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In tour of Renaissance school, a larger debate about city's school system

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  • young scholars kenderton 20140603 1059473719
    Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

When Shereda Cromwell, mother of three, learned last year that her kids' school, Kenderton Elementary in North Philadelphia, would be converted to a charter, her heart sank.

As a parent of children with autism, Cromwell says she depends on predictability and routine to help her kids thrive in the classroom. Faced with the prospect of the unknown, Cromwell and other Kenderton parents stiffened in defense.

"When we heard about the change, we were kind of upset," she said.

This was in February 2013, when the Philadelphia School District selected Kenderton and two other chronically low-performing elementary schools for Renaissance charter conversion.

Determined to halt the transition, Cromwell, a leader of Kenderton's School Advisory Council, organized parents to fight back against the School District's plans.

"We went to the SRC meetings," she said. "We were the folks on the news, holding the signs, 'We don't want it to happen, no, no, no.'"

Despite her efforts, the District's School Reform Commission voted to turn Kenderton into a Renaissance charter run by the Scholar Academies organization.

Today, as Kenderton's first year as a Renaissance charter draws to a close, Cromwell's stance has moved from opposition to cautious optimism.

Scholar Academies, utilizing a $1.3 million turnaround grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership, instituted badly needed repairs to Kenderton's 62-year-old building: upgrading infrastructure, painting hallways, buying new furniture.

The cosmetic changes were nice, but as the school reopened last September, Cromwell remained skeptical.

Then she witnessed a vast shift in school culture.

"Just to walk into a school and not have kids in the hall, just running around the hall, and staff just staring at them, nobody saying anything, was a big difference for us," she said, "because this school, last year ... it was out of control. It was really a scary situation for a lot of kids here."

In 2011, Kenderton had found itself at the center of an investigative profile that detailed the School District's struggle with early-childhood violence.

In addition to Kenderton's climate woes, it had been weak on standardized test scores. In its last year under District control, 26.5 percent of Kenderton's students scored proficient or advanced in math, and 28.8 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading.

Despite low test scores, the state's school performance profile metric awarded Kenderton good marks for value-added growth in both math and reading.

At this point, it's difficult to make a reliable judgment on Kenderton's conversion. The changes in culture have only been in place for nine months, and this year's standardized test scores have not yet been released, but parents like Cromwell have been largely impressed with the new leadership.

Not that everything about the transition was seamless. Cromwell described the first few months of classes as a "rocky start," but she said Scholar Academies has been responsive to parents' concerns.

"Even though we had a lot of issues at the beginning of the year," she said, "whatever we brought to them, they made adjustments."

Touring in Tioga

Over the last four years, the District has voluntarily turned 20 of its schools, including Kenderton, over to charter organizations through the Renaissance initiative.

This year, the District proposed converting two more elementary schools to charters: Edward T. Steel in Nicetown and Luis Muñoz-Marín in Fairhill.

In a twist on the old model, the District is allowing parents to cast an advisory vote for or against the changeover. On May 1, Steel parents voted to keep the school under District leadership, 121-55. In a separate vote, Steel's School Advisory Council voted 9-8 to turn the school over to Mastery's network of charters. The District has decided that Steel will stay within its own control.

Days before Muñoz-Marín's scheduled vote in May, the District postponed balloting until June 5, saying that parents weren't ready.

Cromwell's comments on Kenderton's conversion came during a recent parent open house organized by The EARTHS, a North Philly community group (co-founded by current SRC member Sylvia Simms), as well as the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Parents of students attending elementary schools in the surrounding area toured Kenderton to see the fruit of the reforms that Scholar Academies has sown.

"The goal is to help parents understand that there are options out there, and what a good school looks like," said Quibilla Devine, president and co-founder of The EARTHS, and Simms' sister.

As the two dozen parents navigated the Kenderton building, they came across clean, bright hallways and classrooms named not by number, but by college or university.

Ieshia Brumfield, who has a son and a younger brother at the District-run Meade Elementary, called the two-hour tour "an inspiration."

Classrooms visited were well-populated and orderly. Students seemed engaged in the subject matter. Teachers delivered consistent messages using shared language and codified motivational tools.

When changing classes, students, wearing matching green tops and khaki slacks, walked in rigid rows on the right side of the hall, hands plastered to their sides.

Fifth grader Camille explained the difference that Scholar Academies has made on the school: "It's, like, they strict," she said.

One of Cromwell's major fears before the conversion was that the charter would somehow find a way to rid itself of the students thought most difficult to educate, but she says that hasn't been the case.

School director Hedi Belkaoui, who has a decade of experience in urban education but is new to Philadelphia, assured parents of that on the tour. Young Scholars Kenderton remains a regional feeder for students requiring autistic and emotional support.

"We try to do it all. We're not that type of charter school," Belkaoui, who sports a shaved head and speaks with youthful exuberance, indicated with a knowing smile. "We're going to provide those supports for all students."

Like many charters, Scholar Academies employs a college, college, college rhetoric that hinges on, as Belkaoui summed it up: "Outrageous achievement – no excuses."

It's a mantra Belkaoui and his team of teachers promote early and often – as evidenced on the tour by a group of Kenderton kindergartners who emphatically answered Belkaoui's beckoning.

"Hard work does not scare me," the kindergartners bellowed in a unified chant.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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Kevin McCorry

Kevin is WHYY/NewsWorks' senior education writer.