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Renaissance charters meet neighborhood enrollment targets except for Universal

By Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on Jan 28, 2013 06:19 PM

Philadelphia's independent Renaissance school operators are bringing families back to struggling neighborhood public schools that they have "turned around" -- with one notable exception.

Universal Companies, the city's second-largest manager of Renaissance charter schools, is lagging behind its targets for serving students from the surrounding community at most of its schools.

Universal-Daroff Elementary in West Philadelphia, for example, now enrolls about 54 percent of the public school students who live in the school's catchment area. Preliminary data indicate that Daroff is about 19 percentage points below its 2013 target for neighborhood student enrollment.

When Daroff was managed by the District, the school served 59 percent of those students.

Unlike regular charter schools, which can draw from all over the city, Philadelphia's 17 Renaissance charters must first enroll students from defined attendance zones.

The schools face sanctions, including possible revocation of their charters, if -- by the end of their third year -- they don't meet specific targets relating to student enrollment, academic performance, and school climate.

Seven Renaissance charters began operating under outside management in 2010. They are scheduled to come up for their first formal accountability review this summer.

The five schools operated by ASPIRA of PA, Mastery Charter, and Scholar Academies appear on-track to meet or exceed their targets for serving students from the surrounding neighborhood, according to an analysis of preliminary District data by NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

Another Universal school in West Philadelphia, Universal-Bluford, is also falling short of its target for neighborhood enrollment, by about 12 percentage points.

Universal is also well below its target at Edwin Vare Middle School, which it took over as a Renaissance charter in 2011.

Decision time approaches

The cash-strapped Philadelphia School District must decide this spring whether to continue paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to subsidize Universal's use of District-owned facilities at Vare and Audenried High.

Universal officials declined to comment.

District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn stressed that the currently available enrollment data is unofficial. He said the numbers at Universal's Renaissance charters raise "some questions we would want to dig into."

Overall, though, Kihn said the city's Renaissance charters appear to be living up to their charge to function as neighborhood schools.

"This is an initiative the District has undertaken that works," he said. The Renaissance idea was hatched during the tenure of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Three more traditional public schools are expected to be designated for conversion to Renaissance charters sometime next month.

Success stories

Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia is a prime example of why the District is eager to expand the Renaissance initiative.

In 2009-10, its last year as a District-managed school, Douglass enrolled 518 students. According to District data, that was about 58 percent of the public school students who lived in the neighborhood surrounding the school.

That meant that hundreds of dissatisfied families were opting to send their kids elsewhere.

The charge given to Scholar Academies, the nonprofit charter management organization that took control of Douglass in 2010-11, was to bring those families back. Under its charter agreements with the District, Scholar Academies is required to serve a set percentage of the students who live in the surrounding neighborhood.

Under outside management, Douglass' enrollment has risen to 755 students. More than 90 percent of the public school students in the surrounding neighborhood are now attending the school, far exceeding its target.

Lars Beck, chief executive officer of Scholar Academies, said consistency has been a big reason for the turnaround.

"We've focused on trying to build trust with our families by delivering on our promises," Beck said.

Douglass's test scores have also gone up in both reading and math.

The story is similar at the two Renaissance charters operated by ASPIRA of PA, a community development organization focused on improving predominantly Latino neighborhoods in eastern North Philadelphia.

Mastery Charter is also at or near its student enrollment targets at each of the five Renaissance charter schools where it assumed control in 2010 or 2011.

Missing their targets

Deputy Superintendent Kihn said the District's first formal review of the first batch of Renaissance schools will likely begin this summer.

At the moment, only Universal appears to have cause for concern.

Its schools' test-score gains have also been comparatively modest.

"If there were examples of schools that were way off their targets, we would take the action that we're allowed to within their charters," Kihn said.

That could include imposing new conditions or returning the schools to District control.

The District and its charter operators do not use the same systems to track student enrollment and home addresses. As a result, keeping student information up-to-date and validating student records across multiple data systems remains a logistical challenge.

Still, the unofficial data from the District offer "a pretty good glimpse" of what's actually happening, said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, the chief innovation officer at Mastery. But once Renaissance charter operators have the opportunity to validate each student's address, she said, the numbers will likely rise modestly.

A question of money

Two other Renaissance charters operated by Universal could come under scrutiny this spring, a year before their formal accountability reviews take place.

In 2011-12, the District allowed the organization to operate rent-free at Audenried High School and Edwin Vare Middle School in South Philadelphia. The District absorbed $1.8 million in facilities, maintenance, utilities and personnel costs at the schools that year. One reason given was the schools didn't have enough enrollment to support a cost-effective turnaround program.

