This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After managing a relatively smooth transition of seven low-performing public schools into neighborhood charters, all four of the School District of Philadelphia’s current "turnaround teams" have been invited back to compete for more schools during the second round of the Renaissance Schools initiative.
But this year, they will face an expanded pool of competitors, including three new providers with national profiles.
"We proactively reached out to national organizations and encouraged them to apply," said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. "We believe the transparency we strived to achieve in the first year of the Renaissance Schools process gave national organizations a good perspective on working with the District."
Included in this year’s crop of 10 approved candidates is Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a division of New York-based for-profit education management organization Mosaica Education, which currently operates more than 80 schools. Also new is Green Dot America, a nonprofit attempting to go national with the reform model used in 17 Green Dot charter schools in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
The District has moved its deadlines up this year. During the first round of the Renaissance process, the District did not identify "Renaissance-eligible" schools until late January and did not request full proposals from "pre-qualified" turnaround teams until late March. This year, there is more time in each stage of the process, although the District has not yet revealed when the next batch of "Renaissance-eligible" schools will be made public.
The District has also not announced how these schools will be selected this time. Last year, the District used its school performance index to identify the lowest-performing schools in the city and target them for turnaround.
So far, District officials have given positive reviews to the efforts of the initial four turnaround teams – ASPIRA of PA, Mastery Charter Schools, Universal Companies, and the newly renamed Scholar Academies.
"We were very impressed" with how they have done so far in round one, said District Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono, who is part of a team that has done regular site visits at each school. "They have really developed some nice school cultures." The seven schools are "visually and physically nicer places," she added.
In testimony before the School Reform Commission on November 17, Scholar Academies CEO Lars Beck claimed early success at Young Scholars-Frederick Douglass Elementary School.
"Our enrollment increases and low attrition rates are a big sign" of success, said Beck. "We’re [also] seeing early signs of academic progress. In our first round of interim benchmarks, we’re seeing higher than expected levels of standards mastery."
Spokesperson Gallard said that while the "prequalification" of all four existing providers to compete for more schools amounted to a preliminary endorsement of the groups’ capacity to take on additional schools, each group’s full proposal would be needed to make a final determination.
"We’re excited," said Alfredo Calderon, executive director of ASPIRA, which now manages Stetson Middle School. "We know we can do more than one school, but it depends where the schools are. We have made a commitment to Eastern North Philadelphia."
The 10 prequalified turnaround teams now must submit full proposals to the District, due on December 21. Finalists are to be selected on January 17.
Rounding out the field of 10 are two local organizations, Esperanza Academy and Foundations, Inc., and two additional candidates from outside of Philadelphia.
New York-based Global Partnership Schools, Inc. is a for-profit company headed by Manny Rivera, a former superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., and former member of the management team at Edison Schools, Inc.
Johns Hopkins University/Diplomas Now was selected as a finalist last year under the "Innovation model," which was designed in part to allow for successful in-house educators to operate turnaround teams within the District structure and confines of the existing teachers’ contract. Last spring, the West Philadelphia High School Advisory Council (SAC) recommended that West be paired with Hopkins/Diplomas Now before Superintendent Arlene Ackerman made the controversial decision to defer West’s participation in the process altogether.
This year, the District has dropped the Innovation model as an option, leading Hopkins/Diplomas Now to apply to manage a "contract school" to be staffed by non-District employees.
District officials have explained their decision to eliminate the Innovation model by saying it proved to be "extraordinarily similar" to the District-run Promise Academy model, which was developed by Ackerman and implemented at six schools. It features longer school days and years, uniforms for students and teachers, enhanced enrichment opportunities, and heavy doses of Corrective Reading and Math, a remedial curriculum. Teachers are held to strict "pacing" schedules, and there is little autonomy.
But the decision rankled some who argue that there is no longer an option for District educators to submit turnaround proposals based on their own successes and educational philosophies.
"I am in favor of keeping the [Innovation] option because it allows for more flexibility," said Zac Steele, a community organizer with JUNTOS, a nonprofit working with immigrant parents at 10 schools in South Philadelphia. "I think the general concern is that in the process of transforming schools, we’d like there to be as much involvement of the community in the process as possible."
Nationally, the Renaissance Schools initiative continues to draw positive attention, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which recently named Ackerman the recipient of its highest award for superintendents.
"There is a lot of interest from other big cities in how it is working," said Casserly. Unlike most cities’ turnaround efforts, he added, the Renaissance initiative "brings a lot of reform strategies together. It appears to be far more strategic than you see in other locations."
Last year, all six of the turnaround teams who made the first cut were approved as potential providers. Hopkins/Diplomas Now and Congreso de Latinos Unidos were the only two from among that group who were not ultimately matched with a school.
This year, Congreso applied in conjunction with Big Picture Philadelphia, but was not pre-qualified and thus not invited to submit a proposal.
Also not invited to submit a proposal were nine other organizations, including Victory Education Partners and Delaware Valley Charter High School, both of which currently operate charter schools in Philadelphia. Victory also continues to provide management support services to three of the six Philadelphia public schools that came under its portfolio following the state takeover in 2001.
To match the providers with schools, the District is supporting the formation of School Advisory Councils at all its schools. Councils at schools designated Renaissance-eligible this year will receive extra training to help them vet the providers vying to turn around their schools, said Castelbuono.