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As Renaissance match process gets underway, intrigue begins

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

In a new twist on the District’s process for converting low-performing schools to charters, six pre-approved turnaround teams have publicly declared at the outset of the Renaissance match process which schools they will – and will not – be competing to manage.

Two developments stand out:

  • Mastery Charter, the city’s largest charter operator, will put all of its considerable resources into competing for just one school, Cleveland Elementary.

District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Thomas Darden said that all the schools, even Jones, have good options.

“More than one option is an option,” said Darden. “I think they have a great choice between either of these two turnaround teams.”

In the first year of the Renaissance initiative, the District required potential turnaround teams to compete for all eligible schools, even those they had no interest in managing. That policy was intended to give School Advisory Councils at each school the greatest possible range of options to choose from.

Last year, the process was supposed to work the same way, but Mastery quickly declared it would only compete for two schools. Other operators followed suit, and began pulling out of the running at Simon Gratz, Martin Luther King, and Olney High schools. Although the King SAC was left with just two, instead of five, options to choose from, the District voiced no public opposition at the time.

This year, said Darden, the District sought to avoid such confusion by giving its turnaround teams “more voice.”

“If a turnaround team doesn’t want to pursue a particular school, we don’t want to force them to,” he said. “We also don’t want to force a turnaround team on a school that doesn’t want that team.”

Mastery, meanwhile, has clearly targeted Cleveland as part of its effort to establish a complete K-12 feeder pattern in the Hunting Park/Tioga/Nicetown section of the city.

While the District is interested in “executing the Renaissance Initiative in complete feeder patterns,” Darden stressed that there will be an open competition at Cleveland and that the District is not invested in which operators control which schools within a given feeder pattern.

“We are very pleased to have five operators competing to manage [Cleveland],” said Darden.

Last year, Mastery pursued a similar strategy, winning the right to manage the only two schools it competed for: Simon Gratz High and Clymer Elementary, both of which are near Cleveland.

Mastery’s strong foothold in that neighborhood was one reason that newcomer String Theory Schools chose to focus its efforts elsewhere, said Executive Director Angela Corosanite.

“Our strategy was that if there are other organizations that are closer to these schools who want them, we might have a better chance elsewhere,” she said.

String Theory hopes to establish its own foothold in the Northeast before seeking schools in other parts of the city, said Corosanite. As a result, the group, which operates the Performing Arts Charter School in South Philadelphia, will compete only for Creighton and H.R. Edmunds.

This week, District officials are hosting informational meetings at the four schools targeted for conversion to charters. Wednesday’s meeting is at H.R. Edmunds at 6:00 pm. Thursday’s is at Jones Middle at the same time.

The District has also made public its rules of conduct for prospective turnaround teams.

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