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Ackerman has learned lessons from 2002

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

Even though she wasn’t in Philadelphia then, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her team have apparently learned something from the myriad mistakes made during the city’s ill-starred foray into school privatization in 2002.

During that time, schools were chosen for this wrenching makeover without any input from teachers or the local community. The newly created School Reform Commission made decisions in secret, dismissing questions and overriding objections. Even Edison Schools – which had started the whole movement when founder Chris Whittle caught the ear of former Gov. Tom Ridge and asserted that private business could save public education – was flummoxed. Edison had asked for clusters of schools in the same feeder pattern so it could assemble a coherent educational program. Instead, with no explanation, it got a hodgepodge of 20 schools around the city.

Many of us still remember the sight of Edison officials and SRC members going out the back door of schools to avoid protesters, and of teachers almost literally refusing to teach rather than work for Edison. Hardly a recipe for productive school improvement.

But judging from the report made to Ackerman on Wednesday by the committee designing the Renaissance Schools initiative, the District is not planning to engage in the same kind of politicized, top-down reform. Instead, her administration seems determined to ensure that, this time, the community is heavily involved:

  • No school wil be slated for "turnaround" unless the community, including parents, teachers, community members, and, where appropriate, students, are "ready" for such a wholesale restructuring.
  • The criteria for selecting schools will be "fair and transparent" and not simply based on test-score cutoffs.
  • Each school’s Renaissance School Advisory Council will get to recommend the turnaround team it considers best for its school.
  • Ackerman is broadening the concept of what an outside provider might look like, inviting in-house turnaround teams and supporting organizations to compete with charter-management organizations, nonprofits, and companies.
  • The District doesn’t plan to bite off more than it can chew, starting the process with just a handful of schools, less than the 10 they had been planning on.
  • While borrowing the name "Renaissance Schools" from Chicago, Ackerman seems determined to avoid accusations plaguing the effort there that the schools were gentrified, not reformed. "The first priority is that every child stays," she said, meaning that the new managers will not be able to weed out poor performers or the worst troublemakers. In fact, the committees have deferred the option of converting these schools to charters for the time being, largely over concerns about whether charters can be required to take all the students in the feeder pattern.

This is a promising start. The next step, of course, is the most difficult one: choosing the right managers and then making sure that each school builds a learning community involving all the stakeholders.

To find out more, attend one of four public meetings that will be held in November.

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