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After schools are chosen, District discloses some Promise Academy details

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

It has taken a while, but finally, the School District has elaborated somewhat on what a Promise Academy will look like.

As schools were submitting applications last month indicating whether or not they wanted to be Promise Academies, there was little in writing about the model. When the District announced on March 30 which schools would be turned over to outside providers as Renaissance Schools and which were selected as Promise Academies, the draft press release said a fuller description of the Promise Academy would be attached, but it was not.

According to a three-page "framework" document released by the District on Wednesday, each of the five chosen schools — Ethel Allen and Dunbar elementaries, Roberto Clemente middle, and University City and Vaux high schools — will have a list of common features and a long list of possibilities.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who said she wants the Promise Academies to "dream," plans to construct a hybrid of sorts — a set of required elements combined with the ability of the school community to "shape the specific design" of each school.

What had been on the record since a presentation to the School Reform Commission in January about Promise Academies was this: they would all have a longer school day and year, including some Saturday school; site selection of teachers; enrichment activities including a second language; and instructional technology improvements.

In the brief, new written description, the required elements are divided into programs and staffing. All five schools will have a full-time nurse, social worker, psychologist, parent ombudsman, and student advisor "to provide a full service, holistic education for all."

The academic program will be "highly structured," and include the core curriculum and "interventions for reading and math." Ackerman has frequently said that she intends for the schools to use the highly scripted Corrective Reading and Corrective Math programs at the schools, but the written Promise Academy description does not specify that.

Some of the items in the description are already mandated at all schools. For instance, the outline promises "programs to address English Language Learner, Special Education, and mentally gifted students."

Other features — including parent involvement, programming for "college and work readiness," ongoing assessments of student work, targeted supports for students performing below grade level, teacher professional development, and the incorporation of technology into instruction, are standards for any well-functioning school.

In addition, there will be afterschool and enrichment activities that are broken up into three categories: creative, athletic, and academic.

They can include classes in art, photography, instrumental and vocal music, drama, dance, creative writing with poetry slams and fashion design. Sports might include gymnastics, martial arts, Wii Fitness, yoga, aerobics, exercise and nutrition, and basketball and weight training. There might also be clubs for chess, debating, forensic science, paleontology, public speaking, and "academic decathlon."

Ackerman has said she will appoint a turnaround team of educators among her circle to take charge of these schools, although she has not yet made the names public. Like the outside turnaround providers that will operate the Renaissance Schools, Ackerman will have the ability to hire a whole new staff at the five schools. In fact, under the union contract, Promise Academies are not allowed to rehire more than 50 percent of the current teachers.

The blueprint says the District and union "share a mutual goal: to get the best teachers in the most challenging schools," and it promises professional development starting in the summer.

Ackerman has said that the Promise Academies will not have autonomy — she has repeatedly said she believes that schools must "earn" their autonomy by producing good results. At the same time, when providing notification of the Promise Academies on March 30, she sent home a letter to parents in the five schools that said "select members" of the school community would "shape the specific design of your Promise Academy." It is not clear what beyond choosing from among the enrichment activities members of the school community will be able to shape.

The letter said parents would have the opportunity to visit high-performing schools in the District, and possibly some charters, beginning on April 12.

As the Promise Academies were being named last month, some expressed concern that there were so few details about the model. Parent Joy Herbert at West Philadelphia High School said she came away from a community meeting before the final selection of schools with no clear sense of the Promise Academy vision. "They gave us no model, no track record, no proof this method works," she said.

During the Renaissance Schools announcement, Ackerman said that the schools chosen for this makeover had shown strong community buy-in to the concept. She said she had asked them to express their "hopes and dreams" about what was possible.

And she reiterated her excitement about the chance to turn them around.

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