Four new Renaissance Schools announced
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
UPDATE 6 p.m.
Buoyed by promising results from their initial group of turnaround schools and largely undeterred by the District’s ongoing fiscal uncertainty, officials announced Wednesday that four more low-performing traditional public schools will be converted to charters as part of the Renaissance Schools initiative.
“By continuing this initiative, the District underlines its commitment to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact,” said a press release announcing the news.
The four new Renaissance charters – Grover Cleveland Elementary in Tioga, Thomas Creighton Elementary in the lower Northeast, Henry R. Edmunds Elementary in Frankford, and John Paul Jones Middle in Kensington – currently serve more than 3,000 students. Although the schools will be turned over to outside managers, they will remain neighborhood schools, joining the 13 existing Renaissance charters already serving roughly 9,400 students.
Current Renaissance providers Mastery Charter, Mosaica Turnaround Partners, Scholar Academies, and Universal Companies will join newcomers American Paradigm and String Theory Schools in competing for the right to manage the schools during a “match process” to take place over the next six weeks. A scheduled School Reform Commission vote on final pairings of schools and providers has been moved from March 29 to April 19 to accommodate for nearly two-week delay in Wednesday’s announcement.
While pressing ahead with charter conversions, the District announced that there will be no new District-managed turnaround schools, called Promise Academies.
“The District remains committed to in-District turnaround models, and the current Promise Academies will continue to operate,” said District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Thomas Darden.
“Cost was not a consideration in our analysis,” he added. “We didn’t want to start another [Promise Academy] until we completed our academic reorganization.”
Darden estimated that converting Cleveland, Creighton, Edmunds, and Jones to Renaissance charters will cost the District between $2.5 and $3 million dollars, but said a full accounting of the Renaissance initiative was still being developed.
Teachers’ union President Jerry Jordan quickly blasted the announcement, calling the District’s methodology for selecting schools “flawed” and saying the schools have not received the funding and supports need to improve on their own.
“This is clearly a setup by the District,” said Jordan.
But in expanding the initiative, the District touted significant test score gains at its first cohort of Renaissance charters, results highlighted in a recent study by local nonprofit Research for Action.
“We’re obviously pleased that we have third-party validation,” said Darden.
This year’s schools were selected based on histories of poor academic performance and other factors including “school climate, feeder patterns, and neighborhood characteristics.”
"If a school was in an existing [Renaissance] feeder pattern, it got additional consideration this year. ... We prefer to give students a full K-12 continuum of high-performing options," said Darden.
The District still has not released its 2011 School Performance Index scores, which are used to rate both District and charter schools. In 2010, Cleveland, Creighton, Edmunds, and Jones all received SPI ratings of either of nine or ten, the two lowest possible scores.
Creighton, Edmunds, and Jones are all in “Corrective Action II” status after failing to meet their federally mandated adequate yearly progress targets for multiple years. Cleveland, however, met all of its targets last year and is in “School Improvement” status.
Both Cleveland and Edmunds elementary schools are located near existing Renaissance charters operated by Mastery, which currently runs ten schools in the city, including five Renaissance charters. If it were to add Cleveland and Edmunds to its portfolio, the city’s largest charter operator would continue to make progress towards its goal of establishing complete K-12 feeder patterns in multiple sections of the city.
Through its choice of schools, the District did not give ASPIRA of PA, another Renaissance operator, the opportunity to pursue a similar strategy. ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon said his organization made it through the District’s prequalification process, but will not be competing to manage any of the newly named Renaissance Schools because none feed into either Edison or Olney High School.
“We want to concentrate our efforts in this particular geographical community so we can make an impact,” said Calderon
Among the six approved “turnaround teams” that did make the final cut were newcomers American Paradigm and String Theory Schools, both of which are connected to local charters.
“We’re very excited to be able to offer children in other areas of Philadelphia the same program our children are receiving,” said Angela Corosanite, the executive director of String Theory, a new educational management organization tied to Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School in South Philadelphia.
As has been the case for the past several months, dark budget clouds hovered over Wednesday’s announcement.
Earlier this month, the Notebook/NewsWorks reported that the District is incurring significant facilities-related costs at its existing Renaissance charters. Officials had no precise accounting, however, saying only that that the initiative is costing the cash-strapped District “south of $10 million” this year.
The Notebook/NewsWorks also reported that the District has been allowing current Renaissance operator Universal Companies to operate for free in both Audenried High and Vare Middle schools. While facilities license agreements for the two schools potentially totaling over $2 million remain unsigned, the District is covering all of the costs of operating the buildings.
New District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said last week only that that a resolution with Universal is “in process.”
He also declined to put a dollar figure on the Renaissance initiative overall, saying that newly hired management consultant Boston Consulting Group was working with the District to develop a more accurate sense of the real costs of managing its “portfolio schools.”
“Up to now, the District hasn’t had an adequate modeling tool,” said Knudsen. “We are developing it and will employ it to get answers.”
Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers decried the continued expenditures on charter conversions even as the District slashes staff and services at hundreds of traditional public schools.
“I think it’s nothing short of outrageous,” said Jordan.
Successful districts, he added, “adequately fund their schools, invest in teacher training, and use testing as a means of helping to improve teacher performance and student outcomes. “
“This District is going just the opposite way.”
As in past years, teachers at newly designated Renaissance Schools will be “force-transferred” and made to reapply for their jobs, said Jordan.
According to the revised “match process” timeline outlined by the District on Wednesday, School Advisory Councils consisting of parents and community members will be formed and trained at Cleveland, Creighton, Edmunds, and Jones over the next two weeks.
During late March and April, the SACs will review provider proposals and host forums at which the providers could make their case before making a formal, but non-binding, recommendation on a new manager.
Advocates had worried about a match process that looked like it could be condensed from seven weeks last year to four weeks or less this year. Darden acknowledged this concern in talking about the decision to push the due date for SAC recommendations back to mid-April and the SRC’s final vote to April 19.
“Given the delay in the announcement of the turnaround teams, we wanted to allow for enough time to execute the matching process,” he said.
Last month, nonprofit consulting organization Frontline Solutions was given a $195,000 contract to facilitate the work of SACs during the match process for a third consecutive year.
To date, each year of that match process has been marred by controversy. In 2010, the vote of the SAC at West Philadelphia High was disregarded and ultimately overturned by District officials and the School Reform Commission.
And last year, the city’s chief integrity officer blasted former SRC Chairman Robert Archie and State Representative Dwight Evans after backroom dealing on the future of Martin Luther King High was uncovered and reported by the Notebook/NewsWorks.
Despite the past problems, Darden expressed faith in the match process.
“When SACs are given full autonomy to evaluate turnaround teams and participate fully, they make good decisions for schools and communities,” he said.
For the first time, former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman will not preside over what was often described as the “signature initiative” of her tenure. Instead, new District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen will retain final say over the proposed matches between the new Renaissance schools and providers. Knudsen will consult with Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon, according to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard.