Ep. 111: A Conversation with Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership

April 23, 2019

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, EdChoice’s Vice President of Communications Jennifer Wagner talks with Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership. The two discuss success of the nine-year program, growing leadership and management skills in Philadelphia schools, and more.

Jennifer Wagner: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I am our Vice President of Communications Jennifer Wagner here at EdChoice. I am joined today on the Chats by Mark Gleason, who is the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership. Mark, thank you so much for joining us.

Mark Gleason: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Wagner: We are always excited to talk to folks who are innovating in the K–12 education space, and it sounds like you guys are doing some amazing work in Philadelphia on three different fronts. Not just investing in schools, but also developing educators. I think we want to spend a significant amount of time today chatting about your empowering families initiative through your unified application and some of the results that you’ve been seeing from that process, and the feedback you’ve been getting from families. But first, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to working for the Partnership.

Mark Gleason: Sure. I was not an educator by background. I got here because when I was living in northern New Jersey and working in the publishing industry, where I had started a couple of businesses, my kids were in elementary school and we were frustrated, my wife and I, with some of the doings on in our local school district. After kvetching about it over dinner for too many nights, I decided to get involved and ran for school board and ended up serving six years on that board. That’s how I got involved in education. I became energized by it and saw so much opportunity, and one thing led to another. That’s how I got to Philadelphia leading this new organization, which was founded in 2010, The Philadelphia School Partnership.

Jennifer Wagner: That’s outstanding. I think probably a lot of the parents listening can appreciate that frustration in trying to navigate the K–12 system and getting your child into the school that works best for him or her. Tell us a little bit about the efforts that you’ve undertaken since 2010 in Philadelphia to help families get more access to information and also gain more access to the schools that work best for them.

Mark Gleason: Yes. First off, it’s important to recognize when we’re talking about Philadelphia we’re talking about a very large city, 240,000 children kindergarten through 12th grade. That means the amount of choices that families have is enormously vast. There’s something like 440 schools of all different sizes and flavors in Philadelphia. If you live in the suburbs your school choices might be the neighborhood school down the street, a parochial school in the town. Maybe there are a couple of other private schools nearby. Maybe you can count the number of real school choices you have on both hands. But in Philadelphia literally a family can have access to dozens or even hundreds of choices, and it can be overwhelming for a family. Recognizing that, we started working back in 2012 to make information and access to that information much easier for families.

We started with an initiative called Great Philly Schools, which has profiles of every single school in the city. One thing we believe in strongly at the Philadelphia School Partnership is that we need to give families access to all of their choices. Unlike a lot of these school rating sites that exist in other places, from day one we wanted there to be private school profiles and public school profiles, and so that’s the case. We built a website that uses mostly data that was already available, theoretically, on a state Department of Education website, or the school district website, but for the average family and the average person going online it was somewhat impenetrable.

We have taken that information and distilled it into a very user friendly way of rating schools, a 1 to 10 rating system. Then we give the schools a login so they can actually write their own profiles. They can update their extracurricular activities, the mission of the school, other highlights that they want to point out about their school. We give the schools control over that, but then we control the ratings that are based on academic data, attendance data and other factors. The combined output is a very user friendly and accessible system for families that has been growing in user traffic ever since.

Jennifer Wagner: That sounds fantastic. I’m curious, we’ve seen something similar in many different cities, but often times, to your point, it does not include private schools. Did you get a lot of pushback from folks in Philadelphia who didn’t want to include private schools, or was this met with open arms?

Mark Gleason: Users love the fact that we have all of the schools. There was a small contingent of critics I would say that chafed at the notion that we were including private schools, but not a big one.

Jennifer Wagner: Excellent. That’s great news. Hopefully we can replicate what you’ve done there in other cities. Tell me this, having now been in the trenches for nine years and as a parent yourself, what do you think is and what do you hear is the biggest challenge that parents face as they are going through that school selection process?

Mark Gleason: Well historically the biggest challenge was too many systems to navigate. Each charter school would have its own timeline, its own application form. The district had a centralized system, but that was confusing to many parents and it wasn’t aligned to the same timeline as the charter schools were using. Then the bedrock problem is there aren’t enough good schools in a city like Philadelphia to meet the needs of all families that want access to them. So you’ve got more families trying to get into certain schools then there are seats available, and the means by which they applied to those schools were numerous and not coordinated.

