Year two Renaissance plans: Bigger and pricier

This cohort of 18 schools sees a new process, a new partnership, and two new turnaround models.

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

In a plan that will expand Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative to encompass 31 schools and 12 percent of the District’s students, 18 more low-performing schools have been targeted for radical overhauls.

"Everyone knows this comes back to me," said Ackerman in announcing the move. "These schools are under my very close watch and care."

The second year of the Renaissance initiative features two new turnaround models, a new process for selecting and assigning schools, and an unprecedented new partnership with South Philadelphia-based community development organization Universal Companies.

This year’s Renaissance plan calls for expanding both of the original turnaround models. Six schools will join the seven existing Renaissance charters under the "Renaissance Match" model, and seven schools will join the six existing District-run "Traditional" Promise Academies.

A gentler approach to turnaround will be tried at three schools that will become "Innovation" Promise Academies. Finally, two schools are slated to become charters as "Promise Neighborhood Partnership Schools."

If the year two expansion proceeds as planned, roughly 10,000 students would attend Renaissance charters, and almost 9,000 would attend Promise Academies.

The District also changed the criteria it used to select Renaissance schools.

Last year’s initial group of 14 "Renaissance-eligible schools" was selected strictly on the basis of their School Performance Index (SPI) ratings. This year, officials say they considered a range of additional factors, including schools’ dropout rates, school climate data, teacher attrition, and feeder patterns.

The targeted schools will extend the initiative into new areas of South, North, and Northwest Philadelphia.

Ten of the 18 new Renaissance schools are neighborhood high schools. Five of those – Audenried, Gratz, King, Olney East, and Olney West – are slated to become charters.

Three more will join University City and Vaux as Traditional Promise Academies.

And South Philadelphia, which was rocked by racial violence last year, but has seen recent improvements, is one of two neighborhood high schools that will become Innovation Promise Academies.

"I don’t think it’s a wise decision," said Duong Ly, a student activist and senior at South Philadelphia.

"We are making progress, [but] they decided to mess around with the dynamics of the school [without] talking to us beforehand."

In a departure from the process used during the first year of the Renaissance initiative, schools were not given an option as to whether to seek Promise Academy status.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon said the District used demographic and performance data to identify the schools that were most similar to existing Promise Academies and most likely to benefit from that turnaround model.

"It’s so frustrating. We were supposed to be involved in the process, but there’s been no communication," said Shirley Randleman, president of the 52nd Street Business Association and chair of the School Advisory Council (SAC) at West Philadelphia High School, which the District designated as a Traditional Promise Academy.

The West SAC voted against becoming a Promise Academy last year.

Despite changes in the process for assigning schools to turnaround models, Ackerman said "Parent, community, and staff input will continue to be what distinguishes this initiative from others."

Like last year, SACs at the six schools slated for the Renaissance Match process will have the opportunity to evaluate potential turnaround teams and recommend a preferred provider between February and March.

Among the seven organizations approved by the District to manage schools are three existing Renaissance providers: ASPIRA, Inc., Mastery Charter Schools, and Universal Companies, and some new faces.

SAC recommendations will be due to Superintendent Ackerman in mid-March. As with last year, Ackerman will be the one to finalize recommendations on provider-school matches, which will ultimately be voted on by the School Reform Commission later in the spring.

But the District will bypass this public matching process at the other two Renaissance schools slated to become charters. As part of their Promise Neighborhood Partnership, the District has selected Universal Companies to manage Audenried High School and Edwin Vare Middle School, a move that will require SRC approval.

The partnership is the result of a federal planning grant Universal has received to begin turning the Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods of South Philadelphia into a "Promise Neighborhood" with a comprehensive set of family services, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

"We’re happy with our partnership with Universal, [and] we believe they’re worthy of our trust with two more schools," Ackerman said.

Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono added that Universal has already led an "enormous public process" in applying for the Promise Neighborhood planning grant.

But Universal President/CEO Rahim Islam said that process has not yet included public discussion of Vare and Audenried becoming charters.

"We’ve already met with most of the [community] leaders, [but] not on the issue of Vare and Audenried being charters – really, that was just incidental," said Islam. "Our next step is to actively engage the community in this process."

The District will also coordinate with Universal to provide services to Alcorn and Smith Elementary Schools, both of which are part of Audenried’s feeder pattern and both of which will become Traditional Promise Academies.

The District does not yet have a cost estimate for the second year of the initiative, said spokesperson Elizabeth Childs.

The overall price tag for the first year of the Renaissance initiative was $20 million.

About half of that went to operate the current Promise Academies, where $9.6 million – about $3,600 in additional per pupil funding – paid for extra supports in those six schools. Most of the expense was due to increased staff compensation for the longer school day and year.

Despite widespread concerns about an enormous budget shortfall, District officials said the Renaissance initiative would move forward.

"We have an absolute moral obligation to turn around these schools," said Associate Superintendent David Weiner.

"Any potential budget issues are not going to stop this [Renaissance] process."

The District will be hosting community meetings about year two of the Renaissance Schools initiative. For more details and to see a complete timeline visit the District’s site.