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Summer 2012 Vol. 19. No. 6 Focus on A Broken Pipeline to College

Other news & features

Creighton: Exception to the Renaissance rule?

The school's supporters persuaded officials to consider a teacher-led plan.

By by Bill Hangley, Jr. on May 16, 2012 11:18 AM
Photo: Oscar Wang

Parent Delores Brown-Waters and 5-year-old Diamond Waters testified in April against a District plan to convert Creighton to a charter. The SRC decided to explore a proposal for a teacher-led model at the Northeast Philadelphia school.

For three of this year's four Renaissance Schools, the selection process is over. The public meetings are complete, the School Reform Commission has voted, and barring any unforeseen complication, next September they'll open as neighborhood charter schools.

But at Creighton Elementary in the Lower Northeast, supporters of a unique plan for a teacher-led administration are holding out hope that their school can buck a very big trend.

This spring marks the third year of the Renaissance initiative, designed to turn around low-performing schools. What began under departed Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as an elaborate mix of charter and District-run turnarounds shrunk this year to something more modest, and a fourth year is not guaranteed. Like so much else in the District, the future of the Renaissance initiative is in flux.

But the strategy behind it – turning over the management of schools to private organizations, in hopes of increased accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness – looks poised to become the District's dominant reform approach.

Creighton is this year's last piece of unfinished Renaissance business, and its supporters hope to avoid charter status. Instead they want approval for a plan that would put the school under control of a seven-member "council" of teachers and community members. The Renaissance process gives members of school communities a chance to weigh in on who will manage the school turnaround, and Creighton's School Advisory Council (SAC) made this plan its first choice, in hopes of keeping what SAC members consider the strength of its school – its teachers – in place.

"When people found that the teachers were going to give us a proposal, a lot of people wanted that," said Creighton parent and SAC member Delores Brown-Waters. "They kind of chose the teachers before they even heard the teachers' proposal."

Regina Feighan-Drach, an art teacher at Creighton and the plan's lead author, says it embraces the District's turnaround goals, even if it employs an unusual technique to achieve them. She calls it a community-supported, student-focused plan with clear goals and accountability that will improve classroom results and expand the options available to local parents.

Both women were among the Creighton supporters who made an impassioned plea for the proposal to the SRC last month.

"We need the opportunity to turn Creighton around," Feighan-Drach told the commissioners. "You shouldn't give it to someone else who doesn't know our kids."

The group broke into delighted cheers when the SRC responded by temporarily tabling a motion to hand the school over to the charter operator Universal Companies – the Creighton SAC's second choice. Commissioners said they were intrigued and wanted to know more about the teacher-led model and the results it could provide. The idea of a teacher-led turnaround has been discussed as an option since the Renaissance initiative's first year but has never been tried.

"We have a lot of schools to turn around, and … we have to take advantage of every opportunity to engage with our teachers to figure out how to do that," said Commissioner Wendell Pritchett.

"I'm very encouraged by the effort and the presentation made today, because it [starts] from the premise that there needs to be some fixing," added Commission Chair Pedro Ramos.

Since then, Feighan-Drach has refined the proposal, and Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon has visited Creighton to see the school in action. Nixon, who says the District is interested in all sorts of "best practices," expects to make a final recommendation before the end of May. "We've never done [this] in Philadelphia," Nixon said. "To have a school run by a teacher team – you're charting new waters."

All this gives Feighan-Drach and Brown-Waters hope. But they know they're swimming against the turnaround tide in more ways than one.

For one thing, the Renaissance initiative itself has evolved to rely increasingly on charters. This year's Renaissance turnarounds were exclusively charter transformations, and funding has been cut for the District-run turnarounds known as Promise Academies. A study of the first year of Renaissance schools by Research for Action showed that at their original funding levels, Promise Academies produced the same level of improvement as charter-run turnarounds. But the effects of the subsequent budget cuts are uncertain.

"The Promise Academies are an evolving model, and they have been deeply affected by the financial turmoil and the uncertainties at the School District – it would be silly to not say so," said Commissioner Feather Houstoun.

