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The Main Scoop

Renaissance School provider applicants await the first cut

By by Dale Mezzacappa on Mar 2, 2010 11:45 AM

A total of 28 potential managers have applied to run one or more of the 14 potential Renaissance Schools in Philadelphia next school year, in what is one of the most aggressive and fast-tracked turnaround projects in the nation.

In addition, more than 330 organizations have applied to be support partners in these schools, according to District officials.

Even so, it appears likely that the largest single player in the turnaround process will be Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the District itself. Ackerman said February 24 that there will be four to six Promise Academies, or turnaround schools under her supervision. According to the District, not all of the “Renaissance Eligible” schools will go through the turnaround process this year.

The Promise Academies, Ackerman said, will have an education model based largely on what the District is already doing in more than 100 Empowerment Schools, with the highly prescriptive Corrective Reading and Corrective Math programs anchoring the remedial approach.

Another major player is likely to be Mastery Charter Schools, which is seeking to take over three schools – Dunbar and Bluford elementaries and Vaux High School, said its CEO, Scott Gordon. Mastery has more local experience in turnaround than other providers, having already taken over Pickett, Shoemaker, and Thomas middle schools and significantly raised test scores at each.

Gordon said that Mastery has added 11 new apprentice school leaders in the last year and decided not to pursue outside opportunities in order to take advantage of the Renaissance initiative. The charter management organization has also invested in elementary curriculum and a Mastery-wide data dashboard. It is also halfway towards a goal of raising $1 million for each of the three new schools.

“We’re ready,” Gordon said. “It may sound a little corny, but we want to support Dr. Ackerman’s vision with all we can muster.”

EdisonLearning (formerly Edison Schools Inc.) has also applied to be a lead provider, but didn’t specify any schools, said its regional general manager, Todd McIntire.

“We want to find out which schools are selected and find out about the individual needs of those schools before deciding which ones we would propose” to manage, he said.

Edison also applied to be a support partner, McIntire said.

Edison won contracts in 2002 to turn around 20 low-performing schools in Philadelphia in what was at the time the nation’s largest experiment in private, for-profit management of public schools. The District has taken back five of the schools, citing poor performance.

The community organizations ASPIRA and Congreso de Latinos Unidos are also applying. ASPIRA is interested in operating all three of the Renaissance Eligible schools with predominantly Latino populations, said board chair Rafaela Colon. They are Potter-Thomas Elementary School and Roberto Clemente and Stetson middle schools.

“We think we’ve done an excellent job with the schools we have,” she said, citing ASPIRA’s charter schools, Pantoja and de Hostos. “We have a good academic staff. I think we can really help manage these schools if we implement the same curriculum as in the charter schools.”

Congreso is interested in operating one of the schools, said Congreso President Nicholas Torres. “Our preference is a middle school, but we would be open to any one of the three,” he said.

He added that in its application to the District, Congreso said it would work with any one of several partner organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters; the Academy at Manayunk, which specializes in students with reading disabilities; and an organization called The Right Question Project, which helps people in low-income neighborhoods better engage with the institutions in their lives, including schools.

KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, which has a high-profile national network of mostly middle schools, has decided not to apply, said KIPP Philadelphia director Marc Mannella.

“We gave it some thought, but we’re not applying this year,” Mannella said. “What we know is how to build schools from the ground up. We’ve never done turnaround.”

Instead of participating in the Renaissance turnaround process, KIPP is counting on the new charter policy adopted by the School Reform Commission on February 24 to allow expansion of its two Philadelphia schools from middle schools to K-12 networks.

KIPP wants to add a kindergarten and a ninth grade to its North Philadelphia school in September as the first step towards this process and urged the SRC to approve the move at its next board meeting.

The new charter policy, among other things, allows the schools to alter their grade spans and enrollment targets after three years of their five-year charter rather than only at renewal.

The District will announce which of the applicants are deemed to be qualified providers with a proven track record on March 5 and invite them to submit detailed proposals for specific schools.

The final list of Renaissance Schools comes a week later, on March 12, based in part on the results of school reviews that have taken place at the 14 eligible schools over the past month. School advisory councils at each of the named schools will ultimately make recommendations on the best school-provider match, with the District’s final decisions going to the School Reform Commission in May.

