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Despite gains, Renaissance expansion uncertain

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

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Despite encouraging signs of progress in their first cohort of 13 Renaissance Schools, District officials are not yet sure if they will attempt to turn around more low-performing public schools next year.

Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy chief of strategic programs, said that “no decision has been made yet” about whether to hand more struggling public schools over to outside managers for conversion to charters.

And Assistant Superintendent Joel Boyd said a decision about whether the District will try to create more internally managed turnaround schools, known as Promise Academies, “is still in discussion.”

The window for deciding to expand either model is rapidly closing. Last year at this time, the District had already issued a request for qualifications from outside managers, started working to identify low-performing schools for possible turnaround, and begun recruiting parents and community members to participate on School Advisory Councils at schools that could be affected.

If the SRC does decide it wants to try more turnarounds next year, said Darden, District staff would have to evaluate whether there is enough time to conduct their lengthy process for matching schools with outside providers.

“They haven’t asked us for that yet, so we haven’t done that analysis,” he said.

As part of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s signature Renaissance Schools initiative, the District converted 12 schools to charters and created nine Promise Academies over the past two years. Philadelphia is widely seen as a national leader among large urban districts in the school turnaround field.

In recent months, however, Ackerman has left, the SRC has almost completely turned over, and the District has lost nearly half of its central office staff as part of massive cuts made to help plug a $629 million budget shortfall. The District is also trying to implement a package of facilities changes, including multiple school closings.

During presentations to the School Reform Commission on Wednesday, Darden and Boyd highlighted the improvements in school climate and student performance at the first group of 13 turnaround schools during the 2010-11 school year.

Across the schools, said Darden, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on state exams jumped 6 percentage points in reading and 13 points in math, although the two Promise Academy high schools, University City High and Vaux High, saw more modest gains.

Just as important, argued Darden, were positive indicators of improvements in school climate, including improved student attendance and declines in out of school suspensions and serious incidents at both Renaissance charters and Promise Academies.

“In a turnaround, what you really want to establish in the first year is a great climate for learning,” said Darden. “I think both models, on any measure, have established great cultures for learning.”

The results are clear evidence of dramatic success, argued Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which assumed management of three elementary schools in 2010-11 and an additional high school and elementary school this year.

“Renaissance charters worked,” said Gordon. “We should be looking at how we can leverage this tool to address more failing schools.”

He said Mastery has “the interest and the capacity” to assume management of more schools next year, but said that they are running out of time to be able to adequately prepare to do so for 2012-13.

This year, Philadelphia’s Renaissance charters were largely shielded from the massive budget cuts that hit District schools. In Pennsylvania, charter schools currently get their funding based on their host district’s per pupil expenditure in the prior year, so the cuts won’t kick in for them until 2012-13.

But the District’s internal turnaround schools have not been so lucky. Over the summer, the District scaled back the number of new Promise Academies set to open this year from 11 to three.

And at the nine Promise Academies that are operational this year, the budget cuts have had a major impact, said Boyd.

“Last year, we had budgeted a million dollars in central support that was going to be provided to the six [schools],” he said. “This year, it was cut down to $250,000 for nine [schools].”

That has meant the loss of support staff, the elimination of summer professional development, and the reduction of enrichment opportunities and mentoring programs, among other things.

The cuts have been significant enough to have fundamentally altered the nature of the Promise Academies, said Boyd.

“The model itself was designed as a comprehensive approach to school turnaround,” he said. “That model was changed.”

In addition to losing resources, the Promise Academies have also endured significant teacher turnover this year, in part because of a protracted disagreement between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last summer.

After turning over almost 90 percent of its staff last year, Clemente Middle School has experienced 40 percent teacher turnover this year, said the school’s principal, Ed Penn.

“We are adapting to it every day,” he said.

Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the economic realities of doing school turnarounds will have to be a central consideration moving forward.

The newly proposed “Great Schools Compact” could be one mechanism for continuing the Renaissance initiative. The city, the state, the District, and two of the state’s largest charter school umbrella organizations are hoping to win funding from the Gates Foundation to replace 50,000 seats in low-performing schools through a variety of strategies, including charter conversions and internal turnarounds.

The agreement calls for "replacing or transforming a minimum of 5,000 seats" annually beginning in 2012-13, but no information was provided as to how that might happen in time for next school year.

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