Where is all this heading?
Activists, educators, and officials weigh in on how turnarounds will reshape the system in the coming years.
by Dale Mezzacappa
With turnarounds proceeding rapidly in Philadelphia and established providers eager to continue taking over low-performing schools, it is likely that the School District will look very different in five years.
In 2010 and 2011, 13 District schools have been converted to charters, including three high schools. Another nine have become Promise Academies, remaining within the District, but receiving mostly new leadership and staff, as well as expensive new programs. In the first two years of the Renaissance Schools program, the District is averaging 11 turnaround attempts per year.
The Notebook asked several officials, activists and educators to discuss their reform vision and also their predictions, considering what will be financially feasible and politically palatable.
Creating a full choice system
"We are headed away from a monolithic public school model," said Lori Shorr, chief of Mayor Michael Nutter's education office.
"We will see different types of schools managed by different people that have various degrees of private investment and collaboration. That's where the District should be headed. Nationally, that's where you're seeing it go."
The official turnaround initiative doesn't count existing start-up charters, which already enroll more than 40,000 students, or the growing network of accelerated, alternative, and discipline schools, which are almost all contracted out.
It also doesn't take into account ambitious plans to modernize and expand career and technical schools, something that parents are demanding. And it doesn't figure in the District's intention to close or merge underutilized buildings through its facilities master plan.
Finally, it is possible that the General Assembly will enact voucher legislation that will give parents money for private and parochial schools, which Gov. Tom Corbett has declared one of his major priorities for this session.
For parents and students, these are interrelated initiatives and phenomena, affecting available school choices and their quality.
Specifically on turnaround, though, most of those interviewed endorsed public policies that take drastic steps at chronically failing schools.
For Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter, the largest of the turnaround providers, there is no question about what should happen: The District should pick up the pace of turning over schools to his organizations and others that prove successful.
"My hope and expectation is they will accelerate the program," he said, adding that 45,000 students attend schools with very low ratings on the District's School Performance Index, which measures a variety of indicators regarding achievement and climate.
"We have [the] ability to reduce that number to zero in a few short years."
Mastery's conversion schools, he said, averaged 10 point gains in reading and 15 point gains in math, accompanied by a decrease in violent incidents.
"Why wouldn't we do more of it when there are so many children in need?"
Gordon also said that conversions are cost-effective for the District in an era of shrinking public dollars. Mastery, which has drawn the attention of Oprah and President Obama, raises about a million dollars privately to invest in each school.
The key, he says, is creating a high-functioning organization that knows how to "hire great people, hold them to expectations, measure results, reward high performance, and don't reward low performance."
Gordon wants to take over more schools in a way that will create K-12 mini-districts, in which a child can go to a Mastery school for their entire career.
Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery says his goal is a wealth of choices, perhaps including such mini-districts, in each neighborhood. He is especially interested in improving the career and technical education options.
Asked whether the charter conversions should accelerate, he said, "I have no answer to that. If I answer one way, it makes it sound like the only way to make education better is to have more charters. I want charters to succeed, but I also want our schools to succeed."
Still, he said there is no doubt that the educational delivery system is diversifying.
"The coexistence of charters and other forms of education, including virtual cyber schools, which are galloping ahead, are necessary parts of a full choice system," he said.
"But I also believe the District can be more than competitive. We want to win our share of students across the board."
Rethinking a promise
The District's internal model of turnaround, the Promise Academy, needs to "evolve," said Nunery, in part because it is so expensive, and because it has been so top-down.
"The path we've started upon is a good path, but it needs correction," he said.
There needs to be more collaboration with the teachers' and principals' unions "to get to the next step," he said. Those in the schools "know more about what practices have worked and what corrective actions need to be taken."
Promise Academies mandated Saturday school, but attendance was often spotty.
"Saturday hours could work, but not if a student has other competing interests like sports or family obligations," Nunery said.
He proposed "talking with teachers, principals, and the community about what's worked and how to do it as economically as possible."
For the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, an activist with the Germantown Clergy Initiative, Promise Academies are an important breakthrough because the District gives them more money, not so much because they exemplify a sure-fire improvement model.