02/29/2012 04:23 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Friendly Advice for the Chester Upland School District

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of months, you have probably heard about Chester Upland School District's (hereafter referred to CUSD) financial woes. Also, you have heard the heartfelt story of its teachers agreeing to work for free, because the district's coffers were almost bare. On top of that, it has been reported that the district holds about $85 million dollars in long term debt. Well, a short term solution has long been arranged and Governor Corbett has agreed to fund the district until the end of the year.

In addition to its financial shortcomings, the district's schools are failing to achieve academically. CUSD is in its 9th year of corrective action, and has an embarrassing 51% graduation rate. In the CUSD, 16% of 11th grade students scored proficient or above in math and 25% scored proficient or above in reading. As far as who's responsible for the district's financial and academic woes, I am not willing to delve into that hornet's nest, although I have my theories. Instead of playing the "blame game" I think it's important that all the stakeholders work together to create a viable school reform plan. CUSD's problems have been brewing for several decades and the older generation can tell you exactly how things went downhill.

I work at Widener University in Chester and in fact my office is only one-fourth of a mile from CUSD's central office. As an advocate for America's children and a school reformer, I think it's time that I offer the district some friendly advice concerning how they should proceed. Contrary to popular belief, the district's financial problems are only the tip of the iceberg and will eventually work themselves out through increased funding and other measures.

However, before the CUSD begins the school reform process, there are a litany of issues and problems that it must deal with. First, it has yet to hire a permanent superintendent and deputy superintendent. In order for the district to move forward, it must fill its leadership vacuum with transcendent leaders who possess the wherewithal to tackle its complex issues. Next, the school board is made up five Republicans/four Democrats and while tensions have been relatively low during the recent budget crisis, the board is still extremely partisan. If the CUSD is going to get back on track, it is going to take a bi-partisan effort.

The most critical question that district leaders must ask themselves is: where do we begin? When trying to start reform in a complex environment such as the city of Chester, it is imperative that leaders focus on one task at a time. When making decisions, the district's administration needs to be sure to complete all steps of the reform in sequential order, using a strategic way of thinking.

Successful school systems share a number of common traits. These include: effective leadership, safe learning environments, strong family and community partnerships, opportunities for increased time on task, incorporation of instructional best practices, interventions for underperforming students, continuous assessment of student achievement, and lofty expectations for all students. The CUSD should keep these traits in mind as they begin the school reform process.

School reform is about creating an environment in which students are the priority and adults assist them in starting and finishing their journey to becoming educated citizens. I know that the CUSD is blessed with competent teachers and leaders, but it doesn't hurt to listen to the advice of someone on the outside looking in. I wish the CUSD much success in its school reform efforts and if you need help, I'm only one-fourth of a mile away.