marketing/recruitment approaches that have worked with their traditional populations are limited by time and culture. The Archdiocese has begun to make significant inroads in that area.  Schools like West Catholic HS, Roman Catholic HS and Bishop McDevitt have significant minority student populations.  The staff at these schools have developed recruitment strategies that have been well-received by minority parents.  However, many low to moderate income parents continue to exhibit educational decision-making that is very distinct and subculture-bound.

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To be effective, Archdiocese representatives must better understand that enrollment decisions which “on their face” appear irrational may indeed be sensible.  This is an important and difficult task to accomplish.  It’s difficult because in many instances educational decision-making takes forms that typical private school parents would consider irrational.  Nonetheless, these behaviors are sensible because they are well adapted to the “real world” situations faced by low to moderate income urban families every day. By “well adapted” I mean enrolling kids in neighborhood public schools satisfies the legal requirement that children attend school without the occurrence of destructive personal stress.

In all American urban centers, to a greater or lesser extent there exists a subculture of the poor. People on the lower end of the economic spectrum view things differently than those on the middle and upper ends. It’s exceedingly hard out here for many, if not most, urban families. In real terms, the nation’s 2012 household median income of $51,017 stood at the lowest level since 1995. Median income peaked in 1999, at $56,000. In 2007, the national median household income stood at $55,627. But it has fallen every year since. When inflation is removed from the equation, median income fell 5.5% from 2005 to 2012. Most Philadelphians are much worse off than the average American. Philadelphia’s median household income was $34,207 in 2011, according to a census study. With half of Philly’s households below that figure, it’s not difficult to identify people struggling to make ends meet and keep a roof over their head.

Enrollment decisions for these folk conform to the notion that actions are taken to avoid pain, not to maximize educational benefits: to cope with pain, or minimize it, or to minimize its very perception. This behavior is not likely immediately recognizable to Catholic School administrators as “sensible” action. I suspect that much, if not most, urban parental behavior broadly considered is designed to minimize pain.

Dealing with daily inexorable pressure and overwhelming frustrations, many low to moderate income parents desire a predictable life. They don’t need to enroll their children in a private or parochial school only to discover that they will be unable to meet tuition payments. They want to reduce the precariousness of life. They want to know that their children will be able to attend a school and they will therefore comply with truancy laws. Many have a hard time understanding apparently irrational resistance to well-meaning attempts to improve access to quality schools. For those unfamiliar with life in the “hood” the educational choices of many urban parents is not immediately recognizable as sensible.

How can we help parents better understand the range of available options? It needs to be understood that educational decision-making intended to minimize pain is widespread in urban centers because it has deep roots in the basic, inescapable need to avoid tension and stress in a world quite correctly perceived to be hostile and unpredictable. Urban minority parents literally have to worry the thug element and the police harming their children. Will their boys be safe from police or harassment or worse traveling everyday through predominantly white neighborhoods.  Unless Catholic educators/recruiters take this fact into account they will continue trying to engage urban families with strategies that are totally irrelevant to their day-to-day existence. There is a need for a new debate, a new discussion with vastly different parameters.

In recent years, debate surrounding urban educational issues has tended to be narrowly circumscribed.  Print and TV media outlets and pundits have focused on a very narrow range of issues. They tend to frame the argument in the following manner: Should public school districts and their supporters focus attention on how to provide quality schooling with, admittedly, dwindling and insufficient resources? Or, alternatively, should school districts and their supporters continue waging (losing) a struggle to gain additional public funding?

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is adopting a very different approach to the problem of urban education. They can begin from a point which assumes that parents, guardians, grandparents and other educational placement “decision-makers” are potential consumers. That is to say, their behaviors could be influenced, subject to information and opportunity costs. The Archdiocese is assuming that, once fully informed, individual urban parents will want safe high-quality educational settings for their children. Like everyone else, Black, Latino and Asian parents will want to access the “best” schools, once they understand that it is truly achievable.

