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Renaissance Schools must staff up quickly

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

The School Reform Commission has designated six schools for turnaround as District-run “Promise Academies” and has authorized outside organizations to convert seven of the city’s lowest-performing schools into charters.

But as the District’s speedy timeline for radically restructuring these schools moves ahead, there remains rampant uncertainty about what happens next, especially for teachers.

On January 27, the District declared 14 struggling schools to be “Renaissance-eligible.” On March 30, they announced that five of these schools would become Promise Academies, supervised directly by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

The District invited the communities of the Renaissance-eligible schools to participate on new School Advisory Councils (SACs), each of which was asked to choose among the six outside turnaround teams pre-approved by the District.

During a hectic six-week period, the terms of the selection process seemed to evolve weekly, forcing the councils, the providers, and the public to continually adjust.

Nevertheless, seven SACs met the District’s May 11 deadline to submit provider recommendations to Ackerman’s office. West Philadelphia High School was granted an extension until May 26. Potter-Thomas was belatedly named a sixth Promise Academy.

On May 12, Ackerman announced the providers for seven schools. With little advance notice, the SRC rescheduled from May 26 to May 12 its vote on her recommendations, which were approved 3-0.

SAC members from all seven schools have enthusiastically endorsed both the process and their schools’ new providers.

“I’m glad that Dr. Ackerman took our recommendation seriously. It tells me that the process really works,” said Daroff SAC Chair Pamela K. Williams.

A few questions about the process have also surfaced.

At Douglass Elementary, the only school not to receive its first-choice provider, some parents complained about poor communication and lack of notice for the SRC vote.

Nicholas Torres, the executive director of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a provider that was left without a school, expressed concern over the transparency of the SAC process.

“I don’t know if there was anyone who was truly unbiased and fully educated about the options,” he explained.

And even District officials acknowledge that the selection timeline was “probably too tight.”

But with an even tighter window ahead for the District and providers to implement their overhauls, there has been little time for reflection.

In general, the providers seem undaunted. “We’re experienced doing this, and the District is being very cooperative, making sure there are no barriers to us getting a good start,” said Shahied Dawan, chief financial officer for Universal Companies.

The whole process has caused consternation among teachers, however.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is still angry that seven District schools are being converted to charters.

“Let me make a distinction between charter schools and Renaissance Schools,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan.

“There is nothing in the agreement between the School District of Philadelphia and the PFT regarding charter schools. I will not own that in any way because I did not negotiate that,” he said.

Regardless, more than 500 teachers at the 14 affected schools have been “force-transferred.” These teachers have the option to reapply for their positions, although the Promise Academies can rehire no more than half of the current staff, and any teachers rehired by charter operators will not have union representation.

The District has guaranteed positions elsewhere to those teachers who don’t reapply or are not rehired. These teachers have the right to enter the site selection process or to seek a new position via the District’s centralized, seniority-based placement system.

But the site selection process began over a month before the provider matches were announced, putting teachers in those schools in a bind.

As of late May, the charter providers were just beginning to outline their turnaround programs to their new schools’ current staff, and the District had yet to provide much detail about the Promise Academies.

“We’re in limbo,” said Pashen Jackson, a 5th grade teacher at Daroff Elementary.

“The process has been rumor-driven from the beginning,” says Alexandra McCoy, a 7th grade math teacher at Stetson Middle School. McCoy was one of 16 Stetson teachers who received misinformation about the process and mistakenly submitted her resignation, then had to rescind it.

Both Jackson and McCoy say the process has left them torn between their job security with the District, their attachment to their current students, and their frustration at feeling like scapegoats for their schools’ struggles.

Jackson finally decided to enter the site selection process and will not be back at Daroff. McCoy hopes to stay at Stetson and is holding out to interview with ASPIRA.

For everyone, the uncertainty has been the most difficult thing.

“My husband and I talked about [what to do] all the time,” says Jackson. “Where do I go from here?”

Renaissance Schools and their providers

Universal Companies: Bluford, Daroff
Young Scholars Charter School: Douglass
Mastery Charter Schools: Harrity, Mann, Smedley
ASPIRA of PA: Stetson
To be determined: West Philadelphia
Promise Academies: Ethel Allen, Clemente, Dunbar, Potter-Thomas, University City, Vaux

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