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Renaissance Schools plan moves ahead as debate continues

Turnaround models will draw in the community, officials say.

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

For many parents and community members, the District’s Renaissance Schools plan – a major initiative to transform Philadelphia’s most troubled schools – evokes déjà vu.

The plan proposes to turn around about 30 schools over the next three years by bringing in new leadership from education management organizations (EMOs), charter schools, or teams of District educators.

In 2002, the District spent tens of millions to hire school management companies, and despite the promise of reform, there was little substantive change. That history has many people skeptical.

Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer, who co-chaired the Renaissance Schools Advisory Board – the District’s advisory team for the plan – says this time the approach is different.

“In other cities, when people try to transform schools, they have never done it with what we’re proposing, which is a lot of community involvement,” she said in presenting the plan to the School Reform Commission in October.

She said what is most important is “that we pick schools that are ready to do this, that the community is ready, and that we have found turnaround teams that can do it well.”

Besides issues about the use of outside providers, some advocates are also questioning whom the transformed schools will be serving. Community organizations including JUNTOS have petitioned the District to create immigrant-friendly schools as part of the plan.

Others are concerned about the cost. So far, the District has budgeted $1.2 million for the first year, half of what was originally proposed last May. The District recently was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help it seek additional dollars for Renaissance Schools and other initiatives from the federal government’s new Race to the Top Fund.

Cecelia Thompson, chair of the Right to Education Task Force, wonders what will be sacrificed to pay for the turnarounds.

“My concern is if the money that is being spent is being taken away from things that we need, such as five-day nurses in the schools and other resources in the classrooms,” she said. “Some schools said they don’t get homework because there is a paper shortage. These are basic necessities that I hope are not cut for this initiative.”

Shorr and other members of the advisory board developed a process for selecting schools, engaging the community, and choosing providers to operate the schools.

To determine which schools will be targeted, Shorr, who chaired the advisory board’s selection subcommittee, said the District would first look at the 95 schools that are in Corrective Action II status under No Child Left Behind. To narrow the pool further, the District would assess school progress through a school performance index including standardized test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment, student attendance, and parent and teacher satisfaction surveys.

Then a group of experts will conduct onsite school audits of a small subset of the struggling schools. Simultaneously, a two-step request-for-proposal process will begin to identify providers or “turnaround teams” to operate those schools. A District committee will pre-qualify potential providers, who will then submit a detailed proposal and open their existing work to review, said Leroy Nunery, the advisory board’s facilitator.

To assist with the provider match, a Renaissance Schools Advisory Council (RSAC) will be convened in each targeted school, made up of parents, community members, and students.

The council will also support the school through its transitional period, participate in a quarterly review, and prepare annual reports.

The first set of schools will be named in December, but there will be fewer than the 10 originally planned, according to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has made clear her intention to heed the recommendations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan not to take on too many schools at once.

Public input has been an integral part of the process so far. In the month after the plan’s rollout, eight community feedback sessions were held throughout the city. At one session, just for students, about 50 young people discussed ways to ensure accountability among providers and measure their track records of success.

Ricardo Little, a 12th grader at Overbrook High School, is pleased that young people are being taken seriously in this process, but worries what will happen if the initiative doesn’t work.

“It’s a major concern because if this plan fails, I wonder if the District has another plan to make sure our schools would still get qualified teachers, decent textbooks, and other resources that we need,” she said.

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