District announces major changes to Philly's Renaissance Charter process

Posted: March 13, 2014

THE PHILADELPHIA School District yesterday announced major changes to its Renaissance Initiative aimed at turning around chronically low-performing schools by converting them to charters.

As part of the new process, district officials will match charter operators with a school, school communities will have the option to become Renaissance charters or remain district-run schools, and the vote will be open to all parents at the selected schools.

Two schools, which have yet to be identified, are expected to be converted in September.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said the changes were made to the initiative - now in its fifth year - based on feedback from parents and families last year.

"We were eager to do it in a way that better meets the needs of families - that's the intent," Kihn said.

The district put out a request for qualifications yesterday to identify charter operators with proven track records of turning around low-performing schools. The deadline for responses is March 24.

Kihn said the district plans to announce the schools and their charter-operator matches later this month. The operators will be expected to meet with the community at least twice to discuss plans, and parents will be allowed to tour the operators' current schools and talk with parents of schools that have been converted. Under the plan, parents would vote near the end of April.

"It was quite difficult for [parents] to draw a fine distinction between the operators they were hearing from and the schools they were visiting. The more meaningful choice was one on whether to become a Renaissance charter," Kihn said.

He also said the district is in a good position to make the match based on its knowledge of the operators' capabilities. According to Kihn, if no qualified operators come forward, the process will not move forward.

In the event a community votes to remain a district-run school, there would still likely be some changes.

"If families in school communities decide they don't want to go down the charter-conversion route, then we will engage with the school leadership team to see, based on this process and based on what they've gone through in relation to it, what specific changes they might like to make to their overall school operations and their work with students," Kihn said.

While the schools have not yet been identified, he said they will likely be K-8 schools based on a December report by the district showing that elementary schools have made the biggest academic gains as Renaissance charters.

Since 2010, 20 schools have been converted to Renaissance charters, which now enroll about 15,000 students. As a whole, Renaissance charters have shown significant gains on state assessments and average daily attendance, and a reduction in the number of serious incidents. Mastery Charter Schools and ASPIRA Inc. have produced the best results, according the district's report.

The School Reform Commission would have to approve the conversions, likely at its May 15 meeting.

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