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April 23, 2024 2:14 am

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Philadelphia’s ‘Renaissance’ charter schools did not produce what was promised

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Dale Mezzacappa, Chalkbeat Philadelphia

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s free newsletter to keep up with the city’s public school system.

On the first day of classes last September, the Philadelphia school superintendent and mayor joined other officials outside of Guion S. Bluford Elementary School to cheer on its 539 students as they entered the building.

The school district’s choice of Bluford for this annual ritual was telling. From 2010 to 2022, Bluford — built in 1972 to serve a growing population in the Overbrook neighborhood — had not been run by the district, but as a charter school operated by Universal Companies as part of the district’s Renaissance Initiative.

Then in the summer of 2022, in a dispute with its board of trustees, Universal ended its contract, and for that academic year the school operated in turmoil. Without its longtime manager, Bluford struggled to hire teachers, convince parents of its viability, and keep up the facility — among other problems, it lost internet access — until the district stepped in to build a new staff and assign a turnaround principal in 2023.

Bluford was part of one of the most sweeping education policy shifts ever undertaken in Philadelphia. The Renaissance Initiative — launched in 2010 under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman while the district was under state control for poor performance — strove to turn around about 10% of Philadelphia’s low-performing district schools by ceding them to charter organizations that promised to do better.

“We will transform historically failing schools and embrace bold new educational approaches with proven track records of success that can transform schools,” Ackerman wrote of the Renaissance initiative in her ambitious reform plan for the district.

At the height of the Renaissance Initiative, 22 former district schools were controlled by charter operators. But district leadership has quietly moved away from the model. Over the past seven years, four schools, including Bluford, have been returned to the district. One, Daroff Charter School, closed entirely. Now 17 schools are part of the initiative — and no new schools have been added since 2016.

“The goal was to prove that charters would work with any kid, not just about parents who were highly motivated to enter a lottery, and to show that a neighborhood school turned over to a charter organization would do better than if run by the school district,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First, an advocacy group.

“As far as I can tell, the data didn’t result in that.”

In fact, a Chalkbeat analysis has found that the dramatic turnaround promises of the Renaissance program never materialized.

Some schools made incremental progress over the years that slightly outpaced the district as a whole, but the group of schools overall has not seen meteoric success.

Indeed, in 2023 the Renaissance charter schools as a group mostly performed worse in standardized tests for elementary and middle schoolers than the district averages, the analysis showed. And compared to district schools, a lower share of Renaissance charters exceeded those averages.

Chart: Kae Petrin / Chalkbeat  Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education

“It was a bad idea poorly implemented,” said Chris McGinley, who served on both the School Reform Commission that oversaw the district while it was under state control and the Board of Education, which won back control of the district in 2018.

The program could be under greater scrutiny as Mayor Cherelle Parker takes office. Parker has had a mixed message on charters, continually emphasizing that she would not stand for people pitting district-run and charter schools against each other.

But she hasn’t said whether she would like to see growth of the charter sector, which already educates about a third of the nearly 200,000 students in the city’s publicly funded schools. And she has not yet named new school board members, who could decide the fate of the Renaissance program itself and its remaining charters.

Parker’s 50-member education policy subcommittee includes the CEOs of four of the seven organizations that run Renaissance charters, three of which operate schools that were recommended for nonrenewal due to subpar academic performance while the fourth was denied a new charter application based on the record of its existing schools.

Her appointees to the Mayor’s Office on Education, Sharon Ward, an activist and former state official, and Debora Carrera, a former district principal assistant superintendent, declined comment and couldn’t be reached, respectively.

Superintendent Tony Watlington declined to comment on the program.

Peng Chao, head of the board’s Office of Charter Schools, which evaluates existing charters and vets new applications, said that the outcomes for the Renaissance schools “have been mixed.”

“With a sector of over 20 schools over the course of more than a decade, it isn’t surprising that some schools have excelled in certain areas and others have struggled. Every school, Renaissance or not, has a different arc,” said Chao.

Betting on a school turnaround model

Turning district schools over to charters has been a go-to turnaround method in major urban districts for more than two decades. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took over the New Orleans schools, shut down all but a few that were high performing, and created a Recovery School District that was essentially a system of charters. Chicago had its own Renaissance schools initiative that leaders are rethinking.

In Philadelphia, the movement flourished when the district was under state control and coincided with a push in Pennsylvania to expand the charter sector. Even before the official start of the Renaissance program, under the influence of prevailing Pennsylvania politics at the time, other district schools had become charters.

Charter expansion has long been the favored school reform strategy of Pennsylvania’s Republican governors and legislators as they resisted more spending on education and sought to weaken unions, even though the state had the widest gaps in the nation between high-wealth and low-wealth districts. Only last year did a Commonwealth Court judge rule the funding system unconstitutional.

Ackerman was betting her career on the success of Renaissance schools. She told Pew Charitable Trusts in 2010, “If I can show [parents] what the other side of the rainbow looks like, I don’t care who comes in after me. They are going to force the new superintendent and the new administration to give them what their children deserve.”

Ackerman’s vision for the Renaissance program included two models designed to offer “greater autonomy in exchange for increased accountability,” according to her 2009 reform blueprint for the district, Imagine 2014. Implicit in the entire initiative was to set up a competition to determine which turnaround strategy was more effective — more internal resources and a staff shakeup, or charter conversion. The schools that remained under district control were given more resources and called “Promise Academies,” while those that were handed over to charter organizations were dubbed “Renaissance” charter schools.

“Arlene was very strong on the idea that these programs would run in parallel with a lot of ability to compare the results from the programs,” said former School Reform Commission member Joseph Dworetzky. “I thought it was an interesting idea.” Dworetzky also said the board considered this more efficient and a way to stem the spiraling costs to the district of charter proliferation.

The Renaissance charters had defined catchment areas like traditional district schools, but otherwise operated independent of the district, the same as any other charter school.

At first, things seemed to be going wellAn 18-month interim report found “The Year One outcomes for schools in the Renaissance Schools Initiative suggest that something positive is happening.” In 2014, Renaissance charters were doing a successful job keeping students enrolled for the entire school year, another report found.

But under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, cuts to education spending between 2010 and 2014 put a strain on the entire system. The belt tightening effectively ended the Promise Academy experiment by stripping the schools of extra programs and supports. The Renaissance charters were impacted because, as the district’s budget decreased, their per pupil payments went down.

In 2011, Ackerman resigned.

Her successor, William Hite, continued the Renaissance conversions, but decided to let parents vote, first on who the new operator should be and then whether there should be a conversion at all. This caused conflict, especially at Wister Elementary School in Germantown, where Hite had second thoughts about his initial recommendation. During the 2016 debate over whether the school should become a charter, parents were bitterly split, and the School Reform Commission overruled Hite to approve the turnover.

After that, Renaissance conversions ceased.

In March of 2020, as McGinley was preparing to leave the school board, which by then had resumed control of the district, he proposed a resolution to formally end the Renaissance program altogether — but that resolution was quietly removed from the meeting agenda and never resurfaced.

How Renaissance schools measure up

Determining the impact of the turnarounds is challenging in Philadelphia, since two major events have occurred since the program started in 2011 — a revision of standardized tests in 2015, limiting the ability for apples to apples score comparisons, and the educational upheaval of the pandemic.

But looking at results, most of the Renaissance charter schools do not show high rates of proficiency. According to the Chalkbeat analysis, these schools started out well below district and state averages in English Language Arts and math performance — that’s why they were targeted for this intervention.

The analysis, though, shows that none of the schools are performing particularly well today. For instance, a majority of the Renaissance charters saw less than 10% of students score at or above proficiency on math tests in 2023. By some metrics, a few made incremental progress over the years.

Several schools, including Harrity Elementary and Mann Elementary, operated by Mastery, showed spikes in indicators including test scores for the first several years, said Chao, head of the board’s Office of Charter Schools.

But, he added, “Sustained improvement in student achievement, however, has not been as evident or consistent.”

The saga of Memphis Street Academy@JPJones in Frankford is telling. Once a junior high school with a reputation for out-of-control discipline and general disarray, it is now run as a Renaissance charter for 5th through 8th grades by American Paradigm schools. In contrast to its past, it is calm and orderly, with a solid teaching staff and lots of student activities.

But its achievement scores have remained persistently low — math proficiency is at 1%, and the Board of Education has voted not to renew the five-year charter signed in 2017.

American Paradigm has since sued the district in federal court saying the performance standards they agreed to, based on absolute achievement rather than growth in student scores, are unfair. The school can remain open during the appeals process.

Hite, who was superintendent between 2012 and 2022 and presided over the creation of five Renaissance charters, in hindsight questioned the effectiveness of the initiative.

“What I recall is that they saw climate and culture indicators improve, and in some cases saw growth improve, particularly [in a reduction of] children who scored below basic,” Hite said in an interview. “But we really didn’t see marked improvement in achievement.”

