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Across the city, Renaissance process moves forward for providers, councils

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

The “turnaround teams” from ASPIRA, Mastery Charter, Universal Companies, and Young Scholars Charter School are all busy reaching out to parents and trying to formalize their working relationships with the School Advisory Councils (SACs) that recommended them and will monitor their progress.

"This is not a top-down thing. We’re going to work together," said Alfredo Calderon, the president of ASPIRA, which is set to manage Stetson Middle School.

Last week, the providers hosted informational community meetings at each new school in their portfolio, offering parents details about what to expect starting in September.

And in a mass gathering on Saturday, the District hosted representatives from each provider and each SAC to review a proposed Memorandum of Understanding outlining their roles and responsibilities moving forward.

In both cases, the goal was to make sure that parents are actively involved in the Renaissance process.

"Parents [were] urged to attend [the informational] meetings so that their respective Turnaround Teams are able to provide them with the information they need to successfully prepare their child for the new and exciting changes at their school," Yvonne Soto, a District staffer on the Renaissance initiative, said in an email.

The meetings were to cover everything from new uniform policies to new curricula.

At Stetson Middle School, ASPIRA pulled out all the stops to get parents involved, hosting three separate meetings earlier this month and raffling off a new computer as an incentive to attend.

"We’re from this community, so we’re going to be available [to this community]," explained Calderon.

All told, 75 parents attended the three meetings at Stetson, which currently enrolls more than 600 students. Most had children currently at the school, but several have children at Stetson feeders Elkin Elementary and Cramp Elementary.

Kyra McKnight, the mother of a 3rd grader at Elkin and a 5th and 7th grader at Stetson, was one of 32 parents at the 9:30 a.m. meeting on June 15. "My kids felt it was important that I attend," she said. "I want to find out what [ASPIRA] is going to do about bullying. My daughter has been picked on since she started here in September. It’s been horrible. I might as well be working here as often as I have to come to the school."

That same day, at Sweet Union Baptist Church at 59th and Media Streets in West Philadelphia, a team from Universal presented to over 200 parents, said Bluford School Advisory Council (SAC) Chair Bettye Brown.

“Parents were ecstatic that someone is going to come in and actually do what they say,” said Brown. “We are just so excited that there is a Black-run education organization that has come into our community and made a difference.”

Pamela K. Williams, chair of the Daroff SAC and a security officer at the school, expressed similar sentiments about the reaction of Daroff parents to their school’s new manager during a meeting last Wednesday.

“[Universal] took their arms and wrapped them around the Daroff family. That’s exactly what this community needs,” said Williams.

At Harrity Elementary School, parents’ reaction to Mastery was more tepid, said George Tilghmann, the parent of a 4th grader at Harrity and a member of the school’s SAC.

Only about 25 parents were in attendance, he said, and much of the meeting was devoted to parents expressing their frustrations with conditions at Harrity this past year.

“Unfortunately, the issues at Harrity over the last year were such that…parents took about 30 minutes venting their frustrations to Mastery,” Tilghmann said. “But I thought the [incoming] principal [Debbie Durso, now an assistant principal at Mastery Thomas] handled it well. She tried to reassure [parents] that there will be a change come September.”

Likewise, there were only about 20 parents in attendance at last Monday’s meeting with Young Scholars Charter at Frederick Douglass Elementary School at 21st and Norris, said Sahaba Thompson, chair of the Douglass SAC and the parent of two Douglass students.

There is still lingering bitterness for some about the Renaissance selection process, said Thompson.

"We had a strong group of people who were upset when we didn’t get first our choice. Our vote was for Mastery, but the District never promised we would get exactly what we asked for,” he explained.

In May, the SAC at each Renaissance School voted to recommend a preferred provider to turn around their school. District guidelines stipulated that 51% of those voting were to be parents.

Now that that matches have been made at each Renaissance School (except for West Philadelphia High, whose involvement in the initiative has been deferred until 2011-12), the role of the SACs is changing, as are their relationships with their school’s new charter operators.

The District is committed to making sure that the SACs “remain a strong voice,” Soto said. Their proposed role from now on will focus on monitoring the performance of the charter operators, reporting to the District, and reaching out to their broader school communities.

At some Renaissance Schools, the relationships between charter provider and SAC have already taken off.

At Stetson, the partnership is working well, said Vilma Cartagena, who is the chair of Stetson’s SAC and president of the school’s Home and School Association. Cartagena was also recently appointed to a board that oversees ASPIRA’s schools, which include two start-up charters.

"I’m very happy. Every time I call [ASPIRA], we get together fast," she explained.

Cartagena and her fellow SAC members helped organize last Tuesday’s informational meetings for parents, which all involved characterized as a success.

Kyra McKnight, like many of the parents in attendance, seemed hopeful. While she and other parents pressed the presenters for details about what next year will look like at Stetson, they were generally supportive of the move to convert Stetson to a charter and eager for substantive – and immediate – changes to take place at their school.

"I think [converting Stetson to a charter] is a good idea because it might bring some structure," McKnight explained. "You know charter schools. They don’t play."

ASPIRA will manage Stetson. Mastery was chosen for Mann, Harrity, and Smedley. Young Scholars is the turnaround team for Douglass. And Universal will operate Bluford and Daroff.

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