Fourteen low-performing Philadelphia public schools will undergo radical transformation in the fall, opening as charters or schools run directly by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman or outside managers.
Five schools will be turned into "Promise Academies," turnaround schools run by Ackerman and the central office. Nine more will be matched with one of six outside providers, most of whom intend to turn their schools into charters.
In January, officials named 14 troubled schools eligible to become so-called Renaissance schools, but said that not all would make the final list. Yesterday, Ackerman said that she felt obligated to move forward with every school, despite a daunting timeline.
The School Reform Commission is to vote on the Renaissance agreements or charters on May 19. The schools, which must take all students currently eligible to enroll, will open in September.
At a news conference yesterday, Ackerman said she felt as if she had "no choice" but to move forward with all 14.
"It may not be perfect, but we'll get started, and we'll do the very best that we can and learn from any mistakes that we make," Ackerman said. "We're confident, or we wouldn't take it on."
The announcement immediately drew strong opposition from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who accused Ackerman's administration of "dismantling" public education.
"It's clear that the School District is returning to the failed experiments of the past," Jordan said in a statement. "During negotiations, it was our goal to turn around public schools, not to outsource them."
The recently negotiated PFT contract mandates a longer workday and year - along with more money - for Renaissance schools operated with district staff. But the plans also call for an overhaul in staff, since no more than half can be rehired.
In 2002, the district handed over 45 schools to outside managers, an experiment that largely failed. Ackerman has said that the district had corrected its mistakes and that this time, only providers with track records of turning around low-performing urban schools would be selected.
Another key difference, Ackerman said, is the creation of school advisory councils, to help guide reforms in Promise Academies and help select providers for the other schools.
These councils are under an especially tight timeline. The newly formed bodies - made up of staff, parents, and community members - will visit schools currently operated by the providers. In some cases, the district will provide bus transportation.
"Often, parents with children in low-performing schools don't know what high-performing schools look like," Ackerman said.
The superintendent said she saw the Renaissance designation as a positive, not a negative.
"It's a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dream big," Ackerman said.
Ackerman said she would be "very involved" in the Promise Academies, whose principals she hopes to hire by early May.
School advisory councils must make their recommendations for provider matches by the end of April. The potential providers are Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Mastery Charter Schools, Universal Cos., and Young Scholars Charter Schools.
All but Johns Hopkins operate charter schools in the city and want to convert district schools into charters. Hopkins runs four schools in Baltimore and Chicago, and elements of its Talent Development academic approach have been used in Philadelphia schools, including West Philadelphia High.
Letters informing parents and teachers of their school's designation went out yesterday. Parents were urged to attend meetings or go on school visits.
Teachers in the affected schools are guaranteed a job somewhere in the district come September. Those in schools named Promise Academies were told they are eligible to reapply for their jobs but are not promised them.
If a school becomes a charter, teachers will have to reapply for their jobs with the charter organization. If a school is matched with a turnaround team that keeps district employees, no more than 50 percent of the staff could be rehired.
Jeffrey Rosenberg, a longtime gym teacher at University City High, which was named a Promise Academy yesterday, said he wanted to stay there.
"But I know some others who are looking around because of the uncertainty," Rosenberg said. "We don't know what this means for our school in terms of the reform. A lot of it is still up in the air."
Ackerman said she realized the transition would be tough for some teachers, some of whom have expressed concerns about working longer days.
But, she said, "it's really not about the adults. It's about trying to accelerate the achievement for these young people."
In some of the schools, fewer than 5 percent of students are reading and doing math at grade level. All have failed to meet state standards for several years. Many have undergone serious upheaval; some schools will be undergoing their third major management shift in the last decade.
The superintendent said she hoped some teachers would "embrace the change."
"There are some people, like me, who like a challenge," Ackerman said.
She said she did not think the district would have trouble filling Renaissance school vacancies. It has already begun recruiting locally and nationally, Ackerman said.
For some, the district's announcement was a relief. West Philadelphia High was selected to match with a turnaround team, a move that Elaine Simon, a community member, University of Pennsylvania professor, and West volunteer, cheered.
"I think this is a good scenario for West Philly High," said Simon, who sits on West's school advisory council. The community was ultimately opposed to becoming a Promise Academy, whose model she found "very vague" even after multiple meetings with district staff, she said.
Simon said West hoped to partner with Hopkins; its ninth-grade academy already uses much of the Talent Development model, which aims to reform troubled schools by creating a positive atmosphere and improving curriculum and professional development.
Still, she said, the model's success is not assured.
"As far as I'm concerned, there's still room for disaster," Simon said. "There's just so much confusion. People don't know what's going on."
West junior Christian Southern said he had mixed feelings. He helped launch a Facebook page gathering support for West, which has made strides in the last three years, to stay as it is.
But if change is necessary, this seems like a good one, said Southern, 17.
"Our grades are going to go up because we'll be in school longer," Southern said.
Still, he said, he worries that the changes might set some students back.
"I just hope we don't go back to the way we used to be," Southern said.