Ideas We Should Steal: Judging schools based on inspections—not test scores

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

In late January, when report cards came out at a local South Philly charter school, it was obvious to the parents of one third-grader that their daughter was a success: She got straight As; first honors; high reading and writing marks; comments from her teacher about her obvious affection for school and learning. So it was with some dismay that her parents listened a few days later, as their 9-year-old described the newest part of every school day: PSSA test prep.

“My teachers said it’s the most important test of the year,” she announced. “I’m nervous. What if I don’t do well?”


At Meredith Elementary—considered the city’s best public K-8—another academically-gifted third grader started spending her after school hours cramming test-taking strategies, nervously working out the best way to answer the PSSA’s often unclear questions. She knew from previous years that the school is counting on her: Students in grades not taking the tests are instructed to tip-toe by classrooms so they don’t bother their schoolmates.

As third-graders, this will be the first time in their academic careers that these girls take the Pennsylvania State School Assessment exams. It won’t be the last: If nothing changes, before they graduate, they will take 17 standardized tests, including the new Keystone Exam requirement for a high school diploma, starting with the class of 2017. That doesn’t count the dozens of practice tests and in-school “benchmark” assessments they’ll take to prepare them for the big test. And with each passing year, the stakes get higher—if not for the students, then for their teachers, the school, and the District, which budgeted over $58 million for testing this year. Test scores are the biggest part of the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, which ranks every school in the state. They are the deciding factor in whether a school is underperforming or failing; whether parents want to send their children there; whether it might become a Renaissance school turned over to a charter company, which will replace at least half the staff; whether it will end up on the chopping block the next time the District needs to close schools.

It’s no wonder schools consider the test so important—and that teachers feel pressured to load up on test prep. Meanwhile, studies have shown that teaching to the test has had the opposite effect intended: Kids are doing worse on tests now, not better. The tests themselves are hopelessly 20th Century. “They measure rote learning, low-level skills, how much test prep a student has had and family background,” says Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, which advocates for better and fewer tests. “That’s not what our kids need if they’re going to be successful today.” Continue reading


Your City Defined: The El (thē ˈel)

Please, stop calling it the Market-Frankford Line.

By Rosella LaFevre

“The El” is what Philly lifers call the “Blue Line” or the Market-Frankford Line. The train, which takes riders from the Frankford Transportation Center to 69th Street, is elevated above the city except between 2nd and 40th streets, where it runs underneath Market Street. Because it’s the elevated train, it’s been called “The El” for forever.

The 5.25 mile-long Frankford Elevated section was built between 1915 and 1922 and began regular service from Northeast Philly to Center City on November 5, 1922. Daily ridership on the line peaked at 250,000 in the 1940s. After years of shutting the EL down between midnight and 5 AM, SEPTA in June started overnight service, adding 15,000 riders a week.

While riding The El has typically been about getting from Point A to Point B, Philly-born graffiti artist Stephen Powers turned it into an art project in 2009. With the Mural Arts Program, Powers painted A Love Letter For You, a series of rooftop murals between 45h and 63rd street. Now Mural Arts offers a “Love Letters Tour,” and in 2011,  a couple was married by Mayor Nutter aboard a special “Love Train.”


Taking On Tech’s Gender Gap

A hackathon this weekend at First Round Capital shows Philly combating the tech world’s not-so-dirty little secret

by Larry Platt

The news out of the high-profile sex discrimination suit roiling Silicon Valley isn’t good. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of gossip and titillation in the back and forth between Ellen Pao and her former employer, venture-capital behemoth Kleiner Perkins Caulfied & Byers. There’s the affair Pao, a junior partner, had with a male colleague, and the allegation that said colleague, upon becoming senior to her, was permitted to contribute to her (poor) performance reviews—after she’d ended their relationship. Then there’s the old boys’ club culture of Kleiner Perkins—the all-male ski trip, the alleged exclusion of women from meetings because they “kill the buzz.”