Hite attributed this to the myriad factors besides school quality that affect student outcomes, including the impact of poverty, violence, and the lack of essential services.

“This stuff takes time,” he said.

Bluford and Daroff were not the only schools that exited Renaissance. Two other district schools that became Renaissance charters, Olney High and its feeder Stetson Middle, were also taken back by the district due to both lagging performance and financial problems within Aspira, Inc., to which they had been turned over.

Michael Roth, now Olney’s principal, worked in the school under both models. He is not a fan of charter conversion as a school reform strategy.

“I think it’s offensive,” he said. “A lot of these measures were experimenting with communities of color. I’m not saying some good things didn’t come out of it, but my thought is, why don’t we properly fund the public schools and make sure they have the resources they need and do it right without switching back and forth?”

Children wearing backpacks walk into a brick building as adults and people with cameras look on.
Tangela McClam, Principal of Bluford Charter School, left, greets students on the first day of school. (Caroline Gutman for Chalkbeat)

Renaissance supporters say look beyond test scores

Scott Gordon, the founder and longtime executive director of Mastery Charter, deems the initiative a success, saying that the Renaissance program brought numerous improvements to schools and their surrounding neighborhoods, even if test scores did not dramatically rise. Mastery has run nine Renaissance charters, and essentially built its brand around the program.

Chalkbeat’s analysis showed that Mastery performed marginally higher on average than other Renaissance charters on the 2023 state tests, the PSSA, but still had overall scores below the district average (with one single exception on the English language arts test).

Gordon said the model showed that a different governing structure could bring more stability to neighborhood schools, improve academic outcomes while serving the same kids, and draw parents back into the building.

Before Mastery, he said, ”These were schools in a never-ending negative spiral, lots of transiency, kids with high needs. As the school struggles, parents begin leaving, it struggles more, and it goes downhill.”

‘We needed a turnaround in a turnaround’

Bluford’s history shows that the initiative both fell short of being transformational and also often sowed confusion for families.

Bluford was one of the original Renaissance charter schools. Formerly the William B. Hanna elementary school (it was renamed for astronaut and alum Guion Bluford, the first Black person in space), Bluford was turned over to Universal Companies. Like the other schools in the program, it had long suffered from poor academic performance.

But the desired turnaround never happened; in 2015, the School Reform Commission voted to revoke the charter because it did not meet its academic targets. “I was struck by the notion that we needed a turnaround in a turnaround,” commissioner Feather Houstoun said at the time. But appeals kept it open — even though the Board of Education’s own Renaissance schools policy was supposed to supersede the state’s charter authorization, evaluation, renewal and revocation process.

Then, in 2022, Universal had its falling out with the board of trustees that oversaw it, leading to its tumultuous year and the district’s decision to return it to district control.

“It was very traumatic,” said teacher Tyshea Tucker. “Everything was so sudden.”

When the upheaval occurred, Tucker had been a teaching assistant at Daroff studying for her degree. She moved to Bluford when it was still a charter, and then applied to stay when the district took over and is now a second-grade teacher.

All the disruption was even more unsettling for her students, she said, many of whom have already had to deal with trauma in their lives. The staff turnover, she feared, reinforced feelings that adults weren’t there for them. She said she had to “go the extra mile” to build relationships and trust with them.

For longtime neighborhood stalwarts like Tamara Keene, who sent two sons through Bluford, the changes have been jarring.

Keene said the school functioned well under Universal at first.

But when Universal left in 2022, along with about half the staff, the board running the school “didn’t have a lot of control. … They spent a year just holding the school down.”

The turnover split parents, some of whom wanted the school to remain a charter, while others, like Keene, wanted a traditional public school option. “I’m still upset that there was no neighborhood school that was not a charter,” she said.

This current tension between charters and traditional schools harkens back to why Ackerman launched the Renaissance experiment in the first place. Despite scant evidence that the Renaissance schools delivered the promised transformation, Ackerman had concluded at the end of her time as superintendent that dramatic educational improvement for traditionally underserved students was impossible within the existing structure of large school districts with many power centers, especially teachers unions.

And her ideas for reform are still present today.

Like Ackerman, Parker is advocating for longer school days and a longer school year, tall orders to make happen within the traditional district structure.

But if it does happen, families like Keene’s will be the ones experiencing it firsthand.

Although Keene’s children are grown, she will continue watching the transformation of Bluford from a new perch — three of her grandchildren now attend the school.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.