This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Scholar Academies operates one the highest-performing charter schools in Philadelphia, Young Scholars Charter School.
So when the Philadelphia School District gave the organization the keys to one of its own chronically struggling schools in 2010 through the Renaissance initiative, it expected to see significant improvement.
But five years after the transfer, the school has changed hands once again.
After being operated by Scholar Academies for five years, Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia opened anew Wednesday as one of Mastery Charter’s growing portfolio of schools.
"We think that the school was doing OK, but it needs to get a lot better," said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, Mastery’s chief innovation officer.
While most charters take in students through lotteries that draw students from all over the city, the "Renaissance" distinction means the schools are neighborhood schools that must serve all students within certain boundaries.
Since 2010, the District has handed 20 of its schools to charter operators through this process. While some have seen gains on state tests, Mastery has had the most success in maintaining growth.
"Turning around struggling schools in inner-city neighborhoods is not easy work," said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.
PSP gave Mastery $1.5 million to aid what School Reform Commissioner Feather Houstoun dubbed "a turnaround of a turnaround."
"Scholars did some really good things here. They were disappointed that they didn’t have a few more years to prove the case," Gleason said. "But I give them a lot of credit."
Credit, he said, for not dragging the process out. The SRC was considering rejecting Scholar Academies’ bid for renewal based on two years of declining state test scores.
"Academic outcomes were insufficient over the charter term, which is why a nonrenewal recommendation was initially being considered," said Lauren Iannuccilli, program manager for accountability in the District’s charter office.
Scholar Academies could have appealed, but instead reached out to Mastery in an effort to limit upheaval for students and parents.
Iannuccilli said the District ensured that there was agreement with parents on Douglass’ School Advisory Committee before the SRC approved Mastery’s takeover.
SRC renewed three of Mastery’s Renaissance charters this year: Harrity, Mann and Smedley.