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A Reformer for Our Times
James E. Nevels L'78, WG'78
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There was a time when many envied JAMES E. NEVELS L’78, WG’78. But now in addition to envy many hold him in awe. Nevels has what seems like an impossible task to complete. In January 2002 he was named chairman of Philadelphia’s five-person School Reform Commission (SRC). He is charged with fixing a decrepit public school system. Immediately.

The SRC is the product of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s 2001 takeover of the Philadelphia school system. It is a fact that 176 of the Philadelphia district’s 264 schools are on the Commonwealth’s list of failing schools. A stunning 33% of Philadelphia public school students drop out without a diploma. Only 13% of the system’s 11 th graders are estimated to be able to read a newspaper with any kind of comprehension.

The SRC’s mission, according to Nevels is four-fold: “to educate children first, treat teachers as educators; engage families as parents; and to institute the sound financial practices from which great education emerges.” Their trust with Nevels, the State Legislature will release $75 million to Philadelphia to shore up its system. It has mandated the SRC to develop more choices in education, including the option of transforming the entire system into charter schools.

Nevels is undeterred by the enormity of the task. He is an optimist and a calm negotiator. One of the first major, and somewhat controversial, decisions the SRC made was to hire Edison Schools Inc. as the consultant to help revamp the city schools. Edison was commissioned to audit the system and come up with a reform program. Edison, which was in the shadow of bankruptcy this summer, will take over 20 of Philadelphia’s public schools, effectively privatizing them. Approximately 14,500 students will be affected.

All of this has roots in topics that engaged his interest at a young age. Nevels’ thesis at Bucknell was entitled “The Revival of Social Contract Theory.” He is the author of Tax Exempt Financing for Colleges and Universities: An Introduction to Financing Institutions of Higher Education Through the Municipality Authorities Act of 1945 (Packard Press, 1982). In 1998 he was appointed to the three-person Board of Control for the Chester-Upland School District in Delaware County. The Board was responsible for administering the $61 million budget and improving the quality of education in the troubled school district. 

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