At South Philadelphia High School, staff members were in tears when they heard the news on January 25 that the school was being named a Promise Academy – albeit the "Innovation" version, where much of the staff could remain. The announcement portends more upheaval for a school that had started to stabilize under new leadership after the violence and chaos of a year ago. Suddenly, teachers who have spent the year working toward creating a more supportive school culture have been thrust back into uncertainty, forced to reapply for their positions.
Was this shakeup supported by the staff, students, and community members who have been working hard to make a dramatic turnaround happen at Southern? Actually, nobody consulted them. The decision to overhaul it in a round of 18 more Renaissance Schools was decreed from downtown.
With this year's Renaissance Schools and Promise Academies, the District did a disturbing about-face on one of the core principles of its ambitious school turnaround effort.
When the District rolled out its Renaissance initiative last year, it touted community input on turnaround plans as a distinguishing feature. Officials acknowledged a key lesson of the 2002 state takeover: Forcing a reform approach down the throat of a community is ultimately not helpful in building the will and momentum needed to make dramatic school change.
Consulting with the community is not simply good democratic practice. Engaging the public opens up opportunities to tap skills and energy that struggling schools really need.
Yet at only six of the 18 new Renaissance Schools will school councils have a voice about what model or provider comes in next fall. At the other 12 schools, those key questions have already been decided. Two of those were offered to Universal Companies as charters without any school-based process. The rules for selecting schools and assigning them to providers seem to change arbitrarily, without any explanation.
The School District deserves credit for taking on the challenge of transforming long-neglected schools like Olney and Germantown High. But it's critical that they use the right strategies and a transparent process. To make any headway, the District must embrace a basic principle: Doing school reform to a community rather than with a community simply won't work.