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They know that many urban parents, however, possess a very limited understanding of the Parochial school application and financial aid process. As a result, their ability to determine their “best interests” and make informed educational decisions is constrained both by perceived limited financial situations and limited understanding of the processes. This is not accidental. Urban school districts, charter school operators and the media have managed to successfully frame the discussion in such a manner that Catholic, Private and Independent school options are, generally speaking, excluded from consideration as viable options for low to middle-income urban families.

The Archdiocese recognizes that most urban parents don’t know much about how Catholic schools work. These parents don’t understand that with available financial aid, they could access quality elementary schools $250, $300 or $350 per month depending on their respective financial situation. They recognize that within urban minority communities, there is significant variation in the extent to which attention is focused on educational issues,  People have different spans of attention and parents have different levels of education. In short, they know parents need help determining what is the “best” educational setting for their children. Many, in not most, parents and students have no idea how bad their current situation actually is.

The best way to accomplish this task is to meet with these families one at a time. If the Archdiocese sticks to this approach, I’m convinced Catholic schools in Philly will “blow up.”

Philadelphia’s High School Selection Process: Why Catholic Schools?

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Across the Greater Philadelphia region, thousands of parents are facing one of their most important decisions.  Their minds are filled with questions:  Where will he/she attend high school next year?  Will the school be safe?  Are there enough teachers? Are the AP and Honors classes funded? What are the test scores?  This year, finding answers to these questions and making well-informed decisions will be more difficult than ever before.  As we all know, the School District of Philadelphia is in the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis.  As a direct result of recent cuts, students and their parents are, on their own, trying to research alternatives and find a quality high school placement.  Clearly, the time has come for most Philadelphia families to consider non-public school alternatives.  For many, the question has become: How can you NOT afford to send your child to a Catholic High School? 

In most School District of Philadelphia schools, 8th graders will be applying to high schools without the help of full-time guidance counselors, who usually lead the process.  Think about that for a moment.  Middle school students do not have access to full-time counselors while trying to navigate the complicated and complex high school application process. Confused and overwhelmed 8th grade students cannot bounce their thoughts and impressions off the person, historically, charged with that responsibility.  The district has determined that assistance with high school selection is not a priority.  

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How are students supposed to meaningfully compare and contrast the various programs and offerings of the competing public, charter and Catholic high schools?  In the past, the district provided each 8th grade student with a high school directory.  The student could take the directory home and review the offerings with their parents, grandparents and other concerned adults.  Unfortunately, budget cuts have eliminated this crucial part of the high school selection process.   For the first time in recent memory, the District will not print a high school directory; it will be available only online.  

Think about the families in your neighborhood.  Think about the kids whose parents work two jobs.  Think about the kids whose parents have alcohol and/or chemical dependency issues.  Think about the families in public housing.  What percentage has access to the internet in the home?  How many have printers in the home?  The decisions to eliminate guidance counselors and discontinue printing the high school directory, arguably, discriminate against low-income families.  Middle and upper class families will be able to easily access the information.  Poor families will be at a real disadvantage. It gets worse.

The School District of Philadelphia is not holding its annual High School Expo. In the past, the Expo facilitated more informed choices by families and students.  High schools would set up booths so that students and their families can learn about their programs and any requirements for admission. District-run neighborhood high schools, as well as  city-wide special admission schools were represented.  Many charter schools — there are more than 30 high school charter options in the city — were also there.  The District has decided it cannot sponsor the Expo.

However, there will be a High School Fair on November 16, 2013 at Drexel University, underwritten largely by the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP). Hopefully, this will fill the void to some degree.

It is important to note that the problems are not limited to Philadelphia public schools.  In recent weeks, we have witnessed six (6) students arrested for knocking a staff member unconscious at Upper Darby High School.  Scores of students have experienced health problems as a result of widespread mold in a Cheltenham School District building.  The SAT scores in the Southeast Delco, William Penn and Chester-Upland School Districts are 200-300 points below the national average.  Parents of students in suburban districts face equally difficult choices.

