This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Undeterred by a bleak budget picture, District officials announced in February that four more low-performing traditional public schools will be converted to charters as part of the Renaissance Schools initiative.
The four schools – Cleveland Elementary, Creighton Elementary, H.R. Edmunds Elementary, and Jones Middle – currently serve more than 3,000 students. Although the schools will be turned over to outside managers, they will remain neighborhood schools, continuing to serve currently enrolled students and those who live in the surrounding community.
Officials described the expansion of the Renaissance initiative as a key component of the District’s formal pledge to replace or transform 50,000 seats in low-performing schools over the next five years.
"By continuing this initiative, the District underlines its commitment to The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact," said a press release announcing the news.
Due to financial constraints, the District said it would do no District-run turnarounds this year, halting the expansion of Promise Academies.
Officials projected that converting the four schools to charters next year will cost between $2.5 and $3 million. But they have no estimate of an annual cost to the District associated with maintaining the current 13 Renaissance charters.
Teachers’ union President Jerry Jordan blasted the continued expenditures on charter conversions even as the District slashes staff and services at traditional public schools.
"I think it’s nothing short of outrageous," he said, noting that schools were not receiving adequate supports that could help them improve on their own. "Teachers really do believe they are being blamed wrongly."
District officials said the factors used to identify new Renaissance Schools included histories of poor academic performance, school climate, feeder patterns, and neighborhood characteristics.
Jordan, however, said the District has done a "terrible job" of explaining why these four schools were chosen. Cleveland, for instance, was not considered low-achieving enough to be an Empowerment School, although it was on the "Renaissance Alert" list.
Jordan suggested that Cleveland is on the list because the District’s largest Renaissance operator, Mastery Charter, wants to run it. It is a feeder school for Mastery-Simon Gratz High.
The District has acknowledged that interest from prospective Renaissance operators was a factor in selecting the schools this year.
And for the first time, the "prequalified" Renaissance operators were allowed to pick which schools they want to compete for. Mastery is seeking only Cleveland.
Jones Middle has just two suitors: American Paradigm, a Renaissance newcomer with no turnaround experience, and Mosaica Turnaround Partners, the only for-profit operator among this year’s prospective providers.
As in past years, School Advisory Councils consisting of parents and community members will have a say in choosing who manages each school.
The six-week "Renaissance match" process started in March, when SACs began reviewing provider proposals and hosting forums where prospective turnaround teams made their case.
Renaissance newcomer String Theory Schools, a spinoff of the Performing Arts Charter in South Philadelphia, is competing for Creighton and Edmunds.
String Theory Executive Director Angela Corosanite said she expects parents to be excited about its approach, which gives performing arts opportunities to all students.
"I think our model works everywhere," said Corosanite. "Happy children want to learn."
Stakeholders from at least one targeted school are opposing charter conversion. Parents and staff from Creighton Elementary rallied outside their school on March 13 in protest.
"We are already correcting ourselves," said Creighton Home and School President Delores Waters.
Decisions in April
SACs are expected to make non-binding recommendations on their preferred providers by mid-April. District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen will then make a formal proposal to the School Reform Commission, which is expected to vote on the final matches April 19.
Despite past debacles at West Philadelphia and Martin Luther King high schools, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Thomas Darden expressed faith in the integrity of the matching process.
"When SACs are given full autonomy to evaluate turnaround teams and participate fully, they make good decisions for schools and communities," he said.
While there will be no new Promise Academies next fall, Darden said that the District "remains committed" to operate the model at the existing nine schools. Any expansion must wait until the District’s academic reorganization is completed, he added.
In February, local nonprofit Research for Action released a report showing that in the first year of the initiative, both Renaissance charters and Promise Academies showed statistically significant student achievement gains that outpaced those of comparable K-8 schools.
"These findings suggest that the Renaissance Schools initiative is having a strong, positive effect on K-8 students’ schools," said RFA Executive Director Kate Shaw.
The study found no appreciable differences among the four first-year Renaissance providers nor between the charter conversions and the Promise Academies.
But the rigor and validity of the study has been questioned by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
SRC invites input
On March 12, the SRC hosted a "strategy, policy and priority" meeting, inviting input on the Renaissance initiative.
Several parents connected with Renaissance charters operated by Mastery spoke of the urgency of continuing the turnaround effort.
"Our children do not have years to waste in low-performing schools," said George Tilghmann, SAC president at Mastery-Harrity.
But some advocates questioned the District’s commitment to traditional public schools.
"We as teachers feel really shut out," said retired teacher and Notebook blogger Ron Whitehorne. "All the options are either charter schools or a top-down, scripted model."