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Restructuring process looms for up to 70 schools

A smaller number may face radical interventions.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Measured by No Child Left Behind and “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), the Jay Cooke Elementary School in Logan is definitely not a success story.

This former middle school, now K-8, has never made AYP. This year it fell short on seven of its eight performance targets measuring proficiency in reading and math.

Cooke is one of 70 schools in the District that NCLB labels as in “Corrective Action II” – schools that have missed their achievement targets for five or more years. Cooke has been known for strong programs in the arts and writing, but that has not translated into high proficiency rates in reading and math.

Like districts across the country with schools in Corrective Action, the School Reform Commission has been weighing what to do at those 70 schools – and has talked about interventions including privatization or charter conversion. Cooke draws even greater scrutiny as one of 19 District schools entering their fifth year of Corrective Action II status.

But after analyzing the same standardized test results from the PSSA, state officials now say that Cooke may be a success story after all – along with at least 10 other Philadelphia schools that are on the NCLB “hit list.”

Why? The Pennsylvania Department of Education has started plugging test scores into a “value-added” or “growth” model, called PVAAS, that measures whether students are demonstrating adequate academic progress each year they take the PSSA.

Instead of judging schools on whether or not enough students are scoring proficient, PVAAS (Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System) looks from year to year at how quickly students are making gains academically.

And lo and behold – many of the District’s Corrective Action II schools become stellar performers when they are evaluated for average student growth (see Corrective Action II high achievers?). In most grades and at most schools, students are progressing at least as fast as the state’s growth standard – even though these same schools are often described as “low-performing.”

The state’s Secretary of Education, Gerald Zahorchak, called the value-added data from Philadelphia “a pretty remarkable story.” Philadelphia stands out among the 34 urban districts in the state, according to Zahorchak.

“They were one of only two districts that virtually at every grade level showed student growth measured by our value-added tools,” he said; the other was Reading, PA.

Ten states were invited by the federal government to implement a value-added model for measuring AYP, but Pennsylvania was not among them. It may have to wait until NCLB is amended to allow all states to follow suit. Using a value-added model rather than straight proficiency targets is one of the central issues in the reauthorization of NCLB (see Debate in Congress).

But in the meantime, the ratings provided by the state on AYP and PVAAS sometimes contradict each other as to whether a school is making progress – or whether it may need a major overhaul. Value-added results are only available for grades four through eight. For high schools, a growth measure is not available as of now. And for now, schools like Cooke are still on the restructuring list.

What does the Secretary of Education have to say about a school like Cooke or the others where students are meeting the state’s growth standards in every subject and grade?

“They’re on the right track, obviously. The leadership that they have, the work that they’re doing is progressive work.”

Restructuring or a governance overhaul at these schools would not make sense, Zahorchak said.

Photo: Paul Socolar
At an October 17 protest outside School District headquarters, Philadelphia student Union member criticized the hiring of education management organizations(EMOs) to restructure lowscoring schools. They pointed to studies showing it had proven ineffective.

Restructuring is under discussion

Deciding which schools are in need of overhaul has been one of the hot issues for a task force launched by Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones in October to develop a District plan for the Corrective Action II schools. The plan will be presented to the SRC in January.

SRC Chair Sandra Dungee Glenn said the decision to look at restructuring the 70 Corrective Action II schools was the Commission’s. “The progress is not satisfactory. We can’t keep letting time go by without doing something,” she said at an October press conference.

The discussion of Corrective Action II schools was put in motion by an SRC resolution back in June, when the Commission was debating whether to renew the contracts with its education management organizations (EMOs), which now manage 38 District schools.

The SRC resolution called for a comprehensive plan for all the District’s Corrective Action II schools, and it referred specifically to use of NCLB restructuring remedies such as reconstitution of the staff, charter conversion, and the hiring of education management organizations (EMOs). The plan was to be organized around a Request for Proposal (RFP) process inviting “qualified, external partners” to submit bids to work with schools on the Corrective Action list.

After lying dormant for months, the idea for a plan resurfaced in the fall as part of the School Reform Commission’s new action agenda.

