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Renaissance schools a 'priority,' but at what price?

By Benjamin Herold on Apr 4, 2011 12:25 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

"It's a calculated risk, but we'll figure it out," said District Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono of moving ahead with plans to convert eight more schools into Renaissance charters despite not knowing how much it will cost.

School District officials are still hoping to shield Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative from the massive budget cuts that have already begun – even though they aren’t sure how much the effort is going to cost.

“We are running the cost scenarios,” said Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono, who oversees the Renaissance schools under outside management, during a March 18 interview.

Castelbuono and other officials gave no insight as to why they thought they had the capacity to do the full Promise Academies internal turnaround model in 10 schools, including some big high schools, in a year when they are being forced to slash the District's operating budget by $629 million, or one-fifth.

“We can’t give you a number estimate at this time,” said District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs when asked on March 21 about the projected cost for operating 10 additional Promise Academies next year.

District officials have repeatedly described the Renaissance initiative as a “priority” and said they have a “moral obligation” to continue turning around chronically low-performing schools. They have sidestepped questions as to whether they considered how maintaining additional programs in these schools might exacerbate cuts in others.

“Dr. Ackerman has said through all of her budget briefings…that a priority is to maintain the initiatives of Imagine 2014,” said Childs.

Their plan to close the budget shortfall, unveiled on March 30, calls for slashing central office staff, increasing class size, reducing the number of counselors, re-opening contract negotiations with labor unions, and cutting individual school budgets by an average of more than $1 million, among other measures - cuts that could result in fewer art, music, and athletic classes and programs. 

But the plan makes no mention of the Renaissance initiative, which in its first year is costing the District an estimated $20 million. Conversion of seven schools to Renaissance charters cost $10.4 million, while extra personnel and programming at Promise Academies added $9.6 million.

Next year, the District has proposed to convert eight more schools into Renaissance charters and to turn 10 more schools into District-run Promise Academies. With several large neighborhood high schools slated for both turnaround models, costs are expected to be significantly higher. 

If the District implements its full turnaround model at all 10 new Promise Academies, for example, the Notebook has estimated that the added cost of running just the 18 total Promise Academies next year could exceed $30 million.

The majority of the added expense at the Promise Academies results from a longer school day and year, for which teachers are paid an hourly rate based on their base salaries. 

Until the District knows who is teaching at the schools next year, officials can’t give a firm dollar amount for what the schools will cost, said Assistant Superintendent Francisco Duran, who oversees the Promise Academies.

During an hour-long March 21 interview with the Notebook,  Duran confirmed that the model may well become more even more expensive next year, despite the budget crisis:

Notebook: I’m hearing that you’re intending to do the same kinds of interventions. You’re not scaling back the Promise Academy model at the new schools.

Duran: Correct. Correct.

Notebook: And given how much that cost last year, it’s the same types of expenses that are largely going to be determined by the facilities needs and the number and experience of teachers at the schools.

Duran: Correct.

Notebook: And so if you look at the enrollments of those schools, particularly because there are a couple of large high schools that are part of the second cohort of Promise Academies, it’s likely that the overall bill is going to go up significantly.

Duran: Based on the numbers, it could, yes.

Notebook: And that it would be fair to expect that also given the stated concern about getting more experienced teachers into the Promise Academies that they’re going to be more expensive also.

Duran: Right. Well, they will be. More experienced teachers cost us more because the hourly rate is higher. 

The cost of the Renaissance charters is more difficult to calculate, but equally uncertain.

During a March 18 interview, Castelbouno identified three main factors that are leading to the uncertain cost projections for the charter conversions next year:

  • A new method for projecting enrollments at the schools in the hopes of more accurately anticipating the number of neighborhood students who choose to attend.
  • Unresolved questions about who will manage career and technical education programs at the high schools slated to be handed over to outside managers.
  • Uncertain cleaning and facilities' maintenance costs to be borne by the District in the first year of external management.

On March 16, the School Reform Commission voted to approve the District’s proposed providers for six so-called “Renaissance Match” schools, despite the lack of a solid cost projection for the second year of the initiative.

“They know it’s about a million dollars and they know how much it swings,” said Castelbuono. “It’s a calculated risk, yes, but we’ll figure it out. It’s important to keep with the core programs, and turning around the lowest-performing schools is a core program, and so for that cost, it’s worth it.”

