We're into the second year of the School District's Renaissance Schools plan. At 22 long-struggling schools, drastic action has been taken to turn things around – clearing out the old staff and either bringing in a charter operator to manage the school or making it a District-run Promise Academy.
At some Renaissance schools, data and personal observation show dramatic improvements. District officials and outside providers are proclaiming success, citing preliminary numbers that show improved attendance, discipline, and test scores. Some charters boast double-digit gains.
As for Promise Academies, there was disappointment and even outrage when tight budgets forced the District to scale back the planned expansion to only three new schools. Some in the city are advocating faster conversion of schools.
Yes, some early results are clearly worth celebrating. But here are some concerns the District should take seriously before moving ahead.
First, preliminary data from one year is not a lot to go on, and short-term gains don't guarantee long-term success. Variations among the models and providers need more analysis. The lack of a transparent District process for choosing qualified providers has opened the door to some with school improvement track records that merit additional scrutiny.
The District should be convening public discussions and working seriously to address several key, unanswered questions:
Have communities embraced the educational models?
Are we seeing indicators of academic improvement on measures besides state tests?
What are the pros and cons of shuffling entire teaching staffs?
What must happen to sustain improvements over time?
Can some of these models be scaled up? How will we pay for that?
How can we ensure that the students with greatest need are served?
A particularly challenging question is how to minimize the role that political influence and private deal-making play in the provider choices. The turnarounds at West and King high schools were badly bungled by politics and infighting, tragically throwing schools into chaos in the name of improving them.
Some answers are emerging. We know that a strong parent and community voice in the process is achievable and vital. If politics are going to be at play, let's at least make sure that those with the greatest stake have a say in choosing the model and provider. And sound decision-making has to emanate from the top, with an end to the School Reform Commission's appalling backroom dealing.
We've seen that close monitoring by the District can also make a difference. For years, the charter school community has faced charges that they weed out difficult students. For Renaissance Schools, the District got providers to sign on to goals to minimize student turnover. So far, these schools appear to be functioning as neighborhood schools. But maintaining oversight of mandates like this will challenge a central office that has lost half its staff.
Which points to another fundamental lesson: Reform in high-poverty schools doesn't come cheap. Mastery counts on raising a million dollars for each turnaround school, relying heavily on private money. The School District spent more than $6 million extra at six Promise Academies last year – well over $2,000 additional per pupil. Turnaround requires major investments, and it will take a strong case to attract more money in a period of fiscal austerity.
There is no margin for further bungling. We have to get it right.