After the Notebook and NewsWorks reported on the deal, Universal agreed to pick up $800,000 of those costs for 2012-13. The District, which borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills this year, continues to absorb significant expenses at both buildings.

The current agreement between the District and Universal expires this June. They have until the end of May to work out a new deal.

"We have undertaken different arrangements with different Renaissance charter operators over the last couple of years, and that's something we have to take a look at," Kihn said.

"Our general stance towards charter schools is that we do not provide facilities."

At Vare, the District's preliminary enrollment data shows that Universal has only marginally increased the school's share of students from the surrounding neighborhood.

Under District management, Vare served 35 percent of students in its catchment. Under Universal management, the school now serves 41 percent of those students. The District's target for Universal at Vare this year is 51 percent.

Universal-Audenried now serves 30 percent of students from the surrounding neighborhood. Its target is 29 percent.

Round four

Kihn said the District intends to seek proposals for a fourth group of Renaissance charter schools "at the beginning of February."

Three low-performing District schools are expected to be converted to charters.

Three more are expected to be "turned around" by the District as Promise Academies.

The new Renaissance charters will be matched with outside managers under the same process as in previous years. School Advisory Councils consisting of parents and community members will vet proposals from potential operators and select a preferred candidate. The final recommendation will be made by the superintendent.

A School Reform Commission vote is tentatively slated for May.

Representatives from ASPIRA. Mastery and Scholar Academies all said they hope to compete this year, depending on which schools are named.

"We don't take schools just for the sake of taking schools," said ASPIRA's Calderon.

"We want to make an impact in the neighborhood."

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Comments (21)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 28, 2013 8:03 pm
Charter schools have to use the district system to enroll students. That's how charters get paid. It has been this way since the beginning of charter schools.
Submitted by Benjamin Herold on January 28, 2013 8:54 pm


Thanks for pointing this out...I seem to have worded it poorly.  My understanding is that charters do report enrollment via SCN, but generally use different systems to track student attendance and other information, including home address...hence the potential confusion with the District.  Further details from those on the frontlines much appreciated.


Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on January 28, 2013 10:40 pm
Universal had a special verbal agreement with Ackerman that they would get more money for less results.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on January 29, 2013 2:41 pm
Wow, where are all the right-wing-privatizing-anti-charter-hate-spewing-conspiracy-theorists?!?! No mea culpas?? Turns out good schools = neighborhood schools because parents want results above all else.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on January 29, 2013 2:26 pm
there is something unsaid here. all the schools that were taken over were awful. even if they changed to another bad operator, they haven't hurt themselves because the school was bad to begin with. if the new operator works out, it's all good. most of the schools slated for closure or takeover have been bad for 30years. i don't think you'll be able to say thats about a charter. they will face the src if they don't perform. the entire district should work like that.
Submitted by Timothy Boyle on January 29, 2013 10:50 pm

You do realize the implications of lableing a school awful right? Do you think that tells a complete story? You realize the impliactions of saying the transfer from one "bad" manger to another "bad" manager is meaningless because of charter accountability right? If you have a point to prove, being a zealot isn't a great way of going about it. 

