Philly district to turn 4 troubled schools into charters

Posted: February 29, 2012

Despite the fact that it is nearly broke and in the middle of a major organizational shake-up, the Philadelphia School District is turning four struggling schools over to charter organizations at a cost of $2.5 million to $3 million.

Cleveland, Creighton, and H.R. Edmunds Elementary School and Jones Middle School will become charters in September, officials said Wednesday.

"Given that these have been chronically underperforming schools for a considerable period of time, we believe this is the right investment to make," said Thomas Darden, a district deputy chief. "We have to continue to do all we can to provide families with schools that successfully educate their children."

School and city leaders have been saying for months that they intended to aggressively "reform, restructure, and replace" failing schools, and would not use organizational turmoil or cash-flow problems as reasons to halt the turnarounds.

Teachers union president Jerry Jordan characterized the decision as "horrible" and the "wrong way" to turn around schools.

"This is a move to make sure that they give away our schools," Jordan said, ". . . to people who are making money on the backs of our kids."

Since 2010, the district has turned 13 schools into charters. It has also created nine Promise Academies, or district-run turnarounds, which operate with additional resources.

No new Promise Academies will open in September, but Darden said that the district was not backing away from the model and that the current Promise Academies would continue to operate in the fall.

Six potential providers will vie for the contracts to run them. Four run so-called Renaissance Schools: Mastery Charter Schools, Mosaica Turnaround Team, Scholar Academies, and Universal Cos. Two would be new to the program - American Paradigm and String Theory Schools.

American Paradigm, Mastery, Scholar Academies, String Theory, and Universal are all nonprofit organizations. Mosaica is for-profit.

American Paradigm was formed in July to "achieve and maintain academic excellence, to reduce persistent patterns of inequity, and to create culturally diverse and caring learning communities." Its leaders founded two successful charters in the city, First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy and Tacony Academy.

String Theory runs the well-regarded Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School.

The list of four schools to be turned over was whittled down from 13 potential schools, all identified based on years of poor performance. Other factors, including "school climate, feeder patterns, and neighborhood characteristics" were also considered, according to the district.

To be considered as a Renaissance charter, schools had to have at least 500 students and be located within a catchment area that could produce more students if achievement began to improve, Darden said.

The district went with four schools, "but as in prior years," he said, "we had more schools on our list than the capacity to execute them."

If the schools on the district's watch list continue to underperform, "we'll have to look at other options for them in future years," Darden said.

Parents, principals, and staff members at the four affected schools were notified Wednesday. All students currently eligible to attend the schools will be able to attend when they become charters.

Cleveland, with 668 K-8 students, is at 3735 N. 19th St. in the Tioga section; Creighton, with 737 K-8 students, is at 5401 E. Tabor Rd. in Crescentville; H.R. Edmunds, with 914 K-8 students, is at 1191 Howarth St. in Frankford; and Jones, with 806 students in grades five through eight, is at 2950 Memphis St. in Port Richmond.

In the next few weeks, advisory councils made up of parents and community members will form at each of the four schools. Those panels will meet with the possible providers over the next six weeks, then recommend their selections to the district.

The School Reform Commission is expected to weigh the councils' choices, then formally match the schools April 19.

Officials said they were encouraged by the research around Renaissance schools. A study released last month gave high early marks to Philadelphia's Renaissance K-8 charters and Promise Academies. It concluded that both types of turnarounds produced gains in student achievement. Climate and attendance also improved as a result of the overhauls, the study found.

Mayor Nutter, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos, and Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis have all signed on to the "Great Schools Compact," which promises to transform 50,000 seats in failing public schools through school closings and charter conversions.

By virtue of its compact, Philadelphia has already won $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It hopes to secure more Gates money.

Darden said the new Renaissance charters represented a "significant investment" in neighborhoods that have rarely seen such support.


 Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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