Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman will recommend today that the school district shut down 30 to 35 of its worst-performing schools over the next three years and reopen them as charters, or under some other form of district or outside management, district sources said yesterday.
The proposal, part of a five-year strategic plan to be presented at today's School Reform Commission meeting, is based in part on Chicago's controversial Renaissance 2010 plan, which provides for the opening of 100 new schools by 2010 and the closing of dozens of underachieving schools.
Philadelphia's new wave of turnaround schools - to be called "renaissance schools" - would get new staffs and leaders and operate under new autonomy.
Their communities would be invited to help pick the option best-suited to their school and to help in the transition, the sources said. Only charters or managers with a "proven track record" would be eligible to run the new schools.
The plan will be presented to the community for input and is set to come up for final approval at the commission's March 18 meeting.
Though the plan has not been introduced formally, word of it has leaked out and is riling leaders of the teachers union and community activists who worry that it's just another round of ceding struggling schools to others rather than solving their problems.
But Ackerman, asked to comment on the plan, said the 257,000-student district could no longer stand by while schools that have been failing for as long as a decade - despite a state takeover of the district, privatization, and other remedies - remained open for business as usual.
More than two-thirds of the students in some of the district's 281 schools score below basic levels on reading and math tests.
"That is unconscionable," Ackerman said. "We as adults, we as educators, we as administrators allowed that to happen. . . . So somebody has to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough.'
"These schools will start over. With staff. With everything."
Elementary, middle and high schools would be included in the overhaul. The new schools could become outside charters, "in-district charters" run by the district, or fall under the operation of a private company, university, or some other type of manager. Or they could be operated by a successful district principal who wants to replicate his or her model elsewhere, the sources said.
The model might make possible for the first time a form of reconstitution in which the district overhauls the teaching staff of a school and continues to operate it.
About 75 schools have opened so far in Chicago under the management of charters, outside companies, and other groups. The plan has gained higher profile in recent weeks since former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan became U.S. education secretary.
But many of its ideas are hardly new to Philadelphia, which in 2002 gave over 45 of its lowest-performing schools to the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. and other outside operators. The district since then also has opened more than 25 charter schools.
"It's the same thing, seven years later," said Erika Almiron, assistant director of the Philadelphia Student Union.
Almiron, who served on the committee making recommendations on failing schools, said she was concerned that the plan would gentrify neighborhoods, noting that such concerns had arisen in Chicago.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, blasted the idea, saying it's wrong to boot out staffs when schools are failing because of lack of resources, a turnover in leadership, and safety problems.
"To sanction buildings where the district has not done all that it should have done is really unfair," Jordan said.
The plan recommends rewarding schools that are succeeding with more autonomy with their curriculum and on how they spend their money.
It also calls for:
Creating three new career-technical high schools.
Spending more resources on regional preschool centers.
Hiring more guidance counselors, especially in high schools, to create a more personalized environment.
Changing the deadlines for teacher hiring so that the bulk of it happens by June - not August - to lessen the problem of vacancies.