School bells are ringing

An interview with Philadelphia's top educator as the new school year begins

In front of a giant projection screen, Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman formally kicks off the 2009-10 school year with her Principals' Convocation on Aug. 10. ( Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer / File )

PHILADELPHIA SCHOOL District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said yesterday that she's content with the progress made so far under her five-year Imagine 2014 reform plan, but said that it's not enough.

She's also excited to begin her second year at the helm of the city's public schools, she said in her spacious, third-floor office inside district headquarters on Broad Street near Spring Garden.

Her expectations for the coming school year, which starts Tuesday, are clear - keep improving, she said.

In an interview with the Daily News, Ackerman also fielded questions about the budget stalemate, swine flu, ongoing contract negotiations and her expectations for the school year.

Q. What are the major plans within Imagine 2014 being implemented this year?

A. I'm really excited about Imagine 2014 because it's like the blueprint for moving forward in the district in the next five years. And, you could sort of see this year, in phase one, the actual making that whole plan a reality....There are a lot of good things that are happening as a result of Imagine 2014 that parents will see immediately, or staff members will see immediately, or students will see as they see more staff. So, in many ways, this is exciting because this is no longer a plan on somebody's desk.

Q. Is there any part of phase one of Imagine 2014 that you plan to hold off on this year?

A. We've pretty much gone ahead with the plans for the first year. We may have to reprioritize phases two and three as a result of whatever comes out of Harrisburg in terms of a budget. We vow to implement the first phase of Imagine 2014 and pretty much we're on target to do most of what we said we were going to do. With the budget impasse, the district may hit a financial wall at some point.

Q. When do you suppose that will be, and what do you propose to do?

A. We don't anticipate we'll hit a wall this year. We've had supplementary funding from stimulus dollars. So next year, we may see that we have to reprioritize some things that were important to us.

But until we get the final budget, we just don't know. So we're trying not to speculate. We know that we're probably not going to see what we have seen in the last few years.

How bad it'll be, we're not sure, but we're pretty good stewards of the public funds. We don't anticipate we're going to run a deficit at any point in my career.

Q: How concerned are you about H1N1 [swine flu]?

A. I'm concerned like everybody else. There are 167,000 kids who go to our public schools. That's a lot of children. Ten thousand teachers, 20,000 employees, that's a lot of people to be concerned about, and the fact that it's so contagious...a lot of young people and elderly people come in contact with each other.

We're going to be really clear with asking parents that if your child is sick, please, please, please, keep them home.

Don't take a chance and send them to school. We will be telling them when the vaccine will be available. We're making the vaccine available to any family, at all of our schools, that wants to participate in the vaccination. We are taking this very seriously. We tried to have all precautions so that we're not reactive.

Q: How have contract negotiations been going?

A. I have been pleased that the [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] has been willing to sit down and talk with us about some difficult issues, and issues that might be controversial. It's a good sign.

We may not always, either of us, get everything we want, but the fact that they're willing to talk and try to find a way to get a solution that will be good for everybody is a win-win. I'm optimistic.

Q. What do you consider a victory for students in terms of negotiations?

A. We want site selection [changes to hiring rules]. I think we would like to have some form of value-added pay for staff members. I certainly want to see every teacher get a raise. Some flexibility in the course of the [school] day, for there to be collaboration among teachers and with the principals. Those would all be victories, a win-win for everybody.

Q. At the end of the school year, what would you consider a successful school year?

A. I want to see accelerated improvement. I am not content with just average progress. I want to see us begin to step it up, especially in the schools that have been underperforming for so long.

I want to see all of phase one of 2014 implemented, fully implemented. The bottom line is that children are doing better. But I want all boats to rise. And that's really important to me that we do this with a sense of urgency...

Having a successful conclusion to our contract negotiations would mean a successful school year for me.

Q. What is your mandate to principals?

A. To those that have been making progress, accelerate that progress, too. We're not going to get in your way. In schools that have not made progress for their children, we are going to spend a lot more time monitoring what is happening, giving them support and making sure that these young people will make more progress than they did last year.

But the principles are clear, we've made progress, but it's not good enough....Everybody, every school, has work to do. I just expect that they're going to address that work that has to be done, come up with the plan on how you're going to address it and get it done by the end of the school year.

Q. To underperforming schools?

A. There'll be a lot of focus on and in support of schools that have been underperforming. There'll be fewer choices for them. More of "this is what works, this is what you will do."

It may make people feel uncomfortable, but this isn't about the adults anymore, it's about the children.