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Philly announces fate of 11 schools slated for turnaround

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

The School District released its long-awaited plans Wednesday for 11 low-performing schools designated this year for extreme makeovers, and it appears that the interventions will be less disruptive than some school communities initially feared.

Four high schools will see little change until a more detailed plan is developed for all the neighborhood high schools in the city. They are Kensington Health Sciences Academy, Fels, Ben Franklin, and Overbrook.

The seven others will receive up to $1 million each to shore up their academic programs.

For the three schools that will enter the District’s Turnaround Network – Blankenburg, Heston, and John Marshall Elementary Schools – the principal and teachers will be required to reapply for their jobs, and changes will involve replacing at least 20 percent of the faculty members.

That’s a lower percentage than it has been in past years, when the District required schools in its Turnaround Network to replace at least half of their staff.

“We heard a lot of feedback last year, and people were less focused on the turnaround effort and more focused on the cap to the number of individuals who could return,” said Superintendent William Hite, suggesting that concern over upending staff had sometimes superseded more meaningful work on school improvement.

The four remaining schools of the 11 will implement school improvement strategies developed by each community over the last several months. At two of those schools – Bartram High and McDaniel Elementary – faculty will have to reapply for their jobs. At the other two – Harding Middle and Hartranft Elementary – there will be no required staff turnover.

Bartram will not be able to rehire more than 50 percent of its faculty because the school is receiving a $2 million, five-year federal school improvement grant that comes with stipulations.

Hite noted that, although only three schools will enter the Turnaround Network next school year, Bartram and McDaniel “will feel like turnaround” schools because of their commitment to hiring new faculty.

LaChante Collier-Bacon, the principal of McDaniel, said she felt that some staff replacement would be necessary to improve her school.

“Changing staff will make a big difference,” she said. “I’m thinking skill vs. will, some teachers are a little more inclined to go along with coaching and be trained to learn new methodology. We’re seeking a paradigm shift.”

McDaniel plans to hire Jounce Partners, a consulting firm that has mostly worked with charter schools, on teacher development. It will start with a summer institute for teachers and provide opportunities for them to collaborate, visit others’ classrooms, get help through coaching, and make frequent use of data.

“Teachers will be held to higher expectations, collaborate with and get feedback from peers, and share various strategies,” she said. “Tools and techniques for effective instruction in the classroom will focus on excellence from day one.”

McDaniel also has an attendance problem, and Collier-Bacon said that “more rigorous and engaged instruction” should help improve that. The school will also hire a parent ombudsman to “lead an effort for personal connection with families to deal with their challenges.” The ombudsman will go into the community and will lead an attendance committee that includes teachers, the counselor and the school nurse.

Nine of the 11 targeted schools submitted improvement strategies, but the District deemed only four of those, including McDaniel’s, robust enough to approve.

Still, Hite said he was pleased with the ideas and strategies that the schools are planning. He said Bartram is talking about using technology in a similar way to Tilden, its feeder middle school. Harding will focus on personalized learning and really looking at ways to accelerate student understanding through the use of a technologically based approach. Hartranft will concentrate on students who are multiple years behind, and also work on supporting its bilingual families. Hite also likes McDaniel’s focus on high-quality instructional practices.

“We don’t see this as less drastic,” said Hite of this year’s intervention plans. “We see it as more comprehensive.”

Given the financial commitment required for school turnaround, the District felt it could not support interventions at more than seven schools.

The interventions in these schools are based on the idea that it is possible to “turn around” low-performing schools, often by replacing personnel, investing more resources, coming up with different instructional strategies, or combining these options. It was promoted by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during the Obama administration and supported by federal incentive grants.

The strategy has been eagerly embraced by Philadelphia, first under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and now under Hite. The most drastic intervention is closing a school altogether, followed by turning the school over to outside management, usually a charter organization, and replacing the principal and half the staff. The least drastic changes involved giving the school more resources and developing a new plan of action.

Hite is using the tool as part of his strategy of “creating great schools close to where children live.”

In the past, the District has employed all of these methods, especially charter conversions; 21 former District schools are now charters because of this program, called the Renaissance schools initiative. Last year, three schools were converted to charters. The District is now analyzing its Renaissance program and opted not to expand it while the initiative was under review.

A recently released federal analysis of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program nationally found that overall, it didn’t improve student achievement or life outcomes. Hite, however, thinks the turnaround framework still holds promise.

“If executed well, it gives you an opportunity to create the conditions to begin improving instruction,” Hite said. “And I think that’s the important part. It has to yield something that’s different in the classroom.”

The superintendent argues that too much of the conversation about turnaround schools focuses on the “criteria,” such as staff turnover or charter conversion. That fixation saps energy from what he considers the vital work: improving instruction, using data to guide decisions, and bolstering school leadership teams.

“A lot people say, well, we checked all of the criteria, so we’re doing turnaround, when all you were really doing was reconstituting staff or handing schools over or using a contract provider,” Hite said. “They were not focused on the experience, improving the experiences children are having in classrooms. And I think that’s the distinction of the work we’re trying to do here in Philadelphia.”

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