July 2, 2005 — -- A state basketball championship would have been one of the highlights of the year for any school. But for the students in the Chester Upland School District, one of the lowest-rated schools in one of Pennsylvania's most depressed communities, it was a rare occasion to shine.
Graduation should have been a highlight, too. But for many, it was simply a relief to close out a school year that started with a riot and ended with most of the school's leadership on the way out.
Noel Wilmore, a Chester High student, described life at his school: "First thing you notice is the class size. And the lack of interest in the work. Here, you know, there are just some people who just really don't care at all."
Chester was once a thriving shipbuilding town and the economic engine of Delaware County. Now it is home to rows of abandoned shops and grinding poverty.
In 1994, the Chester Upland School District faced a multimillion-dollar deficit and was taken over by the state of Pennsylvania. State officials replaced the much-criticized school board with a three-member control board and by the year 2000, a private company, Edison Schools, won a contract to run eight of the district's nine schools.
At that time, Chester Upland School District ranked last out of 500 schools in the state.
But despite the changes, little improved in Chester's schools. Last year, only 17 percent of seniors were proficient in reading and 6 percent were proficient in math, according to a state standardized test.
The low scores have been accompanied by a never-ending stream of crises and problems. Chester High has seen four different principals in the last year, and a state bailout was needed to pay teachers through the school year. Last September, a cafeteria fight ended with 28 students under arrest.
"We don't have books and the teachers are inconsistent with their teaching abilities," says graduating senior Aigner Cleveland, "There are a lot of people saying they're going to do this and that, and it's not getting done."