Announcing 18 more Renaissance Schools, District questioned on cost, community input

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Despite controversy about a looming budget shortfall, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman – citing progress with her first cohort of 13 turnaround schools – is moving ahead with plans to dramatically overhaul a second, even larger group of low-performing schools.

Her announcement of this next phase coincided with the release of financial figures by the District showing a much higher price tag for the first round of schools than previously reported.

Tuesday afternoon, District officials revealed their plans to name 18 new Renaissance schools, including seven new District-run Promise Academies, three “Innovation” Promise Academies where reconstitution of staff is not required, and two schools to be run as charters by Universal Companies as part of an unprecedented new neighborhood partnership. Six additional schools will be matched with and turned over to outside managers.

“Last year, people didn’t believe this would work. I believed that it would,” said Ackerman. “When you go into any of the [existing] Renaissance schools, you feel that the culture has shifted.”

At the seven Renaissance charters overhauled last fall, early data indicate that enrollment and average daily attendance are up while serious incidents are down. In addition, while the first batch of Promise Academies have not been trouble-free, predictive test results point to rising reading scores at all six, and rising math scores at four of the six schools.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon said the District is particularly proud of its results at its two high school Promise Academies, Vaux and University City.

“The early returns show that attendance is drastically up, and we see a 50 percent decrease in the dropout rate for those schools,” said Nixon.

Hours after explaining its four models and naming the 18 targeted schools, the District provided new details about the cost of the Promise Academies and Renaissance charters.

Ackerman has publicly stated that each Promise Academy costs approximately $1 million to operate. But Tuesday, District staffers pegged the one-year amount invested for the initiative in six schools at nearly $9.7 million. Much of that cost is attributable to increased staff compensation, including a longer day and year.

With the six schools serving a combined 2,700 students, the cost equates to about $3,600 in additional per pupil funding at the Promise Academies. That’s more than four times the amount of extra per pupil funding the District provided to education management organizations back in 2002, in Philadelphia’s largest and most turbulent foray into school turnaround.

In addition, this year’s seven Renaissance charters have cost the District $10.4 million, bringing the total first-year price tag for the initiative at all 13 schools to $20 million.

Next year’s planned 18-school Renaissance cohort, including 10 high schools, is much larger and potentially more costly. The 10 proposed Promise Academies – including West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia high schools – serve a total of nearly 6,000 students.

Though the District faces the loss of a quarter billion dollars in federal stimulus dollars next year and the anticipated 2011-12 budget gap is even larger than that, District officials were resolute in their conviction that the Renaissance initiative will continue to be funded.

“We can’t create a system of great schools unless we turn around our lowest-performing schools," said Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono. “We are determined to figure out a way to make this initiative happen, and so that’s what we will budget for next year. These 18 schools will be turned around.”

Public school parent and Notebook leadership board member Helen Gym, however, said she’d like to see a lot more transparency in the District’s Renaissance process.

“I don’t think anyone questions the kind of investments we want to see in struggling school communities,” said Gym, who has worked closely with Asian students at South Philadelphia High School this past year.

“What we want is to make sure of is that they’re sustainable. Given the fact that there are some severe budget decisions to be made, some of which may involve school closings, the District needs to be honest about what the financial picture is – and this is a conversation that needs to happen in public.”

The District also provided more details about its plans for schools covered by its new partnership with South Philadelphia-based community development organization Universal Companies. As part of a joint effort to turn the Point Breeze and Grays Ferry sections of South Philadelphia into a Promise Neighborhood modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the District will award Universal management of Audenried High School and Edwin Vare Middle School.

“We know you can’t really revitalize these communities unless you transform the school,” said Castelbuono. “This provides a unique opportunity for us to partner with a company that has a strong presence in the community and to really leverage our skills together to really transform the entire geographic region there.”

As part of their Promise Neighborhood partnership, the District is handing over management of those two schools directly to Universal, skipping the process of community and parent review that has previously been used in the Renaissance initiative.

“Universal Companies did an enormous public process when they applied for the Promise Neighborhood Partnership grant with the federal government,” said Castelbuono. “They are a huge presence in that community; they’ve been there for decades.”

This will be Universal’s second chance with Vare, this time as a charter. The school just last fall reverted to District control after eight years under a management contract with Universal as an outgrowth of the 2002 state takeover. Vare was one of 16 low-performing schools where the District terminated contracts with outside managers in 2010, citing insufficient progress.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan slammed both the continued reliance on charter conversions in the second round of Renaissance Schools and the absence of “input from parents, teachers, students and the communities these schools serve.”

“Instead of improving community engagement in schools, families, educators and communities have been marginalized,” Jordan said in a statement responding to the Renaissance plan.

While Universal isn’t being asked to win over parents at Vare and Audenried, at the six other planned Renaissance charter schools, School Advisory Councils will again be given the opportunity to interview prospective management organizations and then make a recommendation to Superintendent Ackerman.

The District announced the approved organizations on Tuesday night. Included on the list were the three current Renaissance providers – ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, Inc., Mastery Charter Schools, and Universal – and four others, including the New York-based for-profit company Mosaica Turnaround Partners.

"We’re delighted to get selected as a provider,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. “We’re really proud of the progress this year’s Renaissance schools have made – all three are on their way to becoming successful schools." Counting its three Renaissance Schools, Mastery now operates seven charters in Philadelphia.

The public matching process between Renaissance charters and potential turnaround teams is set to be completed by mid-March, with Superintendent Ackerman presenting her final recommendations to the School Reform Commission later this spring.

The plans to assigns schools to outside providers are all subject to approval by the SRC.

The turnaround process at the 18 schools is likely to displace hundreds of teachers. District officials said they could not guarantee that the affected teachers would be able to secure positions in the District next year, given the anticipated budget shortfall. But they said no new teachers will be hired until teachers with seniority are placed.

PFT President Jordan assured members that “the PFT contract lays out a framework for an orderly system of transfers and reassignments and our staff will be in affected schools this week."

“The PFT will monitor the process daily to make sure that members have every opportunity to be reassigned,” he said.

Paul Socolar contributed additional reporting for this article.

Benjamin Herold also produced a radio companion to this piece for WHYY.