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Poorly rated: Philadelphia dominates new Pa. 'priority' schools list




Not surprisingly, Philadelphia schools account for more than half the schools flagged as among the lowest performing on the Pennsylvania Department of Education's new school rating system for 2012-13.

Among about 90 schools statewide designated as "priority" -- meaning that they are rated among the lowest 5 percent in the state -- 47 are Philadelphia District-run schools, and nine others are charter schools located in the city. 

The rating system combines a set of academic and climate factors to calculate a score for a school between 0 and 100.

Among the District schools on the "priority" list, however, 13 closed this year. Three others changed their status. Pastorius and Alcorn were converted to charters under the Renaissance Schools initiative, and Roosevelt changed from a middle school to a K-8 school. One of the charter schools also closed.

In the state's new School Performance Profiles, designations based on achievement were given to all schools that qualify for federal Title I funds, which are allotted to schools that are low-income and low-achieving. The entire Philadelphia School District is categorized as Title I.

The new profiles replace the system for evaluating schools required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under NCLB, schools eligible for Title I with chronically low achievement were targeted for interventions that included closure or reconstitution (replacing all or part of the staff) or turning the school over to a charter operator. The goal of NCLB was to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014.

In the last year, most states, including Pennsylvania, have received waivers from the law -- which is long overdue for revision and reauthorization. In the process Pennsylvania, like other states, created a new evaluation system and a different set of interventions for helping low-performing Title I schools improve.

The state's primary intervention is contracting with eight to 10 "academic recovery liaisons" to split their time among the "priority" schools, assessing their needs and working on ways to help them improve, according to acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq. The total cost of the liaisons is about $800,000, she said.

In addition, Dumaresq said, the state has online resources available to schools, including "curriculum maps," "learning resources," and pedagogical strategies to help schools keep up with the new Common Core academic standards.

PDE will also be holding a workshop for principals of the schools in December.

The schools in Philadelphia are now operating with personnel shortages -- including a lack of nurses, counselors and librarians -- but the intervention does not include providing more resources to schools. PDE will study resource-challenged schools across the state that are doing well in an effort to share best practices, Dumaresq said.

Under NCLB, the low-performing schools were given designations including "warning," "school improvement," and "corrective action." The new designations are "reward--high achievement," "reward--high progress," "no designation," "focus," and "priority."

In addition to the "priority" schools, 91 others in Philadelphia were designated as "focus," meaning they are in the lowest 10 percent in the state under the new rating system. 

A handful of District schools were in the "reward" category, most of them special admission schools. The rest were in the middle, receiving no designation one way or the other.

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Dale Mezzacappa

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