Vallas Sets the Pace: Opinionated, Impatient and Anything but Staid. the Philadelphia School Leader Is Shaking Up Urban Education. Here's What He Thinks about No Child, Edison and How to Get along with Unions. PLUS, What He's Planning on Accomplishing Next
D'Orio, Wayne, District Administration
You don't have to make it all the way into Paul Vallas' office to find out the personality of the CEO of The School District of Philadelphia. Just by waiting outside his modest office you can hear Vallas discuss issues, loudly but without yelling, on a number of conference calls. You can see him jump out of his office in shirtsleeves and his ubiquitous black sneakers to ask "What's the fax number here?" You can spot him quickly eye the multitude of people waiting to see him, then advise a pregnant staffer to sit down: "You're with child."
Later, he rushes into the hallway and impatiently pushes the button for the elevator. When it arrives, but is too full to take Vallas and his companions, he briskly waves it away and heads down the stairs.
Vallas is a busy man, one who is sure what he wants to do and how to do it.
And about that fax number? Vallas might not know that, or even his own cell phone number, according to some, but, in the course of a 75-minute interview he accurately rattles off a legion of figures, from how many Philadelphia schools still aren't making AYP (68) to the number of teacher assaults by sixth graders (136) to the percentage of teachers who approved the last contract (93).
The 51-year-old leader of the seventh-largest school district in the country is on a roll. He's overseen many sweeping changes during his two years in charge, from ending social promotion to creating 67 K-8 schools. But the best news has been the district's recent progress in the latest Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. Philadelphia bested the state average in five of six categories; the district also tripled its number of schools now meeting NCLB's requirements.
In the following interview, Vallas sprints through a variety of subjects, from No Child and Edison to the next big urban trend and the possibility of him running for mayor of the city of Brotherly Love.
DA: The recent news about you and Philadelphia shows exceptional test scores, national attention for district policies, and even some rumors linking you to higher offices. It occurs to me that this reads like your accomplishments from Chicago, where you ran the school district for five years.
VALLAS: Yeah, you know, we had a lot of success [in Chicago]. The fundamental difference between this situation and Chicago in 1995 was a lot of things we did in Chicago were controversial for that time and they're not as controversial now.
DA: Is that simply because it's nine years later?
VALLAS: Yes, and reform has evolved. I mean, let's face it, in 1995, they were just starting the debate of whether or not there should be a Department of Education. Then what, five years later, Gore and Bush are running on who can do more for public education. So I think clearly times have changed.
Plus, you know, back in 1995, when we mandated afterschool and summer school programs and social promotion and when we blurred it with the concept of a structured curriculum, that was very controversial.
And we always seemed to be the first major district to do those types of things, although, [Rod] Paige had done some of those things in Houston. When we implemented our zero tolerance policy and set up an alternative schools network for destructive youth, that all seemed to have generated controversy. So, the things that I'm doing now have generated much less controversy than they did in 1995. Same thing with when I talked about faith-based partnerships and [how] I actively promoted faith-based partnerships. I provoked more of a reaction then than I'm provoking now.
DA: But you're still getting attention for your recent statement on that topic. VALLAS: That's because I use the term, I think I was quoted as saying, we must break down the barrier between church and state. Perhaps I could've phrased it a little better but the point I was making is that that barrier, that separation of church and state, should not separate the schools from partnering with the most dynamic institutions in their own communities and that's the faith-based institutions. …