Submitted by reformer (not verified) on January 30, 2013 3:50 am
this statement is not just for charter managers, it's for any manager. I think the district could do more in-house if your arcane didn't make it impossible. but, to your point, just look at the news story about the performance of renaissance schools. only one management group failed to meet the.goals for % of neighborhood kids. adding well-run charters to the areas of the closures and the neighbors will come back. This isn't about charters. it's about a system so mismanaged and bound by mindless policies and regulations that it can't get out of its own way.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on January 30, 2013 3:56 am
btw i am for getting rid of poor performing charters and charter managers. these district closures should be a wake up call.
Submitted by tom-104 on January 29, 2013 10:58 pm
What is your evidence "most of the schools slated for closure or take over have been bad for 30 years"? Just a gut feeling? Go to the School District website and look at the Profile for all 37 schools. Then visit a few of them. Until you do that, you have nothing to say, so stop bothering us!
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on January 30, 2013 2:56 am
you're right. I painted the list with the same broad brush that i accuse the charter haters of using. Having reviewed the list again, i'd say fulton and george washington are ok. a couple of the other elementary schools (and I don't mean more than two) may have been bad for 20 years, but since dr. Clayton left, you find it hard to deny that the district is in rapid decline. hornbeck had two modes of operation, bad decision and indecision, vallas recognized that it was far easier to create new schools than to fix bad ones, but that's pricey at $60-80 mil/school. arlene, fraud. dr. hyte comes into this mess and takes bold action, and everyone's acting like he chose the wrong schools. please! are there a few questionable calls? sure, but precious few. i also don't think you re-locate great programs (specifically lankanau, and robeson) in schools like sayre and roxborough. but, that's just me. so while I do think that in this very narrow context there's room for debate, I wholeheartedly stand by my statement.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 29, 2013 7:15 pm
Is there a plan in the works with ASPIRA's Educational Management Organization to service low performing schools in the South Philadelphia area given the rise of the Latino population? What will happen to Southwark when Bok is closed? Isn't there a connection between the two schools' hearing system? Questions...questions...
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 29, 2013 8:44 pm
Oops...meant to type Isn't there a connection between the two schools' heating system?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2013 6:21 am
They should really look at how special education and bad behavior kids are treated. The Law Center should do an investigation to make sure that the neighborhood kids are really the neighborhood kids and are not being pushed out. This looks like another scam to me. If charter money makers can make failing schools and poorly educated children excellent overnight, why aren't all kids all over the city having these strategies shared with them? Something doesn't make sense, but the groups who can investigate must be getting paid off.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2013 9:19 pm
Actually, the when the SDP tries to adopt successful strategies, it runs into problems of competence. For example, the Promise Academies were loosely based on the the model that many "high performing" charters use. Yet in the Promise Academy I taught in, not a single administrator had ever set foot in the schools whose strategies we were trying to adopt. And it showed. On paper we were doing some of the "same" things, but the execution was laughable. We were supposed to have a universal philosophy on school climate/safety (which is important--so students can have some stability and things aren't arbitrary). It's a great idea that basically any successful school--charter or public--must have. The Promise Academy regional office finally released their plan in November. That's one big difference between the good charters and the District. In good charters (and good schools anywhere, regardless of their structure), the decisions/timelines/etc. center around what's necessary for the education--even if that means some overtime/extra effort in August to make sure the school is ready for the year. In the District, it's much more of a "things will happen when whoever gets around to them" mindset. There's no accountability for anyone, from the Supt to students. That's one reason I'm encouraged that Dr. Hite is focusing on implementation, not new ideas. It's not ideas that the SDP is short on, it's executing them effectively that separates the District from the effective charter schools (and from other effective districts).
Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on January 31, 2013 4:58 am
Yes, implementation is an ongoing problem. Part of it is a mindset - too many SDP employees look at what they do not have to do versus what they have to do. Small, special admit schools that opened in the 2000s, while very problematic because they drain students from neighborhood high schools, have the advantage of selecting a staff that agrees with their program/ focus / pedagogy / theory / etc. There is a huge difference in the "buy in" by the staff at Constitution and SLA versus the "old" small schools like Bodine. There is no cohesion or common approach at a school like Bodine where some teachers incorporate pedagogical thinking of the 21st century and others act like it is the 19th century. The Promise Academies, in theory, should have hired staff that are with their program but if the administration is inept, that won't happen. Promise Academies have far more resources than anyone else - except for the other Department of Labor grant schools. They are far too top heavy with excessive administrators or teachers "on classroom leave." While I support unionization of teachers because of so many incompetent, vengeful and inept administrators in Philadelphia schools, there needs to be a way to change the current mindset that "You can't tell me what to do" to a school mindset that encourages all teachers to teach as if their child is sitting in the room.
Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on January 31, 2013 5:51 am
The mind set of "do the least possible" and "you can't tell me what to do" permeates all of Philadelphia. Try calling City Hall or our City Council Rep's office. Unless you know someone, it is a joke. Customer service doesn't exist. It is a death sentence mentality.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on February 1, 2013 3:03 am
