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5 providers outline their Renaissance plans

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

Several of the 14 potential Renaissance schools have more than one suitor among the six approved outside providers, while others, at least publicly, so far have none.

Five of the six successful Renaissance applicants – all but Universal, which did not respond to interview requests – talked to the Notebook about what schools they were interested in managing and what they thought they brought to the table.

All but one plan to convert their school to charters.

The partnership between Johns Hopkins University and Diplomas Now wants to work within the District as an Innovation School model. In that case, while at least half the faculty would have to be replaced, the teachers ultimately hired would remain District employees and union members.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has said she wants four to six of the 14 schools to be Promise Academies that will undergo turnaround under her supervision. The names of the Promise Academies and the schools slated to be matched with private providers will be announced on March 26. It is possible that some of the 14 schools will not undergo turnaround this year.

The list of 14 includes nine elementary schools, two middle schools, and three high schools. While at least one provider has expressed interest in each of the middle and high schools, only Dunbar, Potter-Thomas, and Bluford among the elementary schools were specifically mentioned by a provider.

Hopkins, with a model called Talent Development that focuses on detecting and responding to early warning signals by sixth grade and transforming the ninth grade experience, said it would work with any middle or high school. The middle schools on the list are Roberto Clemente and John B. Stetson; the three high schools are Vaux, University City, and West Philadelphia.

“We’re interested in working with any school open to us,” said Jane Nelson of Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools. “But our strength and proven track record is in middle and high schools, and we’re specifically going for them.”

Nelson and Leo Jones, the northeast regional manager for Talent Development, said that it has started two schools from scratch and worked to put the model in a number of other schools, including several in Philadelphia. Doing turnaround of an existing school under the “Innovation” model is different from anything it has done before.

“This would be our first actual takeover,” Jones said. “Ours is usually a collaborative model.” Rather than seeking an entirely new faculty and leadership team, “we work with whoever happens to be there.”

Congreso de Latinos Unidos and ASPIRA, two Latino community organizations that run charters, applied for the two middle schools and Potter-Thomas. All these schools have predominantly Latino student bodies.

“We think we’ve done an excellent job with the schools we have,” said Rafaela Colon, ASPIRA board chair, citing ASPIRA’s charter schools, Pantoja and de Hostos. “We have a good academic staff. I think we can really help manage these schools if we implement the same curriculum as in the charter schools.” She said ASPIRA would like to operate all three schools.

Congreso is interested in operating one of the schools, said President Nicholas Torres. “Our preference is a middle school, but we would be open to any one of the three,” he said. It operates the Pan American Charter School.

He added that in its application to the District, Congreso said it would work with any one of several partner organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters; the Academy at Manayunk, which specializes in students with reading disabilities; and an organization called The Right Question Project, which helps people in low-income neighborhoods better engage with the institutions in their lives, including schools.

Both Mastery Charter and Young Scholars Charter have said they would like to work with Dunbar.

“Dunbar at the top of our list, but it includes the other elementary schools that serve similar student populations to what we serve now,” said Young Scholars CEO Lars Beck.

Beck said that Young Scholars, a middle school, “has spent a lot of time extracting what works well at the middle school level and applying it to the lower grades. We’re ready for that.” He said he has been grooming leaders at Young Scholars and recruiting in Philadelphia and “around the country” in the expectation of expanding.

“When I got to Young Scholars, it was mediocre academically and school culture-wise, and we went through an exhaustive process to identify a model to drive student achievement and the character of our students,” he said. “We’ve been tremendously successful over three years; it’s armed us with a keen eye to turn around struggling or failing schools.”

Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter, said it is seeking three schools – Dunbar, Bluford, and Vaux High School. Mastery has more local experience in turnaround than other providers, having already taken over Pickett, Shoemaker, and Thomas middle schools.

Gordon said that Mastery has added 11 new apprentice school leaders in the last year and decided not to pursue opportunities outside Philadelphia in order to take advantage of the Renaissance initiative.

Universal, part of Kenny Gamble’s operation, has its base in South Philadelphia, but none of the potential Renaissance Schools are in its neighborhood. It runs a charter school, Universal Institute, that has met federal academic goals. It has also operated E.M. Stanton Elementary and Vare Middle School, as an education management organization (EMO). While Stanton has improved, Vare has been in so-called Corrective Action II status for seven consecutive years, showing little improvement under Universal’s management.

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