As a visiting professor at Wharton, I've had a productive year not just because of the amazing business school but because of a similarly extraordinary school just off campus for my 10-year old twins. The quality of the University City New School has led my family to explore a long-term commitment to the University and to the neighborhood. Now we are facing the likelihood of seeing the school close. Last year, the University informed the New School that its lease would be terminated, and the property would be used to build a new Penn-assisted public school. The school has found an alternate site, but it requires substantial renovation -- and fundraising efforts have fallen $75,000 short. Penn spends a small fortune on security services and a neighborhood home purchase program for its faculty. These programs have greatly helped the neighborhood, but educators demand quality education for their children. The University evidently recognizes this, but the administration seems determined to push through a costly and questionable experiment, instead of nurturing an already working solution. All this is a perfect example of how big organizations sometimes make big mistakes by overlooking innovative and effective small-scale approaches in favor of idea-driven master solutions. Judith Rodin has commented on Penn's entrepreneurial atmosphere as among its greatest assets -- and the reason she wants to stay here. I came here because Wharton is at the forefront in studying and teaching entrepreneurship, and I agree with Rodin that entrepreneurial initiative is a big part of Penn's current success. But the University is behaving to the contrary on the critical issue of quality neighborhood schools. Entrepreneurship is about ideas -- observing a need and providing a solution -- but an idea shouldn't congeal at conception. After that comes the critical work of testing and development -- stripping away false hopes and assumptions to find and develop what works. In this case, the University is doing the opposite: placing all its faith in a massive project with an organization that doesn't work, rather than developing a proven option that works incredulously well. The New School has an extraordinarily dedicated and creative teaching staff. The children love going to school. Their recent winter concert -- with complex digital-mix photographs, multi-lingual musical performances and genuinely funny skits and a movie written by the children -- far surpassed comparable events in much larger schools. The New School is also an exemplar of diversity. With a student-body 40 percent African American, 40 percent white and 20 percent other, the school is a model of racial integration. The school is not for the well-to-do, but rather, for neighborhood families struggling to provide something better for their children. On a shoestring budget, it somehow manages to give these kids an exceptional education. We must understand that Penn's public school endeavor is just an experiment. Already, the plan has been modified so that the school is only for a limited geographic area and only K-1. The New School, by contrast, provides education to anyone and has classes from K-8. By not providing the money needed to relocate, the University is effectively killing the neighborhood's only working non-denominational educational option beyond first grade. I tried to explain to my children the letter we received Tuesday afternoon -- saying that the school will probably have to close. But if you step away from the details, it just doesn't make sense. University development requires neighborhood vitality, which requires quality schools. Yet in a neighborhood suffering an educational crisis -- with inadequate teacher quality, poor infrastructure and lacking leadership -- there exists an absolute gem of a school. To survive, the school needs $75,000 -- a mountain of money for a tiny school serving a poor neighborhood, but an insignificant investment for a wealthy University. The only way I could think to explain it to my children was through an observation of Penn's founder, Benjamin Franklin. He wrote, "A little neglect may breed great mischief... for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse, the rider was lost." It would be terribly sad for everyone involved if the University City New School dies. But it will be collectively sadder if Franklin's own institution is the casualty for want of the almost insignificant remaining relocation costs.Comments powered by Disqus
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