Waiting for the Renaissance
The District's new plan raises hopes and concerns at 14 low-scoring schools.
by Bill Hangley Jr.
It’s nothing new for Janiece Jones to wonder about the future of her child’s school.
“It was supposed to be closed down,” she said as she stood in front of the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia. “[Then] they just said that someone was going to try and change the performance of the school.”
The first rumor didn’t come to pass. But the second just might, in potentially dramatic fashion.
Dunbar is one of 14 names on the District’s list of “Renaissance Eligible Schools.” Any one could become an actual Renaissance School, facing what could be a complete transformation next fall – new staff, new principal, longer school days, and extra supports.
But it will be months before Jones finds out who will actually run Dunbar. Any of the 14 could become a charter school, a school run by an external manager or by a new team of District educators, or a so-called “Promise Academy” supervised directly by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. A few may not become Renaissance Schools at all.
For now, Chief Officer of Charter, Partnership and New Schools Benjamin Rayer says there are some certainties regarding Dunbar’s fate and that of the other schools named.
“Children are not leaving, buildings are not closing,” he said. “But the adults … may change.”
The 14 eligible schools are scattered across the city. All rank among the District’s worst in terms of test scores and other performance measures.
Many have suffered from chronic instability: North Philadelphia’s Frederick Douglass has had seven principals in seven years. West Philadelphia’s University City High has been plagued by rumors of imminent closure. Kensington’s Stetson Middle School was run for years by a private manager, Edison Schools, until the District cancelled the contract, citing lack of progress.
Decisions by May
District officials say that by May, the schools will know their exact fates. Some will see at least half of their staffs replaced, while others could find themselves with entirely new, non-union staffs and administrations.
Meanwhile, principals are preparing for an intense round of in-school evaluations while District staff is seeking applications from qualified charter operators and private organizations interested in running each school.
Soon, potential providers, armed with slide shows promising big improvements, will fan out across the city to discuss with parents details of the proposed school transformations – things like adding more afterschool activities, better links to community groups, and more support for teachers.
The Renaissance plan offers hope to some parents, like Jones.
“I believe it will work. I hope it does,” she said.
But for teachers and administrators at the eligible schools, the proposal casts them into a new world of uncertainty.
“There are definitely ways I can see this being a wonderful thing for kids. And even for teachers,” said Lisa Kelly, a veteran English teacher at University City High School.
Kelly said she would welcome the kind of stable, community-responsive leadership that the Renaissance plan promises.
“We’ve had nine principals in my 17 years and some of them were taken out of here in disgrace.”
Kelly likes that the Renaissance plan includes extended hours for students and higher pay for teachers. At the same time, she worries that the first product of this new reform would be more instability.
“My own private hobby horse is that they never give anybody enough time,” she said. “When you try to redo the whole thing, it’s going to look real fuzzy for a long time.”
Matt Malone, a third-year social studies teacher at West Philadelphia High, shares Kelly’s concerns.
“West really should not have been chosen for this list,” he said. “We’re already experiencing a renaissance.”
Malone was one of the first teachers hired by Principal Saliyah Cruz, who was brought in to turn around a school once infamous for fights and fires.