Rushing to ‘Imagine’ fails students

“Imagine 2014,” Arlene Ackerman’s five-year strategic plan, was rushed and didn’t consider community enough concerns.

Four “no’s” would have made Markeeta Hudgen’s mouth widen into a smile.

Instead, a unanimous “yes” from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to pass “Imagine 2014” made her eyes well with tears.

Nearly two hours earlier, Hudgen and other community members stood behind a podium in front of the SRC providing support for some ideas of the strategic plan, like reducing class sizes and equity for all schools but criticizing its lack of specificity regarding which schools would be turned into Renaissance Schools and given new management.

The community asked for one thing: time.

The request was ignored.

Although School District of Philadelphia CEO Arlene Ackerman and SRC Chairman Robert Archie Jr. stressed the number of “briefings and community sessions” taken into consideration to develop the plan, the impassioned testimonies from the community inside the crowded auditorium were clearly disregarded when the SRC made a hasty final vote.

Ackerman said the plan was introduced “so that we really never leave any of our children behind,” but Hudgen, a junior at Overbrook High School, felt overlooked after the SRC passed the plan.

“As the students, we know what’s right for us,” Hudgen said.

Struggling for words, Hudgen said she could not understand why an immediate decision was necessary.
“[The students] are so lost, and now there’s a big question mark,” she said. “I know change is necessary, but if you rush something, it only triggers problems.”

Only commissioner Heidi Ramirez, who is also the director for Temple’s Urban Education Collaborative, showed uncertainty by stating, “Very reluctantly, yes.”

Ramirez should have aired on the side of reluctance and, along with the rest of the SRC, should have looked into the crowd. The meeting had an unusually high turnout, so much so that some were standing in the aisles.

On a cold April Wednesday, so many community members had come, even as a rainstorm brewed outside, to make recommendations about a plan that regarded their schools, children, students and teachers.

But to many, the plan was simply déjà vu.

“We have seen many superintendents come and go,” said Carol Hemingway, a member of ACORN. “They have made grand promises, but so many do not come into fruition.”

Rev. Leroi Simmons echoed Hemingway’s sentiment.

“Who could oppose these goals?” he asked. “But we need steps to get there. We don’t need to keep throwing things against the wall and hope that it sticks.”

Despite previous plans developed by the district, Khalif Dobson, a junior at West Philadelphia High School, said his school has had one of its own since 2003. But when expressed to the school district, it has only fallen on deaf ears. Dobson’s high school is one of the low-performing schools that will be closed or transitioned to new management.

The SRC would be smart to note the initiative of schools like Dobson’s and of the community members.

All four members of the SRC and Ackerman have stellar educations, with degrees from universities such as Harvard, Syracuse, Columbia and Howard, but they do not seem to be applying those educations.
Now is their chance to prove the school district will truly listen. It has already gone against the will of many in the community by passing “Imagine 2014,” but the plan is still a collection of 170 initiatives.

Break the community down, and let them decide. Of the 170 initiatives, 40 were made priority by the school district. Public school parent Helen Gym asked for benchmarks. Create a team of involved community members who decide what should be priority with the guidance of professionals with education degrees. Do the same with those who questioned the appropriate standards for administrators or the development of libraries in elementary schools.

Though community members will not always agree, they will be able to talk with each other in a way that the SRC simply cannot.

“Why have you adopted a with or against policy?” Hudgen asked to a roar of applause and hollers from the audience when she saw her label as a “non-supporter” on the evening’s agenda. “By labeling people … you are dividing the community.”

Ashley Nguyen can be reached at


  1. Ashley:

    I see that you were at the SRC meeting on April 22. So was I and I’m sorry that you failed to include in your column comments from Mayor Michael Nutter, City Councuilwoman Jannie Blackwell and Pennsylvania State Rep. Dwight Evans, who came to the meeting (Mr. Evans via videotape) supporting passage of f Imagine 2014.

    Since the Imagine 2014 plan was announced, School District leadership has had meetings with community groups (incuding the groups representing the students who spoke out against the proposal on April 22) to get their opinions on the plan. A total of 3,000 people attended the meetings and the overwhelming majority support Imagine 2014.

    Just because Imagine 2014 was passed doesn’t mean the District will stop listening to the public. This plan continues to be a work in progress and in order for it to succeed it can not just be considered Dr. Ackerman’s plan, but the plan supported by the citizens of Philadelphia to improve public education for all of Philadelphia’s children.

    When all is said and done, improving educaion for all of Philadelphia’s children should be the priority for all of us. This plan is a great start to get us in that direction.

    I would urge the public to go to the District’s website at and read the Imagine 2014 plan for themselves in order to make their own decisions.

  2. As one of the hundreds of parents who attended the community meetings on Imagine 2014, I can say with absolute clarity that attendance at the meetings didn’t automatically designate unquestioned support for the District’s Strategic Plan. In fact, attendance in the break-out sessions showed that a number of people had questions and concerns about the plan. As Ashley pointed out above, the primary concerns had much to do with the fact that there are so many initiatives laid out in the plan, it was hard to tell where the district intended to focus its efforts and whether it intended to be held accountable for those initiatives. In general, many observers felt the plan lacked a cohesive vision (unless you call “world class operations” vision as opposed to rhetoric). After this many years and with $3 billion at stake, what most education observers want are concrete steps to achieve real and serioous goals – as opposed to more scattershot efforts that sound good but fall short.

    In our experience, whether it’s been reducing class size, improving facilities, teacher quality or curriculum standards, what we’ve found is that the District lacks nothing in ambition or intent. What makes things fall apart is a concerted thought out path on making budget and operational priorities and a solid roadmap with benchmarks and community engagement to assess progress.

    As a public school parent who has seen a parade of superintendents, strategic plans, grand promises and billions of dollars in money come and go over the years, I have to say I bristle a bit when people say that passing the plan = caring about kids (and implicitly that delaying the plan for clarification = opposing kids). Arlene Ackerman is not the first superintendent to swear she’ll turn Philadelphia schools around, nor will she be the last. The community’s concerns are not personal towards her or the district. They are however, rooted in the recognition that it is the long-term vision, created hand in hand with an engaged community, that will determine the success of our schools. Thanks for posting Ashley.

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