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Renaissance Schools: The basics

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

What is the purpose of Renaissance Schools?
This is a new District program to transform some of its chronically underachieving schools into high-quality schools. The District has committed to accomplishing these “school turnarounds” while serving the same students at these schools.

What does it mean if a school is on the Renaissance Schools list?
The District has determined its most troubled schools through a formula based on a variety of measures of student and school achievement. There are now two separate lists totaling 26 public schools whose performance is the worst on those measures – most in need of a dramatic academic improvement.

All 26 schools will get some help, but only some will become Renaissance Schools this school year. At schools ultimately picked by the District to be Renaissance Schools, a “turnaround team” of District personnel, charter management organizations, or education management organizations (EMOs), will be put in charge of transforming the schools. A committee representing the school community will help with selecting the team.

What’s a Renaissance Eligible School?
Renaissance Eligible Schools are those in line for the most drastic interventions this year. These 14 of the lowest-scoring schools – in the bottom tenth of District schools on performance measures – are being considered for overhaul because they are struggling academically despite already having received extra staff and special supports from the District’s Empowerment Schools program. After further study by a review team, the District will select an undetermined number of these schools for turnaround by September.

What’s a Renaissance Alert School?
Renaissance Alert Schools are an additional 12 schools whose performance is also in the bottom tenth for the entire District. However, these schools were not previously designated Empowerment Schools and have not been getting extra resources and supports. As a first step, the District plans to start providing added supports immediately.

If a school is on one of these lists, will it close?
The District says none of the Renaissance Eligible or Renaissance Alert schools will close. District staff say that each will continue to operate as the neighborhood school, and students at the school are guaranteed the right to stay there.

What will change at the school?
Those chosen to be Renaissance Schools will see substantial changes next fall in staff, including the principal, teachers, and support personnel. The District says it will bring in successful school leaders or educational organizations, from the District and outside, to lead the transformation of these low-achieving schools. Put in charge of a Renaissance School, they will be expected to provide a longer school day and school year, a quality curriculum, student enrichment programs during and after school, and other changes to the academic program and school environment. Teachers who want to stay will have to reapply for their jobs.

How is this different from the hiring of education management organizations (EMOs) to run schools after the state takeover in 2002?
Some Renaissance Schools, called innovation schools, will be run by District teams. Both the District-managed Renaissance Schools and those that are operated by an outside turnaround team are being promised extensive autonomy to implement successful programs.

Other differences from the 2002 model are that the District says it will start with a small number of schools in the first year and will encourage extensive community involvement from the beginning, including a School Advisory Council that will make recommendations about the provider to work with the community on school improvement. Finally, the District says that it will have clear accountability measures to check up on whether the turnaround team is doing its job.

Who will be eligible to run a Renaissance School?
The District is inviting both its own personnel and external operators to apply to run a Renaissance School. The District will evaluate applicants to determine if they have a track record of success in improving student achievement in urban schools and whether they can provide all the required elements of a Renaissance School program.

Applicants that pass through a two-step process and are deemed by the District qualified to be a turnaround team then will take part in a matching process in April where the teams are matched with a Renaissance School. These lead applicants are also expected to partner with support applicants that can provide services or programs to help with the turnaround.

What are the different possible types of Renaissance Schools?
A Renaissance School run by an outside group can operate either as a charter school with an independent governing board or as a contract school reporting to the School District. In either case, the teaching staff will no longer be School District employees or members of the teachers’ union.

A Renaissance School can also be an innovation school run by District staff who have demonstrated their ability to accelerate student achievement. The other District-run Renaissance School model available to targeted schools will be Promise Academy Schools, which will be designed and implemented by a team in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s office.

What are the steps in this process?
In January the District announced the names of the 14 schools to be considered for turnaround as a Renaissance School for the 2010-2011 school year. In February, the District is sending a team of educators to these schools to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the school’s strengths and weaknesses. By March, the District will announce the final list of Renaissance Schools. By April, the District will have identified its turnaround team finalists. At that point, the School Advisory Councils will meet to figure out whether there is a turnaround team and model that is a good match for their school. The School District makes the final decision about the plan for each school.

How will we know if a Renaissance School is succeeding?
Each Renaissance School will be required to meet annual targets for accelerating academic achievement and for improving school climate, student retention, promotion rates, parent and student satisfaction, and (for high schools) college readiness and graduation rates. The District says these targets will be made public and will be monitored. If the District determines that annual targets are not being met, the superintendent may replace the turnaround team or return the school to being a regular District school.

How do parents and community members play a role in Renaissance Schools?
The District is recruiting parents, students, and community members to serve on School Advisory Councils at every Renaissance School. These councils will be responsible for evaluating turnaround teams that apply to run Renaissance Schools and for making recommendations to the District about which turnaround teams best meet the needs of the school community. A majority of the members of each Council must be parents of school-aged children at the school. The council will play an ongoing oversight role at the school. The District is accepting applications now. Information is available online or from the parent ombudsman in the school or regional office.

What happens to teachers at Renaissance Schools?
Once Renaissance Schools are named from the schools on the Renaissance Eligible list, all teachers at those schools will be considered “forced transfers” under the union contract, giving them rights to apply for another position in the District.

Teachers can reapply to teach at the Renaissance School. If the school is still being operated by the District, it can rehire no more than half of the former teachers. If it is being operated as a charter or contract school, that school’s management has discretion over hiring, and the rehired teachers will be their employees, not District employees.

Leadership teams at schools named to be Renaissance Schools may submit an application to turn around their own school. Their applications must include a school design and a leadership team that has demonstrated success in turning around failing schools.

Teachers and other members of the school staff who apply can be included on the School Advisory Council so long as they are supportive of change at the school.

More detailed information on Renaissance Schools is available on the District’s site. The District also issued an FAQ.

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