This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Flush with new resources and fresh from whirlwind makeovers, the District’s 13 new Renaissance Schools opened their doors this September, carrying out Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s plan to breathe new life into some of Philadelphia’s lowest performing schools.
Roughly 7,000 students kicked off the new school year in the District’s seven new charter-operated Renaissance Schools and six new District-operated Renaissance Promise Academies. Collectively, the schools were upgraded to the tune of several million dollars since last spring.
“[The Renaissance Schools] did great. Kids were happy, they were well organized, and there was instruction going on,” said associate superintendent Diane Castelbuono, who replaced Benjamin Rayer as the head of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative in July.
Student enrollments have climbed at several of the schools, in one case by 35 percent.
Undaunted by the scope and pace of the changes already taking place, the District has its eye on an October launch for the second round of the Renaissance process. Castelbuono declined to comment on the number of schools expected to be designated for overhaul later this year.
The District’s four new charter “turnaround teams” – ASPIRA Inc., Mastery Charter, Universal Companies, and Young Scholars Charter – had less than four months to hire and train new teachers, upgrade aging facilities, and prepare new instructional plans before welcoming 4,000-plus students back to school.
But at three schools where the Notebook interviewed parents and staff, the year appeared to get off to a solid start.
A new look
On the first day at Mastery-Smedley Elementary School in Frankford, nearly a dozen members of the entirely new school staff greeted parents as they dropped off their children outside the school.
“It’s a lot different,” remarked Walt Larson, the parent of a kindergartener and a returning 2nd grader at Smedley. “[Staff] are respectful, and they are showing that they care.”
Despite years of dismal test scores, Smedley’s enrollment is up approximately 6 percent, with about 10 neighborhood students on a waiting list to enroll.
At Mastery-Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia, enrollment has surged from 620 students to 835, with an additional 60 neighborhood students on a waiting list to enroll.
“We’ve been surprised by how many parents have come forward from the catchment area,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
Like the other Renaissance charter providers, Mastery will receive the standard per-pupil charter payment from the District while also paying the District a licensing fee for use of the school facilities and related building services.
At Smedley, Harrity, and Mann, Mastery installed new principals who had been groomed for leadership by serving as assistant principals at other Mastery schools.
Mastery has also almost entirely replaced the schools’ teaching forces and is implementing new instructional approaches. For instance, kindergarten classes have three-hour reading blocks staffed by two teachers, allowing small groups of students to rotate through different stations where they receive differentiated instruction.
Meanwhile, at Stetson Middle School, ASPIRA retained 40 percent of the staff from last year but flooded the school with new resources, including $450,000 in new furniture, 120 new computers, and 75 new security cameras.
“We are seeing the progress that [ASPIRA] talked about,” said Maria Ortiz, the mother of two 8th graders and vice chair of Stetson’s School Advisory Council (SAC). “Everything they told us they were going to bring – they are doing it.” Other parents on the council were equally thrilled with ASPIRA’s conversion of Stetson over the summer.
Once school started, the changes at the school were striking, said returning third-year teacher Alexandra McCoy.
One big difference, she explained, is ASPIRA’s partnership with Success Schools, an outside contractor overseeing discipline at the school and managing a self-contained “Success Academy” for students with emotional and behavioral problems.
“The classrooms are just so much calmer,” McCoy said at the end of the second week. “I think this is the first Friday in my three years of teaching where I felt I could come to work for another day this week.”
At Stetson and the other Renaissance charters, stakeholders all seem to be holding their breath, hoping that the changes will stick. Outside observers are also keeping a close eye on the extent to which the Renaissance charters are functioning as true neighborhood schools – which the Mastery waiting lists in particular raise questions about.
But overall, say District officials, the startup of the Renaissance charters was a success.
“Given the short timeframe, the turnaround teams did a great job of getting the schools ready to provide a great educational experience,” said Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for process improvement and compliance.
Six Promise Academies open
Likewise, District officials were encouraged by the start of school at the six new District-operated Promise Academies, which serve roughly 2,700 students and were provided with $7.2 million in extra funding.
“We were looking for parents and students coming back to school and realizing that it’s a very different place,” said Francisco Duran, the assistant superintendent in charge of the Promise Academies. “We got that from day one.”
Duran said the most immediately evident changes were new enrichment opportunities for students and a host of facilities improvements, including new lighting at five of the schools, a redesigned entryway and foyer at Vaux High School, and brand new electronic whiteboards for every classroom in grades one through six at Ethel Allen Elementary School.
Like Empowerment Schools across the District, Promise Academies will seek to remediate students who are below grade level by using the heavily scripted Corrective Math and Corrective Reading curricula. Duran said that the longer school day will provide Promise Academies the opportunity to deliver “extra doses” of remedial instruction without limiting time spent on the core curriculum.
With one-quarter of teachers at the Promise Academies in their first year teaching and 50 percent new to the District, Duran’s office is also providing intensive staff supports. These include two “principal turnaround specialists” to coach principals as well as approximately 20 “new teacher liaisons” – retired teachers – to support first-year teachers through the first month of school.
“Certainly, we do know that having new teachers requires extra help,” said Duran.
District officials say the biggest lesson learned from the first round of the Renaissance process was the need for more time during each stage.
While the next cohort of Renaissance-eligible schools probably won’t be named until this winter, said Castelbuono, the District may create School Advisory Councils at all of the lowest-performing schools this fall to allow for more training time.
The District also hopes to announce the next round of Renaissance pairings closer to March than to May.
Union: Keep schools in district
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers remains opposed to the charterization of public schools via the Renaissance initiative, said President Jerry Jordan.
“There will not be PFT support for turning these schools over to charter companies,” Jordan stressed. “We have a lot of talented teachers in the District, and if given the tools to do their job, they would be able to do just that.”
Jordan cited the additional resources and enrichment opportunities being provided at the Renaissance Promise Academies as examples of what can help students and teachers succeed.
“This is something we’ve been saying for years. Give schools the resources they need in order to teach and support children,” said Jordan.
Still uncertain is the fate of West Philadelphia High, one of the original Renaissance-eligible schools, whose involvement in the process was ultimately deferred after allegations of a conflict of interest involving parents on West’s SAC.
Despite never identifying the source of the complaint and repeatedly stressing that the parents in question did nothing wrong, District officials launched an “investigation” into the complaint last June.
A District spokesperson was unable to provide an update on its status.
In the meantime, West has two new principals, veterans Ozzie Wright and LaVerne Wiley, both of whom are receiving coaching from one of the principal turnaround specialists hired by Duran’s office.
Castelbuono declined comment on whether West will participate in the second round of the Renaissance process, emphasizing that the second cohort of schools has yet to be identified.