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Photo: Benjamin Herold

Benjamin Herold / The Notebook

City, District, Mastery: Renaissance success merits more state funds

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

Leaders from the School District, the Mayor’s office, and Mastery Charter gathered Friday to tout preliminary test score results at Mastery’s three turnaround schools – and to ramp up their argument that the state should restore funding to the District.

But even while pointing to the evidence of early success in the Renaissance Schools initiative as a reason to “invest” in the District, officials confirmed that the two senior staffers responsible for implementing the Renaissance initiative – Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono and Deputy for Process Improvement and Compliance Thomas Darden – have been laid off.

Friday’s press event took place at Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia, one of three historically low-performing elementary schools that just completed their first year as “neighborhood charter schools” under Mastery’s management.

“I’m delighted to share that today we have the evidence that Renaissance schools can work,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, who announced double-digit test score gains at all three schools. “We need to get the word out that investment in the School District and in this initiative pays off.”

Lori Shorr, the chief education advisor to Mayor Michael Nutter, was on hand to echo Gordon’s message just hours after City Council agreed to raise $53 million in additional funds for the District next year.

“Yesterday, the city said, ‘yes, we’re willing to invest more money,’” said Shorr. “Today, these results show that it’s worth it.”

Shorr and Gordon both said they are actively taking that message to Harrisburg, where state legislators must soon decide whether any of Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed cuts to the District – an unprecedented $292 million – will be restored. The state budget is due June 30.

“Philadelphia stepped up to help its public schools. [Now], we’re really looking to the state to help us put some critical programs back on the table,” said Shorr, who expressed hope the state could act as soon as this weekend. The city is looking for a minimum of $57 million in charter reimbursement funds.

Also on hand at Harrity was District Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon, who said that the preliminary PSSA data for all schools – which the Distict has not yet released – showed a ninth consecutive year of District-wide test score gains.

Nixon also touted Mastery’s test score results as evidence of District effectiveness in partnering with charters as part of the Renaissance initiative.

“Their success is our success,” said Nixon.

That argument seemed at odds with the decision to gut the program’s top staff, but District officials offered no explanation for the move, saying only that the complete restructuring plan will be made public in July. Nixon, who already has a huge portfolio, did confirm that she will take over running the Renaissance initiative from Castelbuono and Darden.

Gordon expressed some concern that the District brass has not yet shared the specifics of its plans for managing the program going forward.

“Diane and Thomas did miraculous work. They took this program, which was an idea, and filled in all the details, which are more than you can imagine,” Gordon said.

Though layoff notices have been going out in the District’s central office for weeks, officials have remained tight-lipped about exactly how many people are being laid off, how they are being chosen, or whether an updated organizational chart is guiding the process.

Nixon said that for the Renaissance program next year, her ”number one priority is to ensure that I can find competent leaders who can do more with less.”

Both the Renaissance charters and the District-run Promise Academies, meanwhile, appear to have spent their first year doing more with, well, more.

According to the preliminary data released by Gordon, Harrity Elementary, the site of Friday’s press event, saw jumps of 19 and 11 percentage points in the number of students scoring proficient in math and reading, respectively.

Just as important, said Gordon, only 6.6 percent of the school’s 801 students withdrew during the year, down from 10 percent last year, when the school had only 644 students.

“There were questions about whether [Renaissance] charters would keep the same children and address children who are lower-performing,” said Gordon. “Not only is the school achieving, but it’s with the same children, who we are keeping here.”

The charters get money from the District based on the per pupil expenditure, but also raise private funds.

“It required additional money to turn this school around,” said Gordon. The donations helped fund overhauls of the schools’ facilities and provide an array of student supports.

The charter schools’ allocation is based on the District’s per pupil cost for the prior year, which means that charter schools won’t feel the funding pinch until 2012-13.

“The District’s budget woes are my woes, one year later,” said Gordon. “If I don’t have that money, my ability to deliver a quality program is going to be impaired.”

Though the District is not yet releasing its PSSA scores, Nixon said that officials are “excited” about the preliminary results for the Promise Academies, which she said show gains that “outpace” those of other District schools.

But like the Renaissance charters, the Promise Academies – turnaround schools run by the District with extra staff, longer hours, and special programming – cost more. In their case, however, the extra expenses are incurred directly by the District. In the coming year, a total of 17 Promise Academies will cost the District an extra $27 million.

Some have criticized Superintendent Ackerman’s decision to preserve the additional funds for the Promise Academies while slashing the budgets in most other schools, but Shorr defended the decision as an example of strong leadership.

“We said to Dr. Ackerman early on, ‘We need you to keep accelerating gains in the District. That’s one of our priorities for you,’” said Shorr. “These aren’t pet projects. These are best practices that people are doing across the country, and that’s why we’re supportive of them.”