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Before Promise Academies, came the Dream Schools. How have they done?

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

Next year Philadelphia will see the first wave of Promise Academies, turnaround schools that will be directed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman herself.

Ackerman’s conception of a turnaround school with a longer school day, a centrally prescribed set of curricula, interventions and programs, and a contract with parents is not new. She did it before in San Francisco. In 2004, she introduced the first three Dream Schools; 10 schools would become Dream Schools.

Dream Schools had mandatory uniforms, the school day extended by two hours, and a Saturday school option. Electives including art, music, and second language instruction were included, social services were beefed up and physical improvements were made.

Teaching staffs were reconstituted with all teachers having to reapply for their positions. Scripted reading and math instruction was part of the mix. So was a contract that students and parents had to sign around what Ackerman called the "non-negotiables," stricter rules and higher expectations. Many of these ideas came from the playbook of Lorraine Monroe, founder of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, a school that some characterized as “Catholic school without crosses."

Dream Schools have a complicated history in San Francisco which I hope to delve into in a future post. Union and community opposition limited the extent of the experiment.

But the Dream Schools at this point do have a track record and its important that we look at the data as part of evaluating the prospects for Promise Academies here in Philadelphia.

The Dream Schools program opened with Charles Drew Elementary, Twenty-First Century Academy (now Willie L. Brown), and Gloria R. Davis Middle School. Sanchez, Everett, John O’Connell, Paul Revere, Treasure Island, Ben Franklin, and Enola Maxwell also became Dream Schools. Due to poor performance and/or low enrollment Gloria R. Davis, Treasure Island, Ben Franklin, and Enola Maxwell have since closed.

These are the six remaining Dream Schools:

Four of the remaining Dream Schools are on the state’s list of lowest performing schools. Of the 12 schools in San Francisco that are on this list, a third of them are Dream Schools.

Even more disturbing are the data on numbers of proficient students in reading and math in these schools. The rates for African Americans, in particular, are abysmal. Here are the numbers based on data from the 2008-2009 school year.

School % Proficient in Language Arts % Proficient in Math

Charles Drew Elementary



Charles Drew Elementary
African American (77%)



Willie L. Brown



Willie L. Brown
African American (72.4%



Paul Revere



Paul Revere
African American (20.1%)



Sanchez Elementary schoolwide



Sanchez Elementary
African American (5.2%)

too few African Americans tested to be a category

Everett Middle School



Everett Middle School African American (19.3%)



John O’Connell High



John O’Connell High
African American (11.1%)



Only one of the schools, Drew, made AYP. O’Connell High is in its first year of eligibility, Sanchez is in Program Improvement 1. The other schools are all in Program Improvement 5.

Schools that fail to make AYP for two successive years go into Program Improvement. Those who fail to make AYP for four or five years successively (PI 4 and PI5) face restructuring under NCLB and state regulations. And here’s a link that explains all this in great detail for any wonks that want to delve into it.

All this data is available online. A wealth of data is also summarized by school in School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs).

The high school proficiency rates for O’Connell’s African American students are lower than those for West Philadelphia High, a Renaissance school where a provider has yet to be chosen. The School District lists proficiency rates of 11% in reading and 8% in math at West.

Turning around low performing schools is not easy and without more study I’m not prepared to say we have nothing to learn from the Dream School project. On the other hand, based on this data, its pretty clear it’s far from a silver bullet and should prompt members of School Advisory Councils at Promise Academies or prospective Promise Academies to ask some hard questions.

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