September 15th, 1997

WATCH: School Crusade -- A Tale of Urban School Reform

The shortcomings of urban education resonate nationwide in low test scores, high drop-out rates and funding below that of surrounding suburban areas. Each year half a million students drop out of school, and most come from large cities. Many city students face obstacles which further complicate their education poverty, drug abuse, crime and teen pregnancy.

David Hornbeck came to Philadelphia as superintendent of schools in 1994 proclaiming his belief that “all children can achieve at high levels.” Untested as a superintendent and even as a classroom teacher, he devised a comprehensive plan called “Children Achieving,” to save the city’s failing system. His hope was and is that “Children Achieving” would serve as a reform model for urban education across the nation.

Other school boards are following Philadelphia’s lead, looking to innovative reform methods and often times non-traditional superintendents to raise their statistics. Seattle has hired an untested superintendent, a major general in the United States Army with a 30-year military career. Minneapolis hired a business executive as school chief, an approach it subsequently abandoned. Chicago has effectively put its schools in the hands of the mayor.

Other urban districts have adopted a controversial, “last ditch” effort to restructure consistently low performing schools. “Reconstitution” calls for the total shake up of a school by forcing teachers to transfer elsewhere. In essence, the superintendent takes over the school, appoints a principal and begins the work of drafting a new educational “constitution.” San Francisco, Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston, Chicago and New York have implemented this dramatic measure with varying degrees of success and resistance.

In Philadelphia, for example, the teachers union filed a successful suit against the school district after Hornbeck tried to reconstitute two high schools. After three years, it is too early to tell if David Hornbeck’s “Children Achieving” can be an educational cure for urban schools.

This program received a Second Place EWA Award.

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