Susan Fuhrman

Most people in the neighborhood near Penn have thought a good public school would encourage young families to live in the area. But now that planning for just such a school is underway, some neighbors have begun to worry. Will the new school impoverish the programs of other area schools that have a measure of success?

We asked Graduate School of Education Dean Susan Fuhrman, who has been involved with the planning of the new school and whose school has a history of cooperation with the School District of Philadelphia, for an update on the planning efforts.

The dean of the Graduate School of Education sees the Penn community school as an opportunity to break down the walls dividing educational research and teaching practice.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Q. How did the Graduate School of Education get involved?
Everybody realized that providing excellent educational opportunities would be a cornerstone of neighborhood improvement.
   That also built naturally on Penn's extensive work in local public schools already - service-learning courses with students in the University working together with public school teachers and their students on all kinds of issues from lead content to building a hydroponic garden to assessing the effectiveness of school-to-work programs. This would be a natural extension of our work with the public schools.
   And in that regard I particularly want to mention the cluster resource boards. Each cluster, which is a feeder pattern of elementary schools to a high school in the city, has an advisory board, and we've taken on the leadership of two of the advisory boards - for West Philadelphia and University City. It's just an example of how much we want to expand on and intensify our work with all of the schools in the area.

Q. When you say we, do you mean the GSE?
The University. I'm co-chairing with [Center for Community Partnerships Director] Ira Harkavy, so it's not just the Graduate School of Education.

Q. Which clusters?
West Philadelphia and University City.
   And then there's, from our school's perspective, an important academic reason to be involved in this effort. We are a research-based education school, but we have a strong belief in putting that research to work. So schools like [the GSE] - leading schools of education - are looking for places where we can bring productive research and practice together in the most meaningful way, in professional development schools, public schools that have very close relationships with universities and that are settings for research-based practice for the benefit of the students and for the continuing education of new teachers.
   And the goal is really to be the center for West Philadelphia and for the district more broadly where we can involve teachers in professional development.

Q. So the professional development will reach beyond the school?
We envision this school as place where teachers from other schools will come, where we will have the facilities to analyze teaching practice, where groups can meet and discuss and observe and participate. But the exchange will by no means be one-way but two-way. Teachers will go from the new neighborhood school to other schools for the curricular or organizational approaches or things in which they're particularly strong. So we think of this as a hub to make professional development a much more continuing, embedded and integral part of the work of all teachers.
   We hope the new school will be a concrete statement about the importance of professional development for everyone in the clusters, and more generally in the city.

Q. Will you have to follow the School District's curriculum?
The School District actually doesn't have a curriculum. The School District has a set of standards that it expects all children to meet. We are focusing on the big ideas, but once the school staff is on board, the actual specific decisions about what gets taught in what grade and how will be developed much further.

Q. What happens to the union rules about hiring?
Because this is a professional development school, the legal entity that governs this school can actually specify the criteria for staff and go seek them in hiring.

Q. How will that affect the pool of teachers for other schools?
We certainly have thought about that.
   I like to think of the new school as an opportunity, because by collaboratively involving ourselves in this effort with teachers from the other School District schools, we all learn, because this effort is attractive and exciting to funders who potentially could provide resources not just for this school, but for the cluster more broadly.

Q. How will this school be different from other schools?
I'm not sure that it would be different from anyone's vision of a really good warm school for children that offers really rich learning opportunities. We have, because of the generous Penn subsidy, the ability to make class sizes smaller than other schools. It will be a school that's also open to the community on a longer more extended basis, nights and weekends.
   That's not to talk about what it'll look like physically. It may look quite different physically than the school people are used to seeing because we have the exciting opportunity to build from scratch a school that serves as a professional development school. Not a lot of people have thought about that.

Q. What are the goals of the school?
The goals of the school are to educate children to be lifelong learners.
   Another major goal is to provide rich opportunities to learn for teachers at all levels of their career, and in some ways model that because that's where I think we really need more good models nationally, and professional development that is continuing and embedded in the school and is not just quick off-site workshop.

Q. Who will select the principal?
The School District and Penn will consult and cooperate in the selection of the principal.

Q. What is the community role?
The community is deeply involved in the planning process. And the legal entity governing board will have parent representatives (and will have some Penn representatives on it as well).

Q. How will major differences between Penn, the community and the School District be resolved?
The legal entity will have the authority to resolve differences. So far there are no differences. We're working very closely with the cluster leaders - Janis Butler is on the Education Planning Committee, that went with GSE to a national meeting on university-school partnerships. We're also working with the University City Cluster, and Janet Samuels is very involved.

Q. What will happen to the schools now on the site?
The Penn child care center is going to be relocated. PIC - Parent Infant Center - and the University City New School will be staying on the site over the next two years while construction takes place. And we are hoping in some ways that they will become part of this new school effort. I don't know if incorporation is the word, but certainly both those entities are heavily involved in the planning.

To learn more and share your ideas with the committees planning the new school, visit the interactive Web site Improving Public Education.

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Originally published on February 11, 1999