May 16 — 11:18 am, 2012

Creighton: Exception to the Renaissance rule?

The school's supporters persuaded officials to consider a teacher-led plan.

delores brown waters Photo: Oscar Wang

For three of this year’s four Renaissance Schools, the selection process is over. The public meetings are complete, the School Reform Commission has voted, and barring any unforeseen complication, next September they’ll open as neighborhood charter schools.

But at Creighton Elementary in the Lower Northeast, supporters of a unique plan for a teacher-led administration are holding out hope that their school can buck a very big trend.

This spring marks the third year of the Renaissance initiative, designed to turn around low-performing schools. What began under departed Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as an elaborate mix of charter and District-run turnarounds shrunk this year to something more modest, and a fourth year is not guaranteed. Like so much else in the District, the future of the Renaissance initiative is in flux.

But the strategy behind it – turning over the management of schools to private organizations, in hopes of increased accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness – looks poised to become the District’s dominant reform approach.

Creighton is this year’s last piece of unfinished Renaissance business, and its supporters hope to avoid charter status. Instead they want approval for a plan that would put the school under control of a seven-member "council" of teachers and community members. The Renaissance process gives members of school communities a chance to weigh in on who will manage the school turnaround, and Creighton’s School Advisory Council (SAC) made this plan its first choice, in hopes of keeping what SAC members consider the strength of its school – its teachers – in place.

"When people found that the teachers were going to give us a proposal, a lot of people wanted that," said Creighton parent and SAC member Delores Brown-Waters. "They kind of chose the teachers before they even heard the teachers’ proposal."

Regina Feighan-Drach, an art teacher at Creighton and the plan’s lead author, says it embraces the District’s turnaround goals, even if it employs an unusual technique to achieve them. She calls it a community-supported, student-focused plan with clear goals and accountability that will improve classroom results and expand the options available to local parents.

Both women were among the Creighton supporters who made an impassioned plea for the proposal to the SRC last month.

"We need the opportunity to turn Creighton around," Feighan-Drach told the commissioners. "You shouldn’t give it to someone else who doesn’t know our kids."

The group broke into delighted cheers when the SRC responded by temporarily tabling a motion to hand the school over to the charter operator Universal Companies – the Creighton SAC’s second choice. Commissioners said they were intrigued and wanted to know more about the teacher-led model and the results it could provide. The idea of a teacher-led turnaround has been discussed as an option since the Renaissance initiative’s first year but has never been tried.

"We have a lot of schools to turn around, and … we have to take advantage of every opportunity to engage with our teachers to figure out how to do that," said Commissioner Wendell Pritchett.

"I’m very encouraged by the effort and the presentation made today, because it [starts] from the premise that there needs to be some fixing," added Commission Chair Pedro Ramos.

Since then, Feighan-Drach has refined the proposal, and Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon has visited Creighton to see the school in action. Nixon, who says the District is interested in all sorts of "best practices," expects to make a final recommendation before the end of May. "We’ve never done [this] in Philadelphia," Nixon said. "To have a school run by a teacher team – you’re charting new waters."

All this gives Feighan-Drach and Brown-Waters hope. But they know they’re swimming against the turnaround tide in more ways than one.

For one thing, the Renaissance initiative itself has evolved to rely increasingly on charters. This year’s Renaissance turnarounds were exclusively charter transformations, and funding has been cut for the District-run turnarounds known as Promise Academies. A study of the first year of Renaissance schools by Research for Action showed that at their original funding levels, Promise Academies produced the same level of improvement as charter-run turnarounds. But the effects of the subsequent budget cuts are uncertain.

"The Promise Academies are an evolving model, and they have been deeply affected by the financial turmoil and the uncertainties at the School District – it would be silly to not say so," said Commissioner Feather Houstoun.

Next year, Promise Academies will retain extended days but not Saturday classes. Nixon says she’s also exploring the possibility of using Title I funds for academic coaches and counselors. "We do have to make some hard choices," she said.

And just as the Renaissance turnaround policy is evolving to depend increasingly on private managers, so too is the District’s overall management strategy. Less than a week after Creighton won its temporary reprieve, the SRC unveiled its dramatic proposal to further shrink the central office, break the District into eight to ten "Achievement Networks" of 20 to 30 schools, and contract out their management. The plan proposes closing up to 64 District schools, and projects that 40 percent of District students will soon be in charters – up from about 25 percent this year.

Officials say that District staff could play a role managing the new networks. But critics fear that the reorganization plan, like the Renaissance initiative, will rely on private managers at the expense of the District’s capacity.

Recent SRC meetings have featured a steady stream of parents and advocates worried about profiteering, inefficiency, and political interference – the same concerns that have been triggered by three years of Renaissance charter conversions.

"The possibility for corruption seems vast," Rebecca Poyourow, parent of two Cook-Wissahickon Elementary students, told the SRC at a recent budget hearing.

Whether the SRC is firmly committed to all aspects of the District’s transformation plan is murky.

And what the Renaissance initiative will look like next year is likewise unclear. The proposed 2012-13 budget includes funding to support the four new Renaissance schools (including Creighton, whether run by Universal or the proposed council). Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said that the District may consider more charter transformations for the 2013-14 school year. Nixon said she plans to study and refine the Promise Academy model for possible future use, but also that the District has no immediate plans to expand their number.

Back at Creighton, supporters of the teacher-led plan can only wait. Nixon said she has to review the plan and do more research before coming to any decisions. Knudsen added, "What’s important for this discussion is that the SRC was willing to consider what was an extraordinary proposal, and it’s worthy of investigation."

Feighan-Drach said she’s grateful that the SRC gave Creighton a chance to make its case. She hopes the commissioners see an opportunity to try something new – neither a District-run Promise Academy, nor a typical charter conversion, but a third way that puts responsibility for the school directly on its teachers and parents.

"I know we can make improvement. I know we can make growth," she told the SRC. "I know we’d be under the microscope. Bring it on."

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