The School District says that parents and community members will play a major role in deciding how to improve Renaissance Schools – but, officials acknowledge, they have a lot of work to do to convince a skeptical public that these voices will be heard.

When the School District hosted community feedback sessions in November to discuss the Renaissance Schools proposal, they were met with reminders of failed reforms and broken promises from the past. Community concerns and suggestions were compiled after the sessions and posted to the District’s Renaissance Schools website.

“How is this different from the last time?” some attendees wanted to know, referring to the 2002 influx of educational management organizations that were foisted on neighborhoods without their input or consent. One community member did not want “another organization to come in and make promises” without making any real changes.

The District has promised to give a high priority to community engagement in the process of transforming the Renaissance Schools, primarily by establishing community-based advisory groups at each school.

But promises of real involvement have been made before.

Eva Gold, a senior research fellow at Research for Action, has done research on the role that communities play in school improvement efforts, including the state takeover in 2001. She said the initial plan for what became the “diverse provider model” included community partners working with the providers to make certain they remained responsive to the local community. The District also had plans for central and regional parent advisory groups to get more general parent feedback.

Ultimately, none of these plans materialized.

Gold stressed that it is especially crucial to give the public a way to participate in the decision-making process when the private sector is involved, to ensure that the system remains accountable to the public interest. Parents, educators, youth, and neighborhood residents should be involved in every stage of the process, she said.

“The critique of the lack of civic involvement in the last round has been talked about widely,” she said. “There are indications that the District has heard and is trying to think through how to correct itself this time.”

A guiding principle

Last year, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman set forth community engagement as one of the guiding principles for the Renaissance process. The Renaissance Schools Advisory Board (RSAB) included parents and faith-based leaders among others, and a subcommittee of the board was dedicated to community engagement and communications.

“We’ve learned from past experiments in Philadelphia and in other cities that you have a better shot at this if the community is behind you and part of the transformation,” said the mayor’s Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr, also a co-chair of the RSAB.

Shorr and other officials believe that inviting input from those who live and work in the neighborhoods served by the schools will increase the chances of real educational improvement by tailoring the turnaround to the community’s unique needs and resources.

Successful turnaround entails more than “just tweaking the curriculum,” Shorr said. “There has to be wholesale reengagement with those students and that community.”

Schools designated as Renaissance Eligible, Renaissance Alert, and Vanguard (high-performing) will get School Advisory Councils, a group of local parents, residents, and leaders who will articulate the community’s educational needs.

Councils at Renaissance Eligible schools, the 14 deemed in need of the most immediate intervention, will recommend to the District which turnaround team would best meet the school and community’s needs. Each council will meet regularly, arrange public forums, and conduct outreach to gather local input on the turnaround teams.

But the District will make the ultimate decision, said Benjamin Rayer, the director for charter, partnership, and new schools, who is overseeing the Renaissance Schools initiative.

Asked what would happen if the school community did not approve any of the turnaround teams, Rayer responded, “That would be something that the School District would factor into a decision about whether or not to make a match and what a good match would be.”

Patricia Coulter, president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia, chaired the RSAB subcommittee on community engagement. She said the councils are a way of “getting out the vote” in the affected neighborhood and helping the turnaround teams find partners in the community.

After schools have been matched with turnaround teams, the councils will continue to monitor the process, meet at least quarterly to provide feedback to the turnaround team, and write annual reports to the superintendent.

Supporting transformation

Experience with community engagement in other large cities suggests that local advisory groups can be important in school transformation. The 1988 Chicago School Reform Act created Local School Councils (LSCs) composed of parents, community members, and teachers. These elected bodies hired principals and oversaw the school budget. In 2005, a study by Designs for Change revealed that effective LSCs were vital to the success of schools that served primarily low-income communities.

Under the Renaissance 2010 project in Chicago, however, the formerly independent LSCs were replaced with district-appointed Transitional Advisory Councils, some of which found that the district ignored their advice.

In a model similar to the Chicago Renaissance effort, the councils in Philadelphia will be selected from applicants by a District-led team. The appointed councils will also have what the District terms an “advisory” role, not a governing one.

While many activists have urged a democratic, school-based turnaround process, one national expert, Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at research organization Mass Insight, said that leaving final decisions to the District leadership is most effective for successful turnaround. Cohen has studied big-city school improvement efforts that have included an emphasis on community engagement.

While community support is important, he said, he cautioned against trying to find unanimity amidst all the input. With school turnaround, “there is pain, and folks disagree about how change needs to happen. It’s the job of leadership to make decisions.” Trying to achieve complete consensus could paralyze the process, he said.

Rayer is nevertheless hopeful that parents and community members will participate in transforming their neighborhood schools.

“Without [the community’s] buy-in, acceptance, support, and help, we think the initiative will not be as successful as it can be,” he said.

The District has begun reaching out to parents and communities. Letters were sent to Renaissance School parents the same day that the schools were announced, and the District began holding informational meetings at each selected school February 1.

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