Though the District bears an added expense for the Renaissance charters, the schools themselves are actually likely to see additional resources, provided by their new managers. All four outside providers taking on schools this year say that have put upwards of $500,000 into facilities upgrades, new furniture, and other improvements in each of their schools. 

To date, there has been little public discussion about the District’s efforts to shield the Renaissance schools from the budget axe.

During a recent online chat with, Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch was asked directly about the cost of the Promise Academies, but offered only in this in response:

“The goal of the Promise Academies is to turn around our chronically low-performing schools. It is our moral and ethical obligation to provide a quality education to all students in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, many of these low-performing schools have been underserved for decades.”

During the District’s recent budget forums, the public was asked to rank a list of 35 programs and services they valued the most, but the Renaissance initiative was not included on the list. 

Both Castelbuono and Duran argued that it’s imperative for the District to push ahead, despite the budget implications.

“In the grander scheme of things, six Renaissance charters, if it costs an additional six million, its important enough that these kids are in the lowest-performing schools that they get a better program,” said Castelbuono.

“Certainly all schools need funding and support, we’re not discounting that,” said Duran. “But these schools, the Promise Academies, we said they need additional supports.”

As an analogy, Duran described the tough decisions that doctors have to make in trying to best serve all of their patients despite their varied needs.

“Some need a little bit more care than another,” said Duran. “You have to look at the symptoms and some of the long-term illnesses that some of those patients have had to determine who might need a little bit more. That doesn’t mean that you’re not treating all of your patients, but you have to look at them case by case and see who might need additional help.”

Transcripts of the interview excerpts related to the cost of the Renaissance initiative are available for Diane Castelbuono and Francisco Duran.

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Comments (21)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 3:06 pm

What evidence ("data") is there to show that a "Renaissance" process or "Promise Academies" do any better than other neighborhood schools? Ackerman's work in San Francisco was a failure. Chicago has tried "turn around" and it has failed. Is Ackerman willing to lose music, art, sports, etc. at other schools to pump money into her "project?"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 4:19 pm

"Is Ackerman willing to lose music, art, sports, etc. at other schools to pump money into her "project?"


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 7:12 pm

If you cut music, art and athletic programs there will not be any kids left that attend high school in Philadelphia. How many students stay in school just to participate in these after school activities? I know students in middle school that only come to school to play sports. Watch the dropout rate rise dramatically if these cuts take place.

Submitted by Heartbroken for the Kids (not verified) on April 4, 2011 6:08 pm

There is no data to support the claim that Renaissance Schools produce better results. In fact, if you Google the Chicago Renaissance Schools, the model used by Dame Umbridge, you'll find that even when they weeded out the English Language Learners and Special Ed kids - which they do - these much ballyhooed schools performed worse than the surrounding public schools.

The fact that human beings with families are losing their jobs so the extravagantly paid Ms. Ackerman can attempt to leave her mark on the Philadelphia School District is appalling. That the SCR allows it makes one question whether they really want Philly's kids to succeed.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 6:51 pm

This type of situation frustrates me. I am in a Promise Academy. It's better, in almost every respect, than it was before or than the other neighborhood school I've taught in. However, most of the improvements are not due to the extra time and money being dumped into them. It's mostly due, in my opinion, to having a full site selection staff that actively chose to be on board with the turnaround (and there has definitely been a change of culture, etc.) and school leadership that's willing to support the teachers in their efforts. The extra hour and Saturdays probably haven't hurt, but it hasn't been used to even close to its potential, and to slash other programs just to keep paying all of us is really silly. I think the Promise Academies could be run much more cost-effectively with little/no decrease in student outcomes.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 7:37 pm

Last year, because of Promise Academies, Empowerment School lost site selection of staff. We had to take teachers removed from Promise Academies (and West). Site selection where everyone agrees to the mission of the school and school leadership that supports teachers versus coddling students will work in most schools. Trying to stretch the school day and include Saturdays should be voluntary.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 9:41 pm

The Promise Academies get everything they need and the Comprehensive High Schools have 40 in a room, No Heat, Lights or chalk. Yet it is the fault of those lousy teachers that the students fail. This is the plan of a genius?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2011 9:04 pm

Promise Academies aren't exactly paved in gold, though I will admit to having somewhat better supplies than in Empowerment schools (at least in my personal experience). But bad climate control, copy machine rationing, paper shortages, slow maintenance, etc. are still part of life. Not as severe, but still not what students and teachers really deserve.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on April 5, 2011 7:33 am

It is a plan - to break up the school district, but I would not call our leadership a genius.

