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Results mixed in Philadelphia effort to overhaul schools

Nearly a year into the Philadelphia School District's ambitious effort to overhaul low-performing schools, early results are mixed, a research report to be released Thursday concludes.

Nearly a year into the Philadelphia School District's ambitious effort to overhaul low-performing schools, early results are mixed, a research report to be released Thursday concludes.

Student attendance is better, but lateness has become more of a problem at some schools. Advisory councils designed to bring parent and community voices to schools need clearer direction, and, in some cases, stronger participation. And teachers, who overall are less experienced and younger than those in other district schools, need extra support.

Prepared by the Philadelphia nonprofit Research for Action, the report was commissioned by the Accountability Review Council, a national panel established to evaluate the district's progress. The report was previewed at a School Reform Commission meeting Wednesday.

Though the national council suggests ways the so-called Renaissance schools can improve, the district's looming $629 million budget gap will certainly figure in how the schools operate.

The study is unequivocal - more resources, from social and behavioral help to more nonteaching adults, made a big difference in these turnaround schools.

"There are a lot more people who [the students] can talk to, a lot more eyes out watching for smaller infractions," one school leader said. Teachers reported having more time to spend on instruction because they had help with discipline.

Renaissance schools are low-performing schools that have been overhauled. There are two kinds: district schools given to charters, and Promise Academies, which are district-run with extra resources.

Promise Academies' per-pupil aid would be cut by 50 percent, to about $200 extra per student, under the current proposed budget. Eva Gold of Research for Action, one of the study authors, acknowledged that would change things.

"With the budget cuts happening, it's dire consequences for the whole School District, including these schools," Gold said in an interview.

School climate improved in 11 of 13 Renaissance schools. But there were negative reports at two schools, both Promise Academies.

Five schools - four charters and one Promise Academy - had coherent, schoolwide systems for fixing school environments. The rest were more fragmented interventions. That was affected in large part by the late rollout of district strategies for the Promise Academies, the research showed.

A late timeline for hiring staff last year meant Renaissance schools are staffed in large part by young, inexperienced teachers. The percentage of fully certified teachers at all Renaissance schools is lower than at other schools.

The teachers' youth is not always a drawback, but it does mean that "they're going to need a lot of support from you," James E. Lyons Sr., chair of the national council, told district officials.

Strong parent engagement was touted as a highlight of the Renaissance initiative, but schools struggled with that goal, the research found.

"In some schools, teachers complained that parents were not on board with the higher expectations the school imposed on students and families. As one teacher said, 'I don't know if parents were really prepared for everything that was required of them,' " the report said.

The report found that the schools' advisory councils, made up of parents and community members, needed to become stronger.

"It was encouraging - you see some SACs getting grounded," Gold said.

But in some cases, there was a lack of agreement about what role the councils should play at schools.

"There's going to have to be work done to strengthen these advisory councils," said Lyons, whose council must make an annual report to the SRC.

In addition to reporting on Renaissance schools, the council is also charged with charting overall district progress.

"There is good news to report," Lyons said. He praised Imagine 2014, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's strategic plan, and touted eight straight years of rising test scores.

Lyons said the national council was concerned that not enough progress had been made in eliminating an achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts.

The SRC also heard a report on the district's programs and services for English-language learners. Lucy Feria, district deputy chief of multilingual curriculum and programs, said there were 13,000 English-language learners in the district. Most were born in the United States, and the largest group is Spanish speakers.

This year, the district has made strides in its services to such students, officials said. Their state test scores have gone up, though non-English speakers still score below their English-speaking peers.

Feria said that mainstream teachers needed more professional development in dealing with non-English speakers.

SRC member Johnny Irizarry offered praise for the district's programs.

"I think that we lost a lot of ground in previous administrations," he said. "We're starting to gain some of that ground back."

Next year, though, budget cuts will hit programs key to English-language-learner services hard. Funding for bilingual counseling assistants, who serve as liaisons between parents of English-learners and the schools, stands to be cut by 50 percent. Bilingual teacher positions are being cut, and one of three Newcomer Academies for recently arrived immigrant high school students is being closed.

A number of speakers who addressed the SRC came to the panel with concerns about the looming budget cuts.

Parent Desiree Whitfield has gone to Harrisburg four times to advocate for more funding, but there has been no movement. She said she worried for her kindergartner.

"What will her education be like next year without the funding our schools and our students so desperately need?" she asked.

As the meeting went on, about 75 people rallied outside City Hall, calling on Gov. Corbett to reverse course on funding for schools. Under Corbett's proposed budget, the district would lose state funding for the first time in recent memory.

To close the projected $629 million budget gap, officials have proposed eliminating full-day kindergarten and most transportation, and cutting more than 3,000 jobs, including teachers, counselors, nurses, and other school staff.