So, the school district over the last three or four years has made some big strides in simplifying its enrollment and application system. Then this year we undertook a big initiative to streamline on the charter school side. We had 71 charter schools this year join together and use a single application system online that we facilitated and designed for them. That’s called Apply Philly Charter. It just completed its first application season and the participation was tremendous, exceeded our expectations. We got a lot of feedback from families, that really makes their life easier. It doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to get into the school that they want because it doesn’t solve the supply problem, but instead of having to navigate 10 different websites, 10 different timelines, they can fill out one application, save it, and then log in again and again as much as they wanted to submit it to different schools with the push of a button through one website.

Jennifer Wagner: That was our original touchpoint I think for the jumping off of this conversation. I am looking through some of the numbers from that first year and while I think, I mean it’s amazing that you’ve been able to pull more than 70 schools together and that unified enrollment, wow the numbers of applications versus the number of open seats is just startling. I mean I’m looking at, you’ve got 12,700 applicants for 125 seats at one school. How are you managing that process I guess both, I mean I can see how you’re managing it logistically, but emotionally knowing that there’s this huge demand for these schools that only have dozens or maybe a little over 100 seats? That has to be a huge challenge.

Mark Gleason: It is a huge challenge. It’s not a new challenge. While we have been very thoughtful about how to communicate with families so that we’re not setting false expectations as a result of this process, these families are not new to the lottery. That school got more applications this year than last year, but last year they still had close to 10,000 and also only 100 or 150 openings. Families are … Unfortunately, the process of applying to a lottery and not getting a seat is not unfamiliar to Philadelphia families. A positive side effect of creating this system for families is we now have better than anecdotal data about which schools are in demand. That hopefully in the longer term can inform public policy decisions.

We have seen the charter sector here almost double in size in the last seven years, from about 35,000 students to now 70,000 students in the city are enrolled in public charter schools. A lot of that growth happened because there was clear evidence of demand. There was clear evidence that families wanted more of these schools, and so the charters authorizing office here has responded to that by authorizing more seats.

Jennifer Wagner: That’s amazing. It sounds like you have a really good, responsive partner in your authorizer as well as honestly it sounds like with your school district. I do want to talk for a few minutes about your work in the two other areas of your portfolio in investing in schools and developing urban educators. I mean it sounds like now you’ve got the data on which schools are the most popular, are the most sought after. How do you now build more schools that people want to attend?

Mark Gleason: Well, we have invested three different ways to create more access to quality schools. We fund brand new schools, and we’ve done that in all three sectors. We have funded a new Catholic high school, we have funded new charter campuses, and we have also funded a number of new schools opened by the school district. At the same time we also fund what we call expansion grants. That would be taking a school such as the one you mentioned, the Mast Community Charter School, which got the most application in the recent process, they were recently approved about three years ago to open their second campus, which we funded with a start-up grant. They’re now going to be expanding again adding more seats starting next fall, and so we’re likely to make another grant to support that expansion growth.

Then in select circumstances we also invest in turnarounds. These would be schools that have struggled for one reason or another but the powers that be line up to support the school going forward, bring in new leadership, and charge that leadership with essentially rebooting the school in the same facility serving the same community. We have funded a number of those turnarounds as well. But it’s all startup capital to help a school expand access to good educational opportunity.

Jennifer Wagner: You know it’s funny and interesting to hear you talk. I know your background is in business and there are those out there who say, “Oh well, non-educators they don’t have any business running these schools or investing in these schools.” But you have found tremendous success in Philadelphia. Do you think any of that criticism is valid, or are there many, many things that we can learn from the world of business, from best practices that can be applied to successfully running schools?

Mark Gleason: I think we get tripped up on the word “business,” which is a loaded term to some extent because it implies a for profit motive. I think the word that probably is more relevant is management. Any enterprise, whether it’s a nonprofit, a school, or a business is going to live or die by the quality of the management. Management is a critical ingredient in any high performing enterprise. So, we absolutely can learn from business good management principles, good management strategies, and we see that every day in schools. I mean the No. 1 ingredient that we see in schools that we invest in is quality leadership. That’s true whether it’s a small Catholic school or a large public school. It’s true whether it’s an arts-focused school or a science-focused school. Where we need more of an emphasis in education at large is on management. I think the more we focus on that and less on the concept of business, I think the more receptive folks in the education world will be.

