Donate today!
view counter

Before Promise Academies, came the Dream Schools. How have they done?

By Ron Whitehorne on May 24, 2010 08:47 AM

Next year Philadelphia will see the first wave of Promise Academies, turnaround schools that will be directed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman herself.  

Ackerman’s conception of a turnaround school with a longer school day, a centrally prescribed set of curricula, interventions and programs, and a contract with parents is not new. She did it before in San Francisco. In 2004, she introduced the first three Dream Schools; 10 schools would become Dream Schools.  

Dream Schools had mandatory uniforms, the school day extended by two hours, and a Saturday school option. Electives including art, music, and second language instruction were included, social services were beefed up and physical improvements were made.

Teaching staffs were reconstituted with all teachers having to reapply for their positions. Scripted reading and math instruction was part of the mix. So was a contract that students and parents had to sign around what Ackerman called the "non-negotiables," stricter rules and higher expectations. Many of these ideas came from the playbook of Lorraine Monroe, founder of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, a school that some characterized as “Catholic school without crosses."

Dream Schools have a complicated history in San Francisco which I hope to delve into in a future post. Union and community opposition limited the extent of the experiment. 

But the Dream Schools at this point do have a track record and its important that we look at the data as part of evaluating the prospects for Promise Academies here in Philadelphia.

The Dream Schools program opened with Charles Drew Elementary, Twenty-First Century Academy (now Willie L. Brown), and Gloria R. Davis Middle School. Sanchez, Everett, John O'Connell, Paul Revere, Treasure Island, Ben Franklin, and Enola Maxwell also became Dream Schools. Due to poor performance and/or low enrollment Gloria R. Davis, Treasure Island, Ben Franklin, and Enola Maxwell have since closed.

These are the six remaining Dream Schools:

Four of the remaining Dream Schools are on the state’s list of lowest performing schools. Of the 12 schools in San Francisco that are on this list, a third of them are Dream Schools.  

Even more disturbing are the data on numbers of proficient students in reading and math in these schools. The rates for African Americans, in particular, are abysmal.   Here are the numbers based on data from the 2008-2009 school year.

School % Proficient in Language Arts % Proficient in Math

Charles Drew Elementary 



Charles Drew Elementary
African American (77%)



Willie L. Brown 



Willie L. Brown 
African American (72.4%



Paul Revere 



Paul Revere 
African American (20.1%)



Sanchez Elementary    schoolwide



Sanchez Elementary
African American (5.2%)

 too few African Americans tested to be a category


Everett Middle School



Everett Middle School African American (19.3%)



John O’Connell High



John O’Connell High
African American (11.1%)



Only one of the schools, Drew, made AYP. O’Connell High is in its first year of eligibility, Sanchez is in Program Improvement 1. The other schools are all in Program Improvement 5.

Schools that fail to make AYP for two successive years go into Program Improvement. Those who fail to make AYP for four or five years successively (PI 4 and PI5) face restructuring under NCLB and state regulations. And here's a link that explains all this in great detail for any wonks that want to delve into it.

All this data is available online. A wealth of data is also summarized by school in School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs).

The high school proficiency rates for O’Connell’s African American students are lower than those for West Philadelphia High, a Renaissance school where a provider has yet to be chosen. The School District lists proficiency rates of 11% in reading and 8% in math at West.

Turning around low performing schools is not easy and without more study I’m not prepared to say we have nothing to learn from the Dream School project. On the other hand, based on this data, its pretty clear it's far from a silver bullet and should prompt members of School Advisory Councils at Promise Academies or prospective Promise Academies to ask some hard questions. 

Click Here
view counter

Comments (12)

Submitted by Philly HS Teacher (not verified) on May 24, 2010 12:54 pm

Since Mastery has a much better track record than the "Dream Schools," I'd like to know more about their program. I read the article about Mastery, Thomas, and two key ingredients appear to be high expectations and starting with students in 7th grade versus 9th to build relationships. Based on the article in yesterday's Inquirer on Mastery, Thomas, it isn't getting rid of students although the demographics did change a bit. (For example, there are 1/2 the number of Asian students which might mean they cut ELLs. The special education numbers increased.) Do we know how many started in 7th grade and how many, of the same group, are graduating?

As you wrote, there is no "silver bullet" but some schools are more successful than others. What will be interesting to track with Mastery, Thomas Campus, is how many of the students finish college in 4 years.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on May 24, 2010 12:52 pm

That'd be a great thing to track! The article doesn't seem to say that the school will be tracking students through college though, does anyone know if that's something they have planned?

