April 18 — 5:23 pm, 2012

District releases Renaissance charter recommendations

District staff members have recommended new managers for four recently designated Renaissance charter schools.

Their proposal, to be voted on Thursday night by the School Reform Commission, would award Mastery Charter the school it wanted, introduce two new providers to the District’s aggressive school turnaround initiative, and overrule a vote by Creighton Elementary’s School Advisory Council (SAC) to keep the school under District control.

The District recommends that:

On Monday, a majority of the 15-member Creighton SAC voted in favor of an unorthodox counterproposal from the school’s current staff that called for Creighton to be run by a team of teacher leaders, parents, and community members instead of a principal.

District staff rejected that vote, but endorsed the first choices of the SACs at the three other new Renaissance schools, said Thomas Darden, deputy chief for strategic programs.

Mastery is the District’s largest turnaround provider, operating two traditional charters, five Renaissance charters, and three other schools that were formerly under District control. Consistent with its strategy of creating K-12 clusters of schools, Mastery sought only Cleveland Elementary among this year’s schools. Cleveland, located in the city’s Tioga section, sends its students to nearby Mastery-Gratz High School.

The two turnaround providers that are new to the District, American Paradigm and String Theory, are associated with charter schools that already operate in the city. The founders of American Paradigm operate First Philadelphia and Tacony charters, while String Theory is affiliated with the Performing Arts Charter School in South Philadelphia.

Universal operates one traditional charter and four Renaissance turnaround schools.

Darden said that the teacher-developed proposal for Creighton was rebuffed despite the SAC vote because it "did not have an instructional leader and did not rise to the level that would produce dramatic change."

As part of the Renaissance charter process, potential providers present their proposals to a school’s SAC, a committee of parents and community members, who vote on their preference. Their vote is nonbinding on District leadership.

The District, while allowing schools to offer their own turnaround counterproposals in the Renaissance process, has never accepted one. Last year, the Olney West SAC preferred a plan to keep the school under District control. The SRC awarded both Olney East and Olney West to ASPIRA, which has since combined the two into one high school.

The Creighton proposal, largely developed by art teacher and 30-year teaching veteran Regina Feighan-Drach, would eliminate any principal and vice principal. Instead, it called for a seven-member school council made up of three teacher leaders, two parents, and two community members to make decisions about the budget and programming.

A contingent of Creighton parents has protested from the start the decision to target the school for turnaround and make the school a Renaissance charter, arguing that it has a stable staff and has been denied the resources it needs to do better. Although the school has shown relatively low academic achievement, the parents argued that other schools with worse records are not being considered for charter conversion.

Feighan-Drach, who has a National Board Certification in art, said her proposal would follow the District’s curriculum but allow teachers to be more creative and innovative in the classroom than has been the recent practice.

"We would use the District’s curriculum and use their budget," said Feighan-Drach. "But we would operate the school and decide how to spend the money. Our hands would not be tied to teach the way the District has told us to teach." The proposal included such plans as expansion of art and language programs.

"We’re bringing back project-based learning, cooperative learning, which we had when we made [federal learning goals]," said Feighan-Drach, who has taught at the school for 14 years.

Delores Brown-Waters, president of the Creighton Home and School Association, said that the SAC clearly favored the teachers’ proposal, with Universal coming in second.

If the school is converted to a charter, all teachers would have to reapply for their jobs. Brown-Waters said she worried about the effect on students if most of their teachers are gone.

"Teachers know exactly what a child needs, and we have some great ones here," Brown-Waters said.

The District is still in legal negotiations with Universal, which has been operating cost-free in the new, $55 million Audenried building since July due to failure to come to terms on a facility licensing agreement.

First Philadelphia and Tacony, which are operated by the founders of American Paradigm, were both due to come up for a charter renewal vote this month. But according to a report Darden presented to the SRC on Monday, both schools only recently submitted all the required documents for their renewal, and so they are among five charters out of 25 for whom the District has not yet made a recommendation on whether to renew. The renewal process started in October.

"We requested information as part of the renewal process; it didn’t come in as fast we we would have liked," Darden said.

He added that they "run fantastic schools" and that the District is working to complete the evaluations. 

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