This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
From the outset, the school auditorium at 56th and Vine felt like a somber family gathering, perhaps to discuss the terms of an unpleasant but necessary divorce.
Armed with informational packets and united by the scars they’ve suffered throughout Daroff’s troubled history, more than 70 parents, students, neighborhood residents, and teachers assembled in the school auditorium on Wednesday April 28. They came to hear presentations from five organizations vying to transform the K-8 school as part of the Renaissance Schools initiative.
"[Right now], this school is not preparing my children," said Kisha McKinney, the mother of two students who have been at Daroff for six years. "There is no homework coming home. Classroom work is not being done. The kids are just coming here to do nothing."
The numbers bear out her complaints. In 2008-09, more than half the students performed at “below basic” levels on statewide reading exams, and nearly half did the same in math. As a result, Daroff is in Corrective Action II, the worst possible shape as measured by federal academic benchmarks.
The nearly 700-student school is 96 percent African American and 94 percent low-income, according to District data. A school review during the Renaissance process concluded that the school had “no cohesive mission and vision focused on high student achievement.” Teachers cited improved test scores as a goal, the report said, but articulated no “clearly shared strategies to improve learning.”
Despite the failure and frustration – and despite a previous fling with an outside manager, Chancellor Beacon, that ended disastrously in 2003 – the Daroff community came out in surprising numbers to give this new Renaissance School thing a chance.
The solid turnout seems to be largely the result of the school’s highly organized School Advisory Council. Formed just six weeks ago, the SAC had fourteen members at the forum, including Daroff’s Home and School president and vice president, six additional parents or grandparents of Daroff students, a 6th grade math teacher, and a community outreach representative for City Councilman Curtis Jones.
At 6:00, SAC Chair Pamela K. Williams, still in the uniform she wears by day as a school police officer at Daroff, took the microphone.
"This council has been working hard for six weeks to learn what the turnaround teams have to offer to this school and this community," she told the crowd. "We will use your input to continue the process…and make an informed decision."
With that, Joe Ferguson, the chief operating officer of Mastery Charter Schools, launched into his organization’s proposal to turn around Daroff.
Explaining to the attentive crowd what a "day in the life of Mastery Daroff Elementary" might look like, Ferguson told the story of "Jayson,” a fictional second grader.
"Jayson will start his day being met by the principal at the front door," began Ferguson. Murmurs of appreciation rippled through the crowd.
Moving into “Jayson’s” classroom, Ferguson continued, "We focus on literacy and have extended reading blocks…I don’t know about you, but I learned phonics."
With this, the murmurs evolved into laughter and applause.
"Mastery schools are strict," closed Ferguson. "We sweat the small stuff. We will ask your kids to tuck in their shirts."
Throughout, the SAC members listened intently, many taking notes.
Next up was Lauryn Douthit, vice president of education for Universal Companies, the only provider to specifically list Daroff as a school it would like to manage.
Douthit’s presentation focused on Universal’s heavy emphasis on family supports and connections with community based organizations.
"We understand that families in crisis can get in the way of student learning," she said. "That’s why we are literally knocking on doors, sitting on couches, and finding out the challenges that students are facing."
Despite Douthit’s enthusiasm, the crowd’s attention started to drift.
The video she played did not seem to help her case.
At one point, it features the principal of the former W.S. Peirce School, which was phased out by the District in 2007 while it was under Universal’s management.
Shortly after, a narrator intoned "On paper, Vare Middle School [which Universal manages] is a persistently dangerous school. But if you look around, that’s not what you see. We report everything, but the school does not look like what the reports indicate."
The audience seemed neither comforted nor inspired.
The next three presentations come from Young Scholars, Congreso, and ASPIRA. (Only Johns Hopkins, which specializes in middle and high schools, didn’t present.) Across the providers, much sounds similar. They all talked of longer school days and years, high expectations, “culture change,” and promises of gains on state standardized tests.
But each presenter managed to highlight a different point of emphasis here and a slightly different strategy there – which attentive parents clearly noticed.
Yolanda Vega, the mother of a Daroff 1st grader, was intrigued by Congreso’s promise to have on-site psychologists to work with special needs students. Tujuanna Jackson, an SAC member and the mother of a recent Daroff graduate, liked ASPIRA’s plan to have an onsite kitchen to prepare healthy meals for students.
After the last presentation finished, SAC Chair Williams addressed the turnaround teams.
"We wish we could cut and paste from the different things that each of you offer," she responded.
The District says this was part of its intention in changing its approach and having five turnaround teams make their pitches to all nine Renaissance schools.
"We hoped that the providers would learn from each other, and we hoped that the parents would hear from all the different providers," said Benjamin Rayer, who heads the Renaissance process for the District.
It’s unclear, however, to what extent "cutting and pasting" will be an option, if at all. SACs will be asked to rank their top three candidates, with explanations and requests for more information, and submit their recommendations to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman by May 11.
Before making that determination, the Daroff SAC wanted to know more, and they prepared written questions for the providers.
"Our first question is, ‘What assurance can you give us that we will have a new and different school administration?’" said Williams.
Cries of "Yes!" and "Thank you!" spread through the audience.
After the SAC was done with its cross-examination of the providers, parents and community members lined up to ask their questions. More than two hours in, the forum was still going strong.
“It’s a great turnout, and parents are actively involved,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. “This is definitely what we are looking for.”
Whether the various constituencies who will be involved in Daroff’s “renaissance” get what they are looking for, however, remains to be seen.
When a Mastery representative explained that “all of our teachers are on a one-year contract – if it’s not working out, you’re not coming back," nodding heads and a chorus of “That’s right!” rippled through the auditorium.
The crowd, which had been receptive to Mastery’s message all evening, seemed to be swayed.
But even if the SAC ultimately recommends Mastery, there’s no guarantee that Ackerman will approve the match, and it’s unclear if Mastery will have the capacity or interest to take on Daroff. In fact, it’s not clear what will happen if too many schools want the same provider, or if no schools select a provider as their first choice.
By asking each SAC to rank three choices, Ackerman has given herself tremendous leeway to assign the matches as she sees fit.
In addition, not everyone at Daroff is thrilled at the prospect of it becoming a charter school, which would be the case under any of its suitors.
Octavia Harrold, a 2nd grade teacher at Daroff for eight years, stands to lose quite a bit, with all teachers at the school "force-transferred" under Renaissance School provisions. If the school becomes a charter, teachers will no longer have union representation.
Faced with the option of losing her District benefits or severing her connection to Daroff – which she attended as a student from 1986-1991 – Harrold is uncertain about what will happen next and seemed unsure how to feel about it all.
Such is the angst that an unpleasant divorce creates. For now, though, it seems like most in the Daroff community are taking the high road.
“It’s like breaking up a family,” Harrold ultimately concluded. “I’m excited it’s happening for the children, but it should’ve happened a long time ago. If we have to go so something positive can take place, then I’ll go.”