What is a parent to do? How can parents access high-quality, safe educational settings for their children?  

In Philadelphia, if your child is able to gain admission to one of the following “magnet” school programs, he/she will be in a competitive, relatively safe college preparatory program.  

Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School

Central High School

Academy at Palumbo

High School of Creative and Performing Arts

Bodine William W High School

Carver High School Engineering & Science

Girard Academic Music Program

Girls High School

Now, an important and, perhaps, questionable assumption is that the quality of the educational programs at these highly regarded schools will not be further diminished by budget cuts.  Keep in mind the libraries – research and independent learning resources – at Masterman and Central, two of Philadelphia’s most prestigious schools have been closed due to budget cutbacks. Ironically, gaining admission to these “magnet” programs is a very competitive process and families typically rely on guidance counselors to lead them through the process.  Now, parents unfamiliar with the process are left to fend for themselves on the internet.  

 

Why Catholic High School?

When considering Catholic school, parents often ask the question, “Can I afford to send my child?”  As noted earlier, given the state of public education in the Philadelphia region: “How can you not afford it?” The Faith in the Future Foundation and the Archdiocese will work with parents who want what is best for their children and are willing to sacrifice in order to provide it.  

Earlier this week, it was announced that 125 freshmen from across the area have been selected to receive a $2,000 Maguire scholarship award for the 2013-2014 school year.  The Maguire Foundation has committed $5 Million over the next 7 years to support students attending Archdiocesan High Schools.  This is just the most recent example of financial commitments made by supporters of Catholic education in Philadelphia.  The Faith in the Future Foundation has dedicated itself to ensuring that a high-quality Catholic education is accessible to every family that wants the best for their children. 

Catholic schools provide a school culture and an identity that is spiritually-based.  Given the turmoil, dysfunction and violence prevailing in many traditional public high schools, there is a strong desire among many parents bring God into the schools.. The atmosphere in a Catholic school provides experiences and opportunities for youngsters to know that God is a very real presence in life. 

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Over the past few years, 100% of the persistently dangerous schools in Pennsylvania were School District of Philadelphia schools. Conversely, Philadelphia Catholic Schools instill a sense of personal responsibility. Catholic schools look beyond the curricular areas to remind children that they are responsible. Discipline is synonymous with respect and responsibility.  Students are taught to be responsible for their own actions. In a spirit of justice and charity, youngsters are encouraged to respect themselves and their neighbor. In simple terms, the children are taught to be kind. Today’s codes of discipline are codes of expectations. 

Philadelphia’s Catholic schools contribute greatly to the well-being of our city. They provide anchors to neighborhoods by encouraging service to others. They help students assume a sense of civic responsibility; they encourage a thirst for justice and for peace.

Catholic schools respond to the needs of our society by affording a means for families to live and practice the gospel message and to follow the social teachings of the Church. 

More than ever, Philadelphia’s Catholic High Schools are an accessible high-quality alternative to the struggling public school systems in the region.  The vast majority of Catholic school graduates, pursue higher education. Catholic School graduates are often accepted into the most competitive and prestigious colleges. Students are expected to accept responsibility for their actions, to respect others and to make good decisions in the context of their faith experience.

The goal of a Catholic education is to help children mature into Christ-like people. Students are encouraged to recognize the presence of Christ in themselves and others. The religious formation of children begun at home is continued in Catholic school. Reverence for the human dignity of every person comes from recognizing Christ in self and others. More than “Drug-free zones” or “Gun-free zones,” Catholic schools strive to be “Christ-centered zones.”

Catholic school teachers expect every student to achieve. Parents are a child’s first teachers. At Catholic schools, parents take an active role in their children’s education. The school supports families and works with them for the benefit of children.

For more information about Catholic High Schools as well as scholarship and financial aid information, please contact:

Delgreco K. Wilson

Educational Consultant

delgrecowilson@outlook.com