January 4 — 3:54 pm, 2012

Renaissance Schools to expand

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/Newsworks

UPDATED 9:30 p.m.

There will be a year three of the Renaissance Schools initiative after all.

Despite significant uncertainty caused by ongoing budget cuts and leadership changes, the District announced today that it will expand its program for converting low-performing schools to charters. Prospective "turnaround teams" are invited to submit proposals by February 7, three months later than last year.

"Even in this difficult budget environment, the District is not sitting still on our goal of improving outcomes for students," said District Deputy for Strategic Programs Thomas Darden. "The decision to move forward with another round of Renaissance Charter Schools is an important part of our overall strategy."

Both the schools targeted for turnaround and the final list of outside providers that will compete to manage them will be announced on February 20. Darden would not yet say how many schools the District anticipates converting to charters during this third round of the Renaissance initiative, which began under the leadership of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

"The ultimate goal is to turn underperforming schools into highly effective schools," according to a press release from the District. "By continuing this initiative the District underlines its commitment to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact." 

The Compact, recently signed by city, state, District, and charter leaders, calls for "replacing or transforming at least 5,000 low-performing seats annually for each of the next five years, beginning in 2012-13."  

The District recently announced that it is scaling back its internally managed turnaround schools, called Promise Academies, for financial reasons.

District and charter officials also expressed concern last November that the window was rapidly closing for identifying low-performing schools and matching them with new outside managers. Two months later, that window is even tighter. Though a similar timeline was deemed to be too rushed after the first year of the Renaissance process, Darden downplayed any concerns about timing.

"The start date this year still allows us to meet the timeline we had last year for a March SRC vote on the match recommendation," said Darden in an emailed response to questions submitted to the District’s communications office.

Darden also said that there will be no changes in how the process for matching targeted schools with new management will work. School Advisory Councils consisting of parents and community members will still review proposals and make a recommendation on which provider should assume control of their schools.

Darden added that the Renaissance initiative will continue to target "chronically underperforming schools" and that "performance will continue to be the main driver in the process of school selection." He did, however, say that "any final decision on Renaissance School selection will include input from our Facilities Master Plan and other considerations."

Last year, 16 schools were designated as "Renaissance alert" schools that could be targeted for future turnaround if they failed to show improvement.

During the first two years of the Renaissance initiative, the District’s process for selecting schools and matching them with outside providers has at times been controversial

So far, the District has converted 13 schools to Renaissance charters. The first cohort of seven Renaissance charters touted significant test score gains during their first year. Despite concerns that outside charter operators might weed out students who were particularly difficult to serve, a Notebook analysis found that those schools continued to enroll children from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which currently operates five Renaissance charters, said his group intends to apply for more during year three.

"We are certainly prepared to do two or three schools this year," said Gordon. 

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