What went wrong with Promise Academies?

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

Promise Academies, the once-vaunted internal turnaround model for District schools, failed to thrive due to a drop in funding, inconsistent leadership, and teacher layoffs that decimated the climate and trust that the schools had built, according to a new study.

The study was written by Tonya Wolford, head of the District’s Office of Research and Evaluation, and two of her colleagues. Based on data and interviews with principals and teachers, it was published in Perspectives on Urban Education, a publication of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennyslvania.

Promise Academies had been touted as an "internal turnaround" for low-achieving schools and an alternative to more radical restructuring options, particularly the conversion to charter schools. The initiative, which began in 2010, poured additional money and programs into traditionally under-resourced schools in some of the city’s most impoverished areas. It was the signature program of Arlene Ackerman when she was superintendent.

When the District was hit with the need to make unprecedented budget cuts in 2011, the schools took a big funding blow, causing an emotional and angry response among Ackerman’s supporters. Later, many of the schools that had been designated Promise Academies were closed, including Vaux and University City High Schools.

"Between 2010 and 2014, unprecedented budget shortfalls led to a reduction in funding across the District. For Promise Academies in particular, many defining aspects of the model were eliminated, including Saturday School, Summer Academy, and eventually, the extended school day," the report concluded. By 2012-13, there was a "general lack of clarity about what distinguished Promise Academies from other schools."

A study by Research for Action on the first 18 months of the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative concluded that both Promise Academies and schools converted to charters "significantly outperformed" similar schools. But there was "no statistically significant difference" between the charter turnarounds and the Promise Academies, the report said.

Part of the early success was due to the staff overhaul that accompanied the designation, according to the findings. All teachers bought into the concept and were paid extra based on the longer hours. The schools all had counselors, social workers and other support staff. With more resources and adults around than before, the researchers reported, students felt better about school and their behavior improved.

The 2011 cuts, however, decimated the staffs. Since many of the Promise Academy teachers were new, they were among the thousands of teachers earmarked for layoff, which threw the schools into further disarray.

The District sought to protect Promise Academy teachers from layoffs in an effort to retain some stability at the schools, but the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers filed a grievance against the practice. For most of the summer, 374 Promise Academy teachers were in limbo.

Ultimately, the District dropped the demand, and the layoffs proceeded according to reverse seniority. As a result, the Promise Academies were filled with different, more senior staff that did not have the same preparation, training, or buy-in to the concept. One hundred seventy-four Promise Academy teachers were laid off.

"Not only did Promise Academies lose much of the staff that they had spent the past year interviewing, hiring, training, and acclimating, but they now had just a few short weeks before school started to vet and select the educators who would replace them," the report said.

One teacher told the researchers, "We had so many teachers who were new to the District. And then when everything happened, it was complete upheaval. We almost lost all of our teachers — there were maybe three of us left — and it was a scramble to rehire. That first year, we were such a unit. We were all in it together. We had such high hopes. We knew we were going to do it. And then, it felt like our balloon deflated when we had to scramble and rehire. Not that we didn’t get great people in place of some of the people that we lost, but if you think about the unit that we had [in Year One]… that was a challenge."

Moreover, after the layoffs and the reshuffling, students felt betrayed, because they had been assured that the teachers were there because they wanted to be there.

"During interviews, principals and teachers described that in these lowest-performing schools, students were not accustomed to consistency as a result of constant principal and teacher turnover," the report said.

"Therefore, throughout Year One, staff consistently reinforced the message that they ‘did not have to pick off of a list of whatever school was left,’ but rather that they ‘chose to come here,’ as the leader of a Cohort One Promise Academy explained. Despite initial hesitation and even pushback from some students to ‘open their arms to that help because of the track record,’ students eventually “got on board” as Year One progressed and accepted that ‘these people are here for me.’"

Eventually, the schools were subject to more cuts, and although they were able to site-select their teachers, union rules required that they choose from those who had been laid off, which hindered team-building. They had lost the lure of extra pay for teachers and the opportunity to become "part of a team with a strong unified vision and mission."

By year four, the report said, "Promise Academy positions no longer had either of those compelling aspects as recruitment tools, as the extended school hours (and associated pay) had been eliminated, and the excitement for the model had dwindled down to nothing."