The schools chosen as Promise Academies will be revealed in March – although the timeline might be moved back due to delays and school closings caused by snow days, said Tim Field, who works on innovation and new initiatives in the District.

The Promise Academies are likely to be schools for which the superintendent’s team has already determined there are no potential provider matches, Field said. That’s why they are being chosen first, he said.

“The timeline is a little bit ahead of the others,” Ackerman said. “We want schools to opt into it. It won’t be the School District saying, ‘You are a Promise Academy.’”

The communities will have input into what the final model will look like, she said.

“These are schools that are struggling, where we’re not seeing any momentum and don’t see a …credible high-quality option,” said Field. In that case, “you don’t want to put them through the [Renaissance matching] process.”

All teachers in the Promise Academies, like in other Renaissance schools, will be force transferred, but the stepped-up timeline will give those teachers a head start in negotiating the site selection process and finding a new school. Up to 50 percent of them can be rehired at the Promise Academy, but all will be guaranteed District jobs, officials said.

Field said that in this first year of the Renaissance Schools plan, there are unlikely to be any “innovation” schools, or schools managed as part of the system with a team of District educators not led by the superintendent.

“Our timeline makes it more challenging for the innovation model this year,” he said.

At least one “innovation” proposal has been submitted – by a team at West Philadelphia High School, which is seeking to be its own “provider” so it can continue some programs already in place under its current principal, Saliyah Cruz. Those include a discipline approach based on the concept of restorative justice, which Ackerman has said she wants to institutionalize more widely.

The West Philadelphia group would work with partners including the Penn Partnership Schools at the University of Pennsylvania, according to James M. Lytle, who heads it.

Ackerman and Benjamin Rayer, the District’s chief of charter, partnership and new schools, said that at many of the 14 targeted schools, the communities have said that conditions are in place without the disruption of turnaround to make major improvements at their school. These communities will get a chance to make their case, he said, but he expressed skepticism, citing West Philadelphia as an example.

“I’m sure there are lots of efforts at West," he said. “But their proficiency rates are 12 percent and 7 percent, that story is shocking…. When children can’t do the work, what is it they come to school for? We’re not apologizing for saying let’s make some dramatic changes.”

About the Author

Contact Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa at

Comments (7)

Submitted by Another West supporter (not verified) on March 2, 2010 7:13 pm

I just want to point out that the group of students who Benjamin Rayer is referring to from West last year who scored 12% and 7% on the reading and math PSSA respectively were the same group of students who were freshman when West had fires, fights and staff assaults on a daily basis. They didn't exactly have a great foundation for their high school career. Furthermore, West is not just claiming that we are making efforts, we actually have some data to back it up. Take a look at our ninth grade data-last year approximately 20% of our ninth grade class was on track to graduate compared to 67% this year, course passage rates for freshman have nearly tripled in some areas, attendance has improved and reading and math levels have improved. All of the previous statements can be proven with DATA. Mr. Rayer should also take a look at our February review and look at the improvements we are making based on PSSA predictive test data.
We are working at West to help our students achieve. We have made great strides in improving climate and now we are tackling academic achievement. Real school reform takes time not a flavor of the month approach. Saliyah Cruz knew that she had to fix the climate before any real teaching and learning could happen. She fixed the climate and is now working to improve achievement. PSSA proficiency doesn't happen overnight especially when you have students entering high school reading on 3rd and 4th grade reading levels. Comprehensive high schools have been designed to fail; it has NOTHING to do with poor teaching! I do realize that some comprehensives are doing well, but generally they have consistent leadership and a dedicated staff. Removing teachers is not school reform; unfortunately some misguided politicians have decided it is so it is becoming the new educational band-aid.
One more thing-who are these genius teachers lining up to teach in Renaissance schools?

