This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Only slightly more than half of students in the School District’s six current Promise Academies participate in one of the schools’ most significant – and expensive – interventions.
According to month-by-month reports released by the District this week, the median student attendance figure for the six schools’ Saturday school programming was 54 percent. The schools are open for two four-hour Saturday sessions a month, which are used for both academics and enrichment activities.
The figures provided by the District for each school show student attendance in the Saturday programming ranged from a high of 64 percent (at Dunbar Elementary, which is the smallest of the Promise Academies, with 170 students) to a low of 48 percent (at University City High, the second largest of the Promise Academies, with 638 students.)
For several of the schools, the District data show tremendous variation from month to month. At Clemente Middle School, for example, 71 percent of students attended the first Saturday session, last October. By May, however, that figure had dropped to 41 percent.
“The kids who have been coming are the ones who are your better students, but it’s the kids who aren’t there who need the extra help,” said a Clemente teacher, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
“Our principal has been auctioning off iPods and bikes to get attendance up, but I don’t think it’s had very much impact,” the teacher added.
Although Saturday attendance has been low, weekday attendance at the Promise Academies has improved. The newly released District data shows that through May of this year, all four Promise Academy elementary and middle schools have an average daily attendance over 90 percent. The two Promise Academy high schools, University City and Vaux, both have average daily attendance over 80 percent.
But it costs extra to operate the Saturday classes, because all teachers are required to work the extra time and are paid their hourly rate for doing so. With the District facing a $629 million budget shortfall, the added expense of operating these District-run “turnaround” schools, which are overseen directly by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, has become a hot-button issue.
While planning to slash the allocations to most other schools by as much as 30 percent, the District has fought hard to maintain most of the added expense of the Promise Academies, calling it a “moral obligation” to provide the extra resources to some of the city’s neediest schools.
In a statement that accompanied the release of the data, District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs seemed to acknowledge that the Saturday student attendance figures are cause for concern.
“We are considering options for next year to maximize the effectiveness of this educational time while being sensitive to the students’ and their families’ schedules and the taxpayers’ dollars,” wrote Childs.
Extra instructional time is one of the key components of the Promise Academy model. In addition to the Saturday sessions, the six current Promise Academies stay open an extra hour from Monday to Thursday.
Overall, it has cost the District approximately $7 million this year to cover the additional time for roughly 280 teachers in the existing Promise Academies. District officials were not able to provide an exact cost figure for the Saturday sessions at the six schools so far this year.
For next year, the District is budgeting well over $20 million for extra staff costs in the Promise Academies. Starting next fall, 11 new schools – including several large high schools – will join their ranks.
But as the District’s budget crisis continues to generate headlines, some aspects of the Promise Academies have become increasingly controversial.
During weeks of public hearings, some parents, activists, and City Council members have questioned the District’s decision to prioritize the as-yet unproven intervention despite proposing to cut programs with a clear impact, such as full-day kindergarten.
“We need a concrete commitment from the District to use its resources for initiatives that produce significant and demonstrable results for students,” wrote Councilman Bill Green, a frequent District critic, in an open letter to Mayor Nutter last week.
Because this is the first year for the Promise Academies, there are not yet any solid student performance data on which to measure their effectiveness. As evidence of the model’s success, District officials have pointed to the results of so-called “predictive” tests, as well as data indicating improved school climate at the schools.
The District is also attempting to exempt some Promise Academy teachers from the mass layoffs it is undertaking. That decision prompted a lawsuit from the teachers’ union.
“It’s a basic issue of fairness. The School District cannot pick and choose arbitrarily who is laid off,” said Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, upon winning an injunction last week that temporarily halted the layoffs of 1,523 teachers.