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Can a Renaissance happen without the community?

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

The lunchroom at Franklin Smedley Elementary School was well equipped with cases of bottled water and trays were stacked high with assorted cookies. Over a dozen District officials were present on the evening of February 3 to explain why they had named the struggling school in Frankford a Renaissance Eligible School, one of 14 named for possible overhaul this fall.

A banner over the front door proclaims that Smedley made adequate yearly progress in 2004. (The school actually last met its performance targets more recently, in 2007.)

The cookies and water were barely touched, because only about five parents showed up for the meeting at the 561-student school.

District personnel, the principal, a few school staff, and reporters vastly outnumbered the community members that came out. State Rep. Tony Payton, Jr., who testified at a recent School Reform Commission meeting to voice his support of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the Renaissance initiative, was also in the room.

Despite the low turnout, parents still hoped for the best.

“I think it’s good. I hope it will work,” said Nikki Leaks, who has a 1st grader at Smedley. “But I really wish we could get more parent involvement.”

Leaks and the other two parents interviewed by the Notebook knew each other – they said they were regularly the only parent attendees at such school meetings. Most of the questions and comments from the audience simply lamented the low turnout.

The District has highlighted community involvement as one of the key components of Renaissance Schools. Over the first nine days of February, they are holding afternoon meetings with staff and evening meetings for parents and community members at each of the 14 Renaissance Eligible Schools to explain the initiative. Some have been better attended; a meeting at Potter-Thomas drew 60 parents.

But given the low turnout on display at Smedley, the District has a lot of work to do if it is going to live up to its pledge to engage the community.

Benjamin Rayer, chief charter, partnership and new schools officer for the School District, says that he was not expecting a huge turnout at every school, and that the Smedley community meeting was just the first step.

“I don’t think it surprises us, but makes it clear that the work of involving parents and students is just beginning,” he said.

According to the District, parent ombudsmen at Smedley and the regional office will take the lead in recruiting more parent participation. And they say they will knock on doors if that’s what it takes.

Most of the parents who showed up at the meeting did say they were seriously considering joining the School Advisory Council, a body the District is creating at each school on the list to ensure community oversight of the Renaissance initiative. The District says that it will hold follow-up meetings at Smedley and other schools specifically around forming the councils.

The District also encouraged community organizations to apply to offer support services during a turnaround and respond to the Requests for Information (RFIs). But it was unclear whether any such organizations were present at the meeting.

And while parents seemed unsure about the initiative’s specifics, they do want to see change.

Fewer than 20 percent of Smedley students achieved proficiency in reading on the PSSA exam last spring. The K-5 school, while more diverse racially than many others on the Renaissance list, serves a low-income community; the student body is 94 percent economically disadvantaged.

Parents pointed to bad behavior as the number one problem facing the school and were enthused to hear that Renaissance Schools would have longer days and school years.

“I need to know about it before I decide. If it’s going to improve the school, I’m for it,” said Sabina Ford, who has a 3rd grade son in special education. But Ford, who volunteers in the classroom, was most concerned about the low turnout. “Come September, they’re [parents] not gonna know what’s going on,” she said.

Ford’s children were focused on their Transformers and the cookies.

Charo Feliciano also has a son in special education, a 2nd grader. She has two other children at Smedley, and a third graduated last year. “I wasn’t going to miss this,” she said, as she limped in on crutches. “I hope it’s a good thing. I hope they change the school.”

Representatives from the District delivered a PowerPoint presentation explaining the program.

But District representatives did not emphasize that the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff would be replaced at Renaissance Schools, the turnaround’s most controversial provision. Interestingly, nearly a third of Smedley’s teachers are new this school year.

Instead, the presentation highlighted the mandatory elements that the new turnaround teams must provide, such as afterschool enrichment and specialized services.

And Principal James G. Cantwell had the awkward job of delivering the opening remarks, praising the Renaissance Schools initiative. If Smedley ends up being overhauled, he could be the first one out the door.

Asked whether he thought Renaissance Schools took an unfairly punitive approach with teachers and principals, Cantwell only reiterated his support for Superintendent Ackerman and her program.

“I think it’s an innovative, promising program that is fair and transparent,” he said, while acknowledging that change could be “unsettling.”

On February 11 and 12, an outside team from SchoolWorks will conduct an intensive on-site school quality review at Smedley to help determine whether it should stay in the running to be a Renaissance School.

The District has not spelled out in detail what would determine whether a school remains in the pool. But according to the District’s Renaissance Schools implementation plan, the school review will “assess the capacity and willingness of the community to support the transformation of the school. This portion of the school review process will include interviews with parents, community organizations, churches, and other involved community members.”

Officials said that SchoolWorks’ evaluation will help the District identify involved parents and community members for the advisory council, which will be formed over March and April; if the plan to overhaul Smedley goes forward, they will help decide which leadership team is brought in to manage the changes.

“This is all a little bit of uncharted territory. But if we can’t find great teams, we will not experiment on your children,” Rayer assured parents.

Karen Lash, a community activist who is also an instructional specialist brought in at the beginning of the school year to help turn the school around, seemed in agreement about the uncharted territory. Asked her opinion of Renaissance Schools, Lash responded, “I don’t have one yet. At this point, I’m still gathering information.”

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