This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For the Notebook’s October print edition on school turnarounds, we took a comprehensive look at the city’s initial group of seven Renaissance charter schools.This article looks at the extent to which the schools remained neighorhood schools . You can also read more about test score gains at the schools.
On her daughter’s first day of 5th grade last year, Katrina Dear was nervous.
Since her chatty little girl was in kindergarten, Dear had sent her to a charter school with strong academics, a structured environment, and motivated families.
But after learning that the charter planned to hold her daughter back for the 2010-11 school year, Dear transferred her into the public school in her West Philadelphia neighborhood, Guion S. Bluford Elementary.
Dear knew about Bluford’s troubled reputation. She also knew that Bluford was now a "Renaissance charter" managed by Universal Companies.
Dear liked that the school was now a charter, but worried about the requirement that it serve all neighborhood students. Most traditional charters enroll students via citywide admissions lotteries, which savvy and involved parents are more likely to know about.
Outside Universal-Bluford that first day, Dear saw a parent loudly curse out a child – a familiar neighborhood scene, but something she almost never saw at her daughter’s former school.
It gave her pause.
"The old element was still there," said Dear. "Universal couldn’t kick out the bad kids. They still had to work with those parents."
That scene illustrates both the challenge and the opportunity of Philadelphia’s experiment with converting low-performing public schools to charters.
In 2010, as part of her Renaissance Schools initiative, then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman handed over seven of the city’s toughest public elementary and middle schools to outside managers. This spring, she turned over six more, including three neighborhood high schools.
The hope was that new managers could transform failing schools like Bluford into safe, high-performing options for some of the city’s most underserved communities.
The fear, however, was that the managers would push out the hardest-to-serve kids and prevent the enrollment of other challenging students – an accusation often leveled against charter operators.
Dear’s experience at Universal-Bluford highlights the District’s early success in ensuring that its Renaissance charters function as neighborhood schools.
A comprehensive review of student enrollment and retention data by the Notebook found that in their first year, the city’s first seven Renaissance charters helped draw hundreds of families back into neighborhood schools.
In most cases, the schools’ new managers – ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, Mastery Charter Schools, Scholar Academies, and Universal – also retained the same students at higher rates than when the schools were traditional public schools.
While setting stringent rules in other areas, the U.S. Department of Education’s push for school turnarounds doesn’t include a mandate that specific percentages of neighborhood students must be served or retained.
Philadelphia, however, has aggressively declared that its Renaissance charters will serve the same kids.
"It’s a critical part of the Renaissance initiative that these be neighborhood schools," said Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy chief for strategic programs.
David Lapp, an attorney with the Education Law Center, seconds that notion.
"We’re changing the way we’ve done public education in Philadelphia," said Lapp. "When you do that, you want to make sure you’re improving the system for everybody, not just students who behave well or don’t have disabilities or speak English proficiently."
To address such concerns, the District required that the Renaissance operators serve the students who attended the school previously, prioritize enrolling students from the neighborhood, and adopt the District’s student code of conduct.
It’s not possible to say definitively how effective the Renaissance charters were at meeting those mandates in the absence of individual, student-level information, which the District would not release to the Notebook for privacy reasons.
And though it appears that the Renaissance charters are not "dumping" significant numbers of unwanted students, the surge of interest associated with their conversion to charter status has had a spillover effect, creating new demands on nearby schools that may be struggling themselves.
Still, the experience of a school like Universal-Bluford shows the extent to which the "neighborhood charter" model appears to be working so far.
Universal-Bluford added 90 students – each of whose families documented that they lived in the school’s geographic catchment area.
Seventy-four percent of the students who attended Bluford in 2009-10 returned to the school last fall; historically, an average of 68 percent came back from one year to the next.
And 94 percent of the students who started last fall finished the year there, about the same rate as in previous years.
"Bluford was designed to be a neighborhood school," said Janis Butler, Universal’s executive vice president of education. "We honor and appreciate that."
Bringing families back
For both the District and the Renaissance charter operators, there have been challenges.
Some parents, wary of charters, assumed they would now be excluded from their neighborhood schools.
So when the Renaissance charters were launched during the summer of 2010, both the District and the charter operators worked to counter that perception. Mastery staff called every parent who previously had a child on the schools’ rolls and made home visits to those they couldn’t reach.
Two of the new Mastery schools saw modest dips in the percentage of students previously enrolled who came back in September, while the third saw a small gain.
But the big story was a huge surge in overall demand.
