An explosive debate about Renaissance schools

The bitter, divisive battle over turning struggling District schools into charters.

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

Wister Elementary School sits on Bringhurst Street, a side street off historic Germantown Avenue. Of 1950s vintage, it has a playground and large parking lot that serves as a shortcut for local pedestrians. Across the street are rowhouses. A few blocks away are the still-stately homes that speak to Germantown’s storied past.

The school, named for horticulturist John Wister, has nearly 400 students, virtually all African American and low-income. And Wister became a flashpoint in January for the School District’s most controversial policy – turning over low-performing District schools to charter operators under the Renaissance Schools initiative.

In October, Superintendent William Hite proposed Wister as one of three elementary schools to become charters – along with Cooke in Logan and Huey in West Philadelphia – and then changed his mind in January when new data showed that its students were making progress. At that point, Hite took charter conversion for Wister off the table – but not before parents on both sides had become fired up.

At a raucous Jan. 21 School Reform Commission meeting, where the acrimony at all three schools was on full display, Hite defended his change of heart – only to be overruled by the SRC when Commissioner Sylvia Simms presented a last-minute resolution to match Wister with Mastery Charter Schools. Simms said Wister parents had pleaded with her to let the charter conversion proceed.

Mastery, which operates other schools in the neighborhood, had been the only bidder for the school, and it had organized parents such as Alisha Grant, who said Wister had been continually drained of resources – not enough textbooks, music or art.

“I looked at Clymer, Cleveland, Pastorius, Pickett, and Gratz,” she said, citing other Mastery conversions. “What I saw is what I want for my child.”

Simms’ resolution was supported by Commissioners Bill Green and Feather Houstoun, giving it enough votes to pass, which inspired more outbursts at the packed meeting. The pro-Mastery parents were ecstatic, as angry opponents denounced the charter conversions and renewed calls to disband the SRC.

This was only the latest in a series of wrenching controversies spurred by the Renaissance program since it began in 2010 under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. But Hite and the SRC have stuck with it as a cornerstone of the District’s school turnaround efforts.

In an interview, Hite said that the need is great, pointing out that 89 of the District’s schools fall into the lowest category, “Intervene,” according to its School Progress Report rating system. At many, including Wister, student proficiency in reading or math is in the single digits.

“That’s a lot of schools that need something,” he said. “What we are trying to do here is … get children into better-performing schools or make them better.”

But in the high-stakes field of turnarounds – drastic intervention for low-performing schools – the District has largely ceded the work to charter operators. Now just two schools, Blaine and Kelley, are undergoing “District-led Renaissance” turnarounds, supported by grant money from the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership.

“The problem is that there is no other plan for turnaround other than the closure of schools and turnover to charters,” said City Councilwoman and education advocate Helen Gym.

The process divides communities and sends the wrong message to parents, she said, as well as consuming the energy of District officials.

“It takes up time, resources, personnel, and political energy,” she said. “What parents hear is that you get nothing if you stay public; the only hope is to go charter. That is not a vision worth fighting for.”

The District has sought parental input into the Renaissance decision-making, but has repeatedly sparked protest by altering the process nearly every year. At first, through School Advisory Councils, parents were given the chance to vote on providers. Two years ago, for the first time, it allowed parents to decide whether to become a charter at all – at Steel and Muñoz-Marín Elementaries. After a bitterly fought campaign that pitted charter organizations against the teachers’ union, a majority of parents voted against charter conversion.

The parents at Steel and Muñoz-Marín rejected the “charter-or-nothing” premise of school choice, Gym said, which was a plea for the District to come up with a wider vision for the schools that most city children attend.

“That charters are incrementally better on test data than the lowest-resourced District schools is not exactly a standard to be turning over millions of dollars towards, along with the vitriol that has come about through this whole process,” Gym said. It is now estimated that each Renaissance charter costs the cash-strapped District $4,000 in per-pupil costs.

Hite downplays the prominence of Renaissance charter conversion in his reform blueprint for the District, arguing that it gets all the attention even though he has made other significant moves. He cites the creation of new innovative schools, a grant-funded redesign process to help replicate practices in high-performing schools, and a focus on early reading instruction.

“Most of what we do is focused on all our schools,” said Hite, noting that he has been steadily restoring music teachers, who were hard-hit by the budget crisis. “We now have 219 music teachers,” he said. “Why aren’t we talking about that?”

