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Renaissance School provider applicants await the first cut

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

A total of 28 potential managers have applied to run one or more of the 14 potential Renaissance Schools in Philadelphia next school year, in what is one of the most aggressive and fast-tracked turnaround projects in the nation.

In addition, more than 330 organizations have applied to be support partners in these schools, according to District officials.

Even so, it appears likely that the largest single player in the turnaround process will be Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the District itself. Ackerman said February 24 that there will be four to six Promise Academies, or turnaround schools under her supervision. According to the District, not all of the “Renaissance Eligible” schools will go through the turnaround process this year.

The Promise Academies, Ackerman said, will have an education model based largely on what the District is already doing in more than 100 Empowerment Schools, with the highly prescriptive Corrective Reading and Corrective Math programs anchoring the remedial approach.

Another major player is likely to be Mastery Charter Schools, which is seeking to take over three schools – Dunbar and Bluford elementaries and Vaux High School, said its CEO, Scott Gordon. Mastery has more local experience in turnaround than other providers, having already taken over Pickett, Shoemaker, and Thomas middle schools and significantly raised test scores at each.

Gordon said that Mastery has added 11 new apprentice school leaders in the last year and decided not to pursue outside opportunities in order to take advantage of the Renaissance initiative. The charter management organization has also invested in elementary curriculum and a Mastery-wide data dashboard. It is also halfway towards a goal of raising $1 million for each of the three new schools.

“We’re ready,” Gordon said. “It may sound a little corny, but we want to support Dr. Ackerman’s vision with all we can muster.”

EdisonLearning (formerly Edison Schools Inc.) has also applied to be a lead provider, but didn’t specify any schools, said its regional general manager, Todd McIntire.

“We want to find out which schools are selected and find out about the individual needs of those schools before deciding which ones we would propose” to manage, he said.

Edison also applied to be a support partner, McIntire said.

Edison won contracts in 2002 to turn around 20 low-performing schools in Philadelphia in what was at the time the nation’s largest experiment in private, for-profit management of public schools. The District has taken back five of the schools, citing poor performance.

The community organizations ASPIRA and Congreso de Latinos Unidos are also applying. ASPIRA is interested in operating all three of the Renaissance Eligible schools with predominantly Latino populations, said board chair Rafaela Colon. They are Potter-Thomas Elementary School and Roberto Clemente and Stetson middle schools.

“We think we’ve done an excellent job with the schools we have,” she said, 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.”

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

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.

KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, which has a high-profile national network of mostly middle schools, has decided not to apply, said KIPP Philadelphia director Marc Mannella.

“We gave it some thought, but we’re not applying this year,” Mannella said. “What we know is how to build schools from the ground up. We’ve never done turnaround.”

Instead of participating in the Renaissance turnaround process, KIPP is counting on the new charter policy adopted by the School Reform Commission on February 24 to allow expansion of its two Philadelphia schools from middle schools to K-12 networks.

KIPP wants to add a kindergarten and a ninth grade to its North Philadelphia school in September as the first step towards this process and urged the SRC to approve the move at its next board meeting.

The new charter policy, among other things, allows the schools to alter their grade spans and enrollment targets after three years of their five-year charter rather than only at renewal.

The District will announce which of the applicants are deemed to be qualified providers with a proven track record on March 5 and invite them to submit detailed proposals for specific schools.

The final list of Renaissance Schools comes a week later, on March 12, based in part on the results of school reviews that have taken place at the 14 eligible schools over the past month. School advisory councils at each of the named schools will ultimately make recommendations on the best school-provider match, with the District’s final decisions going to the School Reform Commission in May.

The schools chosen as Promise Academies will be revealed in March – although the timeline might be moved back due to delays and school closings caused by snow days, said Tim Field, who works on innovation and new initiatives in the District.

The Promise Academies are likely to be schools for which the superintendent’s team has already determined there are no potential provider matches, Field said. That’s why they are being chosen first, he said.

“The timeline is a little bit ahead of the others,” Ackerman said. “We want schools to opt into it. It won’t be the School District saying, ‘You are a Promise Academy.’”

The communities will have input into what the final model will look like, she said.

“These are schools that are struggling, where we’re not seeing any momentum and don’t see a …credible high-quality option,” said Field. In that case, “you don’t want to put them through the [Renaissance matching] process.”

All teachers in the Promise Academies, like in other Renaissance schools, will be force transferred, but the stepped-up timeline will give those teachers a head start in negotiating the site selection process and finding a new school. Up to 50 percent of them can be rehired at the Promise Academy, but all will be guaranteed District jobs, officials said.

Field said that in this first year of the Renaissance Schools plan, there are unlikely to be any “innovation” schools, or schools managed as part of the system with a team of District educators not led by the superintendent.

“Our timeline makes it more challenging for the innovation model this year,” he said.

At least one “innovation” proposal has been submitted – by a team at West Philadelphia High School, which is seeking to be its own “provider” so it can continue some programs already in place under its current principal, Saliyah Cruz. Those include a discipline approach based on the concept of restorative justice, which Ackerman has said she wants to institutionalize more widely.

The West Philadelphia group would work with partners including the Penn Partnership Schools at the University of Pennsylvania, according to James M. Lytle, who heads it.

Ackerman and Benjamin Rayer, the District’s chief of charter, partnership and new schools, said that at many of the 14 targeted schools, the communities have said that conditions are in place without the disruption of turnaround to make major improvements at their school. These communities will get a chance to make their case, he said, but he expressed skepticism, citing West Philadelphia as an example.

“I’m sure there are lots of efforts at West," he said. “But their proficiency rates are 12 percent and 7 percent, that story is shocking…. When children can’t do the work, what is it they come to school for? We’re not apologizing for saying let’s make some dramatic changes.”

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