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New turnaround target: 76 schools by 2012

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

Pennsylvania’s application for a piece of the $4 billion federal Race to the Top money calls for Philadelphia to "turn around" 76 low-performing schools by 2012-13 — eight schools in 2010-11, 40 the following year, and 28 in 2012-13.

That is close to a third of all schools in the District. Such schools will be required to adopt one of four drastic reform strategies approved by the US Department of Education.

Only last fall Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she was heeding US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s advice not to take on too many school turnarounds at once. Now with the possibility of federal money to support it, the District has signed on to a state application that commits it to a very aggressive pace if the grant is awarded.

The mildest of these strategies calls for removal of the principal and intensive staff training. But no more than half of the schools in Philadelphia can use this model, according to federal guidelines. The harshest is closure. In between is "turnaround," replacing the principal and 50 percent of the teachers, and "restart," or hiring outside providers to run the school.

While Philadephia would be slated to get at least $118 million if PA’s application is one of the winners, about $18 million would be for the turnaround initiative.

Presumably, the first turnaround schools are the Renaissance Schools that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has promised under her Imagine 2014 reform plan.

The District was scheduled to release details of the Renaissance plan this week, including a "request for proposal" for potential providers that want to operate "restart" schools. But that was postponed until after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers votes Thursday on the tentative agreement reached between the District and the union. Turnaround and other aspects of Race to the Top have a huge impact on the contract, including aspects of how teachers are evaluated and compensated.

PFT president Jerry Jordan signed the "memo of understanding" that was required of all participating districts. For a district to be eligible to participate, it had to get buy-in from the union, the administration, and its governing body.

For Pennsylvania’s RttT application, 120 districts signed on, but only 22 including Philadelphia are part of the turnaround piece. Altogether, 128 schools in the state are eligible for turnaround — schools chosen because they had made little improvement over the past several years and a large proportion of students score "below basic" on state tests.

The state is promising to set up a turnaround office and provide these schools with all kinds of supports, and will also establish programs to train new leaders and a new pool of highly-qualified teachers for deployment to these schools.

And it details that it is well-positioned to make a success of it because it already has experience with Empowerment Schools and Empowerment Districts, which also relied on drastic reform measures.

There is lots more in the application — with appendices and a budget piece it runs to many hundreds of pages long. Forty states applied for a share of the money, and the first phase of winners will be announced in March. A second round of winners will be announced in September.

Presumably, Philadelphia plans to go ahead with Renaissance Schools even if PA doesn’t win the money.

Tom Gluck, the executive deputy education secretary who helped prepare the plan, said he thought Pennsylvania had a good chance to win. Unlike in many other states, the teachers’ unions have been supportive, he said. Besides turnaround, there are three other major elements of the RttT: improvement in data, academic standards and teacher and principal quality. Pennsylvania has a jump start on all of them, he said.

The application "builds off the work we’re doing, we already have huge buy-in," he said. "We are ready do go, and the commitment of people saying we’re ready to do it."

Among other things, the application sets academic performance targets not just for each school district, but for each school down to the grade level. "That will be hard for reviewers to ignore," he said.

Even if Pennsylvania doesn’t win, he said, the application exercise in itself was valuable.

"We’ve begun a conversation with districts we weren’t willing to have before," he said. "It’s already changed the landscape."

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