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Only six providers approved for ‘turnaround’

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

The School District has approved just six of 28 providers who applied to lead "turnaround" efforts under the Renaissance Schools initiative at low-performing schools:

  1. ASPIRA, Inc., of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  2. Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Philadelphia
  3. Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, Baltimore, Md.
  4. Mastery Charter Schools, Philadelphia
  5. Universal Companies, Philadelphia
  6. Young Scholars Charter School, Philadelphia

Benjamin Rayer, who is overseeing the Renaissance Schools project for the District, said that the District’s review team determined that these six were "high-quality teams" that demonstrated the capacity to do the specific work of school turnaround, had financial stability, and a good design.

The applicants also had to show a "track record" of success in turnarounds, according to the District’s specifications.

All but Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now applied to run the schools under a charter model. The Hopkins team said it would run an "innovation" school, meaning it would choose the staff, but work under the union contract – this despite the fact that the District had said outside providers would have to hire their own employees.

No more than half the existing staff in an innovation school could be rehired.

ASPIRA and Congreso both run charter schools that have been successful in making "adequate yearly progress (AYP)," (though ASPIRA’s second charter, Pantoja, did not make AYP in its first year last spring). Both have a "strong community presence," Rayer said. AYP represents state test score improvement goals created under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Mastery Charter has taken over three city middle schools (Thomas, Shoemaker, and Pickett), which District officials said have made AYP each year of their existence (but in fact, Pickett did not make AYP in 2008). Mastery’s start-up charter school in Center City, Mastery Lenfest, has made AYP in four of its six years.

Universal, part of Kenny Gamble’s operation in South Philadelphia, runs a charter school, Universal Institute, that has made AYP for the past four years and runs two regular public schools as an "education management organization (EMO)," E.M. Stanton Elementary School and Vare Middle School. Universal took on management of those schools in 2002 after the state takeover, as well as a third school, Peirce, that has since closed.

While E.M. Stanton has done well, Vare has been in so-called "corrective action 2" status for seven consecutive years, showing little if any improvement under Universal’s management.

Rayer commented, "They have had mixed success in the EMO model, but the charter model has worked well." He said the EMO model itself might be more of the problem than Universal’s management because there is less autonomy. "We have said it is not a perfect model. We felt that this is a program with some strong successes that was worth learning more about."

Young Scholars runs a charter middle school in North Philadelphia that has made AYP for three of the last four years.

"They had an interesting story of having turned around their own school," Rayer said. "The founding CEO had left, the school got badly off track, and they were able to regroup with a new CEO. They also have a track record of strong community and parent engagement."

The Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now project runs three schools in Baltimore and one in Chicago using principles of early intervention and Talent Development, a program that concentrates on transforming the ninth grade experience and has been used with some success in several District schools, including Strawberry Mansion. It also has a middle school early intervention program in Feltonville Arts and Sciences Middle School.

The District doesn’t immediately plan to release the list of unsuccessful applicants — although EdisonLearning, former Edison Schools, was one of them. Its local manager, Todd McIntire, said last week that it had applied. Unlike EdisonLearning, all the approved providers are nonprofits.

The District also released a new timetable for deciding which of the 14 Renaissance Eligible schools will become Promise Academies — a group of "turnarounds" under a team led by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman — and which will be put through the process of matching them with one of these six providers.

The Promise Academies will be announced on March 26.

Rayer said that next week, the principals of all the schools will be asked to schedule community meetings so parents and others can learn about the Promise Academy model.

Rayer said that while each Renaissance School and Promise Academy will have an advisory council, those councils won’t begin work until after the District has given the school a designation — Promise Academy, Renaissance School, or deferred.

"The school community will have input, just not through the school advisory councils," Rayer said.

Ackerman has emphasized that the Promise Academy model, which incorporates the controversial Corrective Reading and Corrective Math programs, would not be imposed on schools. She has described that turnaround approach as a prescriptive model.

Carly Bolger, manager of the Renaissance Schools initiative, said that the four-person group that rated the provider applications consisted of a District official, a principal, a retired teacher and a member of the Renaissance Advisory Board. The District does not plan to release the names of the individuals on the panel.

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