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Draft report calls for shake-ups in low-performing schools

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The School District is strongly considering yet another “turnaround” strategy for chronically underperforming schools, one based on Chicago’s controversial Renaissance 2010 project that closes existing schools and opens new ones under a different management structure.

The plan is outlined in a draft report of the working group on “interventions and rewards for failing and successful schools” that is part of the District’s strategic planning process. District staff are now compiling a strategic plan based on reports from nine working groups.

For “failing” schools, the District’s working group recommends creating a “portfolio” approach to school governance and management that would make significant use of charter organizations and other outside managers.

At the proposed “contract schools,” outside managers would have more independence than the private managers currently operating schools under the District’s existing “diverse provider” model – they would be able to employ their own staff, for example.

In addition, some schools – to be called “innovation schools” – would be reconstituted from the ground up with new teachers and leadership, but managed by the District with union teachers.

“Performance schools” would not be reconstituted with new personnel, but like the others would be given more “autonomy” over school management in exchange for “greater accountability.”

District officials declined to discuss the working group’s draft, saying that it was “premature” and still subject to final approval. The proposed strategic plan, which is now being culled from the recommendations of nine working groups, will be unveiled at the School Reform Commission's Feb. 18 meeting. Three community meetings to get input will occur between then and mid-March.

But leaders of grassroots organizations that have been consulted during the process expressed concern that pressure for quick action at low-performing schools will short-circuit meaningful community engagement. They also raised flags about the wisdom of following the Chicago model.

“The key is what happens from here on out,” said Jonathan Cetel of Good Schools Pennsylvania, who was a member of the working group. “This is just the beginning of a longer conversation.”

The working group drew heavily upon a report from Mass Insight, an education research institute. The report, called “The Turnaround Challenge” argued that school “turnaround” is fundamentally different and far more difficult than school improvement, requiring specially trained personnel.

The Philadelphia Student Union sent a letter to the working group in January expressing concerns that the discussion of “turnaround” has been limited to the models recommended in the Mass Insight report and has ignored other potential interventions, including small schools and community-centered charters.

“School partnerships, school closures and whole school interventions have had mixed results where they have been implemented (i.e. Chicago),” the letter said. “They are not a ‘magic bullet.’ We need information for consideration that comes from constituencies that are directly impacted by these policies.”

Erika Almiron, assistant director of PSU, noted that the organization’s community-driven plan for transforming West Philadelphia High School, years in the making, has yet to be acted on by District officials.

Instead, she said, there seems to be a determination that bringing in outside managers is the best way to overhaul low-performing schools, regardless of community buy-in.

“There should be educator and parent participation if there’s going to be an [outside] entity brought in,” said Eva Gold of Research for Action, an independent evaluator that has done extensive research on Philadelphia’s “diverse provider” model. “Parents and educators have to be part of creating a good match between the needs of the school and whoever is going to govern it.”

In 2002, after the state takeover, the new School Reform Commission assigned schools to outside providers, including for-profit companies such as Edison Schools, with no opportunity for neighborhoods or teachers to weigh in on what model might work for them. As a result, in some schools and communities there was open revolt.

The providers accepted and in some cases wanted only limited authority to make wholesale changes, and research has since shown that they have made little difference in improving schools.

Members of the working group said that it had tried to respond to these lessons. Its co-chair, Leroy Nunery, offered a “scathing” critique of the “diverse provider” model and all its flaws, including the lack of community involvement and limited autonomy for the new school managers, according to Cetel and Ryan Bowers of the Mayor’s Office of Education, another working group member.

Nunery, a former official at Edison Schools, declined to discuss the plans but said in a brief interview that it would be a “leap” to conclude that more “privatization is where the District is going. That would not be the right angle,” he said.
 
Bowers agreed. “People in the room were under no illusions. People are not recommending that by any means,” he said. 
 
The proposed plan contemplates heavier use of charter management organizations, specifically Mastery Charter, to take over existing schools. The draft report specifically cites Mastery’s takeover of three underperforming middle schools under former CEO Paul Vallas – Shoemaker, Pickett and Thomas.