At the same time, he considers the Renaissance program to be successful. Twenty former District schools have become charters, run by six different operators. They are different from traditional charters in that providers are required to accept all students from each school’s catchment area.

Some have lured back neighborhood families who, before the conversion, enrolled their children in other schools, Hite said. Five are enrolling at or above their enrollment cap, and five others are near their caps, say officials, adding that 1,800 students were turned away due to the limits.

The data on Renaissance renewals, which come after five years, are mixed.

So far, in the first cohort of seven, five have been renewed, four with the original operators. One, Universal-Bluford, is undergoing non-renewal hearings. Another, Douglass, was transferred from Young Scholars to Mastery. Stetson, operated by ASPIRA, has been in limbo for more than a year.

“We have the evidence that in the significant majority of these schools, we have seen improvements,” said DawnLynne Kacer, the new head of the District’s charter office.

Kacer declined to discuss the pros and cons of individual Renaissance charter managers, but cited overall gains. An information from the District touting the initiative’s success showed that in 18 of the 20 schools, attendance has increased. The only achievement data on the information sheet – a gain in both math and reading scores – were for the three schools that have been renewed, not for the whole group.

Although the process has been contentious, it has been worth it, according to Kacer and Peng Chao, who heads the Renaissance initiative.

“We do see evidence of success,” Kacer said. “We don’t just look at proficiency; we also look at growth, attendance rates, climate, and culture. We’ve heard from parents and families. … One of the most significant changes has been the way the school has felt. The change in homework, in student discipline, in what students experience as they pass in the halls in between classes. Those aren’t things that are necessarily measured by proficiency or grades.”

This year, despite an effort to broaden the base of interested operators, the District received only four applications to run the three designated schools. Only at Huey did parents have any choice.

The District had hoped for more applicants, but Kacer said that turnaround work tends to be “localized and regional” and that many charter organizations shun it because of how difficult it is. In addition to looking for operators with a track record, she said, the District has tried to get more charter organizations to enter the field.

Great Oaks Foundation, which was the only choice for the Cooke school community, is one of those. Kacer said that two members of their leadership team have done turnarounds, although the organization hasn’t.

Gym, however, said that she asked for and received the Great Oaks proposal after it was approved – and was “shocked.”

“This is an operator with zero track record for a K-8 school,” she said. “They have never operated a kindergarten.”

The organization runs just four secondary schools that start at grade 6, and it has yet to have a graduating class. The first school opened in 2011. All the schools are smaller than Cooke, she said.

“I cannot believe they met any level of standard or criteria. If I had received the application, I would have tossed it aside,” she said.

Kacer said that Great Oaks has an innovative tutoring model, pairing recent college graduates with students.

Huey parents chose Global Leadership Academy, which runs another charter school here, over the national operator SABIS.

As for Wister, even though it will now become a Mastery charter after the last-minute SRC mutiny, Hite stands by his decision to reverse the original recommendation. He thinks that District schools that are improving should be recognized for that. In the ratings released this winter, Wister was no longer in the District’s lowest performance category.

“Even though proficiency rates were low, individual student growth was high,” Hite said. “Wister’s growth was more significant than a lot of other schools … including some Mastery schools.”

The Wister imbroglio is just the latest to hit the Renaissance program.

In 2011, charter organizations bid for six of the eight schools (Olney East and West high schools were later merged into one), but Universal was awarded Audenried and Vare without any competitive process. District officials said they gave Universal the schools because the community organization had received a federal Promise Neighborhoods planning grant.

But Universal lost out on the much bigger implementation grant, and there was a protracted standoff over the terms under which Universal could use the brand new, $60 million Audenried building, constructed at the expense of the District. During the controversy, anti-charter activist teacher Hope Moffett was disciplined, spending time in “teacher jail,” as a result of her outspokenness.

Around the same time, the School Advisory Council of Martin Luther King High School voted to partner with Mosaica Turnaround Partners. But State Rep. Dwight Evans intervened on behalf of Foundations, Inc., a firm to which he has long connections that was already doing work in the school.

Mosaica bowed out, but, in the ensuing furor, Foundations also bowed out and SRC chair Robert Archie resigned. The city integrity officer later issued a scathing report on the backroom maneuvering. King became a Promise Academy, but the extra programming withered with the budget crisis.

The District is planning, Hite said, to unveil a within-District turnaround model in February.