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Daroff council: Promise Academy model ‘lacks promise’

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

The Daroff School Advisory Council (SAC) unanimously rejected on Monday the District’s invitation to submit a revised application to become a Promise Academy, opting instead to focus on its deliberations to select an outside turnaround team to assume management of the troubled K-8 school as part of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative.

The Daroff SAC discusses Mastery Charter Schools’ proposal to radically transform their school.

Daroff was one of 10 Renaissance Eligible schools that submitted an application this winter to become a Promise Academy under the direct supervision of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, but was not one of the five schools originally selected.

That application was developed by the school leadership team without input from the just-formed SAC, however.

Citing concerns about equitable opportunities for parent and community involvement in the Promise Academy application process, the District last Friday invited Daroff, Bluford, and Harrity to re-apply with input from their SACs and broader school communities if they are unable to find a suitable provider match. Ackerman had previously invited Potter-Thomas to be reconsidered as a Promise Academy.

The opening for additional schools to become Promise Academies also could be intended to address complaints from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that most of the 14 Renaissance schools are on a track to be converted to non-union charter schools.

On Monday evening, Daroff’s active and organized SAC met to consider the invitation. The 14 parents, community members, and school staff in attendance quickly decided that the Promise Academy model was not a good fit for their school.

“[The model] lacks promise,” said SAC member Rev. Stacy King-Chaney of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church at 57th & Race, where the meeting was held.

In unanimously agreeing, the SAC expressed reservations about the model’s proposed reliance on the current District curriculum, as well as uncertainty about the potential for the radical staffing changes they seek.

“Why are you going to go buy a cheeseburger,” joked parent Mack Hicks, “if you’re not going to get any mustard?”

The council’s rejection of the Promise Academy model was “not surprising,” said Yvonne Soto, a member of the District’s Renaissance team who has been facilitating the SAC deliberations at Daroff and Potter-Thomas. “From day one, they have expressed concerns about the current administration, about current teachers not being committed to the school, and about the curriculum.”

The Daroff SAC quickly moved on to debriefing last Wednesday’s turnaround forum and trying to identify the provider they want to take control of their school.

Soto provided the group with data summarizing the results of Wednesday’s voting, in which parents and community members were asked to categorize each of the five providers as a good fit, a possible fit, or not a fit for their school.

Mastery Charter Schools received the most favorable response, with 33 of 47 respondents identifying it as a good fit and only one identifying it as not a good fit.

Young Scholars Charter School was a close second, with Universal Companies, ASPIRA, and Congreso well behind.

Tasked with ranking their top three choices for a formal recommendation to be made to Ackerman, the SAC was encouraged by Soto to treat the information as “another data point, along with your site visits [to Mastery Shoemaker, Universal Institute Charter School, and Young Scholars Charter School] and the full proposals from each group.”

Soto then led the group through a process of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each provider’s proposal, eliciting a lively, nuanced discussion from the group.

After joking that Mastery must be a good option because it had been “Obama-approved,” the SAC discussed the merits of Mastery’s college prep curriculum, “social recess” plan, commitment to invest resources directly in the school, and heavy reliance on student performance data.

They also heard an impassioned testimonial from Reverend King-Chaney, whose two daughters both attended a Mastery school.

“They academically prepare your kids to excel,” said King-Chaney. “What I saw them do with my children was phenomenal.”

But this was no Mastery lovefest.

The group worried about Mastery’s lack of experience with elementary schools and was especially concerned with the widespread perception that the charter school just removes problem students.

“A Daroff parent told me that her child was at Mastery but had been transferred here,” said Hicks. “But if Mastery takes over Daroff, where will that child end up next?”

Similarly, the SAC praised Young Scholars for the detailed data it provided, especially regarding dramatic increases in reading and math scores and its plan for recognizing and rewarding high achievement among students.

But the group also worried about Young Scholars’ capacity to take on more than one school. This concern gets at a set of lingering questions about the process by which schools will ultimately be matched with providers.

Even after requiring that each council must list and rank its top three choices, District officials are saying they cannot guarantee that a school will end up with any of the recommended providers.

“My understanding is that Superintendent Ackerman and her executive cabinet, with input from the Renaissance Initiative team, are going to review the recommendations made by the SACs, the capacity of the turnaround teams, and the interest of the turnaround teams” in order to make the final matches, said Soto.

In other words, Ackerman will have the final say in what provider matches are presented to the School Reform Commission this month. It remains to be seen how much weight the superintendent will give the SAC recommendations or how she will resolve competing recommendations.

In response to these realities, the Daroff SAC has begun to wrestle with not only the merits of each proposal, but also their strategy for getting a provider they want. They are weighing the likelihood that other Renaissance Schools will be pushing for the same provider, as well each provider’s capacity and interest to take on Daroff.

The group was leaning toward listing Mastery and Young Scholars among its top three choices choices but decided on Monday night that it still needed a site visit to an ASPIRA charter before deciding between ASPIRA and Universal. Council members still hoped to meet one-on-one with representatives of its top three candidates before making final rankings and recommendations on Friday.

While May 11 is the District’s deadline for councils to make those decisions, SAC Chair Pamela K. Williams hinted that the group might back up its recommendation with additional advocacy in order to realize the change they seek.

“We intend to send a strong letter [to Superintendent Ackerman] stating that our first choice is paramount,” said Williams. “We will be strongly suggesting that the District actively consider our recommendation.”

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