Open for business, looking to expand
Just four months after naming of providers, Renaissance Schools are serving 7,000.
by Benjamin Herold
Flush with new resources and fresh from whirlwind makeovers, the District’s 13 new Renaissance Schools opened their doors this September, carrying out Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s plan to breathe new life into some of Philadelphia’s lowest performing schools.
Roughly 7,000 students kicked off the new school year in the District’s seven new charter-operated Renaissance Schools and six new District-operated Renaissance Promise Academies. Collectively, the schools were upgraded to the tune of several million dollars since last spring.
“[The Renaissance Schools] did great. Kids were happy, they were well organized, and there was instruction going on,” said associate superintendent Diane Castelbuono, who replaced Benjamin Rayer as the head of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative in July.
Student enrollments have climbed at several of the schools, in one case by 35 percent.
Undaunted by the scope and pace of the changes already taking place, the District has its eye on an October launch for the second round of the Renaissance process. Castelbuono declined to comment on the number of schools expected to be designated for overhaul later this year.
The District’s four new charter “turnaround teams” – ASPIRA Inc., Mastery Charter, Universal Companies, and Young Scholars Charter – had less than four months to hire and train new teachers, upgrade aging facilities, and prepare new instructional plans before welcoming 4,000-plus students back to school.
But at three schools where the Notebook interviewed parents and staff, the year appeared to get off to a solid start.
A new look
On the first day at Mastery-Smedley Elementary School in Frankford, nearly a dozen members of the entirely new school staff greeted parents as they dropped off their children outside the school.
“It’s a lot different,” remarked Walt Larson, the parent of a kindergartener and a returning 2nd grader at Smedley. “[Staff] are respectful, and they are showing that they care.”
Despite years of dismal test scores, Smedley’s enrollment is up approximately 6 percent, with about 10 neighborhood students on a waiting list to enroll.
At Mastery-Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia, enrollment has surged from 620 students to 835, with an additional 60 neighborhood students on a waiting list to enroll.
“We’ve been surprised by how many parents have come forward from the catchment area,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
Like the other Renaissance charter providers, Mastery will receive the standard per-pupil charter payment from the District while also paying the District a licensing fee for use of the school facilities and related building services.
At Smedley, Harrity, and Mann, Mastery installed new principals who had been groomed for leadership by serving as assistant principals at other Mastery schools.
Mastery has also almost entirely replaced the schools’ teaching forces and is implementing new instructional approaches. For instance, kindergarten classes have three-hour reading blocks staffed by two teachers, allowing small groups of students to rotate through different stations where they receive differentiated instruction.
Meanwhile, at Stetson Middle School, ASPIRA retained 40 percent of the staff from last year but flooded the school with new resources, including $450,000 in new furniture, 120 new computers, and 75 new security cameras.
“We are seeing the progress that [ASPIRA] talked about,” said Maria Ortiz, the mother of two 8th graders and vice chair of Stetson’s School Advisory Council (SAC). “Everything they told us they were going to bring – they are doing it.” Other parents on the council were equally thrilled with ASPIRA’s conversion of Stetson over the summer.
Once school started, the changes at the school were striking, said returning third-year teacher Alexandra McCoy.
One big difference, she explained, is ASPIRA’s partnership with Success Schools, an outside contractor overseeing discipline at the school and managing a self-contained “Success Academy” for students with emotional and behavioral problems.
“The classrooms are just so much calmer,” McCoy said at the end of the second week. “I think this is the first Friday in my three years of teaching where I felt I could come to work for another day this week.”
At Stetson and the other Renaissance charters, stakeholders all seem to be holding their breath, hoping that the changes will stick. Outside observers are also keeping a close eye on the extent to which the Renaissance charters are functioning as true neighborhood schools – which the Mastery waiting lists in particular raise questions about.
But overall, say District officials, the startup of the Renaissance charters was a success.
“Given the short timeframe, the turnaround teams did a great job of getting the schools ready to provide a great educational experience,” said Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for process improvement and compliance.
Six Promise Academies open
Likewise, District officials were encouraged by the start of school at the six new District-operated Promise Academies, which serve roughly 2,700 students and were provided with $7.2 million in extra funding.
“We were looking for parents and students coming back to school and realizing that it’s a very different place,” said Francisco Duran, the assistant superintendent in charge of the Promise Academies. “We got that from day one.”