Chester-Upland School District in the Philadelphia area is in deep financial trouble, and it made news recently for suing the state for emergency funding to keep going. In a piece entitled, “This District Had It Coming,” University of Arkansas Education Professor Robert Maranto remembers his research visits to Chester-Upland in the early 2000s, and the lessons he took away from a district that had already been failing for decades:
Years back, a Pennsylvania Department of Education official overseeing Chester Upland told me it’s “kind of a lost school district. . . . One of the things I found most frustrating was that some of the administrators—not the teachers—like being the worst in the state because they can … use it as an excuse, and as administrators, they’re concerned about their jobs.” The district exemplifies what Charles Payne noted in So Much Reform, So Little Change: Once educators believe their children cannot be taught, there is little outsiders can do to convince them otherwise. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Chester Upland is in trouble because some charter operators believed most of the district’s kids can learn, while most district leaders did not. Charters offered a safe environment—and in some cases—a safe learning environment while traditional public schools did not.
It’s this kind of fatalism—these kids in violent, failing schools can’t learn—that often underpins arguments against school choice. And it could not be more wrong. Take the cases of Olney East and Olney West High Schools in North Philadelphia, where the school district gave control to Hispanic educational organization Aspira Inc. last year. The Olney schools were consistently among the most violent in the city, with dismal academic scores that placed them in Pennsylvania’s bottom 5 percent of failing schools.
Olney’s 1,700 high schoolers were truant, defiant and sometimes violent. When they should have been in class, they played handball in the gym or spades in the cafeteria. Chaos reigned. But within months of Aspira taking over, and combining the two high schools into one charter school, suspensions and expulsions dropped dramatically.
The difference? Aspira instilled order and made expectations clear to students. They hired 29 safety officers, installed 350 cameras, required school uniforms, replaced the old teachers, and even improved the food service. But the “game-changer” was the way Aspira separated students with disciplinary problems from the rest of the student body into a “Success Academy.” Apart from knowing there are immediate consequences for bad behavior, Success students such as 12th-grader Justin Powell have found something else: Hope.
Powell is thriving in the Success program he was named Success’ first student of the month and plans to get post-graduate training in maintenance and landscaping. “The first day, everybody knew my name. Wow! Mr. Esposito pulled me to the side, and he said to me, ‘Mr. Powell, you think you can follow the rules?’ And I’m thinking, who’s this guy who knows my name?” Powell recalled.
The lack of hope is the crucial difference between schools of choice and persistently failing school districts such as Chester-Upland. Given the right opportunities and dedicated adults, even troubled kids can succeed. Yet another reminder that school choice saves.