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District begins Round 2 of plan to reinvent neighborhood schools

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

For a second year, the District is inviting proposals from schools and their communities to overhaul neighborhood schools and reinvent high schools.

Monday’s announcement marks the kick-off of Round 2 of the District’s efforts to remake the city’s neighborhood schools into appealing, cutting-edge options tailored to Philadelphia’s mostly high-needs students.

"We do believe that this is a really important way that local school communities can engage in redesigning themselves," said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn.

Last year, the District approved four schools from among 16 applicants. How many does the District want to approve this year? "We’d love to have up to 10 to 15," said Kihn, but "it will depend entirely on the applicant pool."

Applications for redesign can be based on transformations led by teachers or school leadership, the concept of community schools, proposals from local organizations, or a category of "other." All neighborhood schools except Promise Academies are eligible.

The four schools that were chosen last year are currently in the one-year design phase of the process – Chester Arthur, J.S. Jenks, Carnell, and Tilden. All recently received a green light to relaunch this fall.

Three new innovative and open-enrollment high schools also opened last fall, funded with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation: the LINC, the U School, and Building 21. For this cycle, Kihn said, the number of new innovative high schools will be determined based on overall need and the budget for fiscal year 2017.

Ideal applicants, he said, would "have track records of launching good schools that meet the needs of what we call the historically underserved population of Philadelphia."

The track records for the first four redesign schools, though, is unknown.

Kihn acknowledged that research shows "it really does take about three years … to build a real track record for success." But he said the District didn’t want to "tread water" in the meantime.

"The approval process is focused enough that we have a degree of confidence that what’s being proposed will work," said Kihn.

He added that the program came at minimal cost to the District last year, because it was funded by a $300,000 grant from the Barra Foundation.

"It’s not a very expensive intervention. All of the money we used to do the design process with is grant funded. It was, in effect, free to the District."

Ryan Stewart, executive director of the District’s Office of School Improvement and Innovation, said the District is "in the process of seeking philanthropic dollars to fund additional teams," and whatever money remains unused from the Barra grant will go toward financing this second round.

Once the final recipients have been determined from among the applicants, schools will receive planning grants of around $30,000 and additional support for work in a design year. The new high schools would also receive additional operating funds after launch to support startup costs as a new grade is added each year. Final approval will be determined the following spring, and schools will launch the fall of 2016.

In a statement, Superintendent William Hite said that both initiatives are ways that the District can work with schools and communities while improving performance.

"These initiatives empower educators, ignite innovation, and foster community-based improvement efforts by attracting new talent and ideas."

You can find more information on the School Redesign Initiative or New District Innovation Schools at the Call for Quality School Designs website.

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