The case has riveted the tech world, and that’s because it goes beyond the he-said/she-said facts of one particular case and captures a disturbing industry-wide zeitgeist, in which women are either invisible or treated as “other”—the odd Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer success story notwithstanding. This is particularly true at venture-capital firms, where women make up just 6 percent of partners, down from 10 percent in 1999. (Pao, now the interim CEO at Reddit, was earning roughly $500,000 a year as a junior partner at Kleiner along with three male colleagues; the men were all promoted to senior partner, a salary bump by a factor of five).

Photo by Corinne Warnshuis

Photo by Corinne Warnshuis

Which gets us to Philly, where the burgeoning tech scene has a vibrant female community committed to addressing this industry-wide imbalance. This Friday and Saturday, the University City offices of First Round Capital will host the third annual LadyHacks hackathon—Philly’s only such women-only event. Women of all skill levels—from beginners and tech-curious to experienced coders—will come together to work collaboratively on projects that help solve social problems.

“There are a lot of strong women in the tech community here asking questions about the kind of roles women perform in the tech industry,” says Amelia Longo, one of the LadyHacks organizers. “Women tend to be project managers, office managers, or in charge of communications. Not designers or coders. We want to help change that.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton’s Adam Grant recently made clear in The New York Times just how insidious these role assignment stereotypes can be; even at supposedly enlightened workplaces, women tend to do the “empathy” work. That’s why LadyHacks—which last year drew 80 women—is female-only. Hackathons tend to be male-dominated. Instead, come Friday, female developers will be working with female project managers. “Even if you have no tech experience, but have an idea for an app, there’s a place for you on a team,” says Longo.

The organizers of LadyHacks come out of the many groups here that are trying to change tech culture. There’s Girl Develop It, which offers classes in everything from coding to design to salary negotiation; Girl Geek Dinners, a social meetup for women in tech; TechGirlz, a nonprofit that teaches middle-schoolers to code, and the Philly Women in Tech Summit—an annual conference that’s part of Philly Tech Week.

By focusing on providing the skills and connections women need, they’re taking on the culture Emily Bazelon wrote about last week in the New York Times: “’You can’t take for granted you’ll be taken seriously,’ one female start-up adviser who had worked at a major tech company told me. ‘That is different for men, 100 percent.’ Many of the women spoke with a mix of frustration and dismay about the guys in computer-science class who were reluctant to code with them or the executives who weren’t sure they were right for a job or promotion.”

Registration for LadyHacks is $10. Visit

For more information about LadyHacks, visit or email Registration is here.


The Real War on Poverty

Early childhood education is the key…So why are we so bad at evaluating child care quality?

By Jeremy Nowak



Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s largest cities. Its rate of deep poverty (household income less than half the poverty line) also tops the list.

A city can do three things to put a dent in poverty. It can engage the problem through social service, job training, and housing programs; it can create an environment that maximizes job growth; and it can promote high quality education opportunities.

For 50 years the city has had an office whose sole purpose was to fight poverty but it has been largely disconnected from other parts of government and certainly from the private sector. It was created in 1965 to draw War on Poverty funds from the Federal government.

In 1978 Mayor Rizzo reorganized it as the Philadelphia Allied Action Commission, and then in 1984 Mayor Goode transformed the agency into the Mayor’s Office of Community Services (MOCS).

The agency was commonly viewed as a patronage office.  Exempt from civil service requirements, it used hiring flexibility to fulfill political favors while ostensibly coordinating community activities.

MOCS was the kind of place where the friend of a friend who helped elect someone might work. It was the antipoverty version of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

In 2013, with two years left in his term, Mayor Nutter changed its name to the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and brought in Eva Gladstein, an accomplished public executive to run it. Shared Prosperity is the new office’s poverty-fighting plan. It focuses on work force development, access to public benefits, early childhood learning, housing security, and asset building.

To its credit the report has goals and performance metrics, but the office does not have the structural power to coordinate operations over disparate efforts inside and outside of government. Continue reading


Won’t Back Down

For a year and a half, the editors of Neshaminy High’s newspaper have refused to reverse their ban of the school’s racist nickname. This is their story.