The RFP process is still a part of the District’s current plan for the Corrective Action schools, which interim CEO Tom Brady described in November “a work in progress.”

He and Jones emphasized that many of the 70 schools are showing signs of progress, and District interventions would be more “minimal” at such schools. Jones estimated that 25 of the schools were in that category. She said these are schools that are falling just shy of making AYP – by just one to three targets.

Some members of the task force argue that number of schools needing only minimal intervention is higher. That decision ultimately belongs to the SRC.

CAO Jones is organizing meetings in all the affected schools in December to involve them in planning how to move forward.

In a November 16 memo to principals, she wrote, “I am requesting that every principal of these 70 schools co-facilitate school-community meetings that engage your school community in the review of existing and or new interventions and strategies to help transform your school into a safe and high performing learning environment.”

Brady said that the ultimate goal of the process was to come up with individualized remedies that address school needs. “Obviously, one size does not fit all,” he said.

District officials have said that the District will undertake the restructuring in phases over a period of three years, but with some of the school interventions taking effect as early as September 2008. They have also discussed the possibility of resurrecting the Office of Restructured Schools, a District office that managed some schools in the first three years after the state takeover (see ORS: a District turnaround model?).

Brady defended the notion of relying on an RFP process: “I want organizations to look at particular circumstances and say ‘We will do this’ or ‘we will do that.’”

“I’m a competition guy,” he said. With an RFP process, he explained, “there will be different approaches to assist that school.”

Protesting the EMOs

But the inclusion of EMOs as one of the reform strategies is another source of controversy – as was the issue of renewing contracts with the school managers last spring.

Of the 70 schools now in Corrective Action II, 16 are already in the hands of private managers – nine of them run by the for-profit Edison Schools and the others by Victory Schools, Foundations Inc., Temple University, and Universal Companies.

EMOs were a focus of an October 17 protest by the Philadelphia Student Union outside District headquarters, with student activists saying they didn’t want to see their schools “served up on a platter” to EMOs and other outside bidders.

Inside the District auditorium that same day, attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia told the SRC, “It would be downright crazy to turn to vendors who themselves are operating schools which are on the list of schools needing help. No vendor should be permitted to bid on assisting new schools before they have cleaned up their own act at schools already under their management.”

Student Union member and West Philadelphia High School senior Lawrence Jones-Mahoney observed that his school is in Corrective Action II, but it already has a detailed plan, drawn up through a length community-based process, that involves a new building and conversion to small schools. “This is the best option for our school,” he said.

Members of Youth United for Change (YUC), a student group with active chapters at two high schools that are in Corrective Action II, say students need a say about any proposals for restructuring or privatizing.

John Vega, a sophomore YUC member at Mastbaum High School, told the Notebook, “There’s no public discussion at the school … . If you’re not in YUC, you don’t know anything about this.”

Mining the data

Debate about the direction of the planning process has taken place at task force meetings convened by CAO Jones. These meetings have brought together representatives of parent, student, and advocacy groups with School District staff, and have begun to look at a range of District data about the 70 schools.

Participating in that process is a District office that is closely connected to Corrective Action II schools – the Office of School Intervention and Support, part of the District’s Office of Accountability. It coordinates dozens of “School Assistance Teams” working at schools that have not met their AYP targets, using a process known as “guided self-study.”

Eight central office staff, supported by 50 part-time “case managers,” most of them retired administrators, work directly with schools on development and implementation of school improvement plans and use of data to guide their instruction.

Describing their office as “an outside, objective eye,” veteran staffer Susan Ostrich said, “We offer anything that has to be done to help those schools reform – anything!”

Jolley Bruce Christman of Research for Action, a research group that has studied school reform in Philadelphia, commented, “One of the big problems in trying to improve schools is that we don’t pay attention to what we have learned. Over the past several years, the School Assistance Teams have collected a wealth of information about each of the Corrective Action II schools – their strengths and weaknesses.”

“That information could serve as the basis for crafting the most appropriate set of interventions for each of the schools,” Christman noted.