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Waiting for the Renaissance

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

This is the front page article from our February 2010 edition of the paper. Look for more stories online and the print edition later this week!

Article by Bill Hangley, Jr.

It’s nothing new for Janiece Jones to wonder about the future of her child’s school.

“It was supposed to be closed down,” she said as she stood in front of the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia. “[Then] they just said that someone was going to try and change the performance of the school.”

The first rumor didn’t come to pass. But the second just might, in potentially dramatic fashion.

Dunbar is one of 14 names on the District’s list of “Renaissance Eligible Schools.” Any one could become an actual Renaissance School, facing what could be a complete transformation next fall – new staff, new principal, longer school days, and extra supports.

But it will be months before Jones finds out who will actually run Dunbar. Any of the 14 could become a charter school, a school run by an external manager or by a new team of District educators, or a so-called “Promise Academy” supervised directly by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. A few may not become Renaissance Schools at all.

For now, Chief Officer of Charter, Partnership and New Schools Benjamin Rayer says there are some certainties regarding Dunbar’s fate and that of the other schools named.

“Children are not leaving, buildings are not closing,” he said. “But the adults … may change.”

The 14 eligible schools are scattered across the city. All rank among the District’s worst in terms of test scores and other performance measures.

Many have suffered from chronic instability: North Philadelphia’s Frederick Douglass has had seven principals in seven years. West Philadelphia’s University City High has been plagued by rumors of imminent closure. Kensington’s Stetson Middle School was run for years by a private manager, Edison Schools, until the District cancelled the contract, citing lack of progress.

Decisions by May

District officials say that by May, the schools will know their exact fates. Some will see at least half of their staffs replaced, while others could find themselves with entirely new, non-union staffs and administrations.

Meanwhile, principals are preparing for an intense round of in-school evaluations while District staff is seeking applications from qualified charter operators and private organizations interested in running each school.

Soon, potential providers, armed with slide shows promising big improvements, will fan out across the city to discuss with parents details of the proposed school transformations – things like adding more afterschool activities, better links to community groups, and more support for teachers.

The Renaissance plan offers hope to some parents, like Jones.

“I believe it will work. I hope it does,” she said.

But for teachers and administrators at the eligible schools, the proposal casts them into a new world of uncertainty.

“There are definitely ways I can see this being a wonderful thing for kids. And even for teachers,” said Lisa Kelly, a veteran English teacher at University City High School.

Kelly said she would welcome the kind of stable, community-responsive leadership that the Renaissance plan promises.

“We’ve had nine principals in my 17 years and some of them were taken out of here in disgrace.”

Kelly likes that the Renaissance plan includes extended hours for students and higher pay for teachers. At the same time, she worries that the first product of this new reform would be more instability.

“My own private hobby horse is that they never give anybody enough time,” she said. “When you try to redo the whole thing, it’s going to look real fuzzy for a long time.”

Matt Malone, a third-year social studies teacher at West Philadelphia High, shares Kelly’s concerns.

“West really should not have been chosen for this list,” he said. “We’re already experiencing a renaissance.”

Malone was one of the first teachers hired by Principal Saliyah Cruz, who was brought in to turn around a school once infamous for fights and fires.

Under her leadership, Malone said West has new AP and honors courses, new partnerships with local universities, and successful afterschool programs. He worries that dramatic changes will cost the school its momentum.

Cruz is more optimistic.

West Philadelphia’s principal recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I think potentially this is a great thing.”

Samuel Daroff Elementary Principal Bonnie Berman also sees opportunity.

“I believe that it is a rebirth of the Daroff School and the surrounding community,” she said. “Whatever they view as offering children the opportunity to be successful, then that’s the right thing. I have the utmost faith and trust in Dr. Ackerman.”

The task of retaining teachers

Not everyone shares Berman’s faith in the process.

Betsy Wice, a retired Frederick Douglass teacher who now volunteers at the school, said Douglass’s low test scores say more about its challenging community than the quality of its staff. She worries that the coming months of uncertainty will drive the best teachers out.

“I would rate this school, classroom by classroom, as a lot better than a lot of public schools, even though the scores won’t reflect that,” Wice said.

“We’ve had teachers who have been demeaned for low test scores, they end up at Masterman, and all of a sudden they’re wonderful because their kids’ test scores are so high. I see that all the time.”

Wice is quick to acknowledge that Douglass, like University City, needs stable leadership and better academic results. But she said the timing of the Renaissance process could force Douglass teachers to look for new jobs even before their school’s future is clear.

“It’s hard to keep the teachers,” she said. “We’re not going to know [who will run Douglass] until May, right? That’s right about the time of the deadlines for people to interview for [new jobs in Philadelphia], and in the suburbs. So by May, who’ll be left?”

Malone, from West Philadelphia, said he could well be a Renaissance casualty. “I will not be staying if West becomes a Renaissance School, and many other teachers [have] expressed the same feelings.”

At University City, Kelly had the opposite reaction.

“You know who’s going to be here next year? Me,” she said.

“Our principal might be gone, Arlene Ackerman might move on, but I’m the one that’s going to be here, and the kids are going to be here. So as far as I’m concerned, nothing changes.”

By April, the District promises to have an approved list of potential school managers. Committees of parents and community members will then have ample input into their school’s final selection, officials say.

But for now, parents, students and staff are left to wonder.

Waiting for her grandchildren in front of Dunbar, Evelyn Glover said she sees only one way to make the most of the uncertainty.

“If the teachers, the principal and the parents work together I think it will be good,” she said. “But, everybody’s got to work together [because] you’ve got to be strong when you do these things.”

Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance writer based in West Philadelphia. Temple University student and Notebook intern Michelle Welk contributed to this article.