With more than four decades of experience in both urban and suburban districts, Gerald Kohn knows how difficult it can be to change the culture of a school district beset by poverty, social issues and politics. Yet he accepted the challenge of bringing change to the Harrisburg School District in central Pennsylvania eight years ago, because, he says, “nothing gives me more satisfaction than being able to succeed.”
Mayor Stephen B. Reed hired Kohn in 2001 shortly after the state legislature gave the mayor control of the Harrisburg public schools following allegations of missing funds, missing property and “ghost employees” who appeared on the district payroll but never reported to work. Reed chose Kohn based on his past success in bolstering early education in Vineland, N.J., and both men believed that a strong preschool program was essential to improved learning in Harrisburg, where research indicated that kindergarten students came to school with an average delay of 24 months in their language skills.
Although Kohn admits “mayoral control is complicated” and no one governance system guarantees success in any urban school district, he believes that with mayoral control a district can have a standardized curriculum at each level and “improved ability to lobby for grants and funding with an authoritative voice.”
“Mayoral control can affect the patronage system and make urban schools a place where education is the first priority, not employment opportunities for adults,” Kohn says. “It is one way of cutting through some of the fat.”
When Kohn arrived in Harrisburg, he says many of the school libraries were empty, 92 percent of the classrooms did not have books, and attempts were made to eliminate the kindergarten program.
Reorganization helped to remove some of the politics, Kohn says. “Instead of having to listen to nine different voices telling you what to do, it allows you to hire professional educators who can be held accountable,” he adds.
To succeed in Harrisburg, Kohn’s first task was to model a sense of respect throughout the district; he started by getting to know the district personnel—from the principals to the custodians.
Only Way to Go: Up
Ranked last among Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts in 2001, there was nowhere for the Harrisburg district to go but up. By 2004, seven out of 12 elementary schools had made adequate yearly progress, and in 2005 there was a 71 percent increase in graduation rates. Yet despite advances, the problems that faced Harrisburg’s students in 2001 have not disappeared. Harrisburg remains a poor urban district with a 50 percent mobility rate, and Harrisburg still ranks last among Pennsylvania’s school districts.
“More than 90 percent of our students come from impoverished families with limited education,” says Kohn. “Continuity is missing from their lives, and between 5 percent and 10 percent of our students become homeless at some point in the school year.”
In addition to academic problems, 17 percent of Harrisburg’s students are in special education due to emotional disturbances. To help students cope with inner conflict, Kohn introduced Providing Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), a program developed by Pennsylvania State University for use in K5. Taught by counselors and teachers, PATHS is designed to improve self-control and self-esteem and to foster problem solving.
“The biggest problem for our kids is dealing with difficult situations in their neighborhoods and at home,” says Kohn. “One-quarter of our students have one or more incarcerated parents. But our kids are resilient. We know they can compete. They can do it by learning to deal with the pervasive lack of expectations on the part of everyone: themselves, their families and the community. We have had board meetings where some members of the community have said, ‘Shame on you for wanting to send them to college, because they can’t succeed.’”
But Kohn believes that no one should define “for you what you can or cannot do.” Over the past eight years, Kohn has been rebuilding the district from the bottom up. He has spent $2 million on teacher training, created classroom libraries and book rooms, switched from basal readers (think the Dick and Jane series) to a balanced literary approach that uses different types of reading materials and blends phonics and whole language, and installed coaches in each elementary school to embed the new approach to reading instruction. Keeping class sizes low (16 students in pre-K and 20-21 pupils in K3) and instituting home visits by preschool teachers are part of the new policy of improving relations with parents that focuses on shared responsibility between home and school.
With Reed’s help as chief advocate and lobbyist, the district has secured substantial increases in funding for the public schools, including $9 million in grants for early education.
