February 2 — 4:29 pm, 2010

This year: mandates. Next year: autonomy

Renaissance Schools will experience a different approach than they did as Empowerment Schools.

The District’s proposed Renaissance Schools initiative, scheduled to be operational by this fall, will give school managers autonomy from District control. But this wasn’t always the District strategy for dealing with low-performing schools.

The plan comes only 18 months after the launch of the Empowerment Schools initiative, which seeks to improve low-performing schools by increasing the District’s scrutiny, support, and control.

When Superintendent Arlene Ackerman reaffirmed her commitment to that approach at the start of the 2009-10 school year, she made it clear that there would be “a lot more monitoring” of the District’s 95 Empowerment Schools, which are schools that have failed repeatedly to meet their academic targets under the No Child Left Behind law.

Central office and regional superintendents implemented the Empowerment program by mandating a scripted curriculum, performing frequent spot checks, and providing additional staff positions, including counselors and instructional specialists.

Increased control over the Empowerment Schools is evident this year in the Corrective Reading and Math lessons. Each day, teachers and students devote two or more hours to a curriculum that provides a script from which teachers are to read.

As a result, principals and faculties have less control over the curriculum, a move that has led some to question the program’s name.

“Empowerment seems to be the wrong word,” says James H. Lytle, professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

“Disempowerment would be a more accurate description.”

The Renaissance Schools plan draws its 14 eligible schools from the group of 95 Empowerment Schools. In stark contrast to the older program, however, the turnaround teams that will be put in charge of Renaissance Schools – whether District staff, charter management organizations, or EMOs – will be given autonomy to incorporate successful programs and ideas.

Are the two programs at odds with each other?

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, said that the Empowerment and Renaissance programs don’t amount to a contradiction. For Empowerment Schools that continue to struggle, even after additional support, something more “radical” is needed, she said.

“Renaissance has the possibility of overhauling the staffing inside of the school in ways that the Empowerment initiative doesn’t,” Shorr says.

Benjamin Rayer, chief officer of charter, partnership, and new schools, says that the two programs are complementary.

The District’s approach, he says, “is a combination of what people in business call ‘managed instruction’ – tighter controls, prescriptive programs in reading and math – and also the belief that if there are people who know what they’re doing, you don’t give them a prescriptive program.”

Lytle has a different take on the issue of autonomy: he fears that the Renaissance initiative simply repeats the diverse provider model, where schools were handed over to outside managers, even though the managers will have more authority this time.

“They take low-performing schools and give them away rather than saying we at the central office are willing to bet our reputations on our ability to prove success,” said Lytle, a former District administrator.

 Teachers in these schools, like Erika Saunders, worry less about prescriptive approaches vs. autonomy than they do about constant change.

 Saunders has experienced the effects of the Empowerment program in her position as a special education and mentally gifted teacher at Ferguson Elementary School.

She said the frequent classroom observations by District staff demand a reshuffling of schedules, and the mandated Corrective Reading and Math programs are a “bit of a challenge” to implement.

“It’s a shift in how you plan things and how you teach things,” she said.

So would the Renaissance program help Ferguson?

“Although a different approach or structure might be good, completely cleaning house and bringing [in] a whole new system is initially going to be a huge shock for these kids,” she said.

Saunders said she wants consistency.

“To have continuity … you can’t put a measure on that.”

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