Next year, Promise Academies will retain extended days but not Saturday classes. Nixon says she's also exploring the possibility of using Title I funds for academic coaches and counselors. "We do have to make some hard choices," she said.

And just as the Renaissance turnaround policy is evolving to depend increasingly on private managers, so too is the District's overall management strategy. Less than a week after Creighton won its temporary reprieve, the SRC unveiled its dramatic proposal to further shrink the central office, break the District into eight to ten "Achievement Networks" of 20 to 30 schools, and contract out their management. The plan proposes closing up to 64 District schools, and projects that 40 percent of District students will soon be in charters – up from about 25 percent this year.

Officials say that District staff could play a role managing the new networks. But critics fear that the reorganization plan, like the Renaissance initiative, will rely on private managers at the expense of the District's capacity.

Recent SRC meetings have featured a steady stream of parents and advocates worried about profiteering, inefficiency, and political interference – the same concerns that have been triggered by three years of Renaissance charter conversions.

"The possibility for corruption seems vast," Rebecca Poyourow, parent of two Cook-Wissahickon Elementary students, told the SRC at a recent budget hearing.

Whether the SRC is firmly committed to all aspects of the District's transformation plan is murky.

And what the Renaissance initiative will look like next year is likewise unclear. The proposed 2012-13 budget includes funding to support the four new Renaissance schools (including Creighton, whether run by Universal or the proposed council). Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said that the District may consider more charter transformations for the 2013-14 school year. Nixon said she plans to study and refine the Promise Academy model for possible future use, but also that the District has no immediate plans to expand their number.

Back at Creighton, supporters of the teacher-led plan can only wait. Nixon said she has to review the plan and do more research before coming to any decisions. Knudsen added, "What's important for this discussion is that the SRC was willing to consider what was an extraordinary proposal, and it's worthy of investigation."

Feighan-Drach said she's grateful that the SRC gave Creighton a chance to make its case. She hopes the commissioners see an opportunity to try something new – neither a District-run Promise Academy, nor a typical charter conversion, but a third way that puts responsibility for the school directly on its teachers and parents.

"I know we can make improvement. I know we can make growth," she told the SRC. "I know we'd be under the microscope. Bring it on."

About the Author

Bill Hangley, Jr. is a freelance writer based in West Philadelphia.

Comments (20)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 20, 2012 9:28 pm

Congratulations to Creighton for taking a stand and having the insight to devise their own proposal. I hope that the district believes in their own people and gives Creighton the opportunity to show all of Philadelphia what our current educators can do!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2012 9:26 am

The Creighton Staff knows and believes in the success of our children. All of our children - not just the African American children. Universal seems to want to force our Spanish, Asian and other non-African American children to respect only the African American culture and not any others. I find this offensive and unacceptable. This is a great community. A very diverse community. I don't feel the Universal Company respects or even cares for that diversity.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2012 2:43 pm

Where is the PFT on this proposal? Were they contacted for this article? Would be good to see the PFT weigh in on proposals that are trying to save public education jobs!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2012 11:38 pm

My understanding is that the PFT is in full support of the teachers proposal. They have spoken out in favor of it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2012 3:48 pm

I'm sure they are well aware of it and are taking action. It's a big issue!!!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2012 4:29 pm

And the basis of your confidence is? Wearing red shirts and handing out flyers isn't going to get it. Jordan's only solution is register to vote. What did voting for Nutter and Obama get us? Race to the Top is a doubling down of No Child Left Behind!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 22, 2012 8:10 am

Read Jordan's testimony before City Council. End of story!!! I'm tired of people bad mouthing Jordan. No PFT=you're out the door...plain and simple....go work for the Charter Schools and see what having no rights is all about.

