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Renaissance schools a 'priority,' but at what price?

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    Photo: Benjamin Herold

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School District officials are still hoping to shield Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative from the massive budget cuts that have already begun – even though they aren’t sure how much the effort is going to cost.

“We are running the cost scenarios,” said Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono, who oversees the Renaissance schools under outside management, during a March 18 interview.

Castelbuono and other officials gave no insight as to why they thought they had the capacity to do the full Promise Academies internal turnaround model in 10 schools, including some big high schools, in a year when they are being forced to slash the District's operating budget by $629 million, or one-fifth.

“We can’t give you a number estimate at this time,” said District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs when asked on March 21 about the projected cost for operating 10 additional Promise Academies next year.

District officials have repeatedly described the Renaissance initiative as a “priority” and said they have a “moral obligation” to continue turning around chronically low-performing schools. They have sidestepped questions as to whether they considered how maintaining additional programs in these schools might exacerbate cuts in others.

“Dr. Ackerman has said through all of her budget briefings…that a priority is to maintain the initiatives of Imagine 2014,” said Childs.

Their plan to close the budget shortfall, unveiled on March 30, calls for slashing central office staff, increasing class size, reducing the number of counselors, re-opening contract negotiations with labor unions, and cutting individual school budgets by an average of more than $1 million, among other measures - cuts that could result in fewer art, music, and athletic classes and programs. 

But the plan makes no mention of the Renaissance initiative, which in its first year is costing the District an estimated $20 million. Conversion of seven schools to Renaissance charters cost $10.4 million, while extra personnel and programming at Promise Academies added $9.6 million.

Next year, the District has proposed to convert eight more schools into Renaissance charters and to turn 10 more schools into District-run Promise Academies. With several large neighborhood high schools slated for both turnaround models, costs are expected to be significantly higher. 

If the District implements its full turnaround model at all 10 new Promise Academies, for example, the Notebook has estimated that the added cost of running just the 18 total Promise Academies next year could exceed $30 million.

The majority of the added expense at the Promise Academies results from a longer school day and year, for which teachers are paid an hourly rate based on their base salaries. 

Until the District knows who is teaching at the schools next year, officials can’t give a firm dollar amount for what the schools will cost, said Assistant Superintendent Francisco Duran, who oversees the Promise Academies.

During an hour-long March 21 interview with the Notebook,  Duran confirmed that the model may well become more even more expensive next year, despite the budget crisis:

Notebook: I’m hearing that you’re intending to do the same kinds of interventions. You’re not scaling back the Promise Academy model at the new schools.

Duran: Correct. Correct.

Notebook: And given how much that cost last year, it’s the same types of expenses that are largely going to be determined by the facilities needs and the number and experience of teachers at the schools.

Duran: Correct.

Notebook: And so if you look at the enrollments of those schools, particularly because there are a couple of large high schools that are part of the second cohort of Promise Academies, it’s likely that the overall bill is going to go up significantly.

Duran: Based on the numbers, it could, yes.

Notebook: And that it would be fair to expect that also given the stated concern about getting more experienced teachers into the Promise Academies that they’re going to be more expensive also.

Duran: Right. Well, they will be. More experienced teachers cost us more because the hourly rate is higher. 

The cost of the Renaissance charters is more difficult to calculate, but equally uncertain.

During a March 18 interview, Castelbouno identified three main factors that are leading to the uncertain cost projections for the charter conversions next year:

  • A new method for projecting enrollments at the schools in the hopes of more accurately anticipating the number of neighborhood students who choose to attend.
  • Unresolved questions about who will manage career and technical education programs at the high schools slated to be handed over to outside managers.
  • Uncertain cleaning and facilities' maintenance costs to be borne by the District in the first year of external management.

On March 16, the School Reform Commission voted to approve the District’s proposed providers for six so-called “Renaissance Match” schools, despite the lack of a solid cost projection for the second year of the initiative.

“They know it’s about a million dollars and they know how much it swings,” said Castelbuono. “It’s a calculated risk, yes, but we’ll figure it out. It’s important to keep with the core programs, and turning around the lowest-performing schools is a core program, and so for that cost, it’s worth it.”

Though the District bears an added expense for the Renaissance charters, the schools themselves are actually likely to see additional resources, provided by their new managers. All four outside providers taking on schools this year say that have put upwards of $500,000 into facilities upgrades, new furniture, and other improvements in each of their schools. 

To date, there has been little public discussion about the District’s efforts to shield the Renaissance schools from the budget axe.

During a recent online chat with philly.com, Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch was asked directly about the cost of the Promise Academies, but offered only in this in response:

“The goal of the Promise Academies is to turn around our chronically low-performing schools. It is our moral and ethical obligation to provide a quality education to all students in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, many of these low-performing schools have been underserved for decades.”

During the District’s recent budget forums, the public was asked to rank a list of 35 programs and services they valued the most, but the Renaissance initiative was not included on the list. 

Both Castelbuono and Duran argued that it’s imperative for the District to push ahead, despite the budget implications.

“In the grander scheme of things, six Renaissance charters, if it costs an additional six million, its important enough that these kids are in the lowest-performing schools that they get a better program,” said Castelbuono.

“Certainly all schools need funding and support, we’re not discounting that,” said Duran. “But these schools, the Promise Academies, we said they need additional supports.”

As an analogy, Duran described the tough decisions that doctors have to make in trying to best serve all of their patients despite their varied needs.

“Some need a little bit more care than another,” said Duran. “You have to look at the symptoms and some of the long-term illnesses that some of those patients have had to determine who might need a little bit more. That doesn’t mean that you’re not treating all of your patients, but you have to look at them case by case and see who might need additional help.”

Transcripts of the interview excerpts related to the cost of the Renaissance initiative are available for Diane Castelbuono and Francisco Duran.

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