It sounds like the counselor did a lot of work preparing the kids for their applications and to get financial aid (full ride to Columbia!?), which gives these kids a huge head start on college. But college is still a tremendously difficult path for many kids to complete at all, nevermind in 4 or even 5 years. Here's my chance to plug my favorite documentary about college, Declining by Degrees! That site is increasingly outdated, but man, I learned a lot from that doc.

Submitted by Simon (not verified) on May 24, 2010 8:27 pm

There are successful programs all over the country. We don't have to have the failure rates that we do in Philadelphia. Mastery is a great example, Big Picture is another great example. And while there is no silver bullet, Ron Berger in his book, "An Ethic of Excellence" outlines what ingredients are required for success.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 24, 2010 1:57 pm

This is a great post. Thank you for putting out this information. While parents were supposed to be making decisions in the best interests of their children, they did not actually have all the information and data that they needed. While all of the other providers were required to give data about their successes challenges, data on the Dream Schools was never given, and Promise Academies were chosen or recommended based on exactly that, "promises" and blind faith. I believe this created a major blind spot in the process that no one in 440, to my knowledge offered to help clarify. Putting students first? Decisions driven by data?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 24, 2010 2:32 pm

Mastery's success is wonderful but it is not the norm for charter schools and the larger question is whether any charter company or organization can bring its model to scale. Mastery, wisely, is moving slowly to expand. The fact is that only 17% of charters perform better than traditional public schools and 37% are worse. If 'Promise' academies lack promise, and dream schools are a nightmare for African American students, and we can't afford to fix schools one by one, what happens to all the kids whose time is being frittered away in these schools. If you aren't familiar with Stanford's study of 5000 charter schools, start w/the NY Times story.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on May 25, 2010 7:38 am

This is the track record from this administrative head and we gave her a job? We are letting her take over so many schools here after this track record? That could only happen to the city that reelected the mayor behind the MOVE problems, right?
We need to stop this transformation. This system, these plans do not work and this article is part of the proof. Our children deserve more than this.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2010 10:34 am

Very interesting, I wonder if Mayor Nutter read this report before he hired Dr. Ackerman, her prior work histrory is very very shabby.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on May 25, 2010 12:45 pm

Now that there is no doubt that he has this information, I would love to know what he is going to do about it. She cannot be allowed to trash another school district. She needs to be stopped.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 26, 2010 10:18 am

Ackerman did nothing for African American Children attending San Francisco Public schools. She spent thousand and thousands of school district money, the kids' money, eating out at Steakhouses on 300 dollar dinners. She milked as much money out of our schools for herself, and then dashes off elsewhere to steal more money from more kids. Yes, why would any district hire her? She is awful at what her job is supposed to be, unless it is stuffing her face with food.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2010 11:30 am

I would really like to know how the advisory councils of the new Promise Academies feel about this, especially all the parents who were "taught" that they don't know enough to have any input on the academic program of their schools and they need to leave that (on faith) to educators like Dr. Ackerman.

Submitted by Spedexaminer Robin Hansen (not verified) on May 25, 2010 6:16 pm

If you would like to read more of Arlene Ackerman's preformance before San Francisco, just google:
School superintendents or "stupor"intendent? What were they thinking?

Why districts keep hiring Ms Ackerman is beyond me.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 11, 2011 7:11 pm

I was hired in 2005 to teach at one of the "Dream Schools" in San Francisco. Ms. Ackerman ceremoniously kicked off the year with a motivational speech to the staff, parents, and community. She explained how the job was going to be very difficult and how we, as teachers, would have to work hard and make many sacrifices to give the students the opportunities they deserved. I was ambitious and ready for the challenge.

And she was right. It was a very tough year and the teaching staff did work very hard in the best interest of students. It made the year even harder when, in June 2006, Ms. Ackerman left her "Dream School" district taking with her a $375, 000 severence package from SFUSD while accepting a new six-figure salary in another state. This action, from the head of a district that already faced a $22.5 million budget deficit for the 2005-06 school year exacerbated an already difficult situation. I wondered, "Where was her sacfrifice?" "Is this in the best interest of her students?" Teacher layoffs followed and schools closed. Furthermore, as the article points out, the schools that she left in her wake are still struggling to make the grade.

Good luck with Ackerman Phili..

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

By using this service you agree not to post material that is obscene, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable. We reserve the right to delete or remove any material deemed to be in violation of this rule, and to ban anyone who violates this rule. Please see our "Terms of Usage" for more detail concerning your obligations as a user of this service. Reader comments are limited to 500 words. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

Follow Us On

Read the latest print issue

Philly Ed Feed

Recent Comments


Public School Notebook

699 Ranstead St.
Third Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: (215) 839-0082
Fax: (215) 238-2300

© Copyright 2013 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. All Rights Reserved.
Terms of Usage and Privacy Policy