Submitted by maximootoo on May 16, 2014 7:29 pm
Really? Where is Jerry Jordon when 9 teachers get "force transferred" last week because the principal Guy Lowrey wants to hire all grade teachers who are also certified in Special Education? this was approved by the asst superintendent & there is nothing these teachers can do. Too late to site select. Some have their Masters & have been there since 2008 but he used the lowest in seniority line to force them out. So, where is the union now? There is nothing they can do. What good is the union for these teachers. It's very sad. Will this be the norm for all Philly schools. Will all teachers need to watch out because they will all need to be Special Ed teachers too?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 23, 2012 12:33 pm

Jerry Jordan has supported Creighton in written as well as spoken words.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2012 6:33 pm

The fact that there is no other teacher-led schools in Philly shows up that the whole reform movement really has nothing to do with improving student education. Instead we have a bunch of parasitical politician pushing their moneymaking charters. A school district truly interested in improving things would give everything at least one try. The fact that they are trying to shoot down Creighton shows us that they are really scared it might work! God help the charters if it does as it might be an alternative to them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 22, 2012 12:35 pm

Jordan is not the union. The rank and file are the union. If we don't like what is going on we get new leadership. That's what democracy looks like.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 24, 2012 12:12 pm

When are we going to start thinking about the kids and not just our jobs. My kids attend a charter school and they are doing a better job than there former public school was.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 30, 2012 10:25 pm

You mean their not there....maybe the kids should edit your blogs! Edited by a certified public school teacher!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 24, 2012 12:28 pm

When are we going to start thinking about the kids and not just our jobs. My kids chater school is doing a much better job than there former public school did.

Submitted by Anon, anon, we must go anon.... (not verified) on May 24, 2012 2:36 pm

YOUR child's charter school may be doing much better than their former regular public school, but there is copious research to show that this is not the case with most charter schools. The biggest thing charters do is improve climate by enacting sometimes draconian rules and behavior protocols and then 'exiting' the problem children. REAL public schools are legally prevented from doing the same thing, so the consequence for some schools is that climate deteriorates and so does achievement.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 27, 2012 5:27 am

Public should adopt some of those same principles too. Why should my child suffer and not be taught properly because there are a lot of problem children in his class.

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on July 17, 2012 8:17 am

This is the question that needs to be addressed system-wide. Public schools cannot adopt these principles. It is illegal.

The public school district remains responsible for your child no matter where s/he goes to school. So, if your child were to get removed from the charter, you can walk into the public school in your neighborhood and enroll them the next day. If s/he gets expelled from that school (hypothetically), the District is still responsible.

I understand why a parent would prefer a charter school over a public one if their neighborhood school is an unstable one.

I just don't want those parents to believe that the two schools could be operated by the same rules. Public schools must educate the public, and unfortunately, the public in Philadelphia includes a lot of children with severe emotional problems. The privatization movement is creating a caste system. Given the right supports and the right staff, public schools can manage behavior issues and teach everyone. But we aren't given those tools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 17, 2012 1:01 am

Not all charter schools put the problem kids out. They keep them and expect the teacher to handle them. The bullies, children with mental problems such Austism, hyperactivity. One charter school is not equipped to address the needs of children, such as a gym or having young children walking outside in the rain and snow to go to lunch and specialty classes. I want my child to attend a school that was built to be a school and not an office building. I want my child's physical needs to be addressed. Another school doesn't even have a recess yard for elementary children to have some play time during the day. So please do group all charters in the same class, they are the same.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on May 27, 2012 10:49 am

I agree. All children should be able to learn in a calm and productive environment. My point is that regular public schools ARE NOT ALLOWED to enforce these principles and rules. We have a code of conduct, but the folks at 440 do one of two things: 1. Ignore, make excuses, and side w/dysfunctional families (without offering real help), or 2. overreact and send kids to discipline schools who do not really need to be there. Allowing Renaissance Charters to have different rules, procedures, class sizes, etc..... makes it hard to compare regular public schools fairly.

Submitted by Jual Wanita Online (not verified) on February 22, 2018 6:59 pm

such as a gym or having young children walking outside in the rain and snow to go to lunch and specialty classes tas lexa. I want my child to attend a school that was built to be a school and not an office building

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