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What Does it All Mean, Who is This All For?

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

We knew when Imagine 2014 was rolled out that the School District of Philadelphia was headed for a serious shake-up. There was a plan in place, a theory of action, on the interventions schools that fared the worst on the PSSA (low-achieving in the parlance of our times) would get. The School Performance Index was suppose to be the metric by which turnarounds would be judged. Or so we thought.

The School Performance Index results came out, and speculation about which schools would be turned around began. Receiving a score of 10:10 meant a school was performing the worst compared to demographically similar schools, as well as the District as a whole. All schools rated 10:8 or worse made the Renaissance or Alert school list. Of the original 10:10 schools, only five became charters or promise academies. The other five schools were relegated to the Alert list. Thirteen schools were turned around however. Seven of the 10:9 schools and two of the 10:8 schools were included. Vague reasons like "neighborhood factors" and "school readiness" were given as the reason why some 10:10 schools were left alone while some 10:8 were turned around. This confusing trend continued in Renaissance II.

This year’s cohort of Renaissance schools had a much wider range of SPI ratings than last year. Four of the six schools receiving a 10:10 rating were placed in one of the Renaissance programs. Half of the eighteen schools selected for Renaissance intervention received an overall rating of 9. Sayre High school was rated a 7:6 but was chosen to become a Promise Innovation school. No other schools that received overall scores of 7 or 8 were chosen to become Renaissance schools. Fairhill School received its second 10:10 rating but remained on the Alert List. Alcorn Elementary was rated 10:10 for the second consecutive year but became a Promise Academy. Clearly SPI rating are not the only determining factor in the Renaissance schools decision-making process.

After not finding any solid correlation between SPI rating and Renaissance status, I looked at other available data to try and determine how the School District was making its Renaissance designations. If the point of the Renaissance Initiative is to fulfill the federal aspiration to "turnaround the 5,000 lowest performing schools", than Adequate Yearly Progress status should determine which schools need Renaissance intervention. Again the data yields a murky picture. Renaissance schools cohort II have Corrective Action statuses from School Improvement I (Barry) to Corrective Action II 8th year (Vare, South, Clymer). That range means some schools have missed AYP for 2 consecutive years while others have never made AYP since the inception of the No Child Left Behind ESEA re-write in 2001. Jones and Harding middle schools are both on the Alert list, yet are Corrective Action II 8th year status. Cleveland Elementary was put on the Alert list despite having a Making Progress School Improvement I status. Reynolds Elementary is in the same status, but was not placed on the Alert list. It seems that neither SPI or Corrective Action status are the determining factors of Renaissance school selection.

Another factor that could be at play is last summer’s School Improvement Fund grants. Twenty-seven schools received between $700,000 and $4.2 million in August of 2010. Of those twenty-seven schools, only seven remain as empowerment schools. Nine schools in Renaissance cohort II received School Improvement Fund grants. Roxborough, Frankford, Fels, Edison, and Lincoln high schools are slated for transformation. Locke and Feltonville Intermediate are also slated for transformation. Marilyn Perez took over Edison High School at the beginning of this school year. I am unaware of leadership changes at the other six schools, though new leaders would need to be brought in to satisfy the conditions of the grant. How School Improvement Fund grant monies were spent, and if they are being used to off-set the significant costs of running Promise Academies remains unknown.

One of the original aims of the Imagine 2014 turnaround strategy was to create feeder patterns of Renaissance schools. Looking at both Renaissance cohorts revels incomplete feeder patterns. With a total of twelve high schools receiving Renaissance intervention, all of cohort II elementary and middle schools are in Renaissance feeder patterns. Not all of Renaissance cohort I schools are feeder patterns however. Clemente and Potter-Thomas Promise Academies both send students to Edison High School. Edison was rated 6:3 on the SPI index this year. Dunbar Promise Academy is in the Franklin High School feeder pattern. Franklin also was rated a 6:3 this year. Perhaps a 6:3 rating was too good to warrant the massive intervention becoming a Renaissance school entails.

The last data point I looked into in determining Renaissance school selection was inclusion in the District’s Focus 46 initiative. All Persistently Dangerous schools, as well as schools viewed as trending toward a Persistently Dangerous designation were included in the Focus 46. All but five of this year’s Renaissance cohort were Focus 46 schools. Every high school chosen was a Focus 46 school. Again the data does not paint a clear picture as to what are the deciding factors toward Renaissance school selection.

I would love to see the algorithm the School District created that included and weighted all of this data. I think educators, parents, and students would like to think that decisions as drastic as school turnaround are based on data, not emotion or wants. School Performance Index, Annual Report Cards, and now Facilities Condition Index should all actually mean something. In a data crazy education climate, a school leadership team should be able to sit down with data the School District gives them and create an action plan. Schools should be charting their own course for improvement. Schools cannot and will never able to, improve from within if the rules of the game are unclear or inconsistent. Worse yet, a public loses faith in its institutions when they are suspected of being unfair. Outliers in the Renaissance process like Sayre High School and Jones Middle School cast clouds on what the profile of a Renaissance school really is. The School District of Philadelphia risks losing the public faith when it cannot communicate exactly how it arrives at decisions as important as school turnaround.

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