Commentary: Plan must consider students’ basic needs

By Cathy Weiss and Paul DiLorenzo | June 18, 2012

This guest blog post responding to the District’s transformation plan comes from Cathy Weiss, executive director of the Stoneleigh Foundation, and Paul DiLorenzo, member of the Stoneleigh Foundation’s board of directors.

In the midst of the drama that surrounds the School District of Philadelphia, perhaps it might be worth considering another perspective.

What if we agreed that the challenge is not just about education, organizational structure, and finance?

What if we focused on the growing number of children who come to the educational environment already at a disadvantage? It’s not just that they are poor. They suffer from inconsistent health care and early learning deficits; some of them are deprived of food and, increasingly, of hope. We have found no research that shows that children facing these odds will succeed, unless something is done.

Without addressing the basic needs of these children, there is little reason to believe that the school system can achieve both academic enrichment and improved child well-being — or that any reconfiguration of the schools is more than simply moving the deck chairs.

So what if we take Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and the School Reform Commission at their word? They want to “blow up” the current system and replace it with something more effective, more cost-efficient, and more engaging for kids and their parents.

The plan is likely doomed to failure unless it makes provisions for the kids who live in the poorest communities. In taking on that challenge, it is neither effective nor acceptable for us to count on the educational system alone to address the needs of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren.

With that in mind, here are three general considerations that we think are critical to any systemic redesign.

  • Give up the fight for the same old, same old. Acknowledge that inconsistent victories and discrete student achievements do not make a system of excellence.There are some wonderful pockets of achievement in Philadelphia. Assemble the lessons learned from those models and lay the foundation for expanding those promising practices across the District’s schools.
  • Understand that any prospect of educational success for children from distressed communities and neighborhoods is based on the recognition that the task requires family stabilization, academic enrichment, and cultural and recreational opportunities.Decades ago, Dr. James Comer, now a child psychiatry professor at Yale University, put forward the notion that coordinating a full range of family services — including food, clothing and shelter, counseling, and mobile medical services, etc. — would eventually produce improved academic performance. The Philadelphia Departments of Human Services, Public Health and Behavioral Health spend a good deal of time on community engagement. Why not mandate that every public school maintain a set of formal working relationships with these and other departments and establish specific measurements of well-being? If the evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone and the districts that have implemented Comer’s School Development Program is any guide, we should begin to see an increase in academic and well-being indicators within a few years.
  • Foster collaborations between the School District and private foundations, universities and corporations on a research and development function.Knudsen undoubtedly knows this is one of the characteristics of great organizations — they study, they create, they innovate, they look for what is next around the curve, they evaluate, and they figure out how to bring successful products to scale. Bring funders, school officials and parents and students to the same table.

In the words of James Baldwin, “These are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” In the 21st century, their education, the bedrock of what they will become, requires that we address them in the context of family and community.

Originally published in The Notebook.