Jennifer Wagner: I 100 percent agree with that. I absolutely love, love that answer. I would love for you to talk a little bit more about that other, obviously school leadership is critically important to the success of a school, but the educator pipeline. We hear so much these days, whether it’s teachers who are going on strike, or teachers who are paying things out of their own pockets, but obviously educators carry so much influence and are so important in the lives of these young people. How do you effectively train educators who are specifically going into urban classrooms or urban settings where they might face a different set of challenges than educators in a suburban or rural setting?

Mark Gleason: When we first started the organization one of the things we were committed to from day one, and we have stuck with this, is that we want to support schools of all different types. We support traditional public schools, we support public charter schools, we also have funded a number of private and Catholic schools. In our case they have to be in Philadelphia and they have to serve primarily low-income students, but other than that we’re agnostic regarding the governance model.

Early on in our tenure we pulled a bunch of school and system leaders together from the three sectors and we asked them what their biggest challenges were expecting and finding in fact that many of the challenges they voiced were held in common across the three sectors. Far and away the biggest challenge we heard about was the leadership pipeline. There was not a strong enough pool of principal candidates for schools to hire from. The school district had actually run a very well regarded and successful leadership development program in the early 2000s that generated some strong principals who remain among the high flying principals in the school district of Philadelphia today, but for budget cut reasons that program had gone away around 2006 or 2008, somewhere in there.

So, what we did over the next year and a half was we pulled together a steering committee with representatives from all three sectors—private, charter and traditional public—and we designed a principal certification program to train aspiring school leaders. Then we went out and raised money for it. We found a partner to help us operate it. Since 2012, nearly 150 aspiring principals have gone through this program. It’s a two-year residency program where there’s some coursework, but most of the experience is working as an assistant principal under a mentor principal in an actual school in Philadelphia. Then each person is assigned a coach who meets with them and observes them regularly.

As we talked to the various schools they told us the number one thing they need in a principal in an urban context is somebody who knows how to develop young teachers because in urban schools you tend to get more inexperienced teachers than you would in a suburban context and there’s not a lot of administrative staff. So, the principal here, himself or herself, has to be good at developing inexperienced teachers, so our program is very focused on that skillset. Today more than 30 schools in the city are led by principals who’ve graduated from this program. In fact, last year the school district hired more than half of the principal vacancies they filled were filled with somebody who came out of this program. We’re very proud of this program. It’s been a multi-stakeholder initiative from day one. For the next 20 to 30 years many of the principals in the city will be probably products of this collaborative effort.

Jennifer Wagner: Wow, that’s outstanding, and again goes back to those principles of management that you talked about earlier that can cut across whether it’s education or business or other sectors. It sounds like you have just a phenomenal amount of progress going on in Philadelphia. I want to touch on a couple more things and then give you a little time if there’s anything we haven’t covered, but I would be remiss as EdChoice if I did not ask you what does school choice mean to you and what does it meant to the families that you serve?

Mark Gleason: Well I and the organization believe strongly that there’s no one right kind of school that works for every family or for every student. In Philadelphia with such a large city and so many different neighborhoods and lots of different populations—immigrant populations, minority populations, affluent populations, low-income populations—we need a variety of different kinds of schools here. We have worked to promote an ecosystem that includes lots of different school options. We have a robust private school sector. We have a very large and growing public charter sector. And we are cultivating choice within the traditional system as well.

Our school district operates about 220 schools, about 20 of which are magnet schools, mostly those are high schools, that families from all over the city can opt into. There are some admissions criteria for those schools. The district here also enables geographic choice meaning you can choose to apply to a school that’s not your assigned neighborhood school but is still run by the school district. That’s only on a space available basis, so you can’t always get into the school you want, but there are something like 15,000 to 20,000 students now befitting from that form of school choice as well.

Here in Philadelphia we really interpret school choice as being not just one thing, it’s not just about private schools, or it’s not just about charter schools. It’s about cultivating choice in every sector.

Jennifer Wagner: And that’s how we look at it here at EdChoice as well. People usually look at me like I’m a little crazy when I say 40 percent of Americans are now choosing a school type other than the one they were geographically assigned to attend. A lot of times people don’t realize that they’re are exercising school choice, whether they’re in a charter school or a magnet school, or any other kind of school. Again, sounds like you’re doing amazing work out there. My last question before I kind of open the floor for you is if you could give families in Philadelphia, or honestly families anywhere, one piece of advice, even if their kids aren’t school age yet, what is that one piece of advice as you go forth in your search for the school that works for you that you think would help them make the right choice for them?