When Kohn came on board in Harrisburg, the incarceration rate among students was higher than the graduation rate. “We were losing one-third of our class each year,” he says. Out of 750 ninth-graders in the freshman class of 2001, only 220 graduated, and college acceptances totaled 58. By comparison, the class of 2008 had 436 graduating seniors, and in 2009, 301 students were accepted at colleges.
Does He Get “Urban Problems”?
While there has been progress in Harrisburg’s schools under Kohn, if City Councilwoman Linda Thompson succeeds in her bid for mayor of Harrisburg in November’s election, Kohn could find himself out of a job. Reed, who wants to run for mayor again but lost the Democratic party nomination to Thompson, has not ruled out a write-in campaign. Thompson has spoken publicly of “buying out his contract” and replacing him with an “urban superintendent” who understands “urban problems.”
Kohn cannot change his suburban upbringing in Warren, Ohio, but in addition to an undergraduate degree from Princeton and doctorate in education from Harvard, Kohn has proven his mettle in urban districts in Cambridge, Mass., and Vineland and Trenton, N.J.
As a first-time teacher in Trenton in the 1960s, spurred to the task by a campaign speech by the late Bobby Kennedy, Kohn made it a point to visit the homes of every one of his students during the first few weeks of the new school year. He fell in love with the job, and four decades later he is still working “to improve the lives of children” against the ever-rising tide of low expectations, high poverty rates and high rates of social problems.
While Calobe Jackson Jr., chairman of the Board of Control, a mayor-appointed board that oversees all major policy decisions in the district, is wary of any future plans that might include having a superintendent appointed who lacks credentials or significant experience running a large school system, he concedes that any success depends on the approach and the transition that takes place. He stopped short of approving or disapproving anyone’s approach.
“There are a lot of unknowns and variables,” Jackson says. “I know the direction that we are headed now—we are developing a culture where education is important. My biggest fear would be a return to patronage.”
Roy Christ, another member of the Board of Control, agrees with Jackson’s assessment: “When I came on board I wanted to get a feel of where things stood, so I asked substitute teachers—who did not have any axes to grind—about their insight about the direction where the schools are headed. A big concern is any return to what we had before.”
No matter who wins the mayoral election in November, one thing is certain—change will be coming to Harrisburg. Mayoral control is set to expire in 2010 and with it, the Board of Control.
Kohn’s tenure has not been without some controversy. In 2009, the district spent $136,130 on legal fees to defend a State Ethics Commission investigation of 10 administrators, including Kohn, whose annual statements detailing any possible conflicts of interest for the years 2003 to 2005 were not on file at the district office. All maintain they had filled out the required statements, but the documents may have been mislaid, possibly during an office move. No conflicts of interest were discovered, but Kohn had to pay a $750 fine. Kohn’s biggest regret is that taxpayers had to foot the bill. His critics say he should have resigned to save the district from having to spend the money to defend him. But overall, neither he nor his office suffered any damage to his reputation as a leader.
In 2008, Harrisburg’s student failure rates on the state assessment dipped below 50 percent for the first time since control of the district was seized under Pennsylvania’s Empowerment Act in 2000. In years past the district’s failure rates had been as high as 68 percent. Mayor Reed sees the test results as showing encouraging signs for his community’s schools, which have been on the state’s academic watch list for nearly a decade.
Jackson believes Harrisburg is “significantly better under Dr. Kohn.” He recalls, “Things were so bad something radical had to be done.”
And Jackson affirms that graduation rates and state scores have improved under Kohn. “Not as much as we would have liked, but they have improved,” he says, adding that he believes preschool and kindergarten students will improve their scores in the future due to recently implemented early education programs.
Kohn is proud of his work over the past eight years. “Enrollment has grown over 30 percent, and our dropout rate has decreased 58 percent,” he says, “but there is so much more to accomplish.”
Kohn’s contract is set to expire in 2011. Only time will tell if he will get a chance to continue measuring success for the students of Harrisburg.
Stephanie Johns is a freelance writer in New Jersey.