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Photo: Benjamin Herold

Benjamin Herold / The Notebook

Where is all this heading?

Activists, educators, and officials weigh in on how turnarounds will reshape the system in the coming years.

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

With turnarounds proceeding rapidly in Philadelphia and established providers eager to continue taking over low-performing schools, it is likely that the School District will look very different in five years.

In 2010 and 2011, 13 District schools have been converted to charters, including three high schools. Another nine have become Promise Academies, remaining within the District, but receiving mostly new leadership and staff, as well as expensive new programs. In the first two years of the Renaissance Schools program, the District is averaging 11 turnaround attempts per year.

The Notebook asked several officials, activists and educators to discuss their reform vision and also their predictions, considering what will be financially feasible and politically palatable.

Creating a full choice system

"We are headed away from a monolithic public school model," said Lori Shorr, chief of Mayor Michael Nutter’s education office.

"We will see different types of schools managed by different people that have various degrees of private investment and collaboration. That’s where the District should be headed. Nationally, that’s where you’re seeing it go."

The official turnaround initiative doesn’t count existing start-up charters, which already enroll more than 40,000 students, or the growing network of accelerated, alternative, and discipline schools, which are almost all contracted out.

It also doesn’t take into account ambitious plans to modernize and expand career and technical schools, something that parents are demanding. And it doesn’t figure in the District’s intention to close or merge underutilized buildings through its facilities master plan.

Finally, it is possible that the General Assembly will enact voucher legislation that will give parents money for private and parochial schools, which Gov. Tom Corbett has declared one of his major priorities for this session.

For parents and students, these are interrelated initiatives and phenomena, affecting available school choices and their quality.

Specifically on turnaround, though, most of those interviewed endorsed public policies that take drastic steps at chronically failing schools.

For Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter, the largest of the turnaround providers, there is no question about what should happen: The District should pick up the pace of turning over schools to his organizations and others that prove successful.

"My hope and expectation is they will accelerate the program," he said, adding that 45,000 students attend schools with very low ratings on the District’s School Performance Index, which measures a variety of indicators regarding achievement and climate.

"We have [the] ability to reduce that number to zero in a few short years."

Mastery’s conversion schools, he said, averaged 10 point gains in reading and 15 point gains in math, accompanied by a decrease in violent incidents.

"Why wouldn’t we do more of it when there are so many children in need?"

Gordon also said that conversions are cost-effective for the District in an era of shrinking public dollars. Mastery, which has drawn the attention of Oprah and President Obama, raises about a million dollars privately to invest in each school.

The key, he says, is creating a high-functioning organization that knows how to "hire great people, hold them to expectations, measure results, reward high performance, and don’t reward low performance."

Gordon wants to take over more schools in a way that will create K-12 mini-districts, in which a child can go to a Mastery school for their entire career.

Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery says his goal is a wealth of choices, perhaps including such mini-districts, in each neighborhood. He is especially interested in improving the career and technical education options.

Asked whether the charter conversions should accelerate, he said, "I have no answer to that. If I answer one way, it makes it sound like the only way to make education better is to have more charters. I want charters to succeed, but I also want our schools to succeed."

Still, he said there is no doubt that the educational delivery system is diversifying.

"The coexistence of charters and other forms of education, including virtual cyber schools, which are galloping ahead, are necessary parts of a full choice system," he said.

"But I also believe the District can be more than competitive. We want to win our share of students across the board."

Rethinking a promise

The District’s internal model of turnaround, the Promise Academy, needs to "evolve," said Nunery, in part because it is so expensive, and because it has been so top-down.

"The path we’ve started upon is a good path, but it needs correction," he said.

There needs to be more collaboration with the teachers’ and principals’ unions "to get to the next step," he said. Those in the schools "know more about what practices have worked and what corrective actions need to be taken."

Promise Academies mandated Saturday school, but attendance was often spotty.

"Saturday hours could work, but not if a student has other competing interests like sports or family obligations," Nunery said.

He proposed "talking with teachers, principals, and the community about what’s worked and how to do it as economically as possible."

For the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, an activist with the Germantown Clergy Initiative, Promise Academies are an important breakthrough because the District gives them more money, not so much because they exemplify a sure-fire improvement model.

"We need to figure out a way to put more resources in the schools that are worse off," he said.

Others express concern about being too quick to embrace privatization and charter conversion as the dominant reform model. "Under [Arlene Ackerman’s] tenure there almost seemed to be a desire to dismantle public education as we know it," said Gerald Wright of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education. "There have been issues, certainly, with public education, but I think the biggest problem has been the management."

He said the District should look inside itself to determine what makes its best schools successful rather than seek outsiders to come in and shake things up.

"If we’re looking for what should happen to improve the District, why aren’t we talking to professionals in those schools?" he asked.

Jennifer Lowman of the Education Law Center also said that she thinks the District should take a step back. She is especially concerned about whether the charter organizations taking over District schools will adequately serve special needs students.

But her misgivings go beyond that. "The end shouldn’t be choice in and of itself," she said. "They need to reassess and say, ‘What really are we trying to achieve? Smaller schools? Different management style? Different educational programming?’ And then decide whether that is going to be better delivered by charter schools or not."

Setting a system for accountability

Attorney Pedro Ramos, who is awaiting Senate confirmation to become a member of the School Reform Commission, said resource allocation is important, but that overall "the District has to become much more sophisticated about how it manages and leads."

To ensure that funds are properly targeted and the various providers will be held accountable, it will have to develop ways to gather "increasingly granular data, school-based data, and individual student and teacher data," said Ramos.

"The District administration has to continue to adapt more to that diverse system and how it goes about setting standards and deals with accountability."

Diane Castelbuono, a former associate superintendent in Philadelphia who now coordinates education policy at United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, echoes Ramos’s concern about devising a more sophisticated accountability system.

"Central office needs to develop a portfolio-management strategy," she said. "Whether it’s charter, contract, or District schools, we need a systemwide accountability system for measuring success that’s just not about test scores, but about making sure schools are serving neighborhood kids."

Castelbuono said it also has to focus more on recruiting and keeping top talent: "We’ve forgotten that the school turnaround process is very dependent on the quality of the labor force in that school."

Like Nunery, she predicts that the Promise Academy model will change substantially. On the one hand, she said, it is based on the premise – as are charters – that top principals should be able to hire talented, committed teachers who can help develop and execute the school’s mission. On the other hand, the educational model is dictated from the top down, leaving little room for creativity and innovation.

"Those are two reform premises that undercut each other," she said. "Either the principal is leading because she has the ability to hire teachers and do instructional programming, or there is a scripted curriculum because she can’t control who is going into the school."

Finally, there are those who hope that within the next five years the conversation will have finally shifted from management strategies to the substance of education and what we want schools to do besides raise test scores and make sure more students graduate.

"Parents should be able to walk into a school and ask anyone, teachers, students administrators, the theory of teaching and learning and how that is manifest in practice," said Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy.

"We need more conversation about what teaching and learning in the 21st century needs to look like."