This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated | April 2, 4:49 p.m.
The Philadelphia School District is proposing handing over two additional elementary schools to charter operators, assigning Muñoz-Marin to ASPIRA and Edward Steel to Mastery.
If the school communities approve, the two will be the 21st and 22nd low-performing District schools to be converted to charters under the Renaissance turnaround initiative.
This year, for the first time, parents at the schools will decide whether to go through with the charter conversion process. In the past, the District designated which schools would be converted, and the community’s role was to decide on a charter provider.
In designating Mastery and ASPIRA, the District is relying on the two Renaissance providers whose current schools, according to an internal study released late last year, are performing the best — in fact, the only two Renaissance providers whose schools were found to be "on track" to achieving the kind of rapid turnaround that the District is seeking.
The District’s Office of Accountability and Assessment concluded that all seven of Mastery’s current schools were on track for their students to exceed 60 percent proficiency in math, and five of the seven in reading, by 2016. ASPIRA now operates two schools — Olney High and Stetson Middle. Olney was on track in both subjects and Stetson in math.
Although almost all the Renaissance schools have showed marked improvements in climate, academic progress has been spottier. And the study showed that the most successful schools are the ones that were converted during the first year of the initiative, in 2010-11. Most of the schools converted more recently were struggling.
In general, elementary turnarounds have been more successful than high schools. Only three high schools have been converted to charters since the initiative began in 2010, and this year’s focus again is on elementary schools.
“We selected these schools because we believe that the performance this year, last year, and the year before doesn’t meet our standard of what we expect for neighborhood schools,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn.
At both Steel and Muñoz-Marin, more than 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and proficiency rates in reading and math have been declining. Muñoz-Marin is also one of 53 District schools being investigated for possible adult cheating; its scores plummeted in 2011-12 after stricter testing protocols were put in place. About one-third of its students scored proficient in reading and math.
Steel also has about one-third of its students scoring proficient in reading and math.
In the new Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles, Muñoz-Marin scored 46 and Steel score 51 out of a possible 100, both well below the standard of 70 set for schools that are “moving in the right direction,” according to state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq.
ASPIRA has come under criticism for financial practices. City Paper reported that it obtained an audit last year showing that ASPIRA was moving money meant for the charters to its parent organization, which the District has no power to audit.
Kihn said that the District “has no reason to believe … there has been any financial impropriety or any reason not to partner with them. We are currently looking into this and if anything comes to light, we will take necessary action.”
Several teachers at Olney have also spoken before the School Reform Commission, accusing ASPIRA of unfair labor practices in thwarting attempts to unionize, which ASPIRA’s board chair has denied.
In any case, the approval process this year promises to be interesting. The District plans to hold a vote of the entire parent community – in past years, the charter-matching decision was made by a small group of parents on the School Advisory Council (SAC). Forces are already mobilizing to prevent further charter conversions at a time when the District is in dire financial straits.
“It’s our experience that each time we’ve done this, and at virtually every school, there have been some contentious elements in the process,” Kihn said. “That’s understandable. … I don’t think that this year is going to be any different.”
The process will start this week, when parents, staff, and leadership teams get basic information and hear about the process and justification for selecting these schools and these specific operators. Next week, there will be school-based parent meetings with senior District officials, and after that the providers will make their presentations.
The SAC will vote to make a recommendation during the last week in April, and the parent “elections” on whether to convert each school to a charter will occur on May 1, Kihn said.
Kihn said that each school is in the middle of its own improvement planning, and that those proposals will also be presented before a vote. It is not yet clear whether the schools will get any more resources to implement their own plans if they vote against the charter conversion.
If the community votes against the charter conversion, “which is a real option," Kihn said, "we’re hoping the school community can use it as a rallying point to accelerate their own transformation."
Charter conversions generally cost about $4,000 more per student. Clarification: District spokeswoman Raven Hill said that the approximately $4,000 per student represents "stranded costs," primarily for personnel such as school psychologists and speech therapists who may have reduced caseloads but remain employed. She said it is not necessarily more money spent on the students in those schools.
Kihn said there would be very little money available to invest in a community-developed plan that would keep the schools District-operated.
“We don’t have the expectation that we’re going to be offering increases in the budget to these schools, but we remain open to contributing something additional if there is a strong evidence base for the plan that is put forward,” he said. “What we’re not going to do is invest in untested ideas or in plans that are just plans.”
Steel is near Gratz High School, which is already run by Mastery, so adding the elementary school would move the operator closer to setting up a K-12 charter network. Kihn said that this is not an explicit goal, but added that it is an “interest” of the District to test out the approach.
“When we look at other jurisdictions, many of the charter operators have their own versions of schools, which include approaches to climate and culture and academic programs,” he said. “In many ways it is easier for families not to have to transition in and out of those to be successful.”
Alfredo Calderon, executive director of ASPIRA, did not immediately return a phone call asking for comment.
Sheila Ballen, spokeswoman for Mastery, said, "We’re delighted to partner with the School District of Philadelphia on the Renaissance school initiative and look forward to meeting with Steel parents."
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