November 24 — 1:37 pm, 2010

Homegrown option

Something important is missing as the School District prepares itself for Round Two of its Renaissance process for transforming low-performing schools.

Though hailed by some for employing multiple strategies for school transformation, the District has made the unfortunate decision to pare down the available options from four to three. A school’s management can be turned over to an outside provider for conversion to a charter, contracted out to an education management organization, or put under the close watch of Arlene Ackerman’s staff as a Promise Academy.

Gone is what was called the "Innovation model," where a team of District educators with a proven track record could submit turnaround proposals based on their own successes and philosophies. Gone with it is the idea that an able in-district team with new ideas could be offered some autonomy over educational decisions in return for greater accountability. Gone with it is the possibility of a partnership led by a high-performing school reform organization that isn’t able to take on employing an entire school staff.

It is discouraging that the District never tried to work out the kinks in the Innovation approach after rejecting three proposals from in-district teams last spring. It was clear that District principals and teachers needed more time and support to compete against established charter organizations for the right to lead school turnarounds. But now it looks like this bottom-up reform approach may never get a shot.

While some do see promise in Ackerman’s Promise Academy model, her highly prescriptive approach is not the only reasonable strategy for transforming schools within the District. Why not create a vehicle to support talented educators who want to work within the public school system and with the teachers’ union to try to build strong learning communities in our most troubled schools?

For the next batch of Renaissance Schools, advisory councils will soon be "empowered" to choose which turnaround provider they prefer. But the choices are narrowly limited to which outsider they want to run the show – be it a charter, EMO, or 440 North Broad.

Councils should be offered another path – the opportunity to come up with a homegrown plan that taps the creative energies of District educators, parents, and community members.

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