Mark Gleason: Well, if I have to stick with one piece of advice, especially to those young families who aren’t even at school age yet, I would have to say read to your children. Or if your work schedule or other factors limit your ability to do that find some way for adults to read with and to your children, from the first year of life on. It is probably the No. 1 thing. In Philadelphia only about 40 percent of all school children are reading on grade level by the end of third grade, which is such a limiting factor for our city in terms of its long-term growth potential economically and every other way. That is just vitally, vitally important because learning starts long before a student gets to kindergarten.

As it relates to school choice, I would remind families that there’s no substitute for visiting a school, talking to a principal, observing classrooms, and really trying to assess whether it’s the right environment for the kind of education you want for your son or your daughter. We provide ratings and information on our website to help, as do other cities and other school districts, and those are guides and those can help you filter and get down to a manageable number of schools to actually go check out, but there’s no substitute for getting into a school. You can’t judge a school by a rating or a grade, or anything like that. You have to really get in there and see what their philosophy of education is and determine whether that aligns with your own.

Jennifer Wagner: I couldn’t agree more. We like to term that around that here that you’ve got to get it where you fit in. Our CEO likes to use that catch phrase. I feel guilty now that I’ve limited you to only one piece of advice. I feel like that is the antithesis of a choice organization that I’ve said you have to boil it down into one. So, anything else you’d like to add on that for families? Then also if there’s anything we didn’t cover in this interview that you would love for our audience to know about the great work you’re doing there in Philadelphia?

Mark Gleason: I would offer two final thoughts. One is you mentioned 40 percent nationwide are choosing their school one way or another. I would like to point out that in Philadelphia we’ve got that at 61 percent, which I think is a tremendous accomplishment for our city. Unfortunately, not all of the schools are producing the kind of college- and career-ready graduates that the city needs, so we still have a lot of work to do. I don’t want to position as if we’ve solved all the problems here, but I do think it’s an advantage for our city as we head deeper into the 21st century that nearly two-thirds of students are finding their way into a choice school of some kind.

The last thing I wanted to offer is just school choice I think too often becomes a controversial concept. There’s a lot of talk about neighborhood schools as if it was the antithesis of choice. But the reality is 100 percent of families, or very close to it, are choosing their schools because even families that are attending geographically assigned public schools in many cases have made a choice. They have chosen to live in a particular community because of the schools. That’s probably the biggest factor in the value of their property. Here in Philadelphia we have some outstanding neighborhood schools, and unfortunately for low- income families they’re not accessible because to afford a home in those communities is beyond their means. But make no mistake about it, the families that are in that community they have made a choice about where they want their kids to school by buying a house that’s in that community.

I don’t think it’s helpful when we try to divide well-intentioned education folks into these two camps of pro or anti school choice. If you move somewhere to get your child into a traditional public school, you made a choice, and it’s important. I did that actually when my kids were young. It’s important that we all recognize that when we’re doing that we are making a choice just like other families that are choosing a private school or some other option.

Jennifer Wagner: I could not agree more. That is a large part of my job here at EdChoice is to get those families to understand that we’re all choosing in our various ways. Some are socioeconomic, others are using charter schools or choice programs to access educational options that otherwise might be unattainable. I think our research and other research bears out that this is in fact a generational issue, which the generation that is coming into having school age children, which are millennials, they look at choice much differently, in far less of a politicized way. I know I share your frustration that this has become such a them and us, choice or no choice type of debate when it really can be far more inclusive and far more, there’s far more agreement here than we think there is. I just want to say thank you for all the work that you’re doing and have been doing for the last nine years in Philadelphia. It sounds like we have a lot to learn from the example that you’re setting, and perhaps replicating that in other major cities. I’ll leave it to you for any final thoughts before we sign off.

Mark Gleason: I don’t have anything else to add really. I really appreciate the opportunity to be on and appreciate the work that your organization does. We’re just doing it here in one city and you’re trying to create a deeper base of knowledge around this issue nationwide, so very much appreciate that.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, thank you. We will continue doing our level best and supporting you in any way that we can. So, thank you everybody for joining us. That was Mark Gleason with the Philadelphia School Partnership and I am Jennifer Wagner with EdChoice. Thank you for tuning in for one more edition of EdChoice Chats.