Submitted by Mike (not verified) on April 5, 2011 12:44 pm

I am not saying that all comprehensive high schools are well taken care of. I will say that I teach in one and resources are not the main issue. We have Smart boards in almost every classroom.

Submitted by We Are Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2011 5:25 am

Audenried has out performed the Promise Academies. Becoming a Renaissance School is an expensive step backward.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on April 5, 2011 7:31 am

The move forward with these plans is stupid. The money is not there. Our leadership is stealing from the neighborhood schools, with the belief that she is creating flagships for the school district. She is throwing away so many schools and children to create these ideals. Our children and us are paying the price. This must be stopped.
The cuts should be starting with her cronies in 440, then the extras being throw at her flagships. Saturdays and extended hours should be in the first five things to go in this crunch.
Yes - I am including summer school for non graduating students.

Submitted by Gratz drop put (not verified) on April 5, 2011 1:43 pm

simon gratz is the worst school to go to to get an education,yo won't get an education there and most teachers and staff wont care if you dont attend class or dont do the work,illegal drug activity goes on,teachers and students be high in class smh they need to just close the school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2011 4:14 pm

According to my wife, who is a Philly school teacher, the announcement was made today that the District cut all of the SBIS positions and effective next year all schools that have full day knidergarten will now be half day kindergarten except for Empowerment Schools.

If I read correctly. weren't they supposed to go to half day kindergarten as a last resort? The District should save money by not having those schools turned over to Charters and Renaissance Schools. I wonder why Mayor Nutter has not addressed any of the school district issues especially the overspending allowed by the SRC. I don't get it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2011 9:00 pm

Does anyone know more about the change to half-day kindergarten? I haven't heard anything about this elsewhere...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2011 10:16 pm

The Principals in each school should be addressing this to all teachers. It does not affect kindergarten teachers in Empowerment Schools. All other schools are fair game. When a SBIS gets cut in theor school, if they have more building seniroty over another teacher, they can bump them due to seniority. Its a shame this is all happening and there are other cuts the District could have made. Now, they are talking about getting rid of school police and security---its ridiculous!! They need to start cutting the summer SLAM program first, then not turn over those newly chosen schools to Charters and Renaissance--that is costing a lot of money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 6, 2011 10:19 am

My principal has not addressed this. I am going by rumors and information from others. I don't know whether I can stay or not.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on April 6, 2011 11:28 am

Also, remember, this is the "Doomsday Budget"--we really do not know what will come down the pike in June for the State budget, or what will happen in schools in September. The Budget Directions and handbook that ALL principals have in their hands by now does say that full-day kindergarten is only in Empowerment Schools. Your principal is contractually obligated to give a copy of the budget and allotment to your PFT Building Representative. The Leadership Team (which includes the Building Rep) and other teachers, should be working on the budget IN COLLABORATION with the principal this week. Also the budget contained a letter from Ackerman that was to be copied and sent home to all parents this week. If this is not happening in your building, you need to ask your Building Rep to fix it. I do not think that kindergarten teachers will work only half day--they will teach two groups per day, a morning and an afternoon. This has been done in many suburban districts for years. It is not ideal, and we will see if parents protest it or not.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on April 7, 2011 9:56 am

Half day kindergarten will limit the number of kindergartners enrolled for next year. Many working parents cannot get their kids at a noon dismissal or get them into a noon start time. We will see a huge increase in the number of off the street first graders the following year. This is a BAD idea for an inner city school district.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on April 7, 2011 9:16 am

And, even kids attending half-day kindergarten will not be as prepared for first grade! It is horrible, and really it would be a better investment to pay now for kindergarten than have problems later.....but there is no vision or logic in this budget.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 6, 2011 2:47 pm

I just read about the 'out of control child' who was pepper sprayed. Instead of the parent going on tv in outrage, she should have gone straight to the doctor to get help for her child. She is outraged....she should hide her head in shame! What is she teaching her child? So sad for the boy who is learning nothing from this experience.

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