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SRC hears urgency, skepticism on Great Schools Compact

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Philadelphia’s new Great Schools Compact lays out an ambitious goal: replace or transform 50,000 seats in low-performing schools with better options.

But will the Compact include a push to close low-performing charter schools and help successful District-managed schools flourish? Or will it function solely to accelerate existing efforts to close District-run schools and expand the city’s burgeoning charter sector?

Those were the biggest questions on the table during a lively discussion Monday night attended by about 100 people before the School Reform Commission’s “choice, rightsizing, and turnaround” committee.

George Tilghmann was one of several parents connected to former District schools now run by Mastery Charter who told the SRC about the urgency and benefits of taking action.

“Our children do not have years to waste in low-performing schools, whether it’s charter or public,” said Tilghmann, the chair of the School Advisory Council at Mastery-Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia.

The compact outlines a number of strategies for increasing the number of high-performing charter schools in the city, including converting more struggling District schools to Renaissance charters, expanding the enrollments of existing charters, and issuing new charters.

But some have expressed skepticism that there will be a corresponding move to close failing charters, a concern addressed by Lawrence Jones, a voting member of the Great Schools Compact Committee and the CEO of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School.

“A low-performing school is a low-performing school. It has to be dealt with effectively and efficiently,” he said.

Though much of the attention in the compact seems to be on charters, many in the audience wondered why there doesn’t seem to be a similar focus on replicating what is working in successful District-managed schools or giving District educators more opportunities to try innovative approaches.

“We as teachers feel really shut out. All the options are either charter schools or a top-down, scripted model,” said retired teacher and Notebook blogger Ron Whitehorne.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who moderated the meeting, said that the SRC is committed to examining what works in the District’s internal turnaround schools, called Promise Academies.

But West Philadelphia High teacher Anissa Weinraub told the commission that Promise Academies rely too heavily on an “alienating” curriculum and focus too much on unimportant details, like what teachers hang on their walls.

“Is that what we really want to put attention and resources towards? Or should it be about building a reflective, professionally developed workforce who are using some of the more critical, relevant, project-based curricula that can happen in our District?” asked Weinraub.

Jolley Christman, a former District teacher and administrator and the co-founder of local nonprofit Research for Action, told the SRC that the District doesn’t have a culture of recognizing and rewarding its successful schools.

“Other interests often trump performance,” said Christman, citing the example of high-performing District-managed schools that are slated for closure rather than expansion because they are housed in outdated facilities.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said he heard the concerns.

“We need to figure out a way inside the School District to support creativity within our traditional public schools,” he said. “How do we take advantage of all the great knowledge we have in the system?”

Dworetzky said the Great Schools Compact might not be the appropriate vehicle for making that happen.

“If you have a program that’s working well, we should be finding ways to grow that program. It’s a no-brainer,” said Dworetzky. “But I don’t look to the compact to do that. I look to the District leadership to do that.”

Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer, began Monday’s meeting with a brief presentation on the compact.

District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon is now a voting member of the Great Schools Compact Committee.

Big issues like an overhaul of the District’s School Performance Index for rating schools and development of a universal application and enrollment system for students are being discussed in five working groups:

  • Accountability
  • Enrollment and Student Data
  • Facilities
  • Shared Services
  • Talent Development

At the end of this month, Shorr said, the compact group will also submit a proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for low-interest loans that can help support reuse of District facilities by charter school operators.

Philadelphia has already received a $100,000 planning grant from Gates to support development of the compact and will compete for millions more in implementation funds later this spring.

But Shorr stressed that the opportunity to win external funding was not driving the SRC’s agenda.

“We’re not changing what we need to do in this city just to chase Gates money,” Shorr said. “Whether we get it or not, we’re still going to be doing this work, because right now we have huge inefficiencies and too much antagonism across District-managed public schools and charter-managed public schools.”

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