By Gillian McGoldrick

Editor’s Note: This commentary was originally published in Education Week on Feb. 18, 2015. The author is a senior at Neshaminy High School, in Langhorne, Pa., and the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Playwickian.

Gillian McGoldrick

Gillian McGoldrick

When I raised my hand to vote in a classroom at Neshaminy High School nearly 18 months ago, I was unaware of the battle I was about to ignite as editor-in-chief of The Playwickian, my school’s newspaper. In the fall of 2013, one of my fellow editors began a conversation about our school mascot, which is also the name of every sports team at our school and our school’s nickname. This would soon become a national controversy over our use of a racist mascot and a legal battle over the amount of control students have over their publications in public schools.

This mascot is the “Redskin.” It has been consistently criticized by a Native American parent within our school district for its derogatory and hateful connotation. The paper’s staff and I came to a consensus that we should listen to what this parent had to say and start a conversation about the future use of the mascot, given how offensive it is to Native Americans. We debated, did our research, and ultimately came to a vote—14-7—in favor of removing the mascot—and the football team’s name—entirely from our newspaper, essentially forming a new policy. Both the majority and the dissenting sides wrote editorials, and we went to press Oct. 23, 2013.

As the editor-in-chief since 2013, I continue to face reproach for this decision, including the possibility of criminal charges, as well as a lot of social-media bashing by my peers and the parents in my school district.

My high school is known for its strong athletic program and as a football powerhouse, making it to the playoffs almost every year. With an environment focused on school sports and a population of 2,600 students, there is a foundation built on school spirit. From “gym night,” our school’s version of spirit night, to football games, an entire community is enriched by these traditions. So when we published our editorials and our stance on the mascot name, pushback came not only from the community, but the student body as well. We took the initial heat from the community and our peers and thought we would be on our way, until we faced opposition from the last place we expected—our administration.


Illustrated by Brent Greenwood. ©Brent Greenwood

A few days after we published the editorials and the student body’s reaction had slowly begun to die down (painful though it was), my principal, Robert McGee, sent a directive to our newspaper adviser, Tara Huber. In this directive, he said that our “new” policy would be put on “hold,” and that we were not permitted to edit or reject any letters to the editor, advertisements, or articles that featured the mascot. So this policy that we had just formed carefully and precisely was now suddenly reversed. Continue reading


Your City Defined: Percent For Arts Program (pərˈsent fər ärts ˈprōˌɡram)

This is the reason you can meet your friends at the Clothespin.

Established in March 1959 by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Percent for Arts Program requires developers to allocate at least one percent of building construction costs of redevelopment projects to the commissioning of original, specific-to-the-site artworks. This was the first legislation of its kind passed in the United States.

The Percent For Arts Program was part of Richardson Dilworth’s vision for Philadelphia. Mayor of Philadelphia from 1956 to 1962, Dilworth presided over Philadelphia’s Modern Golden Age, restored parks and historical sites, reformed public transportation, and established a public housing system, among other things.

Since the inception of the Percent for Arts Program, nearly 400 pieces of artwork have been installed in Philadelphia. These include “Wave Forms” by Dennis Oppenheim (Domus Building 34th & Chestnut Street); “Plateau” by Andrea Blum (University of Pennsylvania, 40th & Walnut Streets); “Open Air Aquarium” by Magdalena Abakanowicz (Dockside, Columbus Boulevard); and “Goldilocks” by Ming Fay (Tivoli Building, 20th & Hamilton Streets).

In an effort to ensure that the artworks are fully integrated into the community, the Redevelopment Authority requires that 5 percent of the Percent for Art contribution goes to educational programming about communities and public art. This “Percent for Community” may take the form of artist workshops, arts education, pamphlets and audio tours.