I have mixed feelings about Mastery based on spending a lot of time in one of their schools. However, I student taught in a District school and there is a definite difference in the approach to behavior problems at this Mastery school versus this District school. It's not an apples to apples comparison because the teachers and administrators at Mastery were overall much younger than the ones in the District school and Mastery had more resources and more adults in the building. That said, ALL OF THE ADULTS AT THIS MASTERY SCHOOL WERE ON THE SAME PAGE!!! There was a manual about the positive behavior support/school culture and various administrators would make informal visits to classrooms. At the Mastery school, there was an expectation that teachers speak to students in a respectful tone and not demean students. At the District school, while teachers spoke to students positively more often than not, there were a couple of teachers who were extremely negative toward students, constantly yelling at them. This kind of negative tone would never fly at Mastery. I know because I got a talking to from an administrator and a teacher about a time when I got frustrated and my tone got too harsh. At the District school, there was a school wide bucket filling school culture initiative, but there wasn't a lot of structure to it. Expectations for the uniforms and walking in the halls were not enforced. At the District school where I student taught, a school which is pretty decent by District standards, I felt that there was the "things will happen when whoever gets around to them" mindset with many things. The principal was a good principal, very respectful of teachers and students and knowledgeable about special ed issues. At the same time, little things in the school went by the wayside. The teacher's lounge was gross, but it finally got cleaned up because PFT set a deadline. Teachers put up objectives on the board and finished bulletin boards if there was an evaluation or a walk-through. A good number of the teachers were very good or excellent, but there were some who had clearly gotten complacent, and a couple who were downright awful. There was even a difference in the janitors at the Mastery school vs. the District school. The janitors at the Mastery school did a much more thorough job of cleaning the floors and the teacher's lounge than the janitors at the District school. The building engineer at the District school was great, very responsive to issues that arose in the building. At Mastery, teachers and staff had to go the extra mile. I think that Mastery places too many responsibilities on its teachers, especially given how much their pay is. Some of the teachers were so bogged down with work there, and I wonder how many of them will stay at Mastery for 5 or more years. The deans (in charge of behavior problems) could dump extra work on the teachers and there wasn't much accountability for this. I definitely think that there needs to be more of an emphasis on making sure teachers, principals, and other District employees are actually doing their jobs. There needs to hold employees accountable while still allowing for unions, because unions help keep good wages/salaries, benefits, and working conditions. There also needs to be accountability of people at 440 and accountability in the form of an elected school board.
Submitted by Barnsie (not verified) on June 27, 2013 7:44 pm
1) National studies have shown that charter schools have made some improvements in education especially with African American and Latino students. 2)Renaissance school do take from the Neighborhood first then open enrollment to students living out of the catchment to make sure they reach enrollment caps 3) Special Education and ELL students are serviced at Charter Schools. It is illegal to not serve them or attempted to kick them out. that is an urban legend about charter schools that they don't service students with special needs. 4)Not all charter schools are the great saviors to education but there is accountability measures set in place. Education is in a poor situation but condemning charters or SDP schools is not the answer either. look at the providers, programs, and staff that works and change those that don't. 5) Charters offer parents a choice, even at Turnaround schools parents are part of the SAC, make choices and changes... their voices are heard. 6) if a parent is unhappy with a turnaround school they r not forced to send them there, they can always return their student to SDP...they have options that did not exist 20 years ago
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 5, 2013 9:45 am
The information about Universal Daroff not meeting school catchment area enrollment is inaccurate and ridiculous. The school serves the children that are in the boundaries of Universal Daroff. That has not and will not change. The push to move Universal out of West Philadelphia has become foolish. The school is thriving under the leadership of the Principal that is currently in place. Jumping on the bandwagon of naysayers who do not come visit or do their own research is just the type of hype that Daroff doesn't need. The children are well. The parents are participating, and so far so great! Each Universal School is different. The neighborhoods are different. Universal Daroff is achieving. Please keep all negative aspects of the failures of other places out of our kids realm of achievement. Everything is not perfect, but it sure is getting there. Come visit and see what they have done with the place. Stop by. We are open, are you?
Submitted by JABRIEKA BAGBY (not verified) on February 7, 2013 9:51 pm
Young scholars FREDERICK Douglass is way worse then when it was a public school. The children know more college cheers than anything, The children are in school from 7:40 to 4:00pm and can use the restroom 2 times a day. The school still have yet to make AYP and they have been there for three years now. It was pouring down raining and the staff did not care the kids had to stand in the rain just so the principle can shake their hands as they enter into the building. The first year the gym teacher lock a classroom of students in a room the the gym room told them that the rats was going to eat them alive. Young scholars never turned around any schools so I personally think they should have not even applied to do because it was a failure. I'm just trying to figure out is how the principle office upstairs on the 3rd floor no parents can get in touch with her. I always thought the principle was suppose to deal with the parents when problems occur nope you deal with the secretaries or the deans. I express this to every parent PLEASE DO NOT SEND YOUR CHILD/CHILDREN TO YOUNG SCHOLARS FREDERICK DOUGLASS.
Submitted by JABRIEKA BAGBY (not verified) on February 7, 2013 9:53 pm
Young scholars FREDERICK Douglass is way worse then when it was a public school. The children know more college cheers than anything, The children are in school from 7:40 to 4:00pm and can use the restroom 2 times a day. The school still have yet to make AYP and they have been there for three years now. It was pouring down raining and the staff did not care the kids had to stand in the rain just so the principle can shake their hands as they enter into the building. The first year the gym teacher lock a classroom of students in a room the the gym room told them that the rats was going to eat them alive. Young scholars never turned around any schools so I personally think they should have not even applied to do because it was a failure. I'm just trying to figure out is how the principle office upstairs on the 3rd floor no parents can get in touch with her. I always thought the principle was suppose to deal with the parents when problems occur nope you deal with the secretaries or the deans. I express this to every parent PLEASE DO NOT SEND YOUR CHILD/CHILDREN TO YOUNG SCHOLARS FREDERICK DOUGLASS.

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