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Despite gains, Renaissance expansion uncertain

By Benjamin Herold on Nov 17, 2011 12:05 PM

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Despite encouraging signs of progress in their first cohort of 13 Renaissance Schools, District officials are not yet sure if they will attempt to turn around more low-performing public schools next year.

Thomas Darden, the District's deputy chief of strategic programs, said that “no decision has been made yet” about whether to hand more struggling public schools over to outside managers for conversion to charters.

And Assistant Superintendent Joel Boyd said a decision about whether the District will try to create more internally managed turnaround schools, known as Promise Academies, “is still in discussion.”

The window for deciding to expand either model is rapidly closing. Last year at this time, the District had already issued a request for qualifications from outside managers, started working to identify low-performing schools for possible turnaround, and begun recruiting parents and community members to participate on School Advisory Councils at schools that could be affected.

If the SRC does decide it wants to try more turnarounds next year, said Darden, District staff would have to evaluate whether there is enough time to conduct their lengthy process for matching schools with outside providers.

“They haven’t asked us for that yet, so we haven’t done that analysis,” he said.

As part of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s signature Renaissance Schools initiative, the District converted 12 schools to charters and created nine Promise Academies over the past two years. Philadelphia is widely seen as a national leader among large urban districts in the school turnaround field.

In recent months, however, Ackerman has left, the SRC has almost completely turned over, and the District has lost nearly half of its central office staff as part of massive cuts made to help plug a $629 million budget shortfall. The District is also trying to implement a package of facilities changes, including multiple school closings.

During presentations to the School Reform Commission on Wednesday, Darden and Boyd highlighted the improvements in school climate and student performance at the first group of 13 turnaround schools during the 2010-11 school year.

Across the schools, said Darden, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on state exams jumped 6 percentage points in reading and 13 points in math, although the two Promise Academy high schools, University City High and Vaux High, saw more modest gains.  

Just as important, argued Darden, were positive indicators of improvements in school climate, including improved student attendance and declines in out of school suspensions and serious incidents at both Renaissance charters and Promise Academies.

“In a turnaround, what you really want to establish in the first year is a great climate for learning,” said Darden. “I think both models, on any measure, have established great cultures for learning.”

The results are clear evidence of dramatic success, argued Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which assumed management of three elementary schools in 2010-11 and an additional high school and elementary school this year.

“Renaissance charters worked,” said Gordon. “We should be looking at how we can leverage this tool to address more failing schools.”

He said Mastery has “the interest and the capacity” to assume management of more schools next year, but said that they are running out of time to be able to adequately prepare to do so for 2012-13.

This year, Philadelphia’s Renaissance charters were largely shielded from the massive budget cuts that hit District schools. In Pennsylvania, charter schools currently get their funding based on their host district’s per pupil expenditure in the prior year, so the cuts won’t kick in for them until 2012-13.

But the District’s internal turnaround schools have not been so lucky. Over the summer, the District scaled back the number of new Promise Academies set to open this year from 11 to three

And at the nine Promise Academies that are operational this year, the budget cuts have had a major impact, said Boyd.

“Last year, we had budgeted a million dollars in central support that was going to be provided to the six [schools],” he said. “This year, it was cut down to $250,000 for nine [schools].”

That has meant the loss of support staff, the elimination of summer professional development, and the reduction of enrichment opportunities and mentoring programs, among other things.

The cuts have been significant enough to have fundamentally altered the nature of the Promise Academies, said Boyd.

“The model itself was designed as a comprehensive approach to school turnaround,” he said. “That model was changed.”

In addition to losing resources, the Promise Academies have also endured significant teacher turnover this year, in part because of a protracted disagreement between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last summer. 

After turning over almost 90 percent of its staff last year, Clemente Middle School has experienced 40 percent teacher turnover this year, said the school’s principal, Ed Penn.

“We are adapting to it every day,” he said.

Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the economic realities of doing school turnarounds will have to be a central consideration moving forward.

The newly proposed “Great Schools Compact” could be one mechanism for continuing the Renaissance initiative. The city, the state, the District, and two of the state’s largest charter school umbrella organizations are hoping to win funding from the Gates Foundation to replace 50,000 seats in low-performing schools through a variety of strategies, including charter conversions and internal turnarounds. 

The agreement calls for "replacing or transforming a minimum of 5,000 seats" annually beginning in 2012-13, but no information was provided as to how that might happen in time for next school year.

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Comments (19)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on November 17, 2011 1:41 pm

Why are Darden and Boyd still in Philadelphia? They came with Ackerman - they should have left. Darden has had "made up" positions and Boyd has jumped around. The 2012 -2013 school year needs to be a time to breathe. Let the SRC get the finances in order before more changes are made.

(In an aside, who pays for the uniforms - jackets, pants, skirts, blouses /shirts, ties/scarves, sweaters, etc. - for the Promise Academy staff? That is obviously a waste of money.)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 17, 2011 1:01 pm

The Promise Academy staff purchase their own uniforms.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on November 17, 2011 2:52 pm

How can SDP employees be required to buy a uniform?

Submitted by Promise Academy Teacher (not verified) on November 17, 2011 3:53 pm

We don't have to buy specific items from specific stores, just adhere to a dress code that mimics the students' uniform (blue sweater/coat, white shirt, khaki pants).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 17, 2011 8:30 pm

But... you're adults. What is the rationale for asking teachers to wear the student uniform?

Submitted by Promise Academy Teacher (not verified) on November 17, 2011 10:22 pm

The rationale apparently came from some successful "reform" strain that 440 was attempting to emulate. At its core it's a deprofessionalization of educators, as I think your comment alluded to. Ultimately, the teachers who were already sloppily dressed continued to dress sloppy, and the teachers who dressed like professionals dressed professionally.

It did, however, help with management--I found myself saying many times when confronted with a student refusing to take off a hoodie "do you think I like wearing this? no, but I do because it's what I have to do to play the game. So take off your hoodie because we're all in this together."

The real question, I suppose, is--why do magnet schools have no uniforms and neighborhood high schools do?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 18, 2011 3:47 am

Your question regarding lack of uniforms at magnet schools implies that a uniform does not impact test scores. So, what do uniforms do for neighborhood schools?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 18, 2011 3:38 am

The "Promise Academy" teachers uniforms I have seen are not a dress code. They are jackets, sweaters, scaves, etc. with the school's logo. It isn't "off the shelf."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 17, 2011 8:13 pm

If you are going to get upset about the money wasted at PAs, the money spent (if it were true) buying a brand new uniform for each teacher for each day would be nothing, comparatively.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on November 17, 2011 5:09 pm

 The loss of Saturday classes was not for purely economic reasons, it was because the schools couldn't get the kids to show up. As for the staff turnover, if schools had saught teachers with experience to staff Promise schools then much of the turnover could have been avoided. Instead, Promise Academy principals choose to site-select teachers with very little experience. Anyone who paid attention to the District's finances could have figured out that the teaching staffs at these schools were going to be gutted. The absurd idea that a protected class of teachers was created along with Renaissance just made this school year's staffing that much harder to complete.


Ben, when you say that "Philadelphia is widely seen as a national leader among large urban districts in the school turnaround field" do you mean by volume or success?

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on November 17, 2011 9:37 pm

Mostly based on volume....almost 10 percent of District schools are now turnaround schools of one form or another.

Somewhat based on aggressiveness...Philadelphia has been ahead of the curve in terms of trying  "restart" turnarounds, a much more radical intervention that the more common "transformation" effort that doesnt involve a change in management and doesn't necessarily require a mass staff turnover.

Also in terms of having what is generally perceived to be a strong cohort of turnaround charter operators.  Mastery in particular has a very strong national reputation.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 26, 2011 11:05 am

There is NO COMPARISON between Charters and real schools. How can there be when charters are protected by the politicians who started them from showing their cards and showing transparency. It's all be design of course and the kids pay the biggest price as always. As we all know, when cards are shown, traditional public schools score better than charters for the very most part. But who cares about that? There's money to be made and isn't that what really counts?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 9, 2011 10:30 pm

Your comment is untrue. First of all, principals at Promise Academies HAD to site-select their teachers. Secondly, most teachers who applied to PA in the first year were NOT from the SDP (you may recall that so many teachers were suspicious of the model and unwilling to work the extra hours). Thirdly, many teachers who DID apply were inexperienced in teaching BUT highly motivated, willing to learn, improve and succeed. As a veteran teacher who works at a PA (since before it became one) I can only say that those who could have stayed, chose not to and those who could've applied, didn't want to so those who were willing, did! And as you should know, they were NOT protected, since many awesome teachers who wanted nothing more than to stay at their PA for a second year, couldn't. That's why several PAs ended up with a largely new staff in September. Hope that clarifies some things for you.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 18, 2011 6:05 pm

Ben----Use your time writing about the need to FORCE Charters to be transparent. All clear thinking people know that charters are being protected by the politicians who started them. They are cheap and make lots of easy money without any real accountability. Do you really think Mastery etc. are REALLY making significant gains?? Can you say, Imhotep ?? People like Gordon give freedom of speech a bad name. What can be asserted without REAL proof can be dismissed completely. Please call for transparency, real transparency just as the traditional Public Schools must demonstrate. If that happens, charters will expose themselves for what they are: a trendy way to make lots of easy money for carpetbaggers like Gordon. Education occurs just by happenstance as they're ripping off the kids' money while selling the parents a bill of goods.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2011 9:55 am

amen. follow the money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2011 8:24 pm

About the uniform discussion. Our school has also adopted the uniform policy of wearing button down the front white collared shirts, navy blue vest or sweater, and khaki pants or skirts. At first I hated the idea, but it was actually a blessing for me. The plus is I don't have to figure out what I am going to wear in the morning or the night before saving me more time thus I get to work on time now more than I did last year. The down side to uniforms is that the student's parents never wash them. Children come to school filthy and smelling bad all the time. It's a disgrace, but even though we have told the parents time and time again, they still send their children to school with extremely soiled uniforms. Our school had no choice but to purchase a washer and dryer just for the sole purpose of cleaning these poor student's clothes. Teachers also come to school wearing wrinkled uniforms or uniforms that do not meet the standards. Life is not perfect, and all we can do is tackle each obstacle day to day.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 9, 2011 10:51 pm

Yes, I agree 100%. As a PA teacher, I like the uniform. I've been mentally trained to look for white and khaki and find it extremely easy and time-saving to grab a white shirt and khaki pants or a skirt. Unfortunately, there are teachers in our profession who don't dress professionally so instead of seeing flip flops, sweatpants, cleavage and thongs, I'm surrounded by professionally dressed educators and students alike (for the most part at least).

Submitted by Anonymous PAer (not verified) on December 10, 2011 7:57 am

I agree that uniforms are easy. However, I think this one is especially ugly on female students and employees. Just my two cents.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2011 1:10 pm

How do people like Tom Darden keep reinventing themselves. Your leader is gone! Go away!

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