The School District of Philadelphia is reaching out to one of Penn’s more civic-minded organizations in their search for a new superintendent.

The Penn Project for Civic Engagement has teamed with the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the region’s chapter of a national service organization, to host community forums.

They will send an official report to the School Reform Commission and the superintendent search committee on March 1.

This past month, they hosted a series of community forums for parents, students, businessmen and other community leaders. The forums, which began early February and ended last week, were a place to seek expert counsel and public viewpoints to the school district’s ongoing search.

In August 2011, Arlene Ackerman reached an agreement with the school district to resign from her post as superintendent. Currently, Tom Knudsen serves as the Acting Superintendent and Chief Recovery Officer.

“Any school superintendent search that’s any good has gone through some kind of public engagement process,” said Harris Sokoloff, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and faculty director of PPCE.

He added that the purpose of the forums is ultimately “to find what the public will or will not support, and how that relates to what they want in a superintendent.”

Last December, the two groups began their partnership and discussed plans to coordinate citywide conversations about public education. When the Mayor’s Office of Education asked United Way for its assistance in the superintendent search, PPCE also offered to lend its expertise. From there, United Way and PPCE drafted a preliminary budget and outlined strategies for funding.

According to Sokoloff, all funding for the forum discussions came from Penn and United Way, and none from the city government.

Both PPCE and United Way believe they serve more as independent third parties in the superintendent search than as organizations with financial or professional interests in the search committee’s decision.

They intend for the community forums to draw opinions from the broadest demographic and professional range of local citizens as possible.

PPCE has had a long tradition of combining “expert opinion with public values to give policy-makers input to inform their own decision-making,” Sokoloff said.

Their projects have included collaborations with the Zoning Code Commission in 2010, where they worked to involve public engagement in the city’s zoning process. In 2005, the organization participated in the Franklin Conference on School Design, which compiled opinions from both experts and the public on important urban topics.

John DeFlaminis, a professor in the Graduate School of Education who formerly served on the executive board of United Way, believes that universities like Penn “can make it possible to connect the people to what they want to see happen.”

He added, “the more that you can bring the community into such a big decision, the more likely you are to find an answer that will have a lot of heads on it. People support what they help to create.”

“We can be an honest broker between the public and the people who may have a more vested interest,” Sokoloff said. “We bring impartiality and neutrality to the process.”

Last week, the two organizations collected the information gathered from the forums and will post it on their respective websites.

After the report is sent, the SRC will respond to the public with a summary of how they used the information from the forums.

Sokoloff believes this process will allow for the most amount of transparency toward the public, noting that it actually gives the forums an advantage of having a “full-circle effect” within the community.

“Picking the next superintendent has huge implications,” assistant vice president of Community Impact of United Way’s Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter Diane Castelbuono said.

“And that’s not only for the students and their parents,” she added, “but also for the tax payers.”

She said that through collaboration and cooperation with the community, the search committee “is acknowledging that there are many more stakeholders in this big decision.”

Though Sokoloff acknowledged that the school district has been increasingly intent on reaching out to public opinion, Castelbuono said she didn’t know “whether [these discussions] signal a long-term commitment to public engagement on the part of the school district.”

She added, “when [the school board] reports back to the public, they can say, ‘okay, we’ll look at your criteria and modify it,’ or maybe, ‘I’m sorry, we respectfully disagree.’ But either way, they’ll be engaging with their community.”

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