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Provider responses in; Innovation model out

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

The Nov. 2 deadline for potential Renaissance Schools managers to respond to a Request for Qualifications for turnaround teams has passed, with District officials saying they are in “good shape” based on the submissions they have received.

“We’re still compiling [the responses],” said Diane Castelbuono, the District’s associate superintendent for strategic programs.“There is a nice mix of national and local [providers.]”

Castelbuono said she was unable to comment on either the total number of responses to the RFQ or on any specific providers who submitted a response. Two current providers reached by the Notebook – Mastery Charter and ASPIRA of PA – confirmed that they applied again this year.

Not invited this year were any submissions to run schools under the Innovation model, which the District has eliminated.

Last year, the first of the Renaissance initiative, the District offered the Innovation option in part designed for successful in-house educators to operate turnaround teams within the District structure and confines of the existing teachers’ contract.

Three candidates applied last year under this model: school leadership teams at West Philadelphia High School and University City High School, as well as Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, a national initiative that works to reform high schools plagued by poverty and high dropout rates by concentrating on ninth graders.

The District rejected the West and University City proposals, citing the “lack of an established track record” in successfully turning around failing schools.

Hopkins/Diplomas Now was qualified as a potential provider and was recommended by the West Philadelphia School Advisory Council before allegations of a conflict of interest on the council ultimately derailed the process there.

Castelbuono minimized the significance of the decision to eliminate the Innovation model this year.

“The Innovation model morphed into the Promise Academy model,” she explained.
“If you look at the two [models], they are extraordinarily similar.”

But with the Innovation model no longer on the table, there is no longer an option in the Renaissance process for District educators to propose turnaround plans that differ from the Promise Academy approach developed by Superintendent Ackerman.

According to the District’s 2010-11 Renaissance Schools Implementation plan, both Innovation schools and Promise Academies called for District-managed schools, staffed by District employees, with the ability to utilize new curricula, enrichment programs, school calendars, and other features. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers okayed and negotiated terms for the Innovation and Promise Academy models as a chance to show that significant turnaround could be achieved in a unionized environment and without resorting to charters.

The difference between the two: Ackerman and her team would design the programming for the Promise Academies, while the programs for Innovation schools would be developed through “an open application process.” That was an invitation to teachers, principals, and others who wanted to continue to work within the system to submit turnaround proposals based on their own successes and educational philosophies.

Turnaround teams under Innovation could request “autonomy over aspects of school operations in exchange for greater accountability for school performance,” using this autonomy “to create a school culture and academic program that supports high expectations and achievement,” according to the District’s plan.

The six schools designated by Superintendent Ackerman as Promise Academies during the first round of the Renaissance process are now overseen by Assistant Superintendent for Promise Academies Francisco Duran, who reports directly to Ackerman.

The Promise Academy model features longer school days and years, uniforms for students and teachers, enhanced enrichment opportunities, and heavy doses of Corrective Reading and Math, a remedial reading and math curriculum. Teachers are held to strict “pacing” schedules for delivering this and other material. There is little autonomy.

In explaining the District’s rationale to eliminate the Innovation option in this go-round, however, the only differences Castelbuono acknowledged had to do with how the models were to be funded.

“The only substantive difference [between the models] was that the Innovation schools would have a District-developed per pupil funding formula,” explained Castelbuono. “[But since] all schools going to move to weighted student funding…we didn’t have a unique model with Innovation schools.”

Castelbuono said that for District educators interested in developing and submitting turnaround plans would have opportunities to play a role in a new crop of schools likely to be designated Promise Academies during round two.

“If they are an educator within the District, and they want to come operate a Promise Academy, we are looking for principals,” said Castelbuono. “I would say the Promise Academy model would certainly be open to that.”

Outside of that, she added, “this [Renaissance process] is really about getting outside providers.”

The District is reviewing the submissions it has received from those outside providers who responded to the round two RFQ. Castelbuono said there have been no significant changes to the review process from last year; a review team consisting of both District staff and external entities will utilize a scoring rubric to assess the merits of the potential round two turnaround teams.

RFQ finalists will be announced on Nov. 15. The next day, finalists will be invited to submit more detailed proposals for turning around low-performing schools, with the pool of pre-qualified Renaissance providers to be announced on January 17.

Castelbuono said she could not yet provide specifics on how many low-performing District schools will be designated as Renaissance-eligible in this round of the process or exactly when an announcement on those schools would come.

“We’re running the numbers and looking at data. We want to make sure we have the right set of schools,” she explained. “We are shooting for late November.”

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