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Many unanswered questions at Renaissance meetings

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

The last community feedback session of the Renaissance Schools Advisory Board is being held tonight at Audenried High School, from 6-8 p.m. Dinner and child care are provided.

What to expect: The meetings are being chaired by Lee Nunery, a former executive with Edison Schools, Inc. and current consultant with the District for the Renaissance Schools plan. A 21-page PowerPoint on the Renaissance Schools Initiative is available here.

Last week, I attended a Renaissance Schools meeting at the High School of the Future. With the SEPTA strike and rumored low attendance at two previous meetings, I wasn’t expecting a lot of turnout. I was pleasantly surprised – not so much by the 30 people or so in attendance but in the scrutiny and questions being asked.

As one attendee framed it, there was skepticism in the room particularly because of the past decade of experience with failed Education Management Organizations (EMOs) and the fact that a promised upheaval of our schools has not substantively transformed the schools currently under District control. It was, as she said, a matter of here-we-go-again.

One of the things that was most striking to me was how we were revisiting the same debate of school choice and school transformation from a decade earlier. Back in 2001, the School District promised a systemwide transformation based on three models: a District-managed schools, EMO schools, and charter schools.

At the meeting, the District presented three proposals: the innovation model (a District-managed school), the private model (which could be an existing EMO, a charter, or something else), and a charter school conversion.

The primary difference between 2001-Takeover and 2009-Renaissance Schools Redux is the idea of community engagement. In 2001, the state takeover completely ignored school communities, and went into schools often against community desires. In 2009, the District promises that communities will have an integral role to play in the transformation of schools.

The role of community, I’ll agree, is indeed potentially transformational. What’s less clear is to what extent the School District understands and is willing to formally integrate communities into the formation, review, and accountability for the Renaissance Schools. For example, the Renaissance Schools Advisory Councils include a variety of community members, but do not explicitly include teachers or students (who, at the high school level, seem appropriate for the task).

Accountability is another key area of concern.

The District proposes to assess school progress on a school performance index which includes test scores, student attendance, graduation rates, college enrollment, and parent and teacher satisfaction surveys.

This school performance index is disappointing to say the least. It says little about the quality of the school or the quality of the learning environment.

For many parents and students, who have been subjected to year after year of broken promises for struggling schools, the question isn’t so much about whether kids are showing up and passing through a system (like measuring test scores and graduation rates), but whether the actual quality of learning has improved.

For example, what measure is there for assessing things like:

  • Ensuring a stable teaching staff so we avoid staff turnover?
  • Capping the number of inexperienced teachers in the school?
  • Guaranteeing that teachers are teaching in their field of expertise?
  • Reducing class sizes for middle grades and key transitional grades like 9th?
  • Ensuring adequate college-ready facilities like functioning and accredited science labs taught by subject-specific specialists in chemistry, biology, and physics?
  • Diversifying the curriculum to meet a number of student needs rather than a test drill approach to high school education?
  • Improving the physical space of schools, which includes the food the children are served?
  • Creating responsive and proactive disciplinary policies rather than the same old zero-tolerance rant?

In other words, where are the measures for telling a parent, a student, or a teacher that things are genuinely different here rather than just a change in the names on the organizational masthead?

One parent told me afterward that she was distressed by the District’s focus on its plan. As she put it: "Hard-working people trying to keep a roof over their heads, food and clothes in order don’t care about a plan. They want to know: will bullying stop, will our schools be safe, will you send us updated books and paper to do homework, will you give us qualified teachers?"

Finally, a certain amount of scrutiny needs to focus on the District’s reluctance to name any providers while at the same time promising that a number of Renaissance Schools will be up and running by September 2010.

A District subgroup will determine which providers have shown a “track record of success.” Once a school has been named a Renaissance School, communities will then determine which of the District-approved providers best meets their need.

It seems that the criteria for provider selection and a short list of providers ought to be made open and clear to communities. Plenty of community people have heard rumors of various organizations being invited or asked to become Renaissance Schools providers. In addition, nationally, very few EMOs have a demonstrated track record of success in high school turnaround. It seems like it wouldn’t be hard to determine a basic short list of candidates for public review so there’s greater clarity on what, substantially, the Renaissance Schools track record might be.

If you can, I strongly encourage parents, teachers, and high school students in particular to attend tonight’s Renaissance Schools meeting. Our voices are needed at the table.