“Although the new converted schools are serving largely the same student population, the school environment, staff, and academic program are radically different,” the draft says. “Mastery has demonstrated very strong results in raising student test scores.” The District has hired Ben Rayer, formerly the president and chief operating officer of Mastery, as its new associate superintendent for charter schools.

While the SRC seems eager to have well-regarded charter management organizations like Mastery take over existing poor-performing District schools, it has slowed the opening of new charter schools, especially in the wake of several scandals involving some charter school operators.

Rayer declined to be interviewed, and Almiron of PSU questioned whether his hiring represents a conflict of interest for Mastery.

She and other community leaders said that it would be crucial for any outside operators, including Mastery, to produce information about student enrollment, retention, suspension and transfers, as well as budget data. “We need to know that their success rate is not based on pushing students out,” Almiron said.

The Mass Insight report that forms the basis of the working group’s recommendations also emphasized that true turnaround is expensive, involving heavy investment in teachers and school leaders likely to cost between $250,000 and $1 million per school per year.

“Turnaround is essentially a people-focused enterprise,” the report said.

Bowers said that this report captured the imagination of the working group because it emphasized that change at persistently low-performing schools had to be drastic and transformative, not merely incremental, and presented Renaissance 2010 as a model.

“It’s a whole different paradigm,” he said, adding that the working group was careful to recommend that not all schools low-performing schools be turned over to outside managers. The Mass Insight report cited “district-managed system change,” like the proposed “innovation” and “performance” school models, as the “missing option” under No Child Left Behind.

Under Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, dozens of schools have closed and 75 new ones opened, about two-thirds of them charters or under private, outside management with teachers who are not union members. Renaissance 2010, ironically, was derived in large part from Philadelphia’s experiment with “diverse providers,” which assumed the management of more than 40 schools after the 2002 state takeover.

According to the Renaissance 2010 website, the new schools have higher attendance and graduation rates than the rest of the district and fewer transfers out. The latest data cited is from 2005-06.

Many community groups in Chicago have been vociferous opponents of Renaissance 2010, with some saying it is more about “business and real estate interests” and less about education. Some of the new turnaround school models operated by outside managers are doing no better or even worse than some of the schools slated for turnaround, according to Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

“What’s so shocking, the schools being used as models are lower performing than many of the schools that are being closed,” Woestehoff said.

After Mayor Richard Daley announced last month that Ron Huberman, head of the Chicago Transportation Authority, would succeed new U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as Chicago’s new schools CEO, Huberman was greeted by boos and protest from opponents of Renaissance 2010.

A recent report by the education journal Catalyst Chicago said that the program hasn’t necessarily resulted in higher quality options for African American students. “A Catalyst Chicago analysis shows the system of choice doesn’t serve all children equally,” according to the article. “A surprisingly high percentage of Black students end up at another lackluster school rather than a better one.”

Plus, the schools that have shown some positive change are primarily at the elementary level, rather than high schools. Many of the lowest-performing Philadelphia schools in line for turnaround are large neighborhood high schools.

Philadelphia’s working group report acknowledges that “indeed, the national literature on this topic suggests that there are more failures than successes with efforts to turn around schools.”

To make transformative change work at the school level, the District will have to transform its own infrastructure as well, Cetel said. Specifically, it needs an accountability system that can support and evaluate true innovation.

“All the poor-performing schools need a transformation of the learning environment,” he said. But the District’s current structure for judging school performance still depends on them following the core curriculum and traditional courses and course progression. It limits outside-the-box innovation, such as multidisciplinary instruction and project-based learning.

“Without the right kind of accountability, this will just be ‘diverse provider model reunion,’” Cetel said.

The bigger issue with this turnaround plan, argued Gold of Research for Action, is that in some ways it has the wrong starting point. “We know what makes good schools: strong leadership, strong teachers, time for collaboration and building coherence in instructional approach, a sense of community within the school in which kids are well known, and a safe environment for children and adults,” she said.

“That’s the criteria we ought to be fronting more than, ‘we want an array of management models.’”

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.