sacgrillsuniversal Photo: Benjamin Herold

In a surprise move, the Daroff School Advisory Council (SAC) Tuesday recommended to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman that Universal Companies assume management of the troubled elementary school at 57th and Race.

Citing “the socioeconomic issues that permeate Daroff’s school community” and Universal’s approach to “supporting the student holistically” the SAC concluded that the nonprofit multi-service community development organization was its best option.   Universal currently operates the Universal Institute Charter School and manages E.M. Stanton Elementary School and Vare Middle School as part of its overall plan to revitalize the largely African-American communities of “Greater South Philadelphia.”

For almost two months, the highly organized Daroff SAC met as frequently as three times a week to review the proposals of the six District-approved providers, take site visits to the providers’ schools, and host a turnaround forum at which the providers presented their plans to the wider Daroff community. 

The group’s deliberations included many twists and turns, several of which shed light on the constantly shifting terrain of the District’s Renaissance Schools selection process.  

Two weeks ago, the SAC unanimously rejected the District’s unexpected invitation to reapply to become a Promise Academy. To the surprise of many, the SAC also developed a strong affinity for ASPIRA, a Latino-oriented nonprofit that primarily serves Eastern North Philadelphia and was initially not considered a real option for the Renaissance Schools outside that community.

But in selecting Universal as its first choice, the Daroff SAC saved its biggest surprise for last.

As recently as last week, in fact, the group considered Universal its fourth-best option, behind ASPIRA, Mastery Charter Schools, and Young Scholars Charter School

Before finalizing their rankings, however, the group requested the opportunity for final one-on-one interviews with its top four candidates in advance of the District’s May 11 deadline.

The resulting 30-minute sessions took place during a three-hour meeting last Friday afternoon in the Daroff library.

After grilling all four providers, the SAC settled on its surprise pick.

“Universal came in [to Friday’s meeting] as our alternate, but came out as our first choice,” said SAC Chair Pamela K. Williams. “We had to take two candidates off the table because they said they couldn’t undertake management of Daroff at this time, and we weren’t impressed by Mastery’s responses to some of our questions.”

During the one-on-one interviews, the group asked provider representatives a series of pointed questions, including whether or not each team had “the desire and the capacity to turn around Daroff.”

Both Young Scholars and ASPIRA responded that they did not.

For Young Scholars, Daroff’s size and the short lead time for planning were the biggest issues.

“I expressed concern about our ability to take on a school of this size [almost 700 students] with a truncated time table,” said Young Scholars CEO Lars Beck after the SAC was done quizzing him. 

For ASPIRA, the prospect of managing a predominantly African-American school in a neighborhood well outside its established service area was just too much to take on with only four months to prepare.

“I would love to be here, but I was prepared [to take on a school in] Eastern North Philadelphia,” executive director Alfredo Calderon explained to the SAC. “Originally, everyone [responded to the District RFP] based on geography. I haven’t done any improvement in West Philly. I would want to, but I can’t do the job 100 percent right now.”

The 18 members of the Daroff SAC expressed thanks for the groups’ candor, but were faced with a dilemma.

“Of our last four [candidates], two sat here and told us they can’t do the job,” said SAC Chair Pamela Williams. “So in reality, we only have two choices.”

As a result, the one-on-one interviews with teams from Mastery and Universal took on added significance.

Both teams responded similarly to the group’s most pressing concern, that any new manager commit to keep intact the school’s Life Skills Support (LSS) program, which serves a range of special needs students, including some with severe disabilities who require adult assistance with day-to-day tasks such as eating and using the toilet.

“We don’t currently serve students with that level of disability,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. “But we don’t want to fix something that’s already working.”

Gordon hesitated to promise that the program would remain untouched, citing difficulty getting clear information from the District regarding the additional funding, beyond the standard charter allotment, that will be available to Renaissance providers.

Universal Executive Vice President of Education Janis Butler responded similarly, emphasizing that “whatever programs here that are working will remain” without offering a specific commitment.

The SAC’s second major concern was the fate of some highly regarded members of Daroff’s current teaching staff.

“We have some gems here at Daroff, but they want job security” said Williams. “What are you willing to give us as a guarantee regarding them staying here for one year, with the same benefits that they are currently receiving?”

Here, the Mastery and Universal teams diverged in substance as well as tone, with Universal’s strong community orientation juxtaposed with Mastery’s steadfast belief in its own capacity to improve student achievement.

Both teams committed to interviewing candidates from among the current staff, and both expressed an interest in keeping some continuity in the school.

But Gordon would not commit to any special incentives or terms for current Daroff teachers, while Universal Chief Operating Officer Shahied Dawan expressed confidence that Universal could reach a memorandum of understanding with rehired Daroff teachers to provide them with added security should they forego their union representation to teach at a Universal-managed Daroff.

Just as importantly to the SAC, Dawan committed to keeping the SAC in place, adding two members from the council to Universal’s board, and seeking SAC input in hiring decisions.

“There’s no way we’re going to change this school without this group and other parents,” said Dawan. “We’re used to working with the community. That’s what we do.”

For SAC members, Universal’s responses – and, perhaps just as importantly, tone – contrasted sharply with those Gordon provided to similar questions.

“Mastery does not run a community development organization; we run a school,” he said when asked how his group would engage the largely poor and predominantly African-American community surrounding Daroff. 

Gordon touched on the need to engage parents. But when pushed about the Daroff SAC’s desire to have input into hiring decisions, he bristled. 

“We do not do parental involvement in hiring decisions,” he responded. “If you’re [a patient] going in for heart surgery, you don’t ask the surgeon if you can be part of the procedure.” 

Gordon’s message – that when it comes to improving school academics, parents are best off leaving staffing decisions to the experts –  clearly did not sit well with many members of the SAC, who later reported that Gordon’s remarks were key in shifting their opinion in Universal’s favor.

“We had concerns about Mastery’s attitude regarding working with the SAC,” explained Williams. “That was very important to us.”

When the votes were ultimately cast at the end of Friday’s marathon meeting, Universal was a near-unanimous choice as the group’s number one recommendation, receiving 17 of 18 first place votes. 

Identifying Universal as its first choice and Mastery as its second was not the end of the evening’s drama, however.

Given that the group felt there were only two viable options, members were sharply split over whether they should include a third choice.

During a heated discussion, some members expressed dismay at the prospect of having to vote for a group that “told us they can’t give us 100 percent”

Others, though, implored the group to “maintain the integrity of the process.”

The latter faction eventually won the day. In the end, the group decided to list as its third choice both Young Scholars and ASPIRA, which had tied in their voting – with an explanation in their written report that “Our second recommendation was made due to ASPIRA and Young Scholars not being able to provide adequate accommodations for Daroff … Mastery is our second recommendation by default.”

“We took the process seriously, and we did a job consistent with what Dr. Ackerman requested,” concluded Williams when the voting was done. “We put in the work, and we think our work should be respected when Dr. Ackerman makes her decision.”

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