Due to the District's fiscal crisis, most schools in Philadelphia are suffering a counselor drought. But Promise Academies are not among them.
In fact, the 12 Promise Academies -- the District's in-house turnaround schools -- have 19 counselors, which amounts to 15 percent of the 126 counselors available to all 220 or so District-run schools.
More than half the District's schools -- 115 of them, with a population of more than 48,000 students -- are sharing 16 "itinerant" counselors who travel from school to school and have caseloads averaging about 3,000 students each.
In the Promise Academies, which have a combined enrollment of about 8,000, the average caseload works out to one counselor per about 420 students, much closer to the recommendations of the American School Counselor Association.
The School Reform Commission approved the Renaissance charter agreements for three schools on Friday, officially turning Pastorius over to Mastery Charter Schools, Kenderton to Scholar Academies, and Alcorn to Universal Companies.
At a tense, four-hour meeting, the SRC also accepted $1.1 million in grant money from the Philadelphia School Partnership to expand three high-performing District schools: converting the experimental Sustainability Workshop into the Workshop School; creating a second campus of Science Leadership Academy; and expanding the middle school Hill-Freedman to include high school grades.
But it did so over the persistent objections of Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who did a financial analysis showing that the District will be absorbing considerable extra cost for these schools after this year -- a move he called financially irresponsible given the District's shaky budget picture. Earlier in the meeting, the District had announced that it only had enough funding to rehire a few hundred of the 3,800 staff laid off this summer.
Nine schools will be remade as Renaissance Schools next fall, with three of them facing conversion to charters.
This is Year Four of the initiative to transform the lowest-performing schools in the District. Now there are 17 Renaissance charters, along with nine District-run Promise Academies – but three of those are closing.
Slated to become Promise Academies next fall are Barry, Bryant, Cayuga, and McMichael elementaries, as well as two high schools, Edison and Strawberry Mansion.
A divided School Reform Commission approved the expansion of two more charters on Friday, but delayed decisions on two others pending the result of the state’s ongoing investigation of possible cheating on state tests. Five other schools also have pending renewal or modification requests.
For three of this year's four Renaissance Schools, the selection process is over. The public meetings are complete, the School Reform Commission has voted, and barring any unforeseen complication, next September they'll open as neighborhood charter schools.
But at Creighton Elementary in the Lower Northeast, supporters of a unique plan for a teacher-led administration are holding out hope that their school can buck a very big trend.
As the School Reform Commission prepares to vote on converting four more District schools to charters, it will weigh the hope of duplicating preliminary test score gains in its first cohort of Renaissance turnaround schools against the reality that expanding the initiative is likely to cost the District between $800 and $1,000 per student in the first year.
“That is the calculation,” said Commissioner Feather Houstoun.
“We have a pretty good sense of what the [new charter conversions] may mean in terms of budget impact. There’s a return because of the value of what happened to children that has not happened in decades.”
Penny Nixon fondly remembers Ms. Newman, her 12th grade teacher at Martin Luther King High School nearly 30 years ago.
"We wrote about almost everything in Ms. Newman's class," said Nixon. "We wrote about issues that impacted our lives, just being a teenager – around peer pressure, around drugs and alcohol."
One Voice, an alliance of parents, students, and teachers, is gathering a group to testify at the next School Reform Commission meeting on Monday. The next SRC meeting will be another strategy, policy, and priorities community discussion, and it will be focused on curriculum and career and college readiness. Wendell Pritchett, chair of the curriculum committee, will run the meeting with Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon.
One Voice plans to testify about how the budget crisis may be causing the District to overlook the importance of teaching and learning.
The School District is finalizing plans to expand and improve School Advisory Councils, with the aim of introducing them into additional schools and training members and school principals about their roles.
Amid all the debate about charters and vouchers, one glaring gap remains in the reform landscape: District turnaround schools that enjoy the same autonomy as Renaissance charters. The current options are highly autonomous charters and highly prescribed District Promise Academies.
There are great District principals who have turned around chronically low-performing schools. They should be encouraged to take on similar challenges today, provided that they can also prepare successors so their current schools continue to enjoy strong leadership.