This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Moving on a lightning-fast timeline, the School District plans to turn over nine low-performing schools to outside managers by September – the majority probably as charter schools – while trying to jump-start educational improvement at another five under a model overseen by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
The District announced that all 14 schools designated as Renaissance Eligible will go through some kind of turnaround process this year. Officials had said that some might be able to avoid it if a February school review process found progress.
Ackerman said that she decided to proceed with all 14 because after studying the reviews all needed radical intervention now.
The decision means that the entire faculty of the 14 schools will be force transferred and if they want to stay on, will have to reapply for their jobs. Under the union contract, at Renaissance Schools that continue to operate within the District, which include Ackerman’s Promise Academies and so-called “Innovation” schools, no more than 50 percent of the teachers can be rehired.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan was hoping that the turnaround language in the teachers’ contract would help Pennsylvania’s bid for Race to the Top funds. The Department of Education announced yesterday that Pennsylvania did not win in the first round of applications.
For the five Promise Academies, Ackerman chose two elementary, one middle, and two high schools. According to a District blueprint, they can all expect a longer school day and year, uniforms, and extensive use of Corrective Reading and Math – similar to current Empowerment Schools.
|To be matched with an outside provider||Under the supervision of Superintendent Ackerman|
|Elementary Schools||Elementary Schools|
|Guion S.Bluford||Ethel D. Allen|
|Samuel H. Daroff||Paul L. Dunbar|
|Frederick Douglass||Middle School|
|William F. Harrity||Roberto Clemente|
|William B. Mann||High Schools|
|Franklin Smedley||University City|
|John B. Stetson|
The District was still preparing a more extensive statement about what will happen in the Promise Academies, said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.
The nine designated to be Renaissance Schools will be courted by one or more of six private providers that have passed the District’s first round of scrutiny as turnaround managers, although it is possible that not all six will make the next cut. The final list of approved providers will be announced on April 9.
School advisory councils at each school will have between then and April 30 to recommend the best provider, but the central office and School Reform Commission have the final say. An SRC vote is scheduled for May 19.
While in the past District officials had indicated that they would consider "none of the above" as a legitimate recommendation from a council about the providers, Ackerman said in the official announcement that "none of the above" was not an option.
Ackerman decided to put under the Promise Academy banner several schools that had been requested by providers. For instance, both Mastery Charter and Young Scholars Charter said they would like to work with Dunbar. Mastery also said it wanted to tackle Vaux. Later, it added Mann and Douglass.
Mastery CEO Scott Gordon said that the potential providers were not consulted as the District went about its decision-making about which schools to designate as Promise Academies and which to make Renaissance Schools, managed by outside providers.
Mastery particularly wanted to work with Bluford, which feeds one of its existing middle-high schools, Shoemaker. As it stands now, Bluford, Mann and Douglass are all Renaissance Schools that must choose a provider.
Mastery’s experience so far has been in middle and high schools, but it had invested heavily in adapting its curriculum and approach for younger students, Gordon said, and is already recruiting and interviewing elementary teachers.
Two Latino-focused agencies, ASPIRA and Congreso de Latinos Unidos, which both run charter schools, had expressed interest in the three predominantly Latino schools on the list – Clemente, Stetson, and Potter-Thomas. But Clemente was named a Promise Academy.
Ten of the schools completed a Promise Academy application and provided signatures from community members and supporting documents to indicate the depth of interest in this option. Some schools had hundreds of signatures for the Promise model while others had only a few.
West Philadelphia High School had been a particular point of contention. The school’s active community partners and its staff argued that it was on the road to improvement under third-year Principal Saliyah Cruz and needed more time to pursue the direction it was going. Ackerman, however, cited proficiency rates in the single digits as a reason why the school needed “drastic” intervention. She said many parents supported her.
In late March, the School Advisory Council at West met with representatives from Johns Hopkins University/ Diplomas Now to hear its plan for reshaping the school and with Benjamin Rayer, who heads the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative, on what a Promise Academy would look like.
Parent Joy Herbert, a council member and mother of a 10th grader at West, said she came away with no clear sense of the Promise Academy vision. “They gave us no model, no track record, no proof this method works,” she said.
On the other hand, Johns Hopkins “structured a whole program around kids and academics. I loved that they’re working in small teams” of students and teachers, Herbert said.
Teacher Neil Geyette said that West has already adopted much of the Diplomas Now model, including the Talent Development program’s intensive focus on 9th grade. He said changing direction didn’t make sense.
“I don’t think you can argue that these things will happen dramatically overnight, but parents, teachers, students feel academic progress is happening,” Geyette said.
Hopkins proposes to operate schools under an “innovation” model, meaning they are run within the District, under the union contract.
The other providers have all said they want to convert their schools to charters, but will be required to take all students from the feeder area.
The Cross City Campaign for School Reform has urged the District to make more use of the innovation model and give more support and time to the advisory councils. Teams from West Philadelphia and University City High had both submitted proposals to reform themselves under the “Innovation” option. However, the District rejected both proposals.
Rod Sutton, assistant principal at University City, said that its "Innovation" proposal was built on a model promoted by the Coalition of Essential Schools, that does "authentic intellectual work" with students by creating a curriculum that is based on rigor, relevance and relationships.
"We want to make our students college, career and civic ready," he said.
He said that he was "excited" about becoming a Promise Academy because he sees it as an opportunity to more actively engage the community in moving forward.
"We can make choices about the direction the school will go in from a grassroots level, and we’ll get District support to sit down with the community and hear their voices," he said.
He didn’t see Ackerman’s model, which as a big dose of skill-building remedial programs, as incompatible with the notion of "authentic intellectual work" as envisioned by the Coalition of Essential Schools. Ackerman is known to have liked the University City "innovation" proposal, even though it was not accepted by the District.
"We see the Promise Academy as giving us more autonomy and more support," Sutton said.
Under the turnaround provisions, not just teachers but administrators must reapply for their jobs.
"If this administrative team stays in place, we will continue seeking a program that fits the needs of our students," Sutton said.
A version of this piece will appear in the forthcoming April edition of the Notebook focused on dropouts, disconnected youth, and diplomas.