Under new management, Philly Renaissance Schools show growth

Part 46 of 46 in the series Educating America

GROWING UP: Philadelphia’s Renaissance Initiative overhauls lowest-performing schools.

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

Some Philadelphia schools are under new management, and the results are decidedly mixed.

Since 2010, Philadelphia has applied wholesale reform to some of its lowest performing schools, enacting sweeping change with the goal of quick results.

The district employs two brands of turnaround schools: Promise Academies and Renaissance Charter Schools. The first are district-managed, the latter run by private charter operators.

The latest assessment of the district’s Renaissance Schools Initiative indicates a boost for schools transformed by charters, while those overhauled by the district haven’t fared as well.

According to the Renaissance Schools Initiative Progress Report released in December 2013, though many Renaissance Charters are on an “upward trajectory,” Promise academies show an “absence of direct oversight” and “general lack of clarity” about what a Promise Academy is.

The plan was to assign new principals, replace half the staff, require students to attend longer days and summer school and enforce a uniform dress code.

Despite program changes, the nine Promise Academies created between 2010 and 2012 saw a drop in funding that led to the end of extra instruction time, meant to be a hallmark of the model. Staff turnover caused by seniority requirements in teachers’ contracts also created problems, the report says.

It got worse from there. Three Promise Academy high schools closed, and all of the current Promise Academies have academic performance results below the district average.

“Although funding cuts across all schools have affected Promise Academies, we are in the process of re-evaluating the status of each school so that we can better align our limited resources,” said David Hardy, the district’s Chief Academic Support Officer.

The silver lining to the district’s turnaround efforts, however, is the early success of its Renaissance Charters.

Like Promise Academies, the schools implemented new policies and procedures but used the same buildings and students to create different schools. Yet many of the changes are framed around the individual charter’s specific mission and goals, giving them a stronger unity of purpose.

“The schools are now being held to a higher standard,” said Maritza Guridy, an advocate for Philadelphia education and parent of a senior at Simon Gratz Mastery Charter, which became a Renaissance school in 2011. “There is more order, organization, safer learning environment and a mutually agreed upon commitment from the staff at all levels.”

At Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, a K-8 school that was part of the first cohort of Renaissance Charters, serious safety incidents went from 23.86 per 100 students in 2008-09 to .61 in the year of the turnaround in 2010.

The academic environment of these formerly at-risk schools has undergone rapid shifts after the turnaround. The district in recent years has seen a decline in reading and math proficiency, but K-8 Renaissance Charters have been making gains.

Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School gained more than 10 percentage points in reading and math proficiency one year after the change in management and adoption of new policies and codes of conduct.

Though the initial turnaround process can produce growing pains, many families support the progress.

Three parents testified in support of the Renaissance Schools Initiative at the most recent School Reform Commission meeting in December. They sought to encourage the district to continue to use the model to help its most dysfunctional schools and vulnerable students.

“With the serious decline in good education in recent years prior to the Renaissance Initiative, I think it has been a very good choice,” said Guridy.

Contact Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org

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