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Report: Philly's school 'Renaissance' a mixed bag

3-year progress report shows the initiative has produced some good results and some less-than-stellar outcomes.

Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, talks about the job. ( Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer ) Sept. 30, 2009. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/ Staff)
Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, talks about the job. ( Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer ) Sept. 30, 2009. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/ Staff)Read more

THE SCHOOL District of Philadelphia's latest attempt to turn around "underperforming" schools has yielded dramatic improvements in some cases, while many schools are still struggling, according to a recent report by the district.

The Renaissance Schools Initiative, launched in 2010 by former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, paired schools with either charter operators or district-run turnaround teams. Thirty-five schools have undergone the transformation, including three that since have closed.

In addition to new leadership, each of the schools replaced at least half of its teachers. Many also implemented longer instructional periods and other changes.

The progress report, released last month, concludes that two of the charter providers - Mastery and ASPIRA - are on track for "substantial improvements," while several others are in danger of falling short unless changes are made. It also acknowledges that district-run Promise Academies have struggled mightily, partly due to the district's personnel changes and funding instability.

"We're not there at any of [the Renaissance schools], but certainly, among some of the providers, there's evidence that this work can be done," Joseph Dworetzky, whose term on the School Reform Commission ended last week, said recently. Dworetzky called the Renaissance initiative "one of the most important things" the district has undertaken in recent years.

"I think that we need to look at it, we need to see who's done it well, we need to see what we can learn from the people who've done it well, we need to replicate that, [and] we need to weed out the ones who are not doing the work well," he said.

Of the 26 schools evaluated - the report excludes schools designated for turnaround last year - 22 have had a decrease in the number of violent incidents reported, including Vaux, University City, and Germantown High, which have closed.

Academically, 20 of the schools experienced upticks in the percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient in reading on state exams since the turnaround, while six saw that number go down. In math, 16 schools had a boost in proficiency, while 10 schools fell. That is compared to an overall dropoff in reading and math proficiency districtwide.

Among the report's other findings, both Renaissance charters and Promise Academies retained about 80 percent of the students from the year prior to turnaround, dispelling the notion that charter operators would not keep the same kids. There has also been no significant change in the number of English-language learners or students with an IEP, or individual education plan.

According to Scott Gordon, chief executive of Mastery Charter Schools, which runs seven Renaissance schools, the report illustrates that charter operators can play by the rules and that a turnaround is possible.

"I hope some folks read that report and say, 'It was possible in these six schools, in these nine schools. Why can't it be possible for the entire city?' " he said.

Meanwhile, critics point out that Renaissance schools have received extra resources, either from the district or from private entities.

"Those schools are getting more money and more resources," said Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and a member of Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. "If you gave [that to] every school . . . then, OK, you're going to get better outcomes."

Haver said it is also hard to evaluate the initiative because, outside of the progress report, data have been sparse.

Superintendent William Hite has said that the district has not decided whether to add more Renaissance schools. Instead, he is expected to unveil a plan in the next week to bolster all neighborhood schools.

Parents also are split on whether Renaissance schools are good for the district. Tyra Dawson, parent of three students at Mastery Grover Cleveland in North Philly, said she's seen remarkable changes.

"You're not worrying about violence in the hallways when you are transitioning from one place to the next," said Dawson, adding that teachers and school staff are accountable. "This is what we dreamed of."

But for Tyrone Patterson, whose daughter attends John Barry Elementary - which was converted to a Promise Academy this year - the immediate results have not been so stellar.

"A lot of the funds that came with the initial Promise Academies didn't come. No Saturday schools. No extra hours," he noted. "I don't think that they're going to get the . . . quick turnaround."