In 2010-11, enrollment grew at 6 of the 7 Renaissance charters
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At Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia, for example, Mastery added 167 new students from June 2010 to June 2011. The growth, fueled in part by the closing of two Catholic schools in the area, took the school’s overall enrollment up 25 percent, to 787 students.
It also forced Mastery to quickly hire more teachers and subdivide the library into classrooms – "a very significant undertaking," said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
But Mastery seemed to make it work.
Preliminary data show double-digit test score gains in both reading and math, better student attendance and fewer suspensions at the school.
"Before [Mastery], kids didn’t want to listen, and the staff just got tired," said Ronae Johnson, a 7th grader last year and a Harrity student since first grade. "But now, you can see a big change in the building, in the behavior, in the academics. [Mastery] is forcing us to work more."
ASPIRA of Pennsylvania is a Latino-run organization with deep roots in the predominantly Latino community surrounding Stetson Middle School.
Though some parents were wary of charters in general, ASPIRA already had a reputation for serving kids from the neighborhood. At Stetson, they ended up bringing back almost 84 percent of students who previously attended the school, then retaining almost 96 percent of the students who started the new year – both marked increases.
Mastery now runs 10 schools scattered across the city, the result of an aggressive expansion plan, but has faced consistent skepticism about its commitment to all students. There have been persistent rumors about pushing out disruptive children.
"Initially, that’s what I thought," said longtime West Philadelphia resident Lawrence Martin. "There’s a way you have to keep those [test] scores going up."
But as a member of Mastery-Harrity’s School Advisory Council (SAC), Martin said he saw Mastery employ an array of strategies to support challenging students.
"They have all kinds of programs to help," he said.
Sometimes, the efforts didn’t work. Parents would tire of the new demands on them and their children.
"It would get to the point where [parents would say], ‘This might not be the right school,’" said Martin.
Each time that happened, said Gordon, he got a phone call. Everyone from principals at nearby District schools to Ackerman herself was worried that Mastery was "dumping kids."
"Do we fail sometimes? Of course," he said. "There were times that kids were troubled and families just said, ‘I’m not interested.’"
But both Gordon and Martin said that overall, Mastery made an honest – and effective – effort.
The numbers back up their assessment.
According to District data, no students were expelled from Harrity in 2010-11, and only nine students voluntarily left.
All told, Mastery retained over 95 percent of Harrity’s students, compared to an average 90 percent before it was taken over. It added 160 students while losing about two dozen fewer than typical in years past.
Such positive trends are generally consistent across the seven Renaissance charters. In total, according to District data, only 38 families chose not to attend ("opted out"), and only one student was expelled.
Gordon knows that some will remain skeptical – a reality that he finds exasperating.
"All the evidence points to the fact that these are the same kids," he said.
Part of the lingering skepticism is probably because the surge in demand at many of the Renaissance charters was felt at nearby District schools.
The seven schools all have enrollment caps, the result of the District’s desire to contain costs and maintain safety. But when there was surprising demand, the consequence was 490 students from Renaissance charter catchments who were instead directed to nearby District schools.
For instance, Anderson Elementary, a District school located 10 blocks from Mastery-Harrity, last year received an influx of 64 students who lived in Harrity’s catchment, according to District data.
Only seven of those students had opted out of Harrity. The remaining 57 were told that Harrity didn’t have space.
The number of "overcrowding placements" ranged from five students transferred out of ASPIRA-Stetson, to 133 from Universal-Bluford.
The Notebook found no evidence that those families were either screened or pushed out.
But they still presented a challenge to the receiving schools.
Anderson principal Kelly Parker said many came with little or no paperwork. The increase in enrollment affected class sizes and "minimized the amount of time teachers can spend with each student."
He is expecting to deal with similar challenges this year.
Targets to meet
Mastery’s Gordon has already declared victory.
"The schools have become neighborhood schools again – and schools of choice for parents in the neighborhood," he said.
This year will be the first, however, in which the District formally holds its original cohort of Renaissance charter operators accountable for meeting targets for year-to-year student retention, within-year student retention, and the percentage of public school students from the surrounding neighborhood whom they serve in their school.
Failure to meet those targets could result in their charters being revoked.
"The [Renaissance charter operators] understood from the beginning that we were dead-serious about these being neighborhood schools," said the District’s Darden.
ELC’s Lapp said continued vigilance is necessary, especially as the District deals with massive budget cuts and staff losses in its central office.
"We need to make sure [the schools] remain committed to serving all students," he said.
But this September, as Katrina Dear walked her daughter, now a 6th grader, to the door at Universal-Bluford, she wasn’t worried.
She was just glad she had a place where both she and her daughter felt comfortable.
Monitoring student turnover at Renaissance charters