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A new deal between District and charters?

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

UPDATED 8:20 p.m. with documents

As part of busy meeting today, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission reviewed a new draft agreement between the District and two of the largest charter school umbrella organizations in the state.

As part of the deal, charters could accept new accountability measures and targets in exchange for the conditional right to expand their enrollments. The deal could also make it easier to shut down low-performing charters. The city and state are also expected to be parties to the agreement.

Details on the so-called "Philadelphia Great Schools Compact" were presented by Lori Shorr, who is the city’s chief education officer and also serves as a new "executive advisor" to both the SRC and to the District’s leadership team. During the meeting, the city issued an announcement of the compact.

Also at the SRC today, District staff were presenting to the commission on the first-year performance of the District’s initial cohort of Renaissance charters and Promise Academies.

Public testimony on the District’s recently announced school closing recommendations was also on the agenda, with two speakers protesting the proposed closing of E.M. Stanton.

The meeting, which started at 3 p.m., was the first for newly confirmed SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos. The District broadcast the proceedings on PSTV-52 and streaming its coverage live online.

As one of his first orders of business, Ramos announced that he was setting up and would be naming members of four SRC committees:

  • Finance and audit (to be led by Feather Houstoun, who is still awaiting Senate confirmation);
  • Safety and engagement (Lorene Cary);
  • a committee dealing with charters, choice, turnaround, and rightsizing (Joseph Dworetzky); and
  • a committee on Career and Technical Education, school innovation, data, and integrity (Wendell Pritchett).

Committee membership would not be limited to commissioners.

Ramos also noted that the SRC is looking to move its action meetings later in the day so that it would be easier for people who work during the day to participate.

In a presentation, Eva Gold and Michael Norton of Research for Action discussed their findings in the first year of an evaluation of Renaissance Schools, both charter conversions and Promise Academies. Among their key conclusions is that most of the Renaissance schools struggled with parental engagement and that the involvement and effectiveness of School Advisory Councils varied among schools. Gold said the SACs should get a small budget to help draw parents to meetings.

In response to a question from Dworetzky over why there isn’t more current achievement and climate information for the schools studied, Gold suggested that the SRC meet more regularly with principals, SAC chairs, and teacher leaders in Renaissance charters and Promise Academies to get a better real-time sense of what is going on.

She also said that the SRC actually gets more up-to-date information than RFA does.

In another departure from past practice at these meetings, the SRC invited comments from the audience regarding the presentations. One of the first audience members to take the opportunity to pose a question, retired teacher Lisa Haver, prefaced her question by saying, "I’ve been coming to these meetings for a long time and this has never happened."

And the first question, by Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund, asked why the RFA study didn’t include more specific outcomes measures such as graduation rates.

Norton said that they are still negotiating about the "best outcome measures we can use" to assess progress.

Scott Gordon, CE O of Mastery Charter, said that, in his view, big questions have already been answered: specifically that it is possible to turn around failing schools. "The results are dramatic," he said. "All that information is publicly available now. I’d hate to be focused on process questions when bottom line answers are actually available."

Gold responded that RFA is "doing a different task and are looking at data historically and comparatively, the compilation of which is not instantly available, but [when it is] we’ll be able to see effect of this initiative over the long term."

Gordon said later that he knows of no plans to have another cohort of Renaissance charter schools next year, adding that the "window is rapidly closing." The new SRC has yet to evaluate the District’s fiscal situation before expanding initiatives – Ramos said that straightening out finances is his first order of business – and have put many things on hold.

But Gordon said that he thinks the District actually saves money by turning over schools to charter organizations like his own.

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