by Brian Hickey
Mike Masch knows the Philadelphia public school system from nearly every angle.
As a student, he attended Southwest Philly's Mitchell Elementary and Shaw Junior High before graduating from Central. His two kids went to Henry Elementary School in West Mt. Airy. One of them continued on to Central while the other traveled the private academy route.
Masch's education continued last year, when Mayor Street appointed him to the city's Board of Education at the most tumultuous of times--at least to that point.
Masch wasn't the only member with insider public school knowledge. Fellow board member Sandra Dungee Glenn
also brought a personal history with her to 21st and the Parkway. The daughter of a public school teacher, Glenn attended Commodore John Barry Elementary at 59th and Race, Russell H. Conwell Middle Magnet school in Kensington and Philadelphia High School for Girls.
But today Masch and Glenn confront educational challenges far greater than the ones they faced in their own public school classrooms.
In Philadelphia, the school board is a thing of the past, as is the idea of local control over the district. As the mayor's sole appointments to the five-member School Reform Commission--the body that now oversees the 264-school, 200,000-student district--Masch and Glenn may have a major say where Philadelphia education goes from here.
Masch, 51, of West Mt. Airy, served as city budget director during the Rendell administration and is now Penn's vice president for budget and management, which makes him the one responsible for preparing the school's budget and five-year plan.
Being an established financial whiz is probably a far greater asset than his local schooling--though he admits his public education doesn't hurt.
"It helps a little that I'm a native Philadelphian but it helps more that I've had kids in the system," says Masch, who was credited with saving about $50 million by developing the system's first ever five-year economic plan. "The system's not a mystery to me."
While Masch acknowledges that Philadelphia's schools gave him "at a minimum, the basic skills that I could build on for the rest of my life," Dungee Glenn speaks of scarce extracurricular activities.
"For some it's music, art and drama," she says, pointing to the violin and piano lessons she had as a child. "For others it's athletics. These things need to be considered fundamental parts of education, not luxuries."
(Fellow commissioner and Verizon Pennsylvania president Daniel Whelan grew up in Philadelphia but attended the parochial La Salle College High School. The others weren't educated in the city).
Aside from her new position, Dungee Glenn, a 44-year-old from West Philly, runs the American Cities Foundation, a Philadelphia-based
nonprofit "committed to the development and implementation of a national urban policy."
After graduating cum laude from Penn State, she learned Philadelphia's inner power corridors as both a voter registration director for former Mayor Wilson Goode's 1987 re-election campaign and as state Sen. Chaka Fattah's chief of staff from 1991 to 1994. Most recently, she helped bring people together in the debate over borders for the Penn-assisted elementary school in West Philly (see "Home Schooling," p. 16).
Today she points to staff instability, a dearth of homegrown teachers, outdated facilities, funding gaps and a need for more community involvement in neighborhood schools as the most pressing public education issues.
"Some of the things that were commonplace for me aren't there anymore. It makes everything more difficult," she says. "I had a system at school, home and in the neighborhood that supported me along the way. Many children today don't have access to that. We've let our schools become shuttered off. They're not the center of community activity today."
When Mayor Street and Gov. Schweiker held their press
conference announcing the commission members, it was viewed as a last-ditch effort to avoid the outright takeover of a school system the state deemed "distressed" in December.
Schweiker, who has loudly declared he wants to bring in a private company to run some of the schools, appointed Whelan and Philadelphia University President James Gallagher. Along with commission head James Nevels, a Swarthmore businessman, they'll mull privatization and look for ways to boost basic-skills scores. They'll also need to hire a district CEO while reducing the $200 million deficit. With those heavy tasks ahead, the group is bracing for a long five- to seven-year haul.
"We're still getting to know one another," says Masch. "It's a very smart, very idealistic group. That's what exciting even though what we're trying to do is admittedly very difficult. None of us think we have it all figured out already. We're coming in with open minds, smart but sincere in wanting to do this job right."
That's not to say that Masch isn't coming in with thoughts about the system. He worries too many students are leaving schools without the basic skills they'll need, but doesn't consider the system a failure.
"The challenge is to figure out why this is happening and do something about it. That question doesn't have a simple answer, because if it did we'd already be applying it," Masch says.
But in looking for those elusive answers, Masch and Dungee Glenn will rely upon their past for the insight it may offer.
"I understand the impact of Philadelphia being a city of neighborhoods," she says. "Things are done differently in Feltonville than they are in Belmont and Mantua, but we want the outcomes to be the same."
Masch leans on what he knows as a parent when assessing the difficulty of his duties.
"Public school parents in big cities are dependent on the school system to deliver," says Masch. "Yet the system isn't really designed to be accountable to parents. When the system works well, it's not a problem, but when things don't work well, parents have few good options. This can and should change."
Brian Hickey (email@example.com) also co-wrote this week's cover story.