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Group vows to create good schools for thousands

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

A group of high-powered philanthropists, business leaders, public officials, and educators say they have the financial and political clout – and the determination to support schools that “work” and close down schools that don’t – to make Philadelphia the highest-performing urban district in the nation within five years.

The effort, called the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, was officially launched Thursday at a crowded event at the National Constitution Center. It has the goal of raising more than $100 million over five years to support high-achieving schools whether they are public, charter, parochial, or private.

“This is bringing together a group that has never before worked together to improve schools,” said developer Michael O’Neill, the driving force behind the initiative. “We’re trying to get rid of categories, trying to get rid of the labels, and support excellent education.”

O’Neill said that the group had already raised $16 million from its group of founders and unnamed other philanthropists.

Most of the money, $93 million, will go to “great schools creation,” primarily helping charter organizations to expand and take over low-performing District schools. The group also plans to shore up high-performing Catholic and private schools and help the Catholic school system create a 10-year strategic plan.

Other money will go towards assessing and rating schools, promoting parent and community engagement, sharing best practices, and coordinating facilities. O’Neill said that the School District is sitting on 45,000 unused seats in schools, while charter schools scramble to find buildings.

It also hopes to raise money from national foundations interested in education.

The assemblage included business and foundation leaders and officials from all three sectors – charter schools, the District, and the archdiocese. Mayor Nutter was in Harrisburg, but his wife, Lisa Nutter, who works with Philadelphia Academies, was in attendance. Lori Shorr, who runs Nutter’s education office, made a speech.

She said she was “thrilled” at the initiative. “A day like this is something I couldn’t have imagined eight years ago,” Shorr said.

O’Neill said that his organization would set a high bar in choosing which charter operators to invest in, rating schools based largely on the School District’s own performance index. That index tracks improvements in test scores as well as raw scores and overall student proficiency rates.

The goal is to create 26,000 additional “high-quality” seats in District schools, he said. The group’s materials say that Philadelphia could stake a claim as the highest performing urban district if 20 percent more children reach proficiency on state tests, which would put Philadelphia above the state average.

Now, 55 percent of Philadelphia students reach proficiency, compared to 73 percent in Pennsylvania. Accomplishing this is “ambitious, but not impossible,” O’Neill said.

The focus of the partnership is on charter school expansion, along with conversion of low-performing public schools into charters under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative, the organizers said. Still, O’Neill said his group would lobby in Harrisburg for fair funding of city schools, urging legislators to continue to make the investment because the District and power brokers are “doing the right thing” by trying to duplicate success and close low-performing schools, whether they be District or charter.

The gubernatorial election is less than a month away, and both the Democratic and Republican candidates have endorsed a version of school vouchers while education has not been a big topic overall in the election. With the federal stimulus funds ending and the recession cutting into state revenues, the state funding formula and Gov. Rendell’s increases in the basic education subsidy are in jeopardy – which could mean a deficit approaching $300 million for city schools next year.

The two legislators present, State Sen. Anthony Williams and State Rep. Dwight Evans, have both been longtime proponents of school choice. Some of the backers of Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, during which he made school vouchers the centerpiece, are also behind this initiative. But vouchers weren’t mentioned at yesterday’s event.

O’Neill said the group would invest $1 million in each start-up or conversion school that meets its bar for success. It wants to encourage more operators to submit proposals to the School District for the next round of Renaissance Schools, especially those who might be discouraged by the high price tag.

“Locally, we want to find the best operators and get the charter schools to apply,” said Nicholas Torres, the former executive director of Congreso de Latinos Unidos who is the executive director of this effort. “They know they need private investment to make it work.”

Both O’Neill and Torres cited Mastery Charter, which began nearly 10 years ago and now runs seven schools, all but one converted public schools that have made significant progress in raising test scores and moving students towards graduation. O’Neill said Mastery started with philanthropic help from Brooke Lenfest in a risky environment. Recently, it has received national attention, with Oprah Winfrey giving it $1 million and about $10 million from the federal Department of Education.

“We want to make sure the next Scott Gordon [the Mastery CEO], or the next 10 Scott Gordons, whether public charter or private…know they have a support network to grow the same kind of success stories,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill said the partnership will also “work with the School District on the outreach side” in neighborhoods that might be concerned about charter conversions and possible school closings. “These neighborhoods have seen nothing but things taken away,” he said.

The deadline for providers to enter the running for the second round of Renaissance proposals is in three weeks. The operators who ultimately get the start-up money will be required to increase student proficiency rates to 80 percent within five years.

This year, six low-performing schools were turned over to charter operators through the Renaissance process, and next year Torres said he is expecting the District to convert 10 to 12 more.

O’Neill said that the group will have meetings in the next few weeks with charters and with private schools. It will ask charter schools to commit to transparency and excellence, he said.

“We do have low-performing charters, and it does hurt the reputation of charters,” he said. “We’re going to be very public about those who commit to…accountability and excellence.”

Catholic schools have agreed to release their test score data, which they have been reluctant to do in the past, O’Neill said.

Representatives from African American, Latino, and Asian communities spoke at the event.

Parent activist Helen Gym of Asians Americans United cautioned that for all the entrepreneurial excitement, true school improvement won’t occur without the full participation of parents, educators, and communities. Philadelphia has a vibrant network of community activists that should be tapped, she said.

“A critical and missing piece of reform is that it’s too often something done to school communities and not with them,” Gym said. “We know what works – a community of trust, a shared sense of mission, leadership that’s respectful and responsive, clear academic focus supported by research, and an engaged community base….The goal isn’t just dramatic change but sustainable change that gets things right.”

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