Reporters' Notebook: Philadelphia, A Laboratory For Hybrid Schools

Michel Martin talks with NPR education correspondents Claudio Sanchez and Eric Westervelt, about a new NPR series looking at problems within Philadelphia's public school system, and the lessons the rest of the country can take from Philly.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later this hour, we will tell you about a new film about former South African president, the global icon Nelson Mandela. That's called "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." We'll speak with the actress who plays Winnie in the film and we'll also talk about some of the other people who've tried to play Mandela over the years. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue today's focus on education. And we want to turn now to Philadelphia, where the schools are facing some of the same problems as other school systems around the country, like budget shortfalls as well as contrasting philosophies that have led to some bruising political fights over funding. But in Philadelphia, for a variety of reasons, the problems have been especially severe. Two of NPR's education reporters went to learn more, and they're with us now. Claudio Sanchez is with us. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Good to here.

MARTIN: And Eric Westervelt is also with us. They're both education correspondents for NPR. Eric, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, Claudio, Philadelphia was once seen as a model urban school system. What happened?

SANCHEZ: You have to understand a little bit of the history. Back in the late '90s, before 2000, there was an attempt to create better schools, get more funding. The superintendent and the mayor sued the state because they weren't getting enough money. And then 2000 hit, and the state dismantled the whole operation and, essentially, replaced it with something called the School Reform Commission. The School Reform Commission, in 2001, took over. After that, they hired people like Paul Vallas, a very well-known superintendent who said we need to experiment.

We need to try something that nobody's ever tried before. So Philadelphia became a laboratory for what many considered a hybrid school system - one made up of independently run, autonomous schools and the other pretty traditional schools. Now fast-forward to today, and what we have found is that that has not really saved the city or the state any money. I mean, these were operations - like we now have 86 charter schools, for example, that were really the thrust of the innovation.

But at one point, they had for-profits like Edison come in, and they were almost, at one point, going to run the whole system for $100 million. And that didn't go anywhere. So this experimentation, in the view of parents, certainly, and teachers, has been a bust. Those who argue that it is still worth pursuing now fast forward and say, look, we need to just tinker with this and create that same system that we think can create marked forces, competition, give parents a lot more choices and that's what we're in the middle of right now.

MARTIN: Eric, you spoke with a former teacher Hillary Linardopoulos. And I'd like to listen to what she had to say and then I want to ask you about it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HILLARY LINARDOPOULOS: When people aren't living this situation every day and teaching students who have such great needs every single day and seeing what it actually looks like, it's hard to understand how severe this situation is.

MARTIN: Eric, it just sounds like a note of desperation in her voice there. What exactly is she talking about?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's interesting. Hillary said to me, you know what, on some level it's traumatized teachers teaching traumatized kids because in addition to the budget cuts and the stresses and strains Claudio talked about, you know, you've got these enormous challenges with nearly 40 percent of the city's kids living in poverty in the highest poverty rate of the nation's largest urban district. So, you know, small things. I mean, teachers across America report having to supply, you know, things out of their own pockets. That's pretty common, Michel. But in Philadelphia, especially in these areas in North and West Philly of concentrated poverty, teachers report having to buy extra clothes, jackets, shoes, basic supplies.

And with these budget cuts, even cleaning supplies and books, all sorts of things, that's just one aspect. But, you know, we know the bigger picture is kids coming to school hungry and cold just can't learn as well as their more affluent counterparts. You know, the research backs this up. Kids living in this poverty, they're far more likely to miss school days, to have health problems that result in lost school time. So the poverty challenges can result in these serious, you know, social, emotional, cognitive, educational challenges in the classroom that Hillary and other teachers we talked to say is the reality they live day to day. That people who aren't living that may not get, may not understand.

MARTIN: Well, so than the answer to some of this or a lot of this as Claudio was telling us and has been telling is - he's been visiting with us, you know, for years keeping us surprised about these developments - is charter schools. I mean, a lot of school districts have turned to charter schools saying the competition is what is going to fix this thing because everybody is going to have to step up their game. And you visited one of them - Simon Gratz Mastery Charter Schools. It says - it was, prior to becoming a charter school, it was one of Pennsylvania's most troubled schools. And I just want to play a clip of what the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools Scott Gordon told you.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SCOTT GORDON: If you spoke to folks prior to the turn around, some would've assumed that a school like Gratz, kids couldn't achieve for lots of reasons. There's a culture of violence in the school. Kids are unprepared. And it turns out not to be true. That while the poverty creates real obstacles, obstacles that require resources to overcome, that our kids are smart, resilient, given the right circumstances and support, will fly and succeed.

MARTIN: So, Eric, as briefly as you can, true or not true - are these charter schools achieving something that the public schools are not?

WESTERVELT: Well, the short answer is no because this is just one school as I made clear in that profile - this one success store. I mean, the CEO Scott Gordon makes a valid point. He and champions of charters like to say poverty is not destiny, that it can be overcome with good teachers and support. But as I said, you know, in the story, Gratz got significant extra funding from private sources, including foundations and the public school system isn't getting that.

MARTIN: Claudio, we have about two minutes left. So what should we learn from this? Obviously, you're reporting is very detailed and I would, you know, point out that it's widely available on the broader NPR networks, that you dig into this issue that length. What's the take away from this?

SANCHEZ: That poverty - that poverty is an enormous factor in the education of children. And I think the research is very conclusive about that, but I think that it gets caught up in the politics - very nasty politics. And even in terms of the pedagogy, I mean, as Eric points out, there are schools that do work. But let's remember the charter schools work by different rules. They're autonomous. They're independent. They can do a lot more than traditional public schools can't. So I think that poverty is always, you know, the elephant in the room in most of the schools - stories that I've done. But as many sociologists have pointed out, schools can only make up for a certain amount of things.

If kids don't have dental care, if kids don't have medical care, if kids are coming from broken homes, I don't care how much money you are spending, if the model to educate these kids is not working - dysfunctional, we're all really looking for something that's scalable, something that works for these kids. And we're not going to do it in this adversarial climate, in which we're seeing charter schools, independent foundations, private philanthropies coming in and pretty much - whether we like to admit it or not - dividing communities and making it look like, let's just get rid of all those traditional public schools and replace them with charter schools.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez and Eric Westervelt are both education correspondents for NPR. They recently reported a three-part series on the Philadelphia school system. Claudio Sanchez joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Eric Westervelt was with us from our bureau in San Francisco. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Keep us posted.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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