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Back to the drawing board: A Promise Academy struggles to move forward

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

Christopher Matthews quit his job with the School District of Philadelphia last Wednesday.

But he didn’t want to.

Matthews loved his position teaching special education at Potter-Thomas Elementary School. He was proud of what the school accomplished last year as one of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s signature Promise Academies.

For the first time ever, the predominantly Latino K-8 school at 6th and Indiana in the so-called Badlands met all of its federally mandated achievement targets. Students showed a six-point jump in reading proficiency rates and an eight-point jump in math. Last Thursday, principal Dywonne Davis-Harris was one of those called to the stage at the District’s annual school-year kickoff conference to celebrate the achievement.

But all that is up in the air now. The school’s enthusiastic and successful team of teachers – including Matthews – has been dismantled, a casualty of the District’s $600 million-plus budget gap, the acrimony between the District and the teachers’ union, and the strife over Ackerman and her reforms.

Potter-Thomas is going to have to start all over.

“What really hurts is not so much for myself, but now the school has 20 openings, and nobody to fill them, yet people were laid off,” Matthews said. “The principals are scrambling to fill spots.”

Thursday, less than two weeks before school is scheduled to open, the School District’s website listed 20 vacancies at the school, about half the total number of positions.

“We are not getting as many applicants as we would like at all,” said Davis-Harris last week. “The School District is doing all they can to notify the teachers that the Promise Academies have vacancies. They’re giving out flyers, taking the names of people who are interested.”

It is, she said, “disheartening.”

Conflict, not collaboration

It didn’t have to be this way. Promise Academies, the District’s internal turnaround model for its historically lowest-performing schools, could have become an example of fruitful collaboration between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to improve schools.

But despite encouraging initial results in some schools in the 2010-11 school year, Ackerman’s prized initiative has become a source of conflict and instability.

The Promise Academy program directs extra resources and attention to the lowest-achieving schools and the most disadvantaged children. Under the model, teachers have to reapply for their jobs, and no more than half can be rehired, on the theory that these troubled schools needed to clean out dead weight and start with a new, cohesive team. They get an infusion of extra personnel, a longer day and year, enrichment activities, and extensive remediation. (The Notebook estimated the additional investment in the first year at $3,600 per pupil.)

To Ackerman’s diehard supporters, the Promise Academies became emblematic of her commitment to students who have been historically and deliberately underserved. Ackerman herself has gone on record blaming the union for sabotaging the initiative.

Ackerman’s allies have loudly blamed the union, the School Reform Commission, and elected officials for conspiring to dismantle what they saw as, in the words of one, “the most successful program ever” for increasing student achievement in persistently low-achieving schools. They are dismayed that so many eager teachers who wanted to be at these schools will now – maybe – be replaced by some of the same people who taught in those schools when they were failing.

“You’re putting bad teachers back in the school, and they’re filling the positions of those who [had already] bought into the model, who really wanted to be there,” said Pamela Williams, a school police officer, activist, and ardent Ackerman supporter. “It’s a terrible thing.”

Terrible, perhaps. But also complicated.

In its 2010 contract, the PFT had made once-unthinkable concessions that allowed the creation of Promise Academies – the ability to largely reconstitute staff, full site-selection of teachers, some scheduling flexibility, and longer hours. PFT President Jerry Jordan had hoped that, besides creating a more successful school model with significant teacher and union input, this would stave off more charter conversions.

“We thought we’d be getting national attention for this,” he said.

But Ackerman’s administration never brought in the union as a partner in designing the reform template. Jordan felt betrayed.

So when the District moved unilaterally in May to protect 174 Promise Academy teachers from being included in more than 1,200 teacher layoffs – prompted by the District’s gigantic budget gap – the PFT immediately filed a lawsuit to uphold seniority rules.

The District was adamant that laying off the teachers would destabilize the Promise Academies and undermine the reform model. The union argued that the District crossed the line, throwing aside a contract bargained in good faith.

“We negotiated conditions for Promise Academies, but we never discussed what would happen if there were layoffs,” Jordan said.

The legal standoff, which ultimately went to arbitration before the District conceded, lasted most of the summer. The District was proven right that the Promise Academy staffs would be destabilized. Once layoffs proceeded according to seniority, their faculties were fairly well decimated.

