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Turnaround charters: Positive data so far

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

At the District’s seven new Renaissance charter schools, big changes have been met with a mostly warm reception, according to District documents recently obtained by the Notebook through the right-to-know law.

Progress reports compiled for the School Reform Commission (SRC) by the Office of Charter, Partnership and New Schools show that enrollment and average daily attendance are up at all seven schools, while the number of reported serious incidents at each school is down.

At Universal-Daroff, an elementary school in West Philadelphia, for example, the average daily attendance in November was 96 percent, up seven points over the same time last year.

And at ASPIRA Stetson Middle School in Kensington, not a single serious incident has been reported this year – a remarkable improvement at a school that saw 43 such incidents reported during the first three months of school last year.

Parents and community members at most – but not all – of the schools are pleased with the results, according to the first quarterly reports submitted early in the school year by the school advisory council [SAC] at each Renaissance charter.

Parents and community members of the councils charged with monitoring all three new elementary schools run by Mastery Charter gave the group high marks, while Scholar Academies faced criticism for its handling of the transition at Frederick Douglass.

“The Mastery-Smedley SAC is thrilled with how Mastery has transformed…the school,” said Ninette Cooper, chair of the council there.

At the K-5 school in Frankford, enrollment is up 11 percent, while suspensions are down 62 percent. Although there were 37 serious incidents reported during the first three months of school last year, there has only been one reported so far this year – a five-year-old with firecrackers in his backpack.

“It means the world to me that my son can come to a school where he’s actually being taught, where his IEP needs are being met, where he feels safe, [and] where he feels loved,” said Kathy Beem, the mother of a 5th grader at Mastery-Smedley and a member of the school’s SAC.

At Mastery-Mann in West Philadelphia, the SAC praised Mastery for its effective communication, writing that it was “extremely impressed with the openness and access provided by the Mastery corporate and school staff.”

At Mastery-Harrity, also in West Philadelphia, the SAC raved about the “tremendous amount of renovation” Mastery achieved “in less than 30 days,” describing a laundry list of upgrades ranging from relocating the main entrance of the school to replacing all of the building’s toilet seats.

Mastery has applied to turn around up to three schools in the second round of the Renaissance initiative, scheduled to kick off in earnest on January 17.

Complaints about the short timeframe to prepare for transitions were a common refrain in the SAC reports. Because the District held its summer programs in the schools during the early summer, the turnaround teams were not able to actually enter the buildings until August.

Multiple SACs also reported problems with maintaining active memberships, especially among parents.

“Although the size of the [council] has been fairly consistent at 10-12 members, it has only 6 parents among its [committed] core membership,” reported the SAC at Mastery-Mann.

While most of the SAC reports were generally positive, the advisory council at Young Scholars-Douglass in North Philadelphia expressed frustration on a number of fronts.

“[Young Scholars] did not communicate with the whole SAC during the summer, [and] community outreach and planning was compromised as a result. …Communication remains a barrier,” the SAC reported.

In addition, the report states, “Discipline policies and procedures have resulted in a high volume of student suspensions, especially of lower grade students, resulting in parental loss of work. Parents complain about [the] impractical rationale for suspensions,” including “walking on wrong side of hall” and “laughing.”

During the first three months of school, according to the District progress report submitted to the SRC, out-of-school suspensions at Douglass were up almost 400 percent, from 48 to 239.

Mastery-Harrity is another Renaissance charter that has seen a dramatic spike in suspensions, from 29 to 127 (338 percent).

“Douglass is a tough school, and we’ve set a really high bar for expectations for behavior and been really consistent in applying an … escalating set of consequences,” said Lars Beck, CEO of Scholar Academies, the management organization that runs Young Scholars-Douglass. “That’s led to a high number of suspensions to start the year.”

Beck emphasized that Scholar Academies has improved its relationship with the Young Scholars-Douglass SAC and has taken a number of steps to address the high number of suspensions at the school, including forming a partnership with private, for-profit company Success Schools.

The new company, led by former executives of alternative school operator Camelot Schools, is already working with ASPIRA -Stetson, where it created and manages a self-contained disciplinary academy.

Through November at ASPIRA-Stetson, there had not been a single out-of-school suspension; students who severely or persistently misbehave are instead re-rostered into the school’s Success Academy.

“We are partnering with Success Schools [largely] because of what we saw at Stetson,” said Beck. “We [had] struggles with a small percentage of students, and we’ve created a more significant intervention to help with those students.”

Just under 60 of the 636 students (last year there were 508) at Young Scholars-Douglass have been re-rostered into what the school is calling a “PATH Academy,” said Beck.

Scholar Academies, “pre-qualified” last month as one of 10 potential turnaround teams for the second round of the Renaissance initiative, has decided not to pursue additional schools this year.

“We just think that…it makes sense to take a deep breath, reflect on what we’ve done really well [and] where we’ve had some challenges,” said Beck. “It’s hard work, but it’s doable.”

The District has indicated that eight of the 10 completed their full applications, and it will announce the finalists to become round two “turnaround teams” on January 17.

There is still no definitive word on when the next list of “Renaissance-eligible” schools will be announced. The school performance index rankings that last year were used to determine Renaissance Schools were recently posted on the District website.

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