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Promise Academies could be slashed

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

UPDATED: In order to cut $35 million and balance its budget, the District is proposing to drastically scale back Promise Academies in the coming school year. The news provoked an outburst of opposition at Wednesday morning’s special School Reform Commission meeting.

And the cuts may not be over. The District could be forced to slash up to $100 million more if some of its budget assumptions don’t pan out.

Initial plans had called for 11 new Promise Academies this year. Now, the SRC will be voting to reduce that number to three, all high schools: Martin Luther King, Germantown, and West Philadelphia. Six Promise Academies opened last year.

Promise Academies are District-run turnaround schools featuring an intervention model that has included a longer school day and year, extra enrichment opportunities for students, and reconstitution of school staff. They are implemented in the lowest-achieving schools.

The restructuring of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s signature initiative is expected to save the District $17.7 million, filling half of a $35 million gap that opened up after the state approved its final budget.

In addition to scaling back the number of schools, the three new and six existing Promise Academies will no longer have Saturday sessions and will have extended day programs just four days a week.

Ackerman supporters cried out in protest when District Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch made the announcement as part of an extensive budget presentation. Some said that closing the Promise Academies is part of a racist agenda against Black and Hispanic children.

People want to close them because "these Promise Academies leveled the playing field for inner city children," said Emmanuel Bussie, one of Ackerman’s most vocal supporters.

The move comes now because the District has been forced to cut an additional $35 million from the budget that had been approved by the SRC in May. Masch said the District had banked on the state adding back to Philadelphia $57 million of the amount cut in Gov. Corbett’s original spending plan, but Harrisburg ultimately restored just $22 million.

"We’d love to keep the [Promise Academies.] We just don’t have the money," said SRC Chairman Robert Archie after the meeting.

Overall, the District lost $270 million in state aid for next year — absorbing some 30 percent of the total education cutbacks for all of Pennsylvania in the final state budget.

"If the School District of Philadelphia had simply gotten the same percentage cut as the state average, we would have had another $32.7 million," Masch said. "In other words, we would have almost achieved our gap-closing number if we had just been treated like the average school district in the state of Pennyslvania. Unfortunately, we were not."

The District is still basing its budget plan on some tenuous assumptions, including that they will be able to realize $75 million in savings from union concesssions, $20 million in unspecified District-wide efficiences, and $10 million from selling surplus properties as part of their facilities master plan. They are also counting on a deal with SEPTA that would subsidize $23.4 million worth of student TransPasses for the coming school year.

In order to give the District "breathing room," the SRC approved a move to restructure $61 million in short term debt.

UPDATE: Masch said in a later interview that the additional assumptions are not "tenuous," and that some efficiencies are already being implemented. One involves changes in payroll procedures, another in utility savings. He said some of these savings would be outlined at future meetings. next week when the SRC votes on budget amendments.

To realize the immediate $35 million in savings for next year, the District is proposing other cuts in addition to the Promise Academies, including fewer school nurses, closing two Newcomer Learning Academies, and reducing the budget of Parent University by $500,000, or 45 percent. There will also be further cuts to central office expenses, and two of the six Parent and Family Resource Centers will be closed.

But the Promise Academies are clearly poised to take the biggest hit.

For many of her supporters, the schools are evidence that Ackerman is committed to redressing longstanding inequities within the District by directing resources to the neediest schools, whose student bodies are overwhelmingly Black, Hispanic, and low-income.

As a result, passions ran high.

Bussie said that Promise Academies, which have been the subject of controversy over their cost and effectiveness, have been "attacked" by those who see them as a "threat" to divert resources from better-off schools.

"These Promise Academies that Dr. Ackerman has brought here are the most successful program in the history of Philadelphia for transforming underperforming schools," said Bussie. "How, if we are serious about educating our young people and transforming educational opportunities, could we even consider cutting anything with a Promise Academy?"

One woman countered with complaints about Ackerman’s high salary and potential buyout amount of $1.5 million. But most of the people in the room supported Ackerman.

Petey Williams said that Ackerman has been the subject of a "political and media lynching. You have taught this city that you will not stand for the white racist agenda that has been going on since this town’s been here."

Pamela Williams, another staunch Ackerman supporter, thundered at the SRC members present, telling them, "the fight is on."

She also took on the media, saying, "You publicize in the paper kids go to Center City and you call them a flash mob. What do you call them when they are inside a school and can’t read? They have no other choice than to come together and be angry."

She said if the SRC doesn’t fund all 11 planned Promise Academies, "there will be a problem in Philadelphia."

Only SRC Chair Robert Archie and Commissioner Johnny Irizarry were in the room. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky attended via telephone to vote on the debt restructuring.

Ackerman, whose future as the District’s leader is up in the air, betrayed no emotion as her supporters defended her. As she hurried from the meeting followed by a phalanx of microphones and shouted questions, she was asked how she felt.

"I understoond exactly what those parents were saying," she responded. "I am passionate about this. I love these young people. I want them to get a great education.

"I’m really not sorry I’m not a politician," she continued. "I’m an educator. I came here to fight for these children, all of these children. And I’m not going to back down. I’m just not."

As for whether she plans to stay as the District’s leader, she said it was "up to the people who hired me."

The SRC later released a statement saying it "remains committed" to working with Ackerman.

Later, District officials emphasized that the reduction in the number of Promise Academies is a proposal and not a final decision. Scaling them back just weeks before school is scheduled to open could further disrupt an already messy hiring and staffing process.

"As the first day of school is quickly approaching, the District recognizes the need to make swift and deliberate decisions to ensure the successful start of the school year at all of our schools," the statement said.

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