While this was a groundbreaking program 50 years ago, its model has since been improved by other cities, according to a PennPraxis study commissioned in 2008. Cities seem to have solved issues that plague Philadelphia’s version of the program: lack of funding for ongoing maintenance and conservation of the collection of these public artworks, and the inability of the city to enforce the program and ensure that developers are complying.

Unfortunately, the program has received minimal funding and support from the Redevelopment Authority and several mayoral administrations. With a bare-bones staff and little funding, developers face little punishment if they do not comply with the Percent for Arts Program demands.


Citizen of the Week: Nikki Johnson-Huston

Informed by her own year of homelessness, a Philly tax lawyer created an app to help connect those in need with the organizations that help

By Rosella LaFevre

When Nikki Johnson-Huston was nine, her family lost their home.

When they could afford it, they stayed in hotels or short-term apartments. When the money ran out, they relied on the kindness of friends and strangers who would let them sleep on the couch or in a spare bedroom. Other times, they used the last of their cash to get to a shelter at someone’s suggestion. Sometimes the shelter was closed or didn’t serve families.

NikkiJohnson-Huston“We didn’t have a network of people we could go to, so we would get sent to places that didn’t serve people in our population,” Johnson-Huston recalls. “It made us very distrustful of the system.”

Now Johnson-Huston, a tax attorney and former Assistant City Solicitor, has translated this early experience with homelessness into a platform to affect change. She conceived and funded the creation of a new mobile app, Donafy (available March 2 in the Apple store), which can turn every smartphone user in Philadelphia into a street team for the area’s local organizations fighting to end homelessness.

The app’s name is a mishmash of the words “donate” and “notify.” The app enables users to alert local organizations of people in need of help by making a phone call through the app, as well as give donations as small as $1 to organizations set up to take them through PayPal.

She likes the immediacy with which app users can give to their chosen organization. She recalls one time giving $5 to a homeless man outside a Wawa. When she saw him use it to buy cigarettes, she thought there had to be a better way to give her money. “I’m not going to judge that person, but I felt like I didn’t really help them,” she says. “I felt like, Gosh, if I’d given $5 or $10 to an organization how would they help people like this?

Johnson-Huston was homeless for one year before her mother sent her, at age 10, to live with her grandmother in the California cities of Santa Maria and San Diego. The two lived on public assistance and she attended public school. Meanwhile, her mother met the man who would become her stepfather and they shifted from place to place. Her brother was sent to foster care, and struggled with homelessness until he passed away in 2010.

“I’m incredibly lucky. My mom did what a good mom does: You give your child the best options you can in life,” Johnson-Huston says. “Living with my grandmother was the best option for me.”

While she lived with her grandmother, she learned the importance of service. The message that sticks with her: There is no shame in being poor, but being poor of character.

Johnson-Huston hopes her app will teach young adults that they have something to give, even if it’s just $1. “I wanted to get young people in the habit of giving, which I call ‘micro-philanthropy.’ I think it’s great if you have millions to give but most people don’t,” she says.

Her sense of responsibility for taking action to help others comes not only from her grandmother’s parenting, but from her life after homelessness. “To a certain extent it was a lot of luck on my part,” Johnson-Huston says. “It was people giving me second, third and fourth chances.” Continue reading


Meet The Problem-Solver

26-year-old Alejandro Gac-Artigas, CEO & Founder of Springboard Collaborative, is disrupting local education — and getting results

By Rosella LaFevre

Alejandro Gac-Artigas knew his first graders could do better than this—after all, they had been reading at a higher level at the end of kindergarten, the previous June. It was now October, 2009, and Gac-Artigas—a first time Teach for America teacher at North Philly’s Pan American Academy Charter School—was struggling to get them through the basics. “It was not until November 28th—83 days into the year—that their reading levels finally caught up to where they had been before the summer,” Gac-Artigas recalls.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

That was when Gac-Artigas realized that many of his students hadn’t looked at a book all summer—and had effectively regressed. This, he learned, is the “summer slide”: A common problem in low-income communities, where children often lack continuous access to learning at home and at school, which is responsible for not just six months of academic backsliding but years of learning difficulties. Compounded annually, it is, quite literally, the achievement gap.