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on March 2, 2010 7:19 pm

 Since the initiative was announced I've been concerned the language the SDP uses. There is an agreed upon range of schools that will become Promise academies, but it is not forced upon a school. Why give numbers if schools and the communities they serve are choosing to be a Promise academy? Phrasing such as, the SDP has the capacity to run up to six schools would be more appropriate. (I know, the school district runs over two hundred, how is there capacity limited to six?) Mastery already knows which schools it wants. Shouldn't the District and more importantly the community be deciding which providers they are interested in? I have many friends who gave a year a service to Americorp after college. Through them I heard positive things about Congreso. In the wake of Charlenni Ferreria's tragic death, and the role of Congreso caseworkers in it, I think it would be appropriate to ask if Congreso has the capacity to oversee a project with as many moving pieces as a school. It also seems Principal Cruz took quite the gambit in applying for the Innovation model. If West isn't granted the Innovation model, she goes where? Oh the web Renaissance spins.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 2, 2010 8:42 pm

When the Renaissance initiative was announced, the School District indicated each school would have a fair evaluation to see if the school has the capability of making change without becoming a renaissance school. It seems through Benjamin Rayer's comments, the district has already made up its mind for all 14 Renaissance Eligible schools no matter what the evaluations find.

Rayer fails to acknowledge the huge changes that West Philadelphia High School has made over the last three years and also fails to note that the school is in the first year of implementing its plan for "turning around the school" funded through the Department of Labor grant. As Another West Supporter states, the most recent test data which Rayer should examine in detail is from the February review which indicated juniors at West would test at 36% percent proficient and advanced on the Reading section of the PSSA which would mean the school would make AYP.

Each school deserves a fair chance to show that it is already taking steps to improve as the SDP originally indicated. To take a school that has so much support in the community, from the students, and the staff which has already begun to show the academic gains the school district wants is not in the best interest of the students or school community. It is clear that West Philadelphia High School deserves more time to implement the changes already underway and not risk experimenting on this school when this new model has no proven results of success.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 2, 2010 9:49 pm

Just remember that the people at 440 N. Broad are ambitious and self serving. Why would Rayer want to allow West Philadelphia High School to continue with its momentum? How would it serve his personal agenda? The success and strides that West Philly makes will only serve to invalidate his position. He proves that for all the talk of community involvement, Arlene Ackerman and her cronies will do only what they want to do. The community people who think that the district administration actually cares about their thoughts and ideas will soon realize they've been exploited and used, like so many other Philadelphia citizens at the hands of the caretbaggers who are running the district.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 3, 2010 12:41 am

Why is Rayer so dismissive of West Philadelphia High School's efforts to improve? Rayer worked for Mastery Charter just before being hired by Ackerman to run the office of new schools and charters. Mastery has been building its portfolio of Philadelphia schools and stands to gain additional schools now that it has been named one of the providers for Renaissance schools. Though Mastery has staked its claim for Vaux among the high schools, Rayer has a rationale to dismiss the ability of a school school like West (with many new, energetic staff, a dynamic new principal, and an authentic community support group) to right itself. I ask, is there a conflict of interest here? Isn't this a case of the fox watching the hen house?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 3, 2010 9:01 am

The West Philly High case will show whether or not the process the school district said it would go through with each school and it's community was real or if the outcome had already been decided. Clearly the school has made huge changes in the past three years and the testing data which the School District says is what got West on the list is dramatically improving according to the School District's own PSSA predictive test. If West is turned into a Renaissance school, we will know the district had no intention of actually evaluating each school and giving them a chance to get off the list. We will find out March 12th.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2010 10:54 am

Wow I did not know that Mr. Rayer worked for Mastery. How can we expect him to support models that involve schools not becoming charters or Emo’s. Not surprisingly the only school to apply to be an innovation school was West Philadelphia High School. As a community member from North Philly I am concerned about the timeline to make an innovation plan. How long did West have to come with a plan? Surely a few weeks is truly not enough time to compete with companies with millions of dollars like Mastery, Kipp and the new name that Edison goes by. With that said, this whole process becomes just like past reforms. The trading of political favors for small gains. Surely we can not aspect schools to change schools unless they have: a year of planning, dedicated staff, autonym, a major shift in working conditions (small classes, better student teachers ratio, ect.) and a major shift in school climate. Besides, these are the things that the highest performing schools in the nation have so why not – with out outside providers- give it to them.


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