"All wiped clear"

Matthews, who has been a teacher for 16 years but had only two years seniority in the District, spent the summer in a state of limbo – would he be laid off or wouldn’t he?

“I got a letter that if the arbitration went one way, I’d be laid off and if it went the other way, I wouldn’t be laid off,” he said.

Like many teachers with families, he couldn’t afford to wait. He accepted a job at Vineland High School in South Jersey just days before he found out his job was safe after all.

“I didn’t have much seniority, but enough to not be laid off in the end. But I was not made aware of that early enough.”

Matthews found working in one of Philadelphia’s most desperately poor schools to be an uplifting, energizing experience. He described Davis-Harris, who herself grew up in the neighborhood and has degrees in both education and law, as a “fantastic” principal. He said Potter-Thomas had a hardworking team of teachers both before and after the Promise Academy makeover.

“The two years I spent here I worked with the greatest teachers anywhere I ever taught. To do what they did with the kids we had by pushing them was incredible,” said Matthews, who has spent most of his career in New Jersey.

“Now that’s all wiped clear, and we’re back to the status quo.”

National issue

Assigning, paying, and laying off teachers largely by seniority, rather than performance, is a huge national issue. Union partisans say it is the fairest approach and is enshrined in longstanding practice. But reformers intent on weakening unions’ clout in education say that it often protects mediocrity, blocks the recruitment and advancement of new blood into the field, and prevents principals from hiring whom they want. Most education researchers have concluded that principals must be able to choose their staffs and build a committed team around a shared vision in order for school reform to work.

“I was sorry that the District settled. … I think exempting the Promise Academies from seniority-based layoffs was the right thing to do,” said former SRC chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, who hired Ackerman and believes firmly in directing more resources to the neediest schools. “You need the right leadership and teacher team to turn them around.”

Matthews doesn’t point fingers at either side for what happened at Potter-Thomas. Instead, he sees the efforts of a dedicated group of people evaporating, and the tenuous, hard-fought progress of an embattled, desperately poor school in jeopardy.

“I don’t fault the union at all; we sign contracts for a reason,” he said. “And I understood the reason the District was fighting, to keep a stable staff.”

He does have a problem with how long it took to settle the issue. “I don’t want to hear that kids come first when it takes more than a month to make the decision,” he said. “I’m angry. We could all still be there. This messed with all our lives.”

The PFT’s Jordan isn’t particularly happy either about how this is playing out. “We’re unfortunately losing a teacher who a) wants to be in Philadelphia and really likes the children, and b) wants to be in the school and seems to have developed a great rapport with his colleagues,” he said, referring to Matthews.

And Jordan knew that something good was happening at Potter-Thomas. When he visited, he saw “a happy energetic group of young [teachers]. You could feel the excitement there.”

But he makes no apologies. For him, the opportunity for collaboration with the District had long passed. He had gone out on a limb in the last contract to convince his members to approve the Promise Academy provision, which allowed for reconstitution and weakened their seniority rights.

“Once we agreed to the [contract] language, she [Ackerman] went on her own with the model and did not include teachers’ voices in the changes,” he said. “I find it unconscionable that a school is told it will be a Promise Academy, yet no one asks people working in that building, ‘what is it that you need?’”

A school’s turbulent history

Potter-Thomas has been buffeted for a decade by turnaround attempts – eight difficult years under Edison Schools, which was foisted on the neighborhood with no effort at building buy-in – followed by leadership churn until Davis-Harris took over.

Initially, under Ackerman, it was supposed to become a Renaissance charter school, run by ASPIRA. But the community found its voice and said it wanted to be a Promise Academy instead.

The designation made a huge difference. “This community felt neglected. Just being named a Promise Academy brought about hope and inspired our students to improve, to come daily, to really respect the school,” he said. “The parents got empowered, and the students felt special.”

So she finds the the instability dispiriting. In addition to yet another set of new teacher faces, the children will come back to a school that has lost some of the extra supports it had. No more vocal music or computer technology, for instance.

Still, she said, “We have become a beacon in this community, and we want to continue that.”

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