Gac-Artigas set out to find a solution. He took an internship at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., engaged the best minds in organizational problem-solving, and developed a new approach. In 2011, when he was 22, Gac-Artigas started Springboard Collaborative as a summer program in charter schools to help students and families continue reading throughout the summer. Since then, Springboard has expanded into a year-round program offered in public, charter and Catholic schools, with a message for teachers and parents alike: We can’t treat our students’ families as liabilities, but  must instead make them partners in their children’s educations.

“Only 13 percent percent of Philadelphia 4th graders are proficient in reading; 10 percent earn a college degree. Philadelphia’s adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent matches the city’s poverty rate. This is the cycle ensnaring our city. The triangle between teachers, parents and students is broken.”

Springboard has served hundreds of kids, received $250,000 in funding from the School District and grants from the M. Night Shyamalan and William Penn foundations, received national attention—and significantly improved the ability of its students to read. The program has expanded from Philadelphia and now serves Camden, New Jersey, with further expansions planned. Just one recent example: Thirteen percent of students entered Springboard’s pre-K program ready to read, according to the program’s assessment. Five weeks after completing the program in summer 2014, 63 percent of the 62 pilot students were reading-ready.

“There was an electric energy in the pre-kindergarten classrooms, so we are going to continue to roll this out as our offering this year,” Gac-Artigas says. “The earlier you intervene, the greater the return on investment.”

Here, Gac-Artigas shares more about Springboard Collaborative’s work.

THE CITIZEN: What is the genesis and mission of Springboard Collaborative?

Alejandro Gac-Artigas: I came to Philadelphia in 2009 as a first-grade teacher. The biggest problem my kids were having was not with what happened during the school year but with what did not happen during the summer. Kids in low income communities don’t have continuous access to learning at home and school.

Springboard Collaborative trains parents and teachers to collaborate in order close a student’s reading achievement gap.  Our model has three components:

1) we coach teachers in data driven instruction to lead pre-kindergarten to third graders toward reading growth goals;

2) we train parents to be their child’s reading teacher at home

3) we award educational incentives in proportion to student reading gains.

THE CITIZEN: How stark are the summer reading comprehension losses?.

AG: Research out of Johns Hopkins found that during the course of the summer, kids in low-income communities lose three months of reading progress. This is problematic not just in the magnitude of the loss, but also in terms of the opportunity cost as the first three months of school are spent catching up rather than making forward progress. These losses compound year after year after year. The Hopkins study found that 2/3 of the achievement gap we see in high school is attributable to summer learning loss in elementary school alone.

This is an important problem to fix early because 3rd grade marks a critical transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Until 4th grade, students are learning how to look at letters and make sense of the words. By 4th grade, reading has become the primary medium through which students learn subsequent disciplines. Children that fail to make this transition experience diminishing returns through the rest of their education. How can you learn chemistry if you cannot read the textbook? As these kids grow up, their 4th grade reading ability is among the strongest predictors of future outcomes.

How does the story play out for our kids? A student who can’t read on grade level by 4th grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times more likely to drop out than his or her proficient, wealthier peer. Only 13 percent of Philadelphia 4th graders are proficient in reading; 10 percent earn a college degree. How does the story end? Look at it this way: Philadelphia’s adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent matches precisely the city’s poverty rate of 22 percent. This is the cycle ensnaring our city, and it stems from the fact that the triangle between teachers, parents, and students is broken. Continue reading


How To Grow

The next mayor will have to reform taxes to grow jobs. A group of civic and business leaders have a plan.

By Jeremy Nowak



The next mayor will be the executive of a city with the second highest municipal tax burden in the nation. Thank you Bridgeport, Connecticut. You kept us from the crown in 2014.

It does not have to be this way.

And if a growing coalition of civic, business, and labor leaders have their way, we will change direction and create jobs. This is not just good news for businesses but also for residents and everyday workers.

