This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
So far, the second round of the School District’s efforts to convert struggling public schools into charters has featured three student walkouts, two massive protest rallies, the temporary exile of an outspoken teacher, a federal lawsuit, and a state representative using strong-arm tactics to trample the District’s public process.
Other than that, it’s been smooth sailing.
Unfazed, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has pushed forward, dismissing the controversies as "just noise" and arguing that the District has a "moral obligation" to pursue her Renaissance Schools initiative.
"Whatever we do to make [schools] better, I believe people need to get on board," declared Ackerman.
Critics, however, have vocally opposed awarding public schools to outside managers – the plan for eight of the new Renaissance schools – and disappointed in the lack of meaningful opportunities for public input into decision-making.
"We want to very strongly urge the School Reform Commission to say ‘no’ to converting our schools to charter schools," said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) President Jerry Jordan at a March 14 protest that drew over 1,000.
But the District’s Renaissance plans have to date unfolded largely how they were drawn up. Six "Renaissance Match" schools serving roughly 4,600 students still appear headed for conversion to charters by outside managers who were selected after input from parents and community members. Two additional "Promise Neighborhood Partnership" schools serving roughly 900 students are still slated for conversion to charters run by Universal Companies, which was unilaterally selected by the District.
And a total of 10 schools serving roughly 6,000 students are poised to become District-run Promise Academies.
Although the District is facing an unprecedented budget crisis, officials have said that preserving an influx of resources for the 18 schools – some of the city’s neediest – is a high priority.
The seismic shifts have earned the District a national reputation as a leader in the growing school turnaround movement.
"Philadelphia is taking a more aggressive and thoughtful approach than a lot of other districts, especially in terms of leveraging their most effective charter operators," said Justin Cohen, president of the "school turnaround group" at Mass Insight, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.
"It can be messy locally, [but] big change never happens without confusion and frustration."
What happened at Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown shows just how messy turnaround can be.
Although the District "prequalified" seven outside managers, only two ultimately competed for King: Mosaica Education, a for-profit company with schools worldwide, and Foundations, Inc., a New Jersey-based nonprofit that has managed King for the past eight years, during which the school continued to lag academically.
Following the District’s process for pairing "Renaissance Match" schools with outside providers, parents and community members on King’s School Advisory Council (SAC) spent several weeks reviewing proposals, visiting schools, and hosting community forums. After completing their vetting process, the King SAC voted 8-1 for Mosaica.
However, State Rep. Dwight Evans interceded on behalf of longtime ally Foundations.
At the March 16 School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting, Evans publicly but unsuccessfully lobbied Ackerman and the SRC to disregard the community vote and reverse the superintendent’s recommendation to assign King to Mosaica.
The next day, however, Mosaica "respectfully withdrew," forfeiting a charter deal worth an estimated $12 million. Evans acknowledged that he had continued to press Foundations’ case, claiming, "I was like a bulldog on a bone."
City political leaders remained silent, but members of the King SAC were outraged.
Though King’s future is still up in the air, District officials continue to argue that "the process worked." And at four of the five other "Renaissance Match" schools, the selection process did go smoothly.
Olney West and Audenried
At Olney West High School, however, the SAC recommended that their school stay within the District as an "Innovation Promise Academy." Because that was not one of the District-approved options, however, the SRC awarded the school to ASPIRA, Inc.
"We don’t have the capacity to turn around every school ourselves," explained District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser.
There has also been turmoil at Audenried High, one of two "Promise Neighborhood Partnership" schools in South Philadelphia awarded without public input to Universal Companies as part of its "Promise Neighborhood" planning initiative.
Audenried was among three schools where students staged a walkout to protest the District’s Renaissance plans. A group of Audenried teachers and students have consistently argued that the school, re-opened in 2008, has made significant progress and is too new to be labeled failing.
Audenried English teacher Hope Moffett, a vocal critic of the plan, became a symbol of the opposition to the District’s school turnaround efforts after the District removed her from the classroom and recommended she be fired for allegedly endangering the welfare of her students.
The teachers’ union sued in federal court, arguing that the District was attempting to intimidate dissenters. Eventually, the sides reached a settlement that returned Moffett to Audenried, but not before hundreds had rallied to her defense.
‘No red flags’
Despite the tumult – and despite the availability of only preliminary performance data from the first cohort of Renaissance schools – the SRC voted without dissent on March 16 to approve the school pairings and move the initiative forward.
Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono told the SRC that "we see some good signs" from the early data and that "there are no red flags."
In addition, said Castelbuono, attendance at the schools has improved, "and when you walk the halls, you can see that school climate is better … and that instruction is actually going on."
Predictive tests – a rough measure of how well students are likely to do on PSSA exams in the spring – point to modest to significant gains at most of the schools.
As for cost, the best estimate is about $1 million per school, said Castelbuono.
"We are [still] running the cost scenarios," which depend on variables including projected enrollments and facilities costs, Castelbuono explained.
The anticipated cost of the 10 planned Promise Academies is also uncertain, said Assistant Superintendent Francisco Duran.
"We can’t get a final cost until we actually know who the teachers are," he said.
Teachers there are paid an hourly rate based on their base salary to work an extra hour each day and multiple Saturdays.
This year, the District has boosted spending by $9.6 million – or roughly $3,600 extra per pupil – in its six Promise Academies. Implementing the full Promise Academy model at a total of 16 schools next year could cost as much as $30 million, an extravagant sum for a District facing an enormous deficit.
District officials, however, are adamant that the internal turnaround model is a "core program" that needs preserving and point to preliminary data at the current Promise Academies that predicts significant test score growth.
The SRC is expected to vote on April 27 to authorize new agreements for at least seven of the new Renaissance charters, including its first vote on the plan to turn Audenried and Edwin Vare Middle over to Universal.
The SRC must also decide on pairing King with Foundations. The alternative would be deferring the school’s involvement in the Renaissance process for a year, which happened last year at West Philadelphia High following suspected political interference in the SAC process there.
Renaissance Schools and assigned providers:
Birney – Mosaica Education Clymer – Mastery Charter Schools Gratz H.S. – Mastery Charter Schools King H.S. – To be determined Olney East H.S. – ASPIRA of PA Olney West H.S. – ASPIRA of PA