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3 schools in Northwest on Renaissance list

Exterior of Germantown High in the winter snow.
Photo: Patrick Cobbs/for NewsWorks

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

by Bill Hangley, Jr

[This piece originally appeared on WHYY/NewsWorks. The Notebook‘s coverage of Renaissance Schools this year is being conducted in partnership with WHYY/NewsWorks with financial support from the Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund and WHYY/NewsWorks.]

Philadelphia School District officials say parents and community members will soon have their chance to weigh in on the future of three Northwest Philadelphia schools slated for major shakeups.

Tuesday, District officials released a list of 18 so-called “Renaissance Schools” that includes Pennell Academics Plus Elementary and Martin Luther King High School in West Oak Lane, along with nearby Germantown High School.

By next September, all three schools can expect to see large-scale turnover of staff and leadership, along with an infusion of new classroom resources. The Renaissance program, now in its second year, represents Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s signature attempt to improve chronically underperforming schools.

District officials say that in the weeks to come they’ll be assembling advisory groups of parents and community members for each school – so-called “School Advisory Councils”, or SACs – to help steer their decisions.

Of the Northwest’s three Renaissance schools, King, a comprehensive high school with about 1,100 students, potentially faces the biggest changes. Currently managed by a nonprofit organization called Foundations, Inc., under the Renaissance plan, King will be handed over to a charter provider, which will bring in its own leadership, staff and curriculum. However, Elizabeth Childs, a district spokesperson, says that Foundations Inc. will be eligible to apply to run the school as a charter, meaning King’s current leadership team, including principal James Murray, could remain in place.

Meanwhile, Pennell, with about 400 students in kindergarten through 6th grade, and Germantown High, with about 850 students, will remain under District control (as what the District calls “Promise Academies”), but no more than half of their current teachers will be allowed to return. Childs says Pennell principal Gina Steiner will be reassigned, while Germantown principal Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi, because she has been at the school for less than two years, will be eligible to re-apply for her position.

“What we want to do is redesign the school culture and the school climate” at all three schools, Childs said. She said all three schools will see longer school days, special dress codes, Saturday classes, and a renewed emphasis on preparation for postsecondary education.

The principals of the three schools did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but a Foundations spokesman said the company was uniquely qualified to run King as a charter school because of its seven years as a management partner.

Childs says all three schools were targeted for makeovers because of a combination of poor academic performance, high teacher turnover, high dropout rates and other factors. Last year, both Pennell and Germantown High fell short of virtually all of their academic performance goals, and students test scores have hovered well below district averages. The District’s School Performance Index, which uses a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the highest, ranks Pennell as a “9” and Germantown High as a “10.”

Academic results at King have been better; last year, the school met 7 of its 13 academic targets, and District data put it in the middle of the pack when compared to other comprehensive high schools. But the school still nets a “9” ranking on its School Performance Index.

In the weeks to come, the District will host community meetings at all three schools, where parents, community members, and students will learn more details about their school’s future, including how to join their School Advisory Council.

The SAC at King will have the most specific duties – it will be asked to evaluate charter operators’ proposals to run the school, and make a recommendation to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman this spring (the final choice will be made by a vote of the School Reform Commission). SACs at Pennell and Germantown will be asked to advise on new teacher hires this summer.

Childs says the following community meetings are scheduled:

  • Martin Luther King High School: February 3
  • Pennell Elementary School: February 15
  • Germantown High School: February 17

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