Led by Paul Levy from the Center City District and Jerry Sweeney, the CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust, the group also includes the African American and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. Some private sector labor unions are flirting with being on board, too.

They have quietly been making the case to a broad group of political and civic leaders that it is time to turn the page on our existing tax structure. If we do so, there just may be a substantial payoff for the city: Jobs.

Of course, when you cut taxes to make a city more competitive new revenue does not appear overnight. But Levy, Sweeney and the other civic leaders have done their homework and figured out how to pay for the inevitable short-term gaps in revenue that come with tax reform. It boils down to this: Raise rates on some things as we lower them on others. Remember tax reform in Philadelphia was never only about lower rates; it’s also about re-balancing the source of revenue.

Paul Levy, Jerry Sweeney and other civic and business leaders have a plan for reforming our tax structure and growing jobs. This is real leadership. We are not used to this.

And how’s this for a surprise: These leaders think parts of the business community – commercial and industrial real estate owners – should take the lead by paying more right off the bat to make up for the shortfall. This is real leadership. We are not used to this. So I suggest we take it seriously.

More on their strategy below but let’s first briefly recall how we got here.

Philly boxed itself into a corner in the second half of the twentieth century by raising taxes on wages and business while keeping rates low on residential and commercial real estate. This happened at precisely the time that we made the mistake of thinking the future would be an extension of the present. Maybe it’s human nature. As Nassim Taleb warns us in the Black Swan, we give a high priority to what we know, and a low priority to what we don’t. If you go back to policy conversations in the 60’s and 70’s it is plain to see his point.

In the Philadelphia Comprehensive Plan of 1960 (prepared before the 1960 census was completed), we projected city population would expand to around 2.5 million (by 1980) from its base of 2.1 million in 1950.

We missed by a mere 35 percent.

Serious policymakers in the 1960’s and 1970’s still thought labor-intensive manufacturing (except textiles which had already largely disappeared), could still flourish in the city.  Not so much it turned out.

As two tax commissions and countless experts note, over-taxing what can move and under-taxing what cannot is a bad idea.  Today, our tax policies reflect a time when the city held the dominant economic position in the region. We never adjusted old policies to the new reality.

The only city that draws as much of its tax base from wages as we do is Detroit. This is not the comparison we want. Continue reading


Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Petition Party…

The first-ever mayoral petition pitch party will combine ballot signatures and beer, thanks to the Pattison Leader Group

Next Tuesday night, five of the six declared mayoral candidates (pastor Keith Goodman hasn’t confirmed his attendance) will gather at Field House (1150 Filbert Street) for a petition pitch party from 5:30 to 8 pm. The campaigns have until March 10 to amass

Nicole Allen

Nicole Allen

1,000 valid signatures each from registered voters in order to qualify for the May 19 primary ballot. The party is the brainchild of The Pattison Leader Group, the collection of millennials who hosted the Pattison Leader Ball as an alternative to the PA Society gala in New York last December.

Tickets are $4 and can be purchased at There will be complimentary food and happy hour drink pricing.

Here’s how the party will work: Each candidate will have seven minutes to pitch the audience as to why he or she should appear on the ballot. After the pitches, attendees will have the opportunity to sign one petition. This is not a debate and there will not be time for back and forth with or between the candidates. After the candidates pitch, they will leave and staffers will remain to answer questions and handle petitions.

The Citizen spoke to Pattison Leader co-founder Nicole Allen.

Citizen: Why throw this party?

Allen: I was invited to all these pitch parties, and I just said, ‘Why don’t we get everybody in one room all together? Let’s make the candidates pitch us and convince us to sign their petition.’

Citizen: Do your peers even know that each candidate is required to turn in 1,000 signatures in order to be on the ballot?

Allen: I didn’t even know about it, until recently. We want to use this as a way to engage millennials in the political process, and this is where it all begins.

Citizen: This isn’t going to be some wonky policy event, is it?

Allen: No, we want to make it easy and fun. It’s a happy hour with the chance to hear from candidates. That’s a win/win.