This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Three years into his tenure, Superintendent William Hite is shifting this fall from an all-cuts-all-the-time focus to making organizational moves that implement pieces of his blueprint for school improvement.
Hite will propose to the School Reform Commission a plan to hand off three more low-performing schools to charter operators for “turnaround,” or rapid transformation. Three other schools would undergo “internal turnaround” – meaning that they would remain District-operated.
The proposals, affecting 15 schools, also include the creation of two non-selective, inquiry-based schools: a high school in North Philadelphia and a middle school in University City affiliated with the District’s Science Leadership Academy (SLA) (see box).
Hite would close two middle schools with dwindling enrollments, Beeber in Wynnefield and Leeds in East Mount Airy, although these buildings would stay in use.
This initiative, Hite said, “builds on the success of the Renaissance charter program, reignites in-District turnaround efforts, consolidates underperforming programs, and launches new schools based on proven and innovative models and approaches.”
With an estimated price tag of $15 million to $20 million, the package, Hite says, is a step toward his goal of improving equity in the District by “providing the opportunity for as many as 5,000 students to get in better schools close to where they live.”
Hite’s plan at a glance
• Three elementary schools – Cooke, Huey, and Wister – would become Renaissance charters in 2016. Community meetings will be held weekly, and three parents at each school will sit on committees to recommend a charter operator. In December, Hite will make his recommendation to the SRC, which will vote Jan. 21.
• Three schools, yet to be named, would be selected for District-managed turnaround, the nature of which is still in development.
• A new Science Leadership Academy-affiliated middle school in West Philadelphia would open in 2016 as a catchment school for the Powelton-Mantua area.
• A new small, innovative high school would open, probably in North Philadelphia, affiliated with the nationally recognized, project-based Big Picture Learning organization.
• Two middle schools would be phased out: Beeber in 2017 and Leeds in 2016. Leeds’ current students would attend Hill-Freedman, a selective-admission school with an International Baccalaureate curriculum, until 8th grade. Then they could apply for the high school. Hill-Freedman would move to the Leeds building in 2016; Parkway Northwest High School will stay on the third floor of Leeds. SLA @ Beeber will remain in the Beeber building. Leeds’ and Beeber’s feeder schools – F.S. Edmonds, Pennypacker, Cassidy, Gompers, and Overbrook Elementary – would add middle grades.
To be sure, Hite is still dogged by funding uncertainty. His every move faces skepticism, especially from the teachers’ union and a vocal cadre opposed to privatization. The Philadelphia School Partnership continues as an alternate power center for education in the city, driving money to its own ideas of what “great schools” should be and impacting Hite’s agenda. Although PSP has given money to some District schools to promote innovation, its focus has been largely on charters.
At an Oct. 1 press conference to announce his changes, Hite said he was “excited” to not be focusing on massive closures and cutbacks.
If the SRC approves the plan to turn three elementary schools into Renaissance charters, a total of 27 former District schools will be under charter management, including 20 previously converted under the Renaissance initiative.
Although Hite has consistently said he doesn’t want to rely solely on charter conversion for school turnaround, his blueprint for “internal” turnaround is still incomplete.
He hopes that the three schools designated for in-District turnaround will include one of the neighborhood high schools, most of which have low graduation rates, high percentages of students with special needs, and many students returning from incarceration.
For the schools slated for Renaissance charter conversion – Jay Cooke in Logan, Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia, and John Wister in Germantown – Hite said the need was “urgent,” noting their low reading and math scores.
At existing Renaissance schools, he said, there is evidence of success: “More students read at grade level, more students do math at grade level, more students stay at these schools.”
But critics accused the District of once more blindsiding affected communities, creating more churn and disruption for vulnerable students, and relying on privatization.
“One of the biggest issues that we have with the School District is the need for communities to feel like they’re engaged in a process, rather than being dictated to,” said Democratic City Council-at-large candidate Helen Gym. Especially in communities of color, she said, “it’s really problematic when people feel like they’re left out of a process rather than being part of it.”
