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Rules for Renaissance Schools courtship modified

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

Six potential turnaround teams are selling themselves to nine school communities this week and next, vying with each other for the chance to transform low-performing schools into high achievers.

In a recent change to the process, the School District is now requiring all six pre-selected outside providers for the so-called Renaissance Schools to make a presentation at every school for which they are qualified, rather than just pursuing their preferred schools.

Between now and May 8, the School Advisory Councils (SACs) and interested community members are attending meetings at which providers, in a panel format, present their cases and answer questions. Individuals and groups are also going on tours of the schools that the providers already operate. Councils will get to recommend which provider they prefer, with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman making the final decision, subject to ratification by the School Reform Commission.

This procedure is a shift from the District’s initial emphasis on finding mutually desired matches between providers and school communities.

The provider applications asked them to list the schools where they would like to work.

“We didn’t ask the providers to pick schools, but we asked for their preferences,” said Benjamin Rayer, who is overseeing the Renaissance process for the District. “We like and respect that, but we want all school communities to hear what everybody has to offer.” He said that Ackerman felt that this was fairer, putting to rest any impression that some providers had an “inside track."

He added, “This is our first time doing this.”

In the application process, all but one of the providers had indicated the schools they were interested in managing. Providers had begun visiting the school or schools for which they thought they were the best suited, and organizing in those communities.

Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter, listed three preferences initially: Bluford and Dunbar elementaries, and Vaux High School. But two, Dunbar and Vaux, were chosen by Ackerman to become Promise Academies – turnaround schools over which she will retain control.

So then it offered a new list of preferences — Bluford, Douglass, and Mann – all elementary schools, all with a rationale: they were close to existing Mastery middle and high schools, like Shoemaker, and students could feed into them.

“Initially, we were interested in the schools closest to us, but now we’re seeing folks from all over the place,” Gordon said. “We understood it was important to the School District and Ackerman that if the local SAC was interested in X provider, she wanted X provider to go there, and that our initial preferences were just informational.”

Now, he said, “We have shifted gears and are trying to engage anyone interested in us. Any community that is interested in Mastery, we’re interested in them.” He also said that Mastery, which has already begun hiring staff, might consider taking over as many as four schools.

Lars Beck, the principal of Young Scholars Charter School, another potential turnaround provider, said that he liked the format of all the providers presenting to all potential schools.

“It’s valuable to the community,” he said, adding that he felt the community members were able to get a sense of how each provider would be different. Questions covered school culture, teaching and staffing, and special education, among other subjects.

There is a possibility that some providers will be chosen by more schools than they can handle, while others may be chosen by none.

Rayer said that this is one reason why the District reserved the right to make the final matches.

“It will be a challenge when too many may want the same choice, and we’ll figure out the best way to work through this,” Rayer said. Still, he said “the District should be comfortable” with the community’s wishes. The SACs are being asked to rank their top three choices, giving reasons for favoring each and any additional questions they have.

To accommodate the school meetings, the timeline for matching schools with providers has been extended by more than a week. Originally, the final decisions were to have been made by the end of April. Now, the SACs will make their recommendations to the District by May 11, and Rayer said he expected a decision from the superintendent the next day, when there is a regularly scheduled School Reform Commission meeting.

The District is organizing the school visits. In one case, it hired a tour bus to take people from West Philadelphia High School and Stetson Middle School to Baltimore to visit a high school operated there by a team from Johns Hopkins University, one of the possible providers for their schools.

Only Johns Hopkins and Mastery were qualified and approved to work with a high school. Stetson is being wooed by those two, as well as ASPIRA and Congreso de Latino Unidos, both of which want to work in predominantly Latino environments.

But under Ackerman’s system, Congreso and ASPIRA are also making presentations to the other elementary schools, which have few Latino students. Young Scholars and Universal Companies are going to all seven elementary schools, along with Mastery, Congreso, and ASPIRA.

Gordon said that in its original application it would do K-8 or a high school, not a middle school, but was nevertheless asked to present to Stetson. He also said that Mastery would not be equipped to take over West Philadelphia in September because, after Vaux was named a Promise Academy, it made no moves to hire upper grade teachers. He said Mastery would need a year for planning, but added, “if West is interested in us, we’d see what we could do.”

Several parents have gone to School Reform Commission meetings to raise concerns about the matching process, while at least one has spoken up in favor of it. All the providers except for Hopkins plan to convert the schools into charters.

During these two weeks, Ackerman is also meeting with SAC members from the five Promise Academies.

At a meeting with parents Wednesday morning, she and other District officials elaborated on what a Promise Academy will look like. Teachers will be asked to follow a dress code, students will have uniforms, and parents will be asked to sign contracts “binding them to the school’s rules and other non-negotiables.” Each Promise Academy will have a Parent University on campus, at which parents can take courses to continue their own educations.

Members of the School Advisory Councils for the Promise Academies will also be visiting comparable, higher-performing District schools.

“There are a lot of naysayers that already want Promise Academies to fail, but they’re not going to fail,” Ackerman vowed to the parents. “In a year, other parents are going to want to send their kids to Promise Academies.”

Ackerman has said she would consider allowing Potter-Thomas to become a Promise Academy in response to requests from a group of parents at the school.