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 March 30 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, including Ackerman’s Promise Academies and so-called “innovation” schools, no more than 50 percent of the teachers can be rehired.
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 Corrective Math – similar to current Empowerment Schools.
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. The councils will not have the option to decide there is no good match. Ackerman and the School Reform Commission will make the final decisions. An SRC vote is scheduled for May 19.
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.
Two Latino-focused agencies, Congreso de Latinos Unidos and ASPIRA, 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 14 schools completed a Promise Academy application. They were asked to provide 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.
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 they 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.
A longer version of this piece is also available on our blog.