Some questioned how successful the District’s Renaissance process has been. Local operators Young Scholars, ASPIRA, and Universal have all had difficulties.
Of seven schools old enough to come up for renewal, only four were renewed outright. Universal-Bluford is undergoing non-renewal hearings. Stetson, run by ASPIRA, is threatened with non-renewal.
When also faced with that threat, Young Scholars arranged to cede its Frederick Douglass campus to Mastery Charter, which now has eight of the Renaissance conversions and has been the most successful at turnaround.
Each of the three proposed Renaissance schools is within a mile of a Mastery high school. But District officials said no decisions had been made about managers. They hope to involve national charter chains, including one called Uncommon Schools.
Parents interviewed outside Wister the day after the plan was announced described the school as a neighborhood fixture that should remain open. Some seemed resigned to change.
“Whatever works for the kids is the way I look at it,” said Dasaan Willis, parent of three at Wister.
Others were wary, fearing that charter operators would push out the most vulnerable children.
“They’re not giving us a choice, and I don’t think that’s fair,” said Dezaray Mitchell, whose son is a 1st grader. “You’ve got to think about the community, about the parents. This is a community-based school. You’ve got generations of families who have gone here.”
Teacher Robin Lowry, who has been at Wister for five years, echoed this theme.
“Supposedly, one of the platforms of education reform is that parents need to be able to choose what’s best for their children,” she said. “And there’s no choice involved here.”
Lowry moved to Wister after leaving Gratz High School when it was converted to a charter. She said it is hard to build relationships in an atmosphere of upheaval.
“I feel so disrespected,” she said. “I feel so sad that I don’t even want to get that close to kids because next year, they’ll be separated from me. It’s personal when you’re in a school. It’s not widgets you’re dealing with. It’s relationships that we’re building every single day.”
For most of the past Renaissance conversions, the District designated the schools, then parent-led School Advisory Councils interviewed interested providers and picked one to recommend to the superintendent.
Two years ago, the District changed the process for Muñoz-Marin and Steel Elementaries, allowing parents to vote on whether to become a charter or stay District-run.
At both schools, the charter conversion was voted down after hard campaigning for rejection of that option by the teachers’ union and others, including Gym. The District took a hiatus from Renaissance conversions last year.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said that he opposed creating more Renaissance charters and that he had urged Hite to focus on advocating for more resources for District schools instead of making “drastic internal moves.”
Creating community schools that provide additional services and supports for families is a better strategy, Jordan said. “This is unacceptable.”
Hite argued that there will be a robust community involvement process for the three Renaissance conversions. At each school, three parents will sit on a seven-member committee that develops the “request for qualifications” for providers, he said. There will be weekly meetings at the affected schools until Nov. 15. The SRC will vote Jan. 21 on the recommendations.
Changes at the top
To carry out the changes, Hite remade his cabinet of top advisers, drawing on both outsiders and District veterans.
In-District turnarounds would occur under Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoats, a Philadelphia newcomer who had been superintendent in Durham, N.C., and a consultant to districts and charters. With funding uncertain, the model is still being developed. Neither Hite nor Becoats could say whether it would require all teachers to reapply for their jobs or a change in principals.
“Innovative” schools are led by District veteran and SLA founding principal Chris Lehmann, who is now an assistant superintendent. The new high school would be run by the nonprofit Big Picture Learning, which operates inquiry-based schools around the country, including in Camden. The new SLA middle school would attempt to bring the inquiry model not just to younger children, but to a student body that would not have to meet admission requirements.
“We think we will be serving an incredibly diverse student body [and be] able to serve historically challenged and underserved neighborhoods in that area,” Lehmann said. “We’ve been reaching out to the Mantua community. We’re going to be sitting down at … meetings with laptops and with parents and helping them to apply.”