When it comes to school turnaround, Philadelphia is developing a national reputation for its aggressive use of nonprofit charter providers such as Mastery Charter Schools to spearhead overhauls of low-performing schools.
The District has also poured millions of dollars into the other component of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance Schools initiative: Promise Academies, which bring in new staff, leadership, and a highly structured educational program to overhaul schools that stay within District control.
These are the most visible elements of a School District strategy to align itself with the Obama adminstration's education policy and the emphasis that the U.S. Department of Education has placed on radical change in chronically underperforming schools.
What is not so well known is that in 2010 Philadelphia was the largest recipient of the federal funds earmarked for turnarounds – known as School Improvement Grants (SIGs) – of any city in the country.
The first two rounds of these three-year grants have netted Philadelphia commitments that could total $65 million.
But most of that money goes not to Renaissance Schools, but to the less drastic form of school turnaround known in federal jargon as "transformation" – an intervention that doesn't involve wholesale replacement of staff.
For the 2010-11 school year, Philadelphia received 27 SIG awards worth $17.4 million. Sixteen of those, totaling $10.5 million, were for the transformation approach. This requires the replacement of any principal who has been in place for at least three years, and it underwrites standard reform practices including an extended school day and summer programs.
Here, that money was mostly spent in so-called Empowerment Schools, those that had failed to reach federally mandated learning goals for at least five years.
"If you look at the school transformation option, it is the easiest option to do," said Justin Cohen of Mass Insight, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that promotes and consults on school turnaround. "It is the one that requires fewest political tradeoffs."
Of the other 2010 SIG awards, four were for Promise Academies.
The other seven went to the schools that were converted to Renaissance charters – what the federal government calls the "restart" model.
Although the transformation approach gets most of the federal grant money, Cohen did commend Philadelphia for being "more strategic about using outside providers."
"Philly is in front of a lot of places in terms of using charters in the turnaround space," he said.
"Restart involves partnering with outside organizations, which many districts view as impossible politically," Cohen said. Restarts are often harder to achieve due to union opposition, he added, because charter conversions involve shifting staff out of the collective bargaining unit.
Where the dollars go
Tara Feiner, executive director of the District's Title I office that manages federal grants, said that while less controversial, transformation is indeed a "radical intervention" because the principal is removed.
Feiner said that SIG funds supported summer programs in all the District schools that got grants. The money also paid for extended learning time – a longer day and Saturday school – in three of the Promise Academies that got grants.
Otherwise, the money supported additional personnel called for in the Empowerment School model, including school-based instructional specialists who worked with teachers in their classrooms to improve their practice. It also paid for special counselors to work with students to develop Individual Learning Plans. And, in elementary schools, it supported the high cost of Reading Recovery teachers, who work virtually one-on-one with struggling readers.
In two schools, SIG funds supported an infant-toddler center for children of students. SIG funds also supported two Newcomer Centers for immigrant students
"In general, SIG awards allowed schools to accelerate and expand upon Imagine 2014 initiatives," said Feiner, referring to Ackerman's strategic plan, which includes a grab-bag of reform measures.
Around the country, SIG money has been put towards similar initiatives.
"Increasing learning time is being implemented in the largest percentage of schools," said Kandace Jones, special assistant at the newly formed Office of School Turnaround at the U.S. Department of Education.
She said that SIGs also go toward professional development, recruiting leadership and teachers, increased outreach to parents, and new curricula that include problem-based and small-group learning or a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
The transformation model has been popular partly because the application time frame for the SIG funds has been so compressed, said Sarah Yatsko, a researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. In many cases, there was no time to reach agreements with the unions for a turnaround model that involves replacing half the staff, she said.
Philadelphia was well-positioned
Nationally last year, the Department of Education gave out $673 million in SIGs, 71 percent of which went to transformation.
The money is funneled through the states. Philadelphia was positioned to receive the most grants of any major city because of how Pennsylvania defines low-performing schools. Each state defines the target schools differently.
"Based on [Pennsylvania's] definition, Philadelphia had about 96 eligible schools," said Jason Snyder, who heads the federal turnaround office. "The state decided to award a lot of funds of the state in Philadelphia because it felt it was a high priority."
Each District submits an application to the state detailing what it would do with the money in each school. Philadelphia submitted applications for 50 schools.
This year, the District received five more SIG awards from a second round of grants. The largest, more than $5 million, went to Olney High School, which has been converted to a Renaissance charter school under ASPIRA. Three were for transformation – Furness High School, W.D. Kelley Elementary School, and Penn Treaty Middle School.
The fifth grant, for Barry Elementary, was originally for "turnaround," or the model used by Promise Academies, in which more than half the staff is replaced.
However, Barry was one of eight schools that were slated to be Promise Academies but then pulled back due to lack of funding. Feiner said that a new grant application will be submitted under the transformation model.