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SRC told firms need new role

Retain them, but not as managers, the superintendent's office urged.

Once heralded as a key to fixing a broken school system, Philadelphia's historic privatization experiment was declared broken and ineffective yesterday.

Even so, the superintendent's office is recommending that the district spend about $9 million to keep the private providers next year.

Associate Superintendent Benjamin W. Rayer said the providers - rather than being hired to manage schools - would be contracted to provide supportive services. The specifics have not been determined.

Each company would receive $500 per student, the same amount they get this year, regardless of the services provided.

"This model has to be transformed," Rayer told the School Reform Commission yesterday. The commission will vote on new contracts later in the month.

In the seven years since the state takeover of city public schools, the district has paid more than $100 million to private providers, some of them for-profit companies such as EdisonLearning.

Rayer put some of the blame for the model's failure on the district. He said the district had not provided effective support or given the firms the authority they needed to manage the schools.

While the providers were responsible for teacher training, safety, after-school programs, an appropriate learning climate, and in some cases curriculum, they did not have the authority to hire or evaluate principals, teachers, or staff.

Under the proposal, the providers would function like consultants and leave the district in command.

Five outside providers manage 28 schools with about 13,000 students. Ten of those schools are finishing the first year of a three-year contract; 18 are up for renewal at the end of the month.

Rayer recommended that 16 elementary and middle schools get one-year contracts with the district and that two high schools - Martin Luther King and Rhodes - receive two-year contracts since they need more time, he said.

Schools run by the outside providers have gotten mixed results, academically and in terms of school climate. Of the elementary and middle schools, for instance, six outperformed district schools but 10 fared worse than district-run schools, according to district data.

Still, Rayer said, the district ought to keep the providers for even the underperforming schools and "focus on those pieces of the work that the providers can do well and not try and have them do things they are not doing well."

Chief business officer Michael Masch said keeping the private providers was a way to ready the district for its "renaissance schools" push. In 2010-11, 10 failing schools will be closed and reopened as district-run charters or schools run by outside managers.

Renewing the contracts now, Masch said, ensures that "we don't just drop what we're doing in these schools while we're in this transition year, because there clearly is some value added to services being provided."

Because of the confusion surrounding the old model, Rayer said, services were duplicated. There was inconsistent direction for principals and teachers, and confusion over exactly what the providers were doing for their $500 per student.

Now the district will sit down with all the providers and determine what exactly they will work on in each school. And though the $500 per student is being recommended for next school year, that could go up or down in the future based on what services each provider is responsible for.

Todd McIntire, Philadelphia general manager of EdisonLearning, the largest district provider, said last night that he was pleased by the likely shift in the model.

"There's been a tremendous mismatch between the amount of authority we have to effect change and the accountability to produce results," McIntire said.

He said EdisonLearning had not